How is marriage represented in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House? What evidence can you find to support the interpretation that this play is not only about the Helmers’ marriage but also about the institution of marriage itself?

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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...

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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.

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A Doll’s House is a famous three-act play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879. The plot centers around Nora and Torvald, a couple who are married with children. The actions in the plot largely mirror the marriage of novelist Laura Kieler, a close friend of Ibsen. Although not intended as a feminist play, this work is one of the best plays about the inequalities within the institution of marriage, specifically as they were present in Norway in the late 1800s.

Importantly, readers see the title's significance in the third act. Nora tells Torvald that she feels like she has been treated as a plaything her entire life, first by her father and now by her husband. Nora is caught committing forgery on a loan to help her husband fight a disease. When Nora fears her husband will find out about the forged signature, she contemplates killing herself. This helps the viewer understand the severe consequences associated with a woman circumventing a man in traditional Norwegian marriage dynamics.

The marriage is incredibly unequal. The man controls all of the power. Women were not even allowed to sign checks without approval from their husbands. Wives are vulnerable. Kristine’s character outlines the financial ruin that can befall a widow.

In the final sequence, when Nora leaves Torvald, he cannot comprehend what is happening. He cannot view his wife as another sovereign human. Instead he views her as his property.

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In this play, marriage is represented as an institution which is fundamentally unfair to women because the society itself is fundamentally unfair to women.

It is illegal for Nora Helmer to take out a loan, as a woman, without her husband's or her father's signature. In the nineteenth century, women were often infantilized, treated like children, just as Nora is treated by Torvald. He thinks she cannot understand financial matters, forbids her from eating cookies, and takes other controlling actions over her.

Further, Christina Linde's first marriage helps to show in what an untenable situation women were often put. As Linde is responsible for helping to support her mother and brothers, she is obligated to marry a man she does not love because of his money. However, after he died, she learned that he had accrued a great deal of debt. His indiscretions left her with practically nothing to live off of. She needed to find work to survive. Her husband was well within his rights to keep their financial situation from her during his life, unfortunately.

Husbands often did not consult their wives on money matters, or much else, as we see when Nora tries to intervene on Krogstad's behalf with Torvald. Christina's marriage, and what happened to her as a result of her husband's solitary decision-making provides another example of an ultimately unsuccessful coupling in which the woman is infantilized. Taken together, Mrs. Linde's marriage as well as that of the Helmers's show that marriage is fundamentally flawed when its partners are not equal under the law and in the eyes of both spouses.

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At the start of A Doll's House there is no real indication that anything is wrong or unusual about the Helmers' marriage. This in itself does not prove that it's "typical" or representative of the institution of marriage overall. But any theatergoer or reader of Ibsen's time, and later, would recognize that the dynamic between Nora and Torvald is normal in an age when few middle-class women had yet entered the work force and were therefore completely dependent on their husbands for money and basic necessities. The strongest evidence that this marriage isn't unique, and therefore is representative, is evidence by default: nothing shows it to be unusual.

All indications are also that Nora loves Torvald, and in fact the one mistake for which she's in trouble—forging her father's signature on a loan application—was done in order to obtain money for Torvald's medical treatment. As the play progresses, one sees more and more that the dynamic between them is dysfunctional, but this is so gradually and subtly shown that, again, we have no reason to believe this isn't a "normal" marriage.

It's really only with Torvald's ugly outburst, upon reading the blackmail letter from Krogstad, that we see something that might (even this is questionable) be too abusive even for most men of a time when it was normal to treat one's wife in a domineering way. Nora is suddenly awakened, as it were, from a dream in which she believed her domestic situation was happy and ideal. Yet, how many millions of wives have had such awakenings over the centuries?

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