Have you ever felt trapped, as if in a doll's house, by society's expectations of you? Maybe this is something you have in common with the protagonist of A Doll's House, Nora Helmer.
A Doll's House (original title in Danish: Et dukkehjem) is a three-act drama by Henrik Ibsen. The play was published in 1879 and it premiered on December 21st 1879 at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen.
A Doll's House: summary
Below is a summary of Ibsen's A Doll's House.
|Overview - A Doll's House|
|Author of A Doll's House||Henrik Ibsen|
|Literary Period||Realism (theatre)|
|Brief summary of A Doll's House|
|List of main characters||Nora Helmer, Torvald Helmer, Nils Krogstad, Christine Linde, Dr. Rank.|
|Themes||Gender roles, appearances vs reality, reputation.|
|Setting||A Norwegian town in 1879.|
|Analysis||The play challenges the traditional gender roles of men and women in the 19th century, and the expectations and limitations placed on women in this period.|
A Doll's House is about a woman's sacrifices and the failure of her marriage. The play was inspired by the true story of Ibsen's friend, the Norwegian-Danish novelist Laura Kieler.
The play opens with Nora Helmer and her husband Torvald. Torvald is affectionate towards Nora but he thinks she's silly and he patronises her.
Nora's friend from school, Christine Linde, visits. The two of them haven't seen each other in years. Mrs Linde has become a widow. She didn't love her husband but only married him so that she could support her family. The Helmer family is now doing well financially because Torvald has been made manager of the bank. Nora promises to convince Torvald to hire Christine.
Nora shares with Christine how they went through a rough time when Torvald was ill. Back then, the doctors told Nora the bad news and all responsibility for her husband's wellbeing fell on her. Nora managed to take him to Italy for the warm climate, all the while keeping his severe condition a secret from him. Everyone still thinks that Nora's father gave her the money to travel. She implies that she might have borrowed the money from an admirer.
Krogstad, an employee at the bank, visits the house and makes Nora feel uncomfortable. Doctor Rank, a friend of the Helmers, discusses Krogstad with Nora and Mrs Linde. He remarks that Krogstad is not a moral man. It turns out that Christine Linde and Krogstad also know each other from before.
Torvald announces that there's an available position for Christine at the Bank. It used to be Krogstad's job but Torvald fired him. Krogstad wants Nora to make her husband give him his position back. It's revealed that Krogstad gave Nora a loan when Torvald was ill. Krogstad has also realised that Nora forged her father's signature to get the loan. He threatens to tell Torvald.
In 19th-century Norway, it was illegal for women to sign loans and any other financial documents without their father's or their husband's permission and signature.
Nora fails to convince her husband to give Krogstad his job back. Doctor Rank speaks of his life ending soon because of his disease, spinal tuberculosis. He confesses his love for Nora.
Krogstad threatens Nora again and she tries to negotiate with him. She implies that she might run away, but Krogstad doesn't believe she has the courage to do it. Krogstad leaves a letter for Torvald in the mailbox. Mrs Linde goes to Krogstad's house to plead with him on Nora's behalf but he's out of town. Nora distracts her husband so that he wouldn't open the mailbox.
Fig. 1 - The title of the play A Doll's House points to the need to maintain an illusion and play-act traditional roles.
We learn that Christine and Krogstad used to be together years ago. Christine turned him down for another man in order to secure enough money for her family. Now, Mrs Linde says she will offer Krogstad another chance and asks him to retrieve his letter. Krogstad agrees and he promises to save his reputation and be a better man. Yet Christine also thinks that it's best if Nora's secret is out in the open – that the spouses shouldn't deceive each other.
Christine tells Nora that she should tell Torvald her secret and that Krogstad won't retrieve his letter. She emphasises that Nora has nothing to fear from Krogstad.
When he reads the letter from Krogstad, Torvald confronts his wife. She tries to explain that she did this out of love for him but Torvald only cares about how this situation might affect his reputation. Nora suddenly grows cold towards him. The Maid brings in another letter. It says that Krogstad has changed his mind and decided not to give them any trouble. He has even sent Nora her bond back.
Torvald burns the letters and the bond. He happily announces that he forgives Nora. Nora, however, tells him that she's leaving him and the children because she needs to know herself. She has now realised that the men in her life – first her father and then her husband – have played with her as if she were a doll and not a real person equal to them.
She no longer believes that her duties as a wife and a mother are more important than the duties she has to herself. Nora is also deeply hurt and disappointed by Torvald's reaction to Krogstad's letter. She expected him to put her first as she has always put him first.
The play ends with Nora shutting the door of the house.
A Doll's House: themes
We will take a look at the two main themes in the play: gender roles and appearances vs reality.
Gender roles in the play are clearly defined. The societal expectations of what men and women are supposed to do lead to the failure of the Helmers' marriage. By the end of the play, Nora realises that she has been nothing but a doll to both her father and her husband.
First as a daughter and then as a wife, she's deprived of the opportunity to be her own person. Instead, she performs as a sweet and obliging but silly woman. The men around her are all too happy to accept this as her true nature.
When the situation calls for it, Nora proves that she can take matters into her own hands and take care of her husband. The responsibility to make sure that Torvald is cured of his severe health condition falls solely on Nora. She handles it by getting a loan without her husband's knowledge and working in secret to pay it back.
Nora is forced to do this on her own because she knows that if she tells Torvald that she's helping him, his world would fall apart. Torvald lives with the idea that as a man he has to take care of everything and he can't receive help from anyone, let alone from a woman and especially not from his own wife.
The restriction of gender roles creates an atmosphere of secrecy and deceit between husband and wife – they can't be their vulnerable authentic selves with each other because of the roles they have to fulfil.
In the end, Nora comes to the realisation that she's not content with hiding her abilities and parading as a doll. She wants to know herself and to be recognised not just as a woman as perceived by society, but as an independent human being.
Although nowadays traditional gender roles are challenged, there are still many people who feel pressured by them. Can you think of more contemporary works of fiction that explore this theme?
Moreover, the play explores not only the personal relationships of men and women but also the contrasting social standing. Women in Norway had far fewer rights in the 19th century than they do today. When Torvald is ill, Nora is so desperate that she breaks the law and forges her father's signature.
Krogstad wouldn't have anything to hold against her if her own signature as a woman held the necessary authority. Women at the time couldn't do much without the consent of the men in their lives.
Torvald: (...) But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.
Nora: It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done.¹
Nora and Torvald's ending argument reveals the different societal expectations of men and women. The last scene also shows the flaws of their marriage, culminating in its end.
Consider how controversial it was for Ibsen to discuss these issues at a time when it was socially accepted that a woman's purpose in life is to be a wife and a mother and nothing more.
Appearances vs reality
By the end of the play, nothing is as it appeared to be in the beginning. We learn that each character's motivation is different from what they initially let on.
Nora seems to be silly at first but it's later revealed that this is just a facade she puts up. She doesn't want Torvald to find out about the loan she took because she wants to keep the carefully constructed illusion of the strong husband protecting the weak wife, as this makes him happy.
However, when Nora realises that Torvald would learn of her dealings with Krogstad, she's hopeful that her husband would understand and wouldn't hesitate to take her blame in the face of society. What happens is quite the opposite – Torvald who appears to be a strong-willed man is, in reality, scared for his reputation. It turns out that he cares about his image in society more than he cares about Nora.
This revelation is what makes Nora realise that the two of them are strangers who were only playing and putting on the appearances of husband and wife.
The other characters also reveal their true selves throughout the course of the play. Mrs Linde claims to be helping Nora but when she sees an opportunity to be reunited with her former lover, Krogstad, she quickly changes her mind and throws Nora under the bus. Christine says one thing to Nora but, behind her friend's back, she shares that she's against Nora's secret and thinks it should be out in the open.
It is clear, however, that Mrs Linde genuinely believes that by revealing Nora's secret, she's helping the Helmers save their marriage. As for Krogstad, in the beginning, he appears to be unscrupulous and only after his self-interest. However, his desire to be back with Mrs Linde fuels his potential to become a more honourable man. Krogstad decides to give Nora her bond back and is no longer interested in blackmailing her. As for Doctor Rank, he also surprises us by revealing his quiet but passionate love for Nora.
In the quote below, Nora and Torvald are arguing in the last scene of the play before the final climax of Nora leaving. Nora explains to Torvald that they have been living in an illusion, in a 'playroom'.
The title of the play itself, A Doll's House, already hints to the audience that the drama is about pretending and maintaining a well-constructed illusion. The Helmers house is not a real house inhabited by genuine people but a dollhouse in which people play-act and pretend they're something they are not.
Nora: 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.
A Doll's House: characters
Let's explore the main characters in A Doll's House!
Nora Helmer is the play's protagonist. Nora is Torvald Helmer's wife. She leads a double life and hides her true self. Nora plays the role of the obedient wife and caring mother who has no real struggles or responsibilities beyond this role.
In truth, Nora is actually a capable and brave person. She doesn't hesitate to break the law to help her husband and she's not afraid of the hard work she has to do to pay the loan back.
Nora wants Torvald to be happy so she puts on a show for him. As the story unravels, however, Nora gets more and more frustrated by her own illusion and the patronising way in which she is perceived by the people around her.
The breaking point for her comes when she discovers that Torvald is not the strong and loving husband she thought him to be. It is then that Nora decides to rebel against society's expectations and find her own path of self-knowledge. By pretending that she's only a wife and mother, Nora realises that she deceived herself most of all.
Torvald Helmer is Nora's husband. Their family had financial difficulties in the past but this ends when Torvald is made manager of the Bank. Torvald likes being in a position of power and thinks he knows what's best for others. He cares about his reputation very much. He wants to be respected by society.
Torvald feels threatened by Krogstad. The main reason why he won't hire him back after he has fired him is because Torvald is afraid of what his other employees might say and that they might think that Torvald is weak. Indeed, he wants people to think of him as a strong man, almost as a hero. This is especially clear in his relationship with his wife – Torvald shares with Nora that he often imagines rescuing her from some great danger.
When he finds out that it is actually Nora who saved him from danger, he reacts poorly and selfishly. He tells Nora that he can't trust her as his wife and that she's not fit to be their children's mother anymore. Yet he still wants her to stay in the house so that they could keep up appearances. Torvald wants people to believe that he's strong but he's actually a weak man who's afraid of the opinions of others.
Christine or Mrs Linde is Nora's school friend. Christine is less privileged than Nora, she has suffered through many hardships. Christine is a widow but she doesn't mourn her late husband. She only married him to secure the financial stability she needed to support her mother and brothers.
Mrs Linde knows how to take care of herself. When she sees an opportunity, such as asking Torvald for a job at the Bank, she seizes it. Christine also perceives her own opinions and beliefs as the only right answer. She thinks that Nora shouldn't keep secrets from her husband so she makes sure that Torvald finds out about the loan.
At the same time, as independent as she is, Mrs Linde misses having someone to take care of. Her reunion with her first love, Krogstad, gives her the opportunity to have a family again. In this way, Christine hopes to achieve a balance between financial independence and familial happiness.
Do you think that, after some time, Nora holds the potential to become more like Christine?
Krogstad is an employee at the Bank Torvald manages. Krogstad has a bad reputation and is called immoral by Doctor Rank. Krogstad gives Nora a loan when Torvald is ill. Krogstad later finds out that Nora forged her father's signature. Ironically, Krogstad is fired from the Bank for doing the same thing – forging another person's signature. He uses his knowledge that Nora broke the law to blackmail her so that he can get his job back.
Krogstad is in love with Christine. In the past, she left him for another man who was more financially stable. Now that both Krogstad and Christine are available again, they find their way back to each other. Krogstad wants a second chance with her so he decides to become a better man. He gives Nora her bond back.
Doctor Rank is a family friend of the Helmers. He is an amiable person. Doctor Rank has spinal tuberculosis and knows he will die soon. That is perhaps why he admits his feelings for Nora. At first, Christine thinks that Doctor Rank gave Nora the loan because Nora hints that she got it from an admirer.
How has the play A Doll's House influenced culture today?
A Doll's House is one of the most famous plays in the European theatre canon. It is a vital work for the movement of realism in drama.
Realism is a style in art or literature that shows things and people as they are in real life.2
Realism in drama and theatre developed in Europe in the last decades of the 19th century. Realist theatre aims to mirror real life on stage. There are several dramatic techniques that help to achieve this such as realistic sets and costumes, linear narrative structures, and authentic rather than poetic dialogues.
Henrik Ibsen is known as 'the father of realism'. His dramas influenced other European playwrights and authors, such as Anton Chekhov, to stay true to real-life in their writing. A Doll's House is a pioneering play in the realist genre. It depicts the reality of 19th-century Norwegian society as it was without shying away from uncomfortable truths, and it presents this in a realistic way through the use of a linear plotline and authentic dialogues.
When it premiered in 1879, the play was considered scandalous for its controversial themes and it wasn't received well by critics. Today, A Doll's House is appreciated for the exact same reasons it was criticised in the past. The controversial themes it explores are now considered bold and insightful.
By questioning gender roles and bringing society's hypocrisy to the surface, Ibsen did something revolutionary for his time. Audiences nowadays still resonate with the drama because of its universal messages and relatable characters.
The two most popular film versions of the play both came out in 1973. Have you seen either one of them?
A Doll's House - Key takeaways
- A Doll's House is a three-act drama by Henrik Ibsen which was published and premiered in 1879.
- The play explores the sacrifices of Nora Helmer, the failure of her marriage, and her path to self-discovery.
- A Doll's House discusses the restriction of gender roles in marriage and in society.
- The play raises questions about what appears to be true and what is actually true.
- The main characters are Nora and Torvald Helmer, Christine Linde, Krogstad, and Doctor Rank.
¹ Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House, transl. by R. Farquharson Sharp and Eleanor Marx-Aveling, 1910.
2 Realism, Oxford English Dictionary.