How does A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen exemplify realism?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the creative work of Henrik Ibsen, the pioneer of realist theater, A Doll’s House  exhibits all the defining elements that are unique to the genre. Among the fundamental factors that are evident in the play, the most salient are:

a) Real-life characterization: Nobody is idealized and there are no symbolic personages that will hold a magical solution to any given issue.

Notice how transparent each character is, and how easy it is to describe them, as well as to connect with them. 

Nora is an over-pleasing wife, desperate to gain validation from her husband. Christine is a lonely woman in dire circumstances. Dr. Rank is a terminally-ill, love sick man. Krogstad is a disgruntled employee seeking revenge. Torvald is…a lot of things. Either way, all descriptors are simple enough and true to life.

b) Unadorned scenarios: Life occurs as-is.  Actions may or may not have consequences. Justice may or may not be served. Love may or may not conquer all. Like life, nothing is entirely black and white. Twists and turns are possible, and things can fall apart if something makes it happen.

Nora’s problem is quite real.  She owes money and she made a rotten deal. She is being blackmailed and the rationale behind her issue will be met with neither understanding nor compassion. Another example is the Helmer marriage. The marriage is a sham, and only the audience (and Christine) knows it. Slowly, situations will come to a boiling point and all will be exposed. This will not be due to divine intervention, or even Karma. It is simply the way things turn out when a relationship lacks a solid foundation.

c) Dialogues and insights that imitate daily conversations: Forget the fluff. No Shakespearean experience here. There will not be soliloquies of passion, and epiphanies will happen if they happen.

In A Doll’s House, even the most poignant events are not talked over using too much drama. Christine boldly tells Krogstad that she is happy to get with him because she is alone and wants someone to take care of.

What a difference! what a difference! Someone to work for and live for—a home to bring comfort into. That I will do, indeed.

Even when Nora leaves Torvald, while she does wax from sad to resigned, she does not do this by ranting a long-winded argument defending herself. The dialogue is ongoing, back and forth, between her and Torvald. She simply states what she already knows: that she is a plaything to the men in her life. She then tells Torvald, plainly and simply, that she is leaving all behind and admits that she has no clue as to what to do next. One thing is clear: She has decided to leave and there is no turning back.

That's right. Now it is all over. I have put the keys here. The maids know all about everything in the house—better than I do. To-morrow, after I have left her, Christine will come here and pack up my own things that I brought with me from home. 

This leads to further evidence of realism in the play, and it is that:

d) There can still be evidence of melodrama. Realism is a very close approximation of life, but it still can hold on to dramatic traditions such as the dramatic entrances and exits of characters on key occasions, the appearance and disappearance of crucial things (such as the letter of Krogstad), and the appeal to the emotions of the audience.

There is still a strong vibe of love in the play. We can still feel the “ups and downs” of unreturned devotion in the characters of Dr. Rank, in Krogstad’s history with Christine, and in Nora’s own issues with Torvald. There are dramatic spikes in the wait for the letter, and dramatic lows when Dr. Rank sends in his death card. It can all still be there. All realism does is tone down excessive drama and imitate life as is.