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The Theme of Culture in “A Doll’s House” by Henrik

Culture is a vital aspect of every society, depicted through gender roles, power distribution, and the place of men and women in society. Literature serves to highlight the cultural practices engraved in society. The play A Doll’s House is a three-part play by the renowned playwright Henrik Ibsen. A Doll’s House is set in late-nineteenth-century Norway’s Bourgeois society when respectability and rank were prized above all else (Gupta). The play displays the cultural context of a people through character analysis, irony, and point of view.

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In a work of literature, character analysis is one of the essential tools for unveiling the author’s purpose. An author may use different characters based on gender, belief, and other factors such as social status. Each character is constructed to convey a specific message through their role and interaction with other characters in the play. Conducting a character analysis of A Doll’s House, the theme of culture can be understood from Ibsen’s perspective. In the play, Ibsen shows how cultural expectations affect people’s lives through the characters he uses. Gender stereotypes are shown to be of great significance in influencing people’s perspectives of life.

In A Doll’s House, Ibsen depicts women of all classes’ roles in his society as dismal and sacrificial. In general, the female characters in the play represent Nora’s argument (expressed to Torvald in Act Three) that “N: hundreds of thousands of women have sacrificed their integrity” (Ibsen). Mrs. Linde had no choice but to divorce Krogstad, her true—but poor husband, and marry a wealthy man in order to sustain her mother and brothers (Ibsen). To maintain herself, the nanny had to leave her own child and work as Nora’s (and eventually Nora’s children’s) babysitter.

The play’s two primary female characters, Nora and Mrs. Linde, demonstrate the restrictive nature of gender norms. It was “N: like being a man”(Ibsen), when a woman had a job and made money like Nora did when she secretly copied lines. Women had little options for earning money and were forced to rely on their husbands or dads to meet their necessities. Mrs. Linde, who “L: grew up without a father or elder brothers” (Ibsen), sought a wealthy spouse in order to be financially secure, abandoning the man she truly loved. She tells Nora “L: My mother was alive then, and was bedridden and helpless, and I had to provide for my two younger brothers; so I did not think I was justified in refusing his offer” (Ibsen). Looking at this point critically, Mrs. Linde was a victim of circumstances limiting her freedom and life choices.

As a female character confined by the cultural expectations, Mrs. Linde conformed to the fact that she had to make difficult choices to save herself and her family even if it meant leaving her children and husband. When Nora asks if Mrs. Linde’s husband was wealthy at the time, Mrs. Linde responds that “L: I believe he was quite well off. But his business was a precarious one; and, when he died, it all went to pieces and there was nothing left” (Ibsen). Showing that she expected to survive on her husband’s wealth but when there was none, she had to struggle. She points out that “L: I had to turn my hand to anything I could find—first a small shop, then a small school, and so on”. Women missed out on many chances because they were expected to stay at home, raise children, and follow their husbands. This critical evaluation reveals that women had little chance to work and improve their lives when their husbands lived. This has been the case in society for many years with women bearing the burden of an unforgiving culture.

Nora’s character displays great sacrifice to the point of lying even if she knows that her intentions of borrowing money were good. The sentiments of Torvald “T: If I lose my job, you are going down with me” (Ibsen) leave Nora exposed to Krogstad’s blackmail by encouraging Nora’s lying. Nora’s move to let go of her children might also be seen as self-sacrifice. Despite Nora’s strong feelings for her children, as seen by her interactions with them and her dread of them becoming corrupted, she chooses to abandon them. Nora is assured that “N: I won’t see the little ones. I know they are in better hands than mine. As I am now, I can be of no use to them” (Ibsen). In similar situations in life, people tend to make difficult choices such as running away or committing suicide to escape the repercussions of their actions.

Men in the play suffer as well, but more softly and unconsciously due to the gender norms they deliberately enforce. Torvald clearly feels responsible for his wife’s conduct as he admonishes her, saying “T: But if religion cannot lead you aright, let me try and awaken your conscience. I suppose you have some moral sense? Or—answer me—am I to think you have none? (Dingstad). He cannot get help from anybody else, especially a woman, because of his “manly independence,” and since Nora is “T: my doll… and poor little thing” (Ibsen). This case reflects how society has placed men above women. However, when couples break up, the men realize that the women have more power than they thought. In many cases in life, love ends when men fail to value their wives and the aftermath is eternal regrets.

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The irony is one of literature’s most useful stylistic devices that bring out the author’s purpose. Many authors use situational and dramatic irony to convey their messages. Albeit different, both types of irony depict creativity and spark interest in readers. Situational irony defines a condition whereby the outcome of an event contradicts what the readers would expect. Dramatic irony refers to the knowledge limitation aspect whereby viewers are aware of something concealed by the characters in the piece of literature.

The play A Doll’s House contains many ironic instances that reveal the culture of the people described in it. Ibsen uses dramatic and situational irony severally in the play. A good example of dramatic irony in the play is between Nora and Torvald, with Torvald being the one with the most limited information. When Mr. Krogstad threatens to tell Torvald about Nora’s secret early in the play, Nora pleads with him not to, “It would be a dreadful shame,” she tells him. She adds that “N: That secret is all my pride and joy, so why should he have to hear about it in such a nasty, horrid way from you?” (Ibsen). When people use this kind of irony in real-life situations, they show their disapproval of the other party’s opinions. Pride is usually associated with a good course, but in this case, it is used to show scorn as many people do when disagreements arise.

Ibsen presents, through ironic statements, the culture of the people as male-dominant. In the society depicted by Ibsen, men are shown to be respectable people in the society. Nora asks Krogstad “N: To think of his learning my secret, which has been my joy and pride, in such an ugly, clumsy way—that he should learn it from you! And it would put me in a horribly disagreeable position” (Ibsen). When someone wants to save others from embarrassment, it may be thought that they love them. However, sometimes people pretend to be saving others while in reality, they are saving themselves from the consequences of their actions.

Another instance of irony is found in Krogstad’s response to Nora’s borrowing. He tells her never to borrow because, “K: There’s something inhibited, something unpleasant, about a home built on credit and borrowed money” (Ibsen). While this goes on in Krogstad’s mind, Nora remembers how “N: I didn’t know anyone else to go to” (Hassan) in an effort to save her ill husband. From these quotes, it is clear how people can go to lengths to save their loved ones. However, they end up realizing, just like Nora, that their efforts were not valued.

When Torvald discovers Nora’s secret, he acclaims, “T: Oh, what a terrible awakening this is. All these eight years…this woman who was my pride and joy…a hypocrite, a liar, worse than that, a criminal!” (Ibsen). His statement echoes Nora’s words, “my pride and joy.” After learning the truth, Torvald exclaims “T: What a horrible thing” (Akter). From these words, cultural attributes of men’s relationship with their wives are evident. A woman is expected to be a man’s pride and most cherished possession, a factor that can be ruined by lies and hypocrisy.

Nora’s life and expression of happiness are ironic, as shown by the contrast between her statement “N: Just fancy, my husband has been made manager of the Bank!” (Ibsen), at the beginning of the play. As the play begins, Nora shows her joy by declaring that her husband has been promoted to a higher position reducing their concerns about their future. But, as we can see, all of it was only an outward manifestation of her secret fear about not being able to pay off her debts to Krogstad. Nora’s problems and sufferings begin with her husband’s promotion, and her life is entirely devastated by the end where she argues that “N: …But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald” (Dongstad). Clearly, a promotion is expected to bring joy and satisfaction but does not always turn out to be the case. Sometimes, people end up realizing that their lives were empty.

The above ironic instance concerning Helmer’s contradicting statement displays cultural expectations of men. From his initial statement, it is clear that society expects men to take care of their families and defend them in all circumstances. Initially, he claims that he would do anything for his wife, including sacrificing his family, showing how much he valued her. Later, he turns out to be the exact opposite of what he said. When the time came to test his perceived love and loyalty to his wife, Helmer argues that “H: I may easily be suspected of having been an accomplice in your crime” (Ibsen) and further tells her that she cannot be trusted with her own children. On her side, Nora feels that “N: when the whole thing was passed, as far as you were concerned it was exactly as if nothing at all had happened. Exactly as before, I was your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care because it was so brittle and fragile” (Gupta). Similarly, in life, people feel that men are defenders who stand with their families. Many people do not realize that sometimes men are only doing such acts out of concern, instead of love, for their helpless wives.

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Helmer commented to her during the Tarantella rehearsal that she was dancing frantically as if her life depended on it. Nora says cynically, “N: My life depends on it”, (Ibsen) even though Helmer doesn’t understand what she’s saying. At the same time, Helmer believes Nora is “H: my little poor thing” (Akter), who needs saving. The implication of this irony on culture lies in the fact that families are expected to sacrifice personal pleasures for each other. However, some may be sacrificing too much while others are only pretending. Hiding true meaning and intentions behind ironic statements is a clear sign of mistrust in families.

The point of view has been used in works of literature to allow the audience to see through the eyes of the characters. Authors may use the first or third-person point of view depending on their purposes. For instance, when an author wants to provoke the audience to think critically, they may use the third-person point of view. Analyzing the point of view in A Doll’s house is crucial for comprehending the themes and implications of the story to individuals and society.

In the play A Doll’s House, Ibsen uses an objective third-person point of view, which means that the point of view does not belong to one of the characters in the play. The audience represents an objective, outside point of view that must come to their own conclusions about the characters’ morality. One such application of point of view is when Torvald says “T: I feel physically unwell around dishonest individuals” (Ibsen). Despite the fact that the play is recounted in the third person, Nora, as the protagonist “H: communicates the most with the audience, and her world serves as the play’s backdrop” (Hassan). This point shows the culture expects honesty out of all people. Through Nora and Helmer’s conversation, it is noted that honesty was key in their relationship. Sometimes, people go to extremes for the good of others; even concealing the truth. Indeed, society is comprised of people who have different value systems.

Literature serves to highlight some of society’s cultural values and expectations. The play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen shows how a society’s culture can limit the expression of men and women and ignite some undesirable characters. In the play, culture is a major theme expressed through the characters, ironic statements, and points of view. The characters in the play show how they have been made to live in a certain way by the culture. Their use of ironic statements shows disapproval of cultural regulations in relation to their personal preferences. Lastly, Ibsen uses the third person point of view that allows the audience to decipher the meaning of the characters’ actions in relation to cultural perspectives.

Works Cited

Akter, Saima. “Re-reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: A Modern Feminist Perspective.” International Journal of English and Comparative Literary Studies 2.3 (2021): 79-87. Web.

Dingstad, Ståle. “Ibsen and the Modern Breakthrough–The Earliest Productions of The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, and Ghosts.” Ibsen Studies 16.2 (2016): 103-140. Web.

Gupta, Tanika. A Doll’s House. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

Hassan Balaky, Saman Salah, and Nafser Abdul Mosawir Sulaiman. “A Feminist Analysis of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.” Beytulhikme: An International Journal of Philosophy 6.1 (2016). Web.

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Ibsen, Henrik. “A doll’s house (trans. Meyer; Student edition).” A Doll’s House, 2008, Web.

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