Ever since “A Doll House” first came to the stage in the 1880’s, critics have argued vehemently about the Ibsen’s intentions while writing the play, and the ambivalence over the play confused not only the plays but also the audience: while some patrons praised the play, others stormed the stages in protest of Nora’s abandonment of her family.
The difference of opinion ranged so far as to incite patron who, after reading reviews of the play that objected to the dialogue in the play, did not hear objectionable dialogues to accuse directors of censorship while in fact “not a word has been cut” and “the text they found so innocent contained every one of the enormities denounced by the critics” (Archer 20).
Aware of the accusations that might be pointed at him, Ibsen, referred to by some as “enemy of the people,” masterfully crafted this short work containing the dramatic development of the heroine Nora along several themes in the process of stirring up overwhelming amount of controversy One of the first themes in the play is the contrast between surface appearances and reality.
From the beginning, Nora possesses every characteristic of an obedient gentlewoman and a submissive wife, but the audience knows that this picture is simply mistaken: for instance, Nora, Torvald’s cute “little squirrel,” disobeys Torvald by eating macaroons behind his back. It is interesting to note that to squirrel something means to hide or store something away in a way quite similar to how Nora slips her macaroon bag in her pocket; Ibsen uses the word “squirrel” to signify the Nora who is cute and childish but at the same time points out her tendency to hide things from Torvald.
In moving Nora in a stealthy fashion to eavesdrop on her husband’s door, the playwrights further accentuates the parallelism between Nora’s actions and the actions of a squirrel, but surely the last thing someone would think to compare a model housewife to would be a playful and secretive squirrel! Further disclosure of “squirreling” around by Nora arises when Nora informs Mrs. Linde about the true identity of the signer of the loan taken out for the purpose of funding the vacation to Italy Nora and Torvald took to improve Torvald’s failing health at the time. Before Nora opens up to Mrs.
Linde, everyone believes that Nora’s father had granted the sum to her daughter and son-in-law, but in reality, Nora went behind Torvald’s back and borrowed the money out of her own accord by forging her father’s name. Not only the information about the loan break the appearance that the money for the trip came from Nora’s father, the news also shatters the illusions that Nora and Torvald have a perfect marriage and their home stands free from debt. Possibly the lights could be made a shad dimmer on the house to show that the perfect image of the home and the family which lives inside is quickly eroding.
Nora proves to be a very crafty “squirrel” indeed: further proof of hidden reality occurs when Torvald accuses Nora of “throwing money around” (Ibsen 601). Because he is kept in the dark from Nora’s secret that she uses some of the money to make payments on the loan she took out, Torvald mistakenly characterizes Nora with prodigality and compares her to a “spendthrift” that “use up a frightful amount of money” (Ibsen 602). To him, all the money he gives Nora simply disappears into the house along with “all sorts of foolish things” and she just keeps coming back for more (Ibsen 602).
To Torvald, it is inconceivable that his little skylark would ever go against his wishes. Not only does this scene portrays yet another contrast of reality with facades, it also underlines the important position money occupies as a central theme in this play. “A Doll House” contains abundant references to money and numerous scenes in which exchanging of money takes place. The imagery of money appears even before the first word is uttered: the stage is adorned with eloquent furnishings suggesting that we are in the drawing room of a fairly well off family.
The exchange of money begins with the appearance of the delivery boy: Nora owes him fifty, but she hands him twice that, a crown, and tells him to keep the change (Ibsen 601). Here, Nora demonstrates her generosity as well as her concern for people over and above money. Nora sees money only as one mean to an end, not an end in itself, and she values money only as a way for people to avoid poverty and live comfortably. Even though the audience sees Nora as a generous woman, Torvald characterizes her as a free spender and criticizes her almost carefree regard to borrowing money.
When Torvald questions her about what she would do if Torvald borrows a large sum of money and something catastrophic happens to him before he starts his new well-paid position as a bank manager, she reaffirms her values and shows her lack of reverence for money-borrowing rules with the reply “If anything so awful happened, then it just wouldn’t matter if I had debts or not” (Ibsen 601). Her concern for living well when she and Torvald are still alive and well far outweighs the possible prospects of running from creditors as a result from losing Torvald.
Nora’s concern for the feeling and well-being of others also surfaces through in the times during her conversation with Mrs. Linde when Nora apologizes for talking excessively about herself while in fact at times Nora’s topic of conversation right before she apologizes happens to be Mrs. Linde! (Ibsen 603) Feeling warmly welcomed by Nora’s concern for her, Mrs. Linde has to ask directly by saying “No, no, no, tell me about yourself” to try to get Nora to speak about her own life. Furthermore, Nora shows the most comfortable seat to Mrs. Linde.
Clearly Nora is a gracious host who desires her the comforts of her guests and cares greatly about things such as others’ feelings. She asks Mrs. Linde questions while at the same time sympathizing with her plight. Nora’s character changes at this point into a mature, understanding, and sympathetic woman speaking to an older woman with respect and warmth, and it is vital that the actress in Nora’s role clearly exhibit this change of character from when Nora is with Torvald to sitting down with Mrs. Linde as to more convincingly portray Nora as a intelligent woman who is capable of thinking for herself.
Torvald’s obstinate views on money, especially borrowing of it, and his antagonism against borrowing did not materialize out of thin air. Early on, we see the reason why Torvald is so careful about spending money. Despite the “richly bound books” on the bookcase and “a porcelain stove with a warming fire burning adorning the set along with prospects of future prosperity as a result of Torvald’s new job as manager of the bank, the Helmer household apparently has been quite poor for a long time (Ibsen 601).
From the start, Torvald had to take on multitudes of extra work going day and night just to provide the needs of the family. The extra stress was so great that it wore him down to such an extent that he fell “deathly ill” (Ibsen 603). The Helmers obviously did not have much money then since they had to rely on outside sources to provide the money required for them to take the much-needed vacation, and as recently as last Christmas, the family had to rely on Nora’s handiwork simply to have decorations on the tree only to have the cat tearing them all up.
Fortunately, the hard times has passed by, and the Helmers are now wealthy enough even to employ a maid to cook for them along with a nurse to take care of the children. Ironically, Torvald now is the manager of a bank, an institution that profits from interests paid for loans people take out while in debt. If everyone hates borrowing as much as Torvald does, the bank would go bankrupt and Torvald would never have obtained his post as a bank manager.
To take the supposition even further, if Nora hadn’t resorted to borrowing, Torvald wouldn’t even be alive! Having gone through an extended time without having much money, Torvald has learned the value of money and the hate of squandering money arises from the rough goings of the past. Role playing appears as another important theme in the play. Nora plays her role as a childish wife in accordance to Torvald’s expectations. She is his “little lark,” “songbird,” and “little squirrel,” but like a child, she does not carry many responsibilities (Ibsen 601).
Like a lark or songbird, she only has to perform tricks without having to think for herself. She is a mother, but she only plays with them while Anne-Marie, the nurse, takes care of the children. She is a wife, but the maid Helene performs most household tasks. Deprived of two traditional roles for women, Nora’s character is left to serve “as the capering, fawning, childlike bride who inhabits her husband’s doll house” and she is complacent to go along with that role (Bryan 160).
She goes along with the childish names that Torvald gives her and makes sulky sounds while prattling Torvald for money with her hands fidgeting and her eyes looking away in similar ways as children evasively ask their parents for money. Nora’s character poses difficulties to cast because her role requires a beautiful young actress who could prance around acrobatically while sulking to Torvald while at the same time appear mature enough as to convince the audience that she is capable of metamorphosing into a free-thinking woman.
Torvald plays his role as a protective husband just as characteristically as Nora plays her role as the childish wife. In addition to calling Nora by playful names, he shows extraordinary concern for her health and well-being and almost gleefully chides her for being wasteful but at the same time enjoys watching her happiness when he gives her money knowing that the money he gives her is going to be gone as quickly as the last forty crowns he has given her. For Torvald, Nora must be kept beautiful and gleam with joy and is cared for almost like a precious ornament for decorating the house.
She is yet another piece of ornament to adorn his beautiful home. He wants to keep Nora perfectly beautiful and sound when he tells her that his new job would mean that she would not have to tire her “precious eyes” and tire her “delicate hands” (Ibsen 602). Torvald enhances his protective image by acting as to encourage spoiled behavior from Nora such as something that a protective parent would and attempts to assert parental roles in warning Nora about things not to do such as eating macaroons and lying.
Portrayed in this fashion, Torvald can be seen as more of a father figure protecting child-like Nora and making sure that nothing happens to her, and this paternal role finally leads to the transformation of Nora. The dramatic gap between Nora’s character at the beginning of the play as compared to her character when she slams the door at the end serves at the central pulpit piece for proponents of a feminist reading of the play.
Feminists have pointed out that Torvald calls Nora by names of pet creatures in effect portrays subordination of women and Nora’s slam of the door at the end of act III signifies a call for all women to rid them of the chains society has bound on women. The staging of the play where only one room is shown, the drawing room, significantly highlights the confinement of Nora in her subordinate role.
During the course of the play, Nora appears on stage in every scene without ever leaving: she is trapped in the doll house by Torvald and even by society as claimed by feminist critics. This use of the stage as a confinement cell for Nora beautifully illustrates Nora in the bondage of her submissively role: like a doll, she stays in the house unless the owner decides to take her out. Not only does the size of the stage not serve as a limitation for “A Doll House,” restricting viewpoints to one room actually improves coherence of the play into the chaining doll house theme.
Going far beyond the power of the written text, the playwright utilizes the characters of the childish yet ready to mature Nora and the protective and appearance-conscious Torvald along with the different aspects of theatre such as the well-decorated drawing room set indicating the importance of money and wealth in the play and movements of the character such as the light and easy way Nora prances about and the fashion Torvald watches and follows Nora like a hawk carefully watches his eyas to ascertain that no danger comes to his young ones.
In doing so, a masterfully written play and an even more artistically glamorous performance on the stage remain intriguing to readers and theatre-goers even after the curtains are drawn.