Nora is the main protagonist in The Doll House, a masterpiece written by the Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen. Nora is married to a struggling young lawyer, Thorvald Helmer, by whom she has three lovely children. The couple belongs to the middle class as shown by their home, described as being comfortably and tastefully but not expensively furnished. The play narrates how an apparently helpless but cherished wife matures in a few days and awakes to the realization that she alone is responsible for her life and well-being. She then breaks free of the barriers to her freedom; namely, her husband, her deceased father, the ill-obtained funding from Krogstad to become an independent person.
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This essay argues the point that instead of Nora being considered the “doll” played within the play, she is actually the one playing, with the other characters being her dolls. It starts out to discuss the obvious interpretations of the play and unravels the thesis that Nora is not really the feather-brained doll she is known to be.
Nora and Thorvald’s marriage at the start seems to be ideal with the latter’s reference to Nora as “my own dear Nora, my sweet wife, my darling, my little songbird, my lark” –all these whenever he was in a cheerful mood. Whenever he was dissatisfied with her, he called her “little featherbrain, willful woman, Madam Obstinacy”. At times when he felt needed, he addressed her as his “scared dove, his little helpless thing, his bewildered helpless darling, his dear little creature.” During the dramatic situation when he discovered her “crime”, he flung her such invectives as “wretched woman, a hypocrite, a liar, a criminal, an unprincipled woman”. He always had an “appropriate” name for her as the occasion required.
When Thorvald married Nora, she became both wife and child to him. This was unavoidable since their world was male-dominated and Thorvald was true to type. He played his role well for he ruled over his wife who was his “doll”. She was a plaything to display as his possession to the world and nothing more He was proud of owning her youth, her beauty, her dancing, but not of her usefulness to the family or to himself and most certainly not her intellect. He was therefore shocked at discovering that without his knowledge or permission, she managed a family responsibility, although with little success.
When Nora was young, she was also her father’s “doll”. Perhaps that is understandable for she was just a child then. She says this of her father;
“While I was at home with father, he used to tell me all his opinions, and I held the same opinions. If I had others, I said nothing about them, he wouldn’t have liked it. He used to call me his doll-child, and played with me as I played with my dolls.”
During Nora’s leavetaking, she tells Thorvald,
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“You have never understood me. I have had great injustice done to me, first by my father and then by you. You have never loved me; You only thought it amusing to be in love with me.”
She accused him that in the course of their marriage, Thorvald arranged everything according to his taste and she got the same taste or she pretended to. Looking back, she seems to have been living like a beggar, from hand to mouth. She lived by performing tricks for him and that it was his fault that her life had come to nothing.
When Thorvald asked her if she had not been happy, she replied thus:
“No, not happy, only merry. And you have always been kind to me. But our house has been nothing but a playroom. Here I have been your doll wife, just as at home I used to be Papa’s doll-child. And the children, in their turn, have been my dolls. I thought it fun when you played with me, just as the children did when I played with them. That has been our marriage, Thorvald.”
Doll house has come to symbolize the kind of marriage Nora and Thorvald had.
As a wife, Nora was faithful and true, although she was not above telling a fib or two at times. When she was at the end of the rope and needing funds, she was about to turn to Dr. Rank for help. When he suddenly declared his love for her, she changed her mind. What could be more ethical and moral than her decision?
When a woman is accused of a crime such as forgery –signing her father’s name for the sake of her husband, she expects the beneficiary to stand by her. In Nora’s case, Thorvald let her down. She told him,
“I firmly believed that you would come forward, take everything upon yourself and say, “I am the guilty one.’”
Thorvald reveals his true nature when he says, ”No man sacrifices his honor even for one he loves.” Nora tells him that millions of women have done that. Then Nora confesses later that he no longer thought or talked like the man she could share his life with.
Nora’s outburst of intellect and emotion towards her husband may be considered her “coming out” in his eyes. However, throughout the story, she has been a force to reckon with in terms of looking out for him more than he looking after her. Her ambition to elevate herself from a pathetic existence as a helpless but beautiful “doll” of her father and husband drove her to move and take a leap with acquiring a huge loan. She desperately did everything she could to get herself and her husband out of the country, as she dreamed, and save him from a dreaded illness and helped him rise up the ladder of success in the long run. She had to sacrifice not coming home for her father’s death, and believed she spared him the anxiety of co-authorizing the huge loan, by forging his signature. All this, she did in the shadows, while allowing her husband to go on believing he was the one taking care of her and the family.
Although she enjoyed the benefits of her indiscretion by having a comfortable life, she pushed away from the possibility that it will catch up with her eventually. She went on being the ideal wife and mother, putting her husband’s and children’s needs ahead of her own while continuously paying off her debts. Helmer did not have a clue that she was struggling to save every spare penny she could have her hands on while and continued to believe he was giving in to her every whim, being the loving husband he is to his prized possession. He was being the strong one who shielded his weak and needy wife from the dangers of the world. However, Nora was using the money she got from him to buy cheap clothes and things for the family so she can save the excess money as debt payments.
When Krogstad revealed her loophole in the great secret they have kept for eight years – that of forging her father’s signature three days after his death, it dawned on Nora that impending doom is upon her. This, when she was so looking forward to a life of bliss that came with her husband’s new position as manager of the bank by new year’s day! The exposure of her dark secret will definitely ruin Helmer’s credibility. She was determined to do anything to keep her secret buried from his knowledge, even the unthinkable recommendation of Krogstad to be kept in his position in the bank. He was due to be terminated when Helmer takes over as manager.
Although Nora knew that her husband detests Krogstad, she used her charm to persuade him to keep Krogstad, as she claims she is fearful the man has the power to destroy his reputation if he did not. Much as he wanted to give in to his wife’s request, Helmer kept his determination for Krogstad’s dismissal. He explained to her that keeping him after announcing that he will let him go will just earn him the reputation of being henpecked because his wife asked him to do so.
Nora’s alternative was to use her friend, Christina. She knew her friend badly needed employment and recommended her to her husband for a position in the bank. Knowing that it would be a safe move, Helmer assured her that he will. Nora knew that Christina is indebted to her, and used this to ask for a huge favor – for Christina to persuade Krogstad to keep mum about their secret and let her husband assume his position without controversy. She knew that Christina had influence over Krogstad, as they had a history of a love affair once upon a time. In their many conversations, Nora convinced Christina that having someone to love and care for is something Christina missed and should have in her life. Planting these seeds in her friend’s mind, she proceeded with her plan of getting Christina to renew her love affair with Krogstad to make him vulnerable to her persuasions.
Another pawn in Nora’s scheme of things is Dr. Rank, whom she realized was desperately in love with her. He is the couple’s best friend, and Nora knew he could always use him as a distraction for Helmer when she needs her peace from her husband. Dr. Rank is a dying man who professed his love for her and was willing to do anything for her.
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Nora, devout mother as she wants to be, entrusts the care of her children to her own nursemaid, Anna, who raised her. She knew her children were in very capable hands, and was assured that Anna will love them as her own if ever she leaves.
Nora is right when she maintains that she cannot believe the laws can be right if it appears that a woman has no right to spare her dying father, or to save her husband’s life. The only alternative left was to decide on her own, instead of bearing the problem before the critically ill Thorvald who might only take a turn for the worse.
When the inevitable revelation of the truth has come, Nora realizes that her husband does not really love her as she thought. He loved himself more and regarded her only as an amusing plaything he keeps for his own pleasure. The truth came out that he looked down on her capabilities to think on her own and care for his children that he told her that she could not be left alone with them. As usual, he brought glory to himself by enumerating what he has done for her that she will not be able to survive without him. Nora witnessed the shift in his demeanor when he received Krogstad’s letter of assurance that he will make no more trouble for them. This is due to the success of Christina’s persuasion. Krogstad immediately tried to revoke the things he told Nora in the height of his anger at her, but in Nora, a transformation has begun.
In realizing that she has lived a life controlled by others – his father and husband, she finally let the inner voice of dissatisfaction out. She bravely expressed her realizations to Helmer and used his recent lashings to her favor. She wanted out. She wanted to finally be free to think for herself and stand on her own. Having been a “doll” for so long and regarded as nothing more than an object to display at one’s whim and direction has dulled her zest to live a life she wanted for herself. Nora states that aside from her duties as wife and mother, she has other duties equally sacred, such as duties towards oneself. Nora is before all else, is a human being. In order for her to be a better person, a better wife and mother, she needed to fulfill her own needs to learn and grow on her own first so she had something to offer them.
Knowing this, she expressed to her husband that she needed to leave him and the children. She blamed him for amounting to nothing. She used his overzealous tendency to give in to her caprices as a reason for being the way she is now. She also defended her act of forgery by reason of her great love for him and to save him from his illness. Of course she did not reveal that she had her own selfish motivation to leave for abroad to fulfill a dream.
The seemingly fragile and helpless lady she projected herself to be is actually a manipulative, devious woman deep inside, she is not even aware of it. However, she used this reputation to solicit help from the people around her to get what she wants. Without their knowledge or consent, she plays on their emotions and thinking and feeds her own views to program them to do what she wants. The “doll” is actually a puppeteer who pulls on their strings to control them at her whim. Oh the things she has been able to achieve with their help! And they do not even have a clue that it was Nora who would ultimately benefit from their deeds!
The doll has used her cunning to her full advantage. She is not to be underestimated as a plaything. This, Nora has proved so very well.