In what time period is A Doll's House set?

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soph17's profile pic

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The setting of Ibsen's A Doll's House is in the late 1800's Norway. The play was published in 1879 and caused immediate controversy with its portrayal of housewife Nora and the decisions she makes that shook her family as well as the country.  The story unfolds in the livingroom of the apartment of Torvald and Nora Helmer. The opening scene begins on Christmas Eve and ends two evenings later as Nora exits, slamming the door behind her.

herappleness's profile pic

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The geographic and historical setting of the play A Doll's House is an unspecified city, arguably in Norway, around the 1870's. This time period is known as the Victorian Era, and it lasted from the time Queen Victoria took the English throne in 1837, until her death in 1901. Victoria influenced society in many ways since England was a super power that reached fever pitch success in the mid 1800's after the Industrial Revolution (1760-1850). All time periods carry with them customs and expectations that are evident in the social behaviors and dynamics of the people. The Victorian mindset is quite evident in the Helmer household, and will influence the outcome of the play in a variety of ways (see Psychological Setting).  

We say that the geographic location of the play is "arguably in Norway" simply because Ibsen is Norwegian himself. However, the play is very universal, that is, it is not prescribed only to Norwegian audiences; anyone, anywhere in the world can associate, understand, and even relate to, what takes place in the household of Nora and Torvald Helmer.

The house, as George Bernard Shaw said of the play, (according to Gareth Griffin's Socialism and Superior Brains: Political Thought of Bernard Shaw. London: pp. 164–165), the situation and the dynamics taking place there could be representative of any household in the world. 

The socioeconomic setting is the respectable upper middle class of the Victorian era. This social stratum was made of individuals who were financially successful and stable, but still had to earn their living through work. Torvald, for example, lived well and provided well for his family, but still had to warn and advise Nora on how to spend the hard-earned money. Nevertheless, people like the Helmers could enjoy hobbies and entertainments of leisure, such as attending costume balls, paying social visits, and keeping servants. All of this was common practice for all Victorian uppercases throughout Europe and even in the Netherlands. Again, the Helmer household was "any" and "every" household of its kind. 

These two components of the setting, the geographical, social and the historical, are influential in the dynamics of the Helmer marriage, as well. Therefore, it is important to talk about the mental state, or psychological setting, of the characters at the time of the play. This mental state is directly linked to the time period and social setting where the action takes place. It is also pivotal to how the characters act with one another, and what they expect of each other. 

Psychological setting

During the time period where this play takes place, a lot of changes had taken place in society. The Industrial Revolution brought with it massive improvements in just about every aspect of regular life, from health to banking, to engineering.  As a result, it opened the door to new jobs, careers, and opportunities for success for everyone. You no longer had to be born an aristocrat or inherit money to be successful. You could now make it on your own!  

Additionally, the 1870s brought in a boom in trade, (Cottrell, Investment Banking in England) which means that those who were good with investing and trades also got their chance. 

The implication of all of this is that the mentality of the Victorian people, and their views of themselves and of life, also changed drastically. A preoccupation with success was in the air. (Carl Dawson, Living Backwards: a Transatlantic Memorial p. 122) Being "successful" equated being financially stable, having a good name, and keeping an idyllic household for the world to admire. For Torvald, all these items were what he though was his real life: He had a gorgeous, happy wife, beautiful children, a household for his wife to "play", and a good position in the bank. Similarly, and true to her time period, Nora respected Torvald as the head of the household, and placed him at the center of her life.

Unfortunately for Nora, however, Torvald's fixation with leading a successful life came with a crass misunderstanding of who his wife really is as a person, what she needs to feel validated and loved, and what sacrifices she has had to made on his behalf. Aloof and clueless, Torvald treats Nora the way many husbands of the time did: as cherished property. She was to be the quintessential Victorian "Angel of the Household." As long as he provided well, Torvald did not suppose that there would be anything else he was supposed to do other than control his wife's eating and spending habits the way he would do with a child. 

Therefore, the historical setting is made of much more than just a time period. A lot comes with time and its changes. 

 

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