A Doll’s House, produced in 1879, was written as a social problem drama. Playwright Henrik Ibsen recognized that one of the most pressing situations in European society in his era stemmed from difficulties surrounding marital relationships. Through character development, he set out to prove to his audiences that marriage conventions so often romanticized among the middle classes did not always equate to marital bliss.
Beginning with protagonist Nora Helmer, Ibsen presents a young wife in her late twenties who has been married to Torvald Helmer for eight years. She is attractive, flirtatious, and playful. Nora is lighthearted to the point of coming across to others as childlike in her actions. She often tells little “white lies.” Nevertheless, she is devoted to her husband and children. Torvald is a proud and hardworking lawyer who tends to be domineering. Although he claims to love Nora, he envisions his wife to be more like a possession or a toy in a dollhouse. In reality, Torvald is a hypocrite. He pretends to be scrupulous, but he cares more about appearances and reputation than ethics or love for his wife. As a result, their marriage is shallow, empty, and oppressive. Torvald has no respect for Nora, belittles her at every turn, and completely lacks understanding of her as a woman.
To compensate for her husband’s shortcomings, Nora lives psychologically in an unrealistic fantasy world based upon stuffy European social conventions. She chooses to believe that her husband respects her, protects her, and provides for her emotional and financial well-being. She even makes an effort to conceal the debt she secretly incurred in order to save his pride:
Mrs Linde. Do you mean never to tell him about it?
Nora [meditatively, and with a half smile]. Yes—someday, perhaps, after many years, when I am no longer as nice-looking as I am now. Don't laugh at me! I mean, of course, when Torvald is no longer as devoted to me as he is now; when my dancing and dressing-up and reciting have palled on him; then it may be a good thing to have something in reserve—[Breaking off.] What nonsense! That time will never come. Now, what do you think of my great secret, Christine? Do you still think I am of no use? I can tell you, too, that this affair has caused me a lot of worry. It has been by no means easy for me to meet my engagements punctually. I may tell you that there is something that is called, in business, quarterly interest, and another thing called payment in installments, and it is always so dreadfully difficult to manage them. I have had to save a little here and there, where I could, you understand. I have not been able to put aside much from my housekeeping money, for Torvald must have a good table. I couldn't let my children be shabbily dressed; I have felt obliged to use up all he gave me for them, the sweet little darlings!
Although Nora enjoys an economic advantage over her friend Christine, she is suffering because of her submission to a domineering husband. At the conclusion of the drama, Nora realizes that her life has been a falsity. She leaves her family in search of her own self-worth.
In Christine Linde, Ibsen shows his audience a woman with a different personality also dealing with European marriage conventions in the late nineteenth century. Christine is a childhood friend of Nora, but the two have not seen each other for years. She has not enjoyed the same social class or financial advantages as her friend. She is a practical, serious, open-minded woman who, unlike Nora, strongly believes in honesty. Ibsen portrays her as a powerless female of her era, totally dependent on her husband for financial security:
Nora [gently]. Poor Christine, you are a widow.
Mrs Linde. Yes; it is three years ago now.
Nora. Yes, I knew; I saw it in the papers. I assure you, Christine, I meant ever so often to write to you at the time, but I always put it off and something always prevented me.
Mrs Linde. I quite understand, dear.
Nora. It was very bad of me, Christine. Poor thing, how you must have suffered. And he left you nothing?
Mrs Linde. No.
Nora. And no children?
Mrs Linde. No.
Nora. Nothing at all, then.
Mrs Linde. Not even any sorrow or grief to live upon.
Nora [looking incredulously at her]. But, Christine, is that possible?
Mrs Linde [smiles sadly and strokes her hair]. It sometimes happens, Nora.
Nora. So you are quite alone. How dreadfully sad that must be.
Christine’s first marriage is not based on love but only financial benefits. At the conclusion of the play, she finds love in an open and trusting relationship with Nils Krogstad, but Ibsen makes it clear that she remains a stereotypical woman who is incomplete without a man to take care of her.
Ibsen uses the institution of marriage as an indictment of the nineteenth-century European social conventions that treat women as second-class citizens. He develops his contradictions of the romanticized version of marriage as “bliss” through the characters of Nora and Christine. The author proves through Nora’s character that abused women can escape to freedom, even abandoning children in the process.