By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
A Doll’s House is one of the most important plays in all modern drama. Written by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1879, the play is well-known for its shocking ending, which attracted both criticism and admiration from audiences when it premiered.
Before we offer an analysis of A Doll’s House, it might be worth recapping the ‘story’ of the play, which had its roots in real-life events involving a friend of Ibsen’s.
A Doll’s House: summary
The play opens on Christmas Eve. Nora Helmer has returned home from doing the Christmas shopping. Her husband, a bank manager named Torvald, asks her how much she has spent. Nora confides to her friend Mrs Linde that, shortly after she and Torvald married, he fell ill and she secretly borrowed some money to pay for his treatment. Mrs Linde is looking for work from Nora’s husband.
She is still paying that money back (by setting aside a little from her housekeeping money on a regular basis) to the man she borrowed it from, Krogstad – a man who, it just so happens, works for Nora’s husband … who is about to sack Krogstad for forging another person’s signature.
But Krogstad knows Nora’s secret, that she forged her father’s signature, and he tells her in no uncertain terms that, if she lets her husband sack him, Krogstad will make sure her husband knows her secret.
But Torvald refuses to grant Nora’s request when she beseeches him to go easy on Krogstad and give him another chance. It looks as though all is over for Nora and her husband will soon know what she did.
The next day – Christmas Day – Nora is waiting for the letter from Krogstad to arrive, and for her secret to be revealed. She entreats her husband to be lenient towards Krogstad, but again, Torvald refuses, sending the maid off with the letter for Krogstad which informs him that he has been dismissed from Torvald’s employment.
Doctor Rank, who is dying of an incurable disease, arrives as Nora is getting ready for a fancy-dress party. Nora asks him if he will help her, and he vows to do so, but before she can say any more, Krogstad appears with his letter for Torvald. Now he’s been sacked, he is clearly going to go through with his threat and tell his former employer the truth about what Helmer’s wife did.
When Mrs Linde – who was romantically involved with Krogstad – arrives, she tries to appeal to Krogstad’s better nature, but he refuses to withdraw the letter. Then Torvald arrives, and Nora dances for him to delay her husband from reading Krogstad’s letter.
The next act takes place the following day: Boxing Day. The Helmers are at their fancy-dress party. Meanwhile, we learn that Mrs Linde broke it off with Krogstad because he had no money, and she needed cash to pay for her mother’s medical treatment. Torvald has offered Mrs Linde Krogstad’s old job, but she says that she really wants him – money or no money – and the two of them are reconciled.
When Nora returns with Torvald from the party, Mrs Linde, who had prevented Krogstad from having a change of heart and retrieving his letter, tells Nora that she should tell her husband everything. Nora refuses, and Torvald reads the letter from Krogstad anyway.
Nora is distraught, and sure enough, Torvald blames her – until another letter from Krogstad arrives, cancelling Nora’s debt to him, whereupon Torvald forgives her completely.
But Nora has realised something about her marriage to Torvald, and, changing out of her fancy-dress outfit, she announces that she is leaving him. She takes his ring and gives him hers, before going to the door and leaving her husband – slamming the door behind her.
A Doll’s House: analysis
A Doll’s House is one of the most important plays in all of modern theatre. It arguably represents the beginning of modern theatre itself. First performed in 1879, it was a watershed moment in naturalist drama, especially thanks to its dramatic final scene. In what has become probably the most famous statement made about the play, James Huneker observed: ‘That slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world.’
Why? It’s not hard to see why, in fact. And the answer lies in the conventional domestic scenarios that were often the subject of European plays of the period when Ibsen was writing. Indeed, these scenarios are well-known to anyone who’s read Ibsen’s play, because A Doll’s House is itself a classic example of this kind of conventional play.
Yes: the shocking power of Ibsen’s play lies not in the main part of the play itself but in its very final scene, which undoes and subverts everything that has gone before.
This conventional play, the plot of which A Doll’s House follows with consummate skill on Ibsen’s part, is a French tradition known as the ‘well-made play’.
Well-made plays have a tight plot, and usually begin with a secret kept from one or more characters in the play (regarding A Doll’s House: check), a back-story which is gradually revealed during the course of the play (check), and a dramatic resolution, which might either involve reconciliation when the secret is revealed, or, in the case of tragedies, the death of one or more of the characters.
Ibsen flirts with both kinds of endings, the comic and the tragic, at the end of A Doll’s House: when Nora knows her secret’s out, she contemplates taking her own life. But when Torvald forgives her following the arrival of Krogstad’s second letter, it looks as though a tragic ending has been averted and we have a comic one in its place.
Just as the plot of the play largely follows these conventions, so Ibsen is careful to portray both Torvald Helmer and his wife Nora as a conventional middle-class married couple. Nora’s behaviour at the end of the play signals an awakening within her, but this is all the more momentous, and surprising, because she is hardly what we would now call a radical feminist.
Similarly, her husband is not nasty to her: he doesn’t mistreat her, or beat her, or put her down, even if he patronises her as his ‘doll’ or ‘bird’ and encourages her to behave like a silly little creature for him. But Nora encourages him to carry on doing so.
They are both caught up in bourgeois ideology: financial security is paramount (as symbolised by Torvald’s job at the bank); the wife is there to give birth to her husband’s children and to dote on him a little, dancing for him and indulging in his occasional whims.
A Doll’s House takes such a powerful torch to all this because it lights a small match underneath it, not because it douses everything in petrol and sets off a firebomb.
And it’s worth noting that, whilst Ibsen was a champion of women’s rights and saw them as their husbands’ intellectual equal, A Doll’s House does not tell us whether we should support or condemn Nora’s decision to walk out on her husband. She has, after all, left her three blameless children without a mother, at least until she returns – if she ever does return. Is she selfish?
Of course, that is something that the play doesn’t answer for us. Ibsen himself later said that he was not ‘tendentious’ in anything he wrote: like a good dramatist, he explores themes which perhaps audiences and readers hadn’t been encouraged to explore before, but he refuses to bang what we would now call the ‘feminist’ drum and turn his play into a piece of political protest.