In the play A Doll's House, what are the different expectations for men and those for women?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In his realistic portrayal of life, Henrik Ibsen points to the deprecation of wives; however, while his intention has been to merely illustrate the feminine issue, not address or solve it, A Doll's House met with so much criticism that Ibsen was forced to write a seconday ending to appease some audiences.

Published in 1879, Ibsen's play is set during the Victorian Age of England, a time when patriarchy was existent and women's rights virtually non-existent. Helmer speaks to his wife Nora in patronizing tones, calling her his "pouty squirrel," "little songbird" because she sneaks sweets, and playfully pulls her ear as though she is a child in Act I and scolds her for wanting to spend some money for Christmas, "There you go being irresponsible again," and scolding her for wasting the household expenses on things that she does not need.

Little does Helmer know, that his sobriquet "my pouty squirrel" is ironic because Nora has "squirreled" away this household money in order to repay a loan that she has secretly made on behalf of her husband.  But, because he does not approve of taking loans, an opinion he expresses in Act I--

"You know how I feel about that! No debts! A home in debt isn't a free home, and if it isn't free it isn't beautiful"--

he demands that Nora not borrow any money for the Christmas season.  He declares that she is "funny" for letting money "run through your fingers" and wasting is "in [her] blood." These words restrain her from revealing the actions that she has taken in the past to ensure that Helmer be cured of his illness. Because the law does not permit a wife to borrow money without consent from her husband, Nora has had to resort to forging her father's signature on the loan from Krogstad that she has made. As a result of her having to be secretive and her dependence upon her husband, Nora feels trapped.  In fact, she has contributed to their home being "a doll's house" as she plays the innocent and foolish wife role.

When Nora attempts to assert herself, Helmer informs her that he does not want her "any different from just what you are--my own little songbird."  Then, when Krogstad threatens to expose her past actions, Nora becomes desperate, fearing that Helmer will discover her past deception. And, when she is forced to reveal the truth to him, rather than thanking her for saving his life, Helmer speaks of the endangerment to his honor. This selfish concern for his reputation further demeans his loving wife, and she is deeply hurt.  Then, when he offers to let her remain in his house where they can live as brother and sister, Nora is further insulted.  Therefore, for Nora to emerge as an individual, she has no choice but to leave behind her life as wife and mother. In her essay, "A Doll's House:  Ibsen's Use of Drama as a Forum for Social Issues," Sheri Metzger writes, 

Nora represents the individual,...Ibsen wanted to make "the sustaining element in society and [who would] dethrone the bourgeois family as the central institution of society." Nora's rebellion at the play's conclusion is a necessary element of that revolution....

After "a settling of accounts" with Helmer, Nora informs him that this is the "first and I... are having a serious talk" in eight years of marriage, and he has never understood her:

"You never loved me--neither Daddy nor you.  You only thought it was fun to be in love with me.

To both men she has only been "a doll" and the men have been all-controlling.


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