Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) wrote the play A Doll’s House with the intention of dealing with some of the social problems of his day. One of the most pressing social situations, when the drama was first produced in 1879, centered on difficulties arising from marital relationships. A Doll’s House brought shock waves to Europeans when it was first published. The uproar was due mainly to Nora’s decision to abandon her family, which was extremely unusual in that era.
As the drama unfolds, we learn that Norwegians Nora and Torvald Helmer are married. Torvald picks on his wife for little things that occur as they prepare for the Christmas season. He appears to constantly belittle her:
Helmer. When did my squirrel come home?
Nora. Just now. [Puts the bag of macaroons into her pocket and wipes her mouth.] Come in here, Torvald, and see what I have bought.
Helmer. Don't disturb me. [A little later, he opens the door and looks into the room, pen in hand.] Bought, did you say? All these things? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?
Nora. Yes but, Torvald, this year we really can let ourselves go a little. This is the first Christmas that we have not needed to economise.
Helmer. Still, you know, we can't spend money recklessly.
Torvald shows no real love or affection for his wife. He is a hypocrite who cares more about his appearance and reputation in society than he does about Nora.
As the play progresses, it is clear that Ibsen portrays a view of marriage that is acceptable in his era. However, the author simultaneously exposes and challenges the unequal and inhumane treatment of women trapped in the bonds of matrimony. For example, Nora’s longtime friend Mrs. Linde is a widow who had also been abused by a husband she did not love. Yet, despite her unhappiness, she finds the time to preach to Nora about proper marriage conventions:
Mrs Linde [smiling]. Nora, Nora, haven't you learned sense yet? In our schooldays you were a great spendthrift.
Mrs. Linde also expresses the societal attitudes toward women in the nineteenth century. She reminds Nora that “a wife cannot borrow without her husband's consent.”
Nora’s marriage is devoid of love and respect. It is unromantic and emotionally unsatisfying. Her marriage mirrors the standards of romance found in her society. Ibsen uses Nora and Torvald’s relationship to typify the social beliefs of the era. Women are portrayed as powerless creatures who marry for financial security. Like other married women, Nora is metaphorically kept by her husband as a doll with no individual agency in a dollhouse. She eventually realizes she is nothing more than a possession to her husband. She understands that all the women in her oppressive society share the same fate. They are unequal to men.
Ibsen’s play is an indictment of the European social conventions that treat women as second-class citizens. In the end, Nora sees no solution, but she contradicts the romanticized version of marriage as “bliss.” Through her character, the author proves that abused women can escape. Abandoning her children is an extreme expression of that freedom from the caged existence of the doll’s house.