"A Doll's House" has been described as a modern tragedy. In what way is it a tragedy and in what sense is it modern?

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robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Any question asking about tragedy is a trick question, whether it thinks it is or not. Definitions of tragedy are manifold - and usually depend on Aristotle's Poetics, a work which is incomplete and hugely interpretable anyway.

Regardless, the traditional pattern of Aristotelian tragedy doesn't really fit the play at all:

  • Nobody dies at the end of "A Doll's House", though Dr. Rank has gone offstage and home to meet his eventual death. 
  • No-one has fallen from high status to low status.
  • No-one has made a crucial mistake ("hamartia" - the word often mis-translated as "fatal flaw") which brings about a "tragedy".

Nora chooses to leave the house, chooses to leave her marriage, and go out into the world alone.  It is certainly a sad (though not really tragic) ending for Torvald, but for Nora - though the financial pressures of the winter months alone will be horrible - it could potentially even be a happy one. She is determined to no longer be a doll, but her own woman.

Thus, I really don't think the play can be a tragedy.

But - even in stating the above - it's easy to see why the play is modern. Look at the questions it asks: should women be subordinate to men? Is marriage a sexist institution? Is individuality more important than family responsibility? It's modern - and classical - for the simple reasons that the questions were relevant then, and are relevant now.