How does A Doll's House challenge or affirm the social order it describes?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House first affirms the social order that it describes, but then it completely challenges it in the end.

We first meet the Helmer household in Act I, and Nora is presented to us as a seemingly-happy, over-stimulated and somewhat childish young wife whose silly behaviors seem to prompt a sense of sweet condescension in her husband. The way that Torvald condescends Nora is by using pet names and by questioning her spending and eating habits, while strongly recommending her to behave in a better way.

That shows us a social order in which the male undoubtedly holds the reigns of the family, and provides its sustenance. Nora's behavior is nothing but the best way that she can find to obtain validation and attention from Torvald, while building his ego and confirming his superiority over her.

However, underneath Nora's complaisance, there is a secret desire to be recognized for the sacrifices that Nora has to undergo in order to save Torvald during an illness; Nora actually breaks the social rules and asks an unrelated man, Krogstad, to loan her the money that the family needs to make it through...but she does this behind Torvald's back! Again, we notice how the play repeats this theme; the man is above the woman in both business and the family. "The woman" has only two choices: do everything, or do nothing at all. Nora is not the type to do nothing.

Hence, here comes the challenge: once Nora's actions with Krogstad are exposed, Torvald goes berserk with humiliation and embarrassment, completely ignoring Nora's intentions and focusing entirely on how she has broken with "the roles" of society.

This is what ultimately leads Nora to really challenge the social order; she makes the decision of abandoning her home, her family, and her life as Nora Helmer. She does this for herself, and to honor her own initiative and sacrifice. After all, she realizes that her family and her society will never be able to appreciate her for who she is; only for what she represents to them.

This way, A Doll's House first shows an affirmation of the social order that it describes by presenting us a wife that, on the surface, looks happy, content, and willing to fulfill the roles expected of her as a woman: entertainer, nurturer, and mistress of the household. However, this is merely the background from which Nora will break from, challenging the social order, and taking the initiative to move away from a fake life.