What are some of the main features of modern tragedy in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From our present 21st century perspective, it can certainly be difficult to view Ibsen's A Doll's House as a modern tragedy. In our eyes, it seems to be more of a drama. However, we must remember that for Ibsen's 19th century time period, the ending of his play was very controversial and shocking; so shocking in fact, that he was forced to write an alternate ending. There are several ways in which A Doll's House fits the definition of a modern tragedy.

The first and most important part of the definition of a modern tragedy is that the audience must "feel disemboweled at the end of the play" ("Modern Tragedy," ABWAG). The ending must be so heart wrenching that it leaves the audience feeling very troubled and pained. Ibsen's ending of having Nora leave, not just her husband, but her children as well, would have certainly stirred up a great deal of emotion for the 19th century audience. In 19th century era, women simply did not leave their homes, especially not their children. The woman chosen to play Nora in Germany was so outraged by the ending that she refused to play it until Ibsen wrote an alternate ending in which Nora changes her mind about leaving ("Critical Overview"). However, Ibsen preferred to make the point that until women are thought of as intellectual equals and seek their own self-education as Nora does, they are not fit to be mothers. Ibsen called his new ending "a barbaric outrage to be used only in emergencies" ("Critical Overiew"). Hence, we see that while to us the ending seems very liberating for Nora, people of Ibsen's society would find it very disturbing, making the play a modern drama.  

Another definition of modern drama concerns what happens to the characters. In a modern tragedy the main characters do not necessarily have to die. Instead, they can experience a severe fall from station. While neither Nora nor Torvald die at the end of the story, both suffer great losses. Nora's decision to leave her husband will cost her a great deal of financial security. Like Christine, she will now have to do ceaseless labor for low wages. Nora's next years will seem "like one long working-day," just as Christine phrases it. Nora will soon suffer just as much as Christine has; therefore, Nora's decision will cost her a great deal of loss. Likewise, Torvald has lost his wife, which we see at the end of the play is hitting him very hard. At the end of the play, we see him cry out, "Nora! Nora!...Empty. She is gone," showing us just how much Torvald is suffering from his loss.

Therefore, two things that help characterize A Doll's House as a modern tragedy are the audience's response to the ending of the play and the tremendous loss both main characters suffer.