What evidence can you find to support the interpretation that A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen is not only about the Helmers' marriage, but also about the institution of marriage itself?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The romantic notion that "love will conquer all" is dispelled in A Doll's House as Henrik Ibsen reveals the different, and thus disastrous, interpretations of marriage. The roles played by Torvald and Nora, at first, seem very stereotypical and Nora functions as her husband's "little squirrel" and is happy to be dominated by him, thereby also satisfying Torvald's need to protect his wife from all the things she will certainly not understand, allowing her to concentrate on domestic life and, seemingly saving her from worry. At the beginning, many in the audience of Ibsen's day will have recognized themselves in these characters, uncomplicated and absolute; reinforcing the concept of the patriarchal society and the roles of husband and wife. 

"No one would believe how much it costs a man to keep such a little bird as you. "

As the plot unfolds, the audience sees that there is more to Nora than it appears and she is keeping a secret. Torvald, however, has no idea of his wife's sacrifices - nor will he see them as such - and, in thinking  she looks "so suspicious to-day" can only imagine she has been sneaking macaroons which he has forbidden her to do, just like a child.  "You did your best to give us all pleasure" confirms the belief that the woman's place is to make the house look pretty through meaningless activities such as making Christmas decorations that serve no purpose - especially if pulled down and ruined by the cat. Torvald even tries to convince Mrs Linde (Christine) to take up embroidery rather than knitting because "it's so much prettier."

The arrival of Christine allows the plot to develop as the audience begins to understand Nora's apparent need to play the childish wife. Christine's character also reveals another fact about marriage, as Christine married in order to provide for her family and, therefore out of necessity and because her husband was rich, although he lost everything before his death leaving her nothing. Nora still thinks "How free your life must feel" when Christine tells her that she has no hindrances now, but no money either and life is a struggle. The female audience will relate to Nora's position, many of them wishing they too could escape their domestic responsibilities. Torvald, on the other hand wishes to retain his power over Nora even to the point that he wishes something terrible could happen so he can save her from it. 

Ibsen's ending, culminating in Nora leaving her husband and children was thought to be so shocking - and unacceptable - that Ibsen had to write an alternative ending - to be used only in extreme circumstances. Critics thought that this was so shocking and no woman would leave her children. Nora is nothing more to Torvald. He cannot reason how "my pride and my joy — a hypocrite, a liar.." could deceive him. Torvald is so caught up in expectations and appearances that he cannot rationalize Nora's behavior. Many in the audience would have been shaking their heads in agreement with him. After all the husband has done, the wife is seemingly so ungrateful! 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When asked about his play being a statement of feminine rights, Henrik Ibsen responded, "To me it has been a question of human rights." Ibsen felt that people, male and female both, should be courageous enough to resist the suppression of their opinions. For Ibsen, all humans have "a sacred duty to themselves" as one critic writes. In his play A Doll House Helmur assumes a role as much as he insists that his wife does. Pressured into his role by the patriarchal society of the Victorian Age, Helmur forces his wife to be submissive by calling her patronizing names such as his "little squirrel," "my wastrel," "my little prodigal"; he keeps her in a subservient position by affording her no credit for understanding financial issues, or for being able to manage money. And, he fails in resisting the dictates of society as he is too proud and too conditioned by his society and his role in it to forgive Nora her transgressions made out of loving devotion to him.

 In Act 3, in his chauvinistic pride, after learning of Nora's self-compromise made because of her love for him, Helmur is worried about his place in society,and he accuses her, "You wretch! What have you done!"

HELMUR What a dreadful awakening all these years--she, my pride and my joy--a hypocrite, a liar--oh worse! worse!--a criminal...My whole future--that's what you have destroyed....To go down miserably...all beacause of an irresponsible woman! 

Helmur's reaction is what destroys the marriage. His total lack of appreciation for his wife's sacrifices mark his lack of respect for his wife and his slavish adherence to the expectations of society which he defends to Nora,

HELMUR You don't understand the society you live in.

NORA No, I don't. But I want to find out about it.  I have to make up my mind who is right, society or I.

Nora asserts her privilege to judge what is for the betterment of her family. Had she not procured the money for her husband to travel to Italy for a cure, he would have died. But, now society will label her a fraud, a disgrace. And, so Nora expresses her protest of Victorian marriages and leaves her family.