Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House follows Nora’s struggles to escape the firm grasp of her domineering husband. Throughout the novel, Nora is depicted as obedient to her husband, Torvald, and never dares to stand up to him. Torvald’s condescension and thinly veiled misogyny continuously confines Nora to her strict 19th century gender role. The title of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House mirrors Nora’s sense of oppression and lack of agency as she struggles to free herself from the strict gender roles of her time period. In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Ibsen uses his own experiences, a strong main female character, a sense of confinement, a conservative and dominant leading male character, and an overbearingly misogynistic society to prove that women do not have to adhere to, and can overcome, a strict set of gender roles.
Though Henrik Ibsen was born and raised into a strictly conservative society, he befriended feminist activists who shaped his own beliefs, which is evident in the plot of A Doll’s House. The Norwegian culture in which Ibsen was raised in teaches that women should always be submissive to the dominant male. Kristen Orjas?ter, a Norwegian writer, gives insight as to why Henrik Ibsen created his title for the play when she states, “The American way of calling a woman a doll is not translatable into Norwegian, where a doll is just a toy” (Orjas?ter). The use of ‘doll’ is significant in this play, as it mirrors the condescension and ridicule she receives from her husband, Torvald. His condescending jabs at Nora include, “You needn’t tire your dear eyes and your delicate little fingers” (Ibsen 9). Torvald’s belittling of Nora demonstrates how Ibsen’s background depicts women. The culture in which he was raised essentially pities women for how delicate their femininity makes them. Ibsen’s beliefs start to change, however, when he develops a more liberal than conservative outlook. Kristen Orjas?ter explains,
“Ibsen himself was indeed trapped in an ambivalent position where gender difference on one hand was the fundamental border between two kinds of human beings . . .on the other hand, the liberal thinker Ibsen was [became] influenced by upcoming thoughts of the time” (Orjas?ter).
While writing A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen was caught between two polarizing opinions on gender. In Norway, Ibsen was raised to view men as superior to women. However, when he began to travel and hear different ideas, Ibsen started to believe in the idea that women should be seen as equal to men.
This shift from consistently seeing women as subservient and men as domineering occurred when Henrik Ibsen befriended prominent feminist activists such as Camilla Collett. Ibsen and Collett exchanged ideas and beliefs which shaped Ibsen’s intention for creating Nora’s character. Kristen Orjas?ter describes Nora as, “echoing frontline figures of the women’s rights movement such as . . . Camilla Collett” (Orjas?ter). This proves that Ibsen created Nora’s character in the image of Collett. He was inspired by her passion for the emancipation of women in the 1780’s and developed his lead to exemplify her beliefs. Henrik Ibsen wrote Nora’s character development to mirror his own; he was raised in a strictly conservative Norwegian culture that believed women should be obedient to the superior male figure, but later on changed his views when he met with Collett. This helped him to write Nora as at first an obedient housewife transformed into an independent woman after standing up to her misogynistic husband.
Ibsen wrote Nora’s character as an independent woman to model the early feminist activists he encountered, but to also rewrite the gender norms he was raised in. His Norwegian background oppressed women and set strict societal norms that were not to be broken. Women in this Norwegian society were to stay at home and care for their husband and children. Ibsen, through Nora’s character, broke these norms, “[it was] her very strength as a heroine that turns her into a possible utopian model of the future, allowing them to create a free, individual identity” (Orjas?ter). Because this was written in a time period where women were consistently oppressed, Nora’s character serves as a hope for a future society in which women could feel free to be themselves and could be independent of dominant male figures. Yet, in the beginning of the play, Nora is depicted as obedient to her husband’s demands. This is evident in her responses to Torvald’s commands: “very well, as you like, Torvald,” and “I shouldn’t think of doing what you disapprove of” (Ibsen 4 and 8). This shows Nora’s begrudging attempts to please Torvald and liberate herself from his demands.
However, as time progresses, Nora becomes disillusioned from the thought of Torvald’s control. Kristen Orjas?ter claims, “Nora . . . is not fit to be a wife and . . . her duty to herself is even more important than being a wife and mother” (Orjas?ter). The ‘duty’ Kristen Orjas?ter is referring to is her emancipation at the end of the play. Because Nora’s ideals were too radical to stay a housewife, she broke free of her submissive gender role and became an independent woman. Nora’s struggle as a human being is depicted by writer Tori Moi as, “rightly considered an exemplary case of women’s struggle for political and social rights” (Moi 257). Here, Moi justifies the controversial theme of feminism in A Doll’s House, a topic unheard of in the play’s setting. This is significant because in that time period, women were expected to be submissive housewives. Through her character development, Ibsen portrays Nora as an exemplary feminist icon for oppressed women of the 19th century.
The title of A Doll’s House is a metaphor for the lack of freedom Nora Helmer feels inside her own home and subjected to Torvald’s overbearance. Within her own home, Nora is expected to follow Torvald’s rules, as trivial as they may seem, to ensure Nora was under his control. For example, Torvald forbid the presence of sweets in their home; when their family friend realizes Nora has broken that rule, he exclaims, “oh dear, dear! Macaroons? I thought they were contraband here” (Ibsen 28). This shows Torvald’s authority as even an outsider was aware of these rules. When she is in her home, Nora is constricted and feels a lack of freedom. When she leaves, however, she feels free and independent. Joan Tempelton offers, “Nora’s exit from her doll’s house has long been the principal international symbol for women’s issues, including many that far exceed the confines of her small world” (Tempelton). Nora feels as though she is trapped in a doll’s house, but when she finally is able to free herself from the misogynistic world she was previously confined in, she sets the tone for the feminist movement around her. Nora is also given a sense of freedom at the gala she attends with Torvald. At this gala, she is able to be her own person, dance, and enjoy herself outside Torvald’s domineering grasp. Tori Moi cultivates an interesting perspective of the gala Nora and Torvald attended, “the Tarantella scene [is] a performance in which she demonstrates her humanity as opposed to her dollness” (Moi 258). This suggests that Nora is more human when she is outside of her confining ‘doll’s house.’ This is significant because it shows that the readers perceive her as a human when she is not forced into the submissive role of a housewife. The title of this play mirrors the confinement and restriction Nora felt in her own home. With her overbearingly sexist and condescending husband, Nora felt trapped and needed to free herself from his hold on her. When she is in her house, she is exposed to Torvald’s ridicule and obsessive control, however, when she leaves her house—evident in the gala scene—she is free to be herself and is liberated from Torvald’s commands.
Ibsen portrays Torvald Helmer as a conservative and dominant male figure whose condescension consistently belittles Nora. Torvald’s character refers to Nora almost exclusively by pet names, for example when he hears that Nora had come home from the store he bellows, “Is it my little squirrel bustling about?” (Ibsen 3). This particular excerpt is one of three times Torvald calls Nora by a ‘pet name’ within the same conversation. This comes off as condescending, as he’s referring to his wife as small, woodland animals, rather that her own name. Here, Torvald is dehumanizing Nora by not only calling her his little squirrel, but by also describing her as bustling about like a squirrel would. This type of tone is typical of Torvald, as he views Nora as his property and feels as though he has the right to treat her as such. Hameed Khan introduces an interesting view by stating “Torvald does not allow Nora to prosper as her own self, as was the custom of the times. Torvald’s use of what resembles baby talk when talking to his wife suppresses Nora’s intense intellectual desire; she is smothered under Torvald’s defiance of respect” (Kahn 4). This illustrates Torvald’s constant thirst for power over Nora and his overbearingly controlling nature. In one scene, Torvald becomes enraged when Nora ignores his advances, “I see you’re teasing me . . . am I not your husband?” (Ibsen 99). Here, Nora is trying to deny Torvald of sex and he is livid as if it is his right to her. He does not take her feelings into account, he only does what he wants. This clearly illustrates Torvald’s misogynistic nature, as he does not see Nora as a human being, but merely property.
Torvald speaks negatively of Nora, as well as treating her poorly. Torvald describes Nora as “dreadfully obstinate” to his friend (Ibsen 94). This shows his sexist nature, as he believes all women should be obedient without question and is livid when Nora is not. Ibsen also writes Torvald as seemingly too busy for his own wife, “Don’t disturb me” (Ibsen 4). This is depicting how little Torvald cares about Nora, as he sees her as a distraction, rather than a human being. Ibsen exposes Torvald’s sexist treatment of Nora and reveals he does not see her as her own person–let alone human being.
A Doll’s House uses a strict set of gender roles to subdue its characters into the conformity of society. Unni Langas believes, “gender in this account ties biological differences to social, and the subordinated woman to the superior man” (Langas). This quote is an excerpt from a popular view in Norwegian culture, which provides some insight on Ibsen’s misogynistic writing. Langas also states, “this notion of gender as constructed and performed does not imply, however, that gender is artificial or fictitious in opposition to a ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ identity” (Langas). This shows that your set gender role does not determine your identity. Nora broke free from her set gender role to be her own woman. Ibsen wrote Nora to serve as a role model for other women of that time period so that they could also be able to break free of the gender roles. Eva La Galliene prefaces a book of Ibsen’s plays with, “to Nora it was right and natural to commit forgery to save her husband’s life; any other behavior would have been unthinkable” (Galliene xv). Eva La Galliene proposes that it was Nora’s duty as a wife to save Torvald. Nora would have done anything for him, as her society had conditioned her to believe she was not able to survive without a husband to provide for her. However, when she found her chance, Nora proves to Torvald that she is a capable, independent woman who could thrive without him. Ibsen creates his characters in A Doll’s House to show that it is possible to escape oppressive norms.
Throughout A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer is confined into being a submissive and obedient housewife by pre-existing 19th century societal norms, but is able to overcome her constricting gender roles by standing up to her husband. Henrik Ibsen’s conservative upbringing and interaction with early feminist activists shaped his views of women. This explains why he portrayed Nora as docile towards her husband, but reaches her breaking point and speaks out against him after being talked down to and limited for so long. The character development shown in Nora mirrors that of Ibsen. Henrik Ibsen was taught that women should be submissive to the superior man, and reflects this idea in Nora’s character. When Ibsen later shifts his opinions of women and believes that men and women should be treated as equal human beings, he writes Nora to follow this shift by standing up to Torvald and overcoming her gender role. Torvald’s overbearance and condescending character help this transition as well. After years of Torvald talking down to her, Nora decided to take a stand against him. This overcoming of gender roles was unheard of during the 19th century. Ibsen writes Nora to break free of her strictly set gender role to serve as a model for women of the late 1800’s. By asserting herself and speaking out against her husband, Nora Helmer proves that women do not have to adhere to and can overcome set gender norms.