Women in the Victorian period lived very different lives from women today.
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During this period, women began to question their allotted place in society as more and more opportunities opened for them in the urban centers of the country, providing them with a means of supporting themselves and freeing themselves from the yoke of male domination.
However, at the same time, these positions were not the equal rights positions of modern times, so it was often difficult to determine whether one wanted to sacrifice freedom for comfort or comfort for freedom. Rarely was it possible to attain both and often it was found, too late, that it was possible to attain neither? Thanks to advances in technology and a general shift toward the cities, women’s spheres were fundamentally shifted in the home, in society and in work and they became more and more recognized as a force to contend within the nation’s legislative process. However, many women were still constrained in their activities by the wishes of their male relatives, whether the dominant voice belonged to the father, the oldest brother or other guardian figure or the husband. These are the issues explored in Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” through the character of Nora. First impressions of Nora typically characterize her as overly pampered and relatively childish in her behavior. At her earliest introduction, she does seem to be overly concerned with trivial matters and incapable of considering things that are of weight, but a closer examination of the play reveals just where this impression comes from and it has little to do with Nora herself. As the play progresses, one begins to understand that Nora is given this childlike status by her husband, that she has taken on adult responsibilities and, in the end, must leave in order to preserve her well-earned self-respect.
At the very opening of the play, we don’t know much about Nora at all other than that she’s been out shopping for Christmas and has a package of macaroons in her pocket that she is eating on the sly. This seems to be a rather childish behavior at first, but later proves to be a manifestation of Nora’s inability to completely subsume her personality within her husband’s constraints. The idea that she is trivial is established in these opening lines not through her actions or words, but instead through the characterization given to her by Helmer, her husband. Throughout the first act, there is not a single instance where he treats her as an adult instead of as a child or a favorite plaything. He refers to her as a ‘lark’, a ‘little squirrel’ and ‘a little featherhead’, all before his tenth line. At the same time, he gently teases her about her poor spending habits, “Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?” (Act 1). Nora does seem preoccupied with money, instantly brightening when Helmer hands her two pounds as a means of cheering her up after he’s chastised her about borrowing. However, it is revealed later that she has good reasons for this that have nothing to do with her ‘birdlike’ characterization or her unwise use of money. Helmer continues to drop hints that Nora is unwise in her spending habits, throwing money away all the time and continue to suggest that he is the superior character of the two and he magnanimously provides her with extra simply as a means of keeping his brainless pet wife content.
There are early clues that Nora is not a spendthrift, such as in her choices for Christmas gifts. Although she is being extravagant in making purchases for gifts, they do not seem to be overly luxurious. Her presents might not be strictly practical, consisting as they do of a sword, horse and trumpet for one child and a doll and doll’s bed for another, but they are children and it is Christmas. These gifts do not suggest an extravagant mother going overboard in buying gifts for her children but rather of a mother attempting to provide her children with a happy Christmas on a very limited budget. In addition, she takes a positive outlook on the necessity of being cheap. She tells Helmer, “they are very plain, but anyway she [Emmy] will soon break them in pieces” (Act 1) about one gift purchased for their daughter. Gifts for the rest of the household include a new suit for Ivar and dress lengths (meaning enough cloth to make new dresses) for the maids, all highly practical and economical gifts. Helmer himself points out how industrious she is, mentioning memories of the last holiday season, “[you, Nora] shut yourself up every evening till long after midnight, making ornaments for the Christmas tree and all the other fine things that were to be a surprise to us … But there was precious little result, Nora” (Act 1). Knowledge gained during the course of the play reveals to the audience that these projects were, in actuality, jobs that Nora had taken on behind Helmer’s back as a means of repaying a loan she’d been forced to borrow, again behind Helmer’s back, in order to take Helmer to Italy for his own health. That she has managed to faithfully keep all this a secret from him, maintain a household, raise her children and still managed to keep up payments on this loan suggests she is far more economical and industrious than she’s been given credit for.
In the play, it is revealed in Nora’s reunion with Mrs. Linde that her early marriage to Helmer was not easy as both of them had to work long hours just to survive and weighty issues were involved when Helmer became ill. “It was to me that the doctors came and said that his life was in danger, and that the only thing to save him was to live in the south. Very well, I thought, you must be saved – and that was how I came to devise a way out of the difficulty” (Act 1). Although Helmer is now simply enjoying the fact that he is finally able to provide his ‘little’ wife with the dollhouse he’d always envisioned, the fact that Nora borrowed money illegally in order to get Helmer to Italy to recover from an illness highlights the financial condition they were in as well as demonstrates Nora’s capacity for self-reliance. Helmer’s attitudes toward borrowing money are clearly expressed even at this late date, “No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt” (Act 1). Helmer wouldn’t allow her to borrow money from anyone, but the couple did not have the necessary funds to cover their expenses when he was sick and Nora didn’t have any option but to borrow money illegally, acting on her own despite being a woman. What choice did she really have? Because of Helmer’s stubborn refusal to borrow money, she was forced to go behind his back to get the money they needed for him to get better and become an earner again.
Despite Helmer’s unreasonable attitude in regard to the necessity of treating his condition, Nora did what was necessary at the time and ever since to ensure the money for their year in Italy, a whopping £250, was paid back, having the original loan almost paid off by the time the play opens. In fact, throughout much of their marriage together, Nora has worked on small things like the Christmas ornaments behind her husband’s back as a means of paying back this loan without making any unnecessary demands on Helmer’s income or have obvious absences from her wifely duties. While she seems to understand that his pride could not accept her help, “how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything! It would upset our mutual relations altogether; our beautiful happy home would no longer be what it is now” (Act 1), she takes justifiable pride in the way she has accomplished this all on her own.
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In the end, Nora walked away from her comfortable life, her family and, most disturbingly, her children when Helmer grew angry with her for her actions and refused to acknowledge her contribution to the welfare of the family. When it finally came down to a possible threat, Nora needed to know that her husband was able to value her for what she really was.
She’d had to give up a lot in order to take care of her husband and she didn’t want her sacrifices to pass unknown.
When Helmer grew ill, she had to sacrifice being a dutiful daughter and helping her father when he was ill in order to take care of Helmer as a proper wife should. While she didn’t necessarily expect grand ceremonies honoring her as the best woman ever, she did hope for a more equitable relationship with Helmer once he realized she wasn’t the ‘little featherhead’ he’d always considered her. A pat on the back and an increased opinion of her abilities were what she was hoping for.
When she made the decision to encourage Helmer to open the letter from Krogstad regarding her illegal loan, it was because she needed to know her husband valued her addition to the household.
When he reacted in anger, she realized she would either need to sacrifice her self-respect or sacrifice her happy home. After all she’d been through and all she’d done, she was not capable of doing the former, so she accomplished the latter at the expense of her children.
Ibsen, Henrik. The Doll’s House. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1992.