How and why does Ibsen undermine and at the same time affirm the female stereotype in A Doll’s House?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House, it appears that while Ibsen undermines the female stereotype, he affirms it as well.

In the central plot of the story (and there are several plots moving along at the same time), Nora, a dutiful wife, has borrowed money illegally in order to save the life of her husband who was very ill and needed to be taken to a warmer climate for a time.

Nora struggles throughout the play to keep Torvald, her husband, from finding out about the IOU, and to pay it off. In the end, Torvald does discover her secret. He is angry with her because he is afraid his reputation will suffer when it is discovered that she broke the law, and by no means thankful for what she has done for him.

Nora, at this point, realizes that she has been controlled in her home and by her society for the entirety of her life, and chooses to leave Torvald and her children to "find herself."

Kristine Linde, a old friend of Nora's, has fallen on hard times in the past. She knows how difficult it is for a woman alone, of good character, to survive in this society. She struggles to find meaningful employment because she is a woman. She gets a job with Torvald's help, but also marries Krogstad so that together they might find a way to be happy.

Nora is presented as a child in this play. Her father and husband have always told her what to do and how to think, essentially controlling her. She has found that to get the things she needs from Torvald (like extra money to secretly pay the IOU), she must pout and flirt, like a little girl. Torvald, feeling much the noble benefactor, "gives in" to her, while chiding her for her foolish and thoughtless spending habits.

Within these examples, we see how Ibsen challenges the sterotypes for women when Nora decides to go off on her own at the end, and Kristine takes a job.

However, Ibsen affirms the stereotypes when showing that Kristine and Nora both need men in their lives to survive. Nora's performance, like that of a trained animal, in order to get what she wants shows again how women depend on their men, but also how they are manipulative. We also learn that it is illegal for women to borrow money, so Nora must forge her father's signature, after his death, in order to fund Torvald's trip south, which makes her look sneaky and underhanded.

Ibsen explained that this play, which caused quite a stir upon its first performance, was not a play about women's rights, but about human rights. The problems experienced in this play fall not only on the women, but also on the men (such as Krogstad and Dr. Rank), in terms of society's expectations of them.

It would seem that Ibsen must present first the affirmation of society's expectations of women, supporting the stereotype, in order to, by comparison, exemplify the choices women should be afforded, regardless of their gender.

Although we see or hear of the stereotypes visited upon Nora or Kristine, we find that Ibsen allows that each has the opportunity to defy societal expectations. Kristine chooses to take a job to support herself; she marries to be happy, for companionship, and to help Krogstad start a new life for himself and his children.

Nora is offered the opportunity by Torvald to stay with him as a "brother," and live as she pleases. She chooses, instead, to leave.

Ibsen must show what needs to be fixed before he suggests how it can be fixed, and demonstrates the choices the women in the play make on their own terms, defying the stereotypes of the time.

Read the study guide:
A Doll's House

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