What is the structure of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House?

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In his 1879 play, A Doll's House, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) employs the dramatic structure of a "well-made play," which was originated by French dramatist Eugène Scribe (1791–1861).

The "well-made play" structure is independent of the number of acts in a play and refers to the essential dramatic...

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In his 1879 play, A Doll's House, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) employs the dramatic structure of a "well-made play," which was originated by French dramatist Eugène Scribe (1791–1861).

The "well-made play" structure is independent of the number of acts in a play and refers to the essential dramatic elements of the play: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (or denouement).

The exposition is the introduction of the information that the audience needs to know to be able to follow the action of the play.

In A Doll's House, the exposition includes Nora's conversations with her husband, Torvald Helmer; with her school friend, Mrs. Linde; and with a bank employee, Nils Krogstad.

Scribe believed that a "secret" held by one or more characters in a play was essential to help build the audience's interest, and that criteria is fulfilled by Nora secretly securing a loan used to pay for Torvald's recuperative vacation to Italy.

The rising action develops and expands the information presented in the exposition and involves complications that often include some kind of intrigue that causes conflict between and among the characters. Scribe believed that this increases suspense for the audience.

The rising action in A Doll's House includes the events leading to Krogstad's revelation to Nora that he's the source of her secret loan. A complication ensues when Krogstad attempts to blackmail Nora. He demands that Nora intercede for him at the bank so he won't be fired, or he'll reveal the source and circumstances of the loan, including the fact that Nora forged her father's signature on the bond for the loan.

Further complications involve Nora's failed attempts to change Torvald's mind about firing Krogstad and to solicit Dr. Rank's help in the matter. Krogstad is fired, and he decides to send a letter to Torvald in an attempt to blackmail Torvald into keeping him employed at the bank, or he'll reveal the circumstances of Nora's loan and her forgery and thereby destroy Torvald's reputation.

Nora does everything she can think of to delay Torvald's reading of the letter, but Torvald eventually reads it.

The climax of a play occurs when the dramatic action of the play can go no further before something must occur that points to a resolution of all of the conflicts and complications in the play. The climax is the emotional high point of the play.

As for the climax of A Doll's House, this is where an analysis of Ibsen's "well-made play" structure gets really interesting. Ibsen essentially offers two different climaxes from which to choose.

The first choice of climax occurs when Torvald reads the letter and confronts Nora about it. Scribe referred to this scene as the scene á faire, when a confrontation long anticipated by the audience finally takes place.

The falling action is everything that occurs from this point forward to the end of the play, including the resolution of the dramatic action of the play, which is Nora's decision to leave her husband and children and venture into the world on her own.

An argument against the reading of the letter and the confrontation between Torvald and Nora being the climax of the play is that all of the conflicts and complications developed in the play are not resolved.

The second choice of climax is the true emotional high point of the play: Nora's decision to leave her family. Everything leading up to that decision is therefore still part of the rising action. Torvald's reading of the letter and the resulting confrontation between Torvald and Nora are further complications and additional conflict leading toward Nora's decision.

The falling action moves quickly from the climax to the end of the play and includes the short discussion between Torvald and Nora that occurs after Nora makes her decision. The resolution of the play, the denouement, is when Nora closes the door behind her, resolving all of the conflicts and complications of the play.

But A Doll's House doesn't simply end at the sound of the door closing behind Nora. Torvald is confused and in the depths of despair when he remembers something that Nora said just moments ago.

HELMER. Nora—can I never be anything more than a stranger to you?

NORA. Ah, Torvald, the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.

HELMER. Tell me what that would be!

NORA. Both you and I would have to be so changed that—. Oh, Torvald, I don't believe any longer in wonderful things happening.

HELMER. But I will believe in it. Tell me? So changed that—?

NORA. That our life together would be a real wedlock.

Ibsen ends the play with a question, leaving the resolution of the play slightly in doubt.

HELMER. The most wonderful thing of all—?

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Ibsen's play, A Doll House, is structured somewhat differently than dramas based upon the form of the Greek and Roman plays, copied by many playwrights—including Shakespeare. Instead of having the standard five-act format used by earlier dramatists, Ibsen placed the action of his plays into three acts.

Whereas the five-act play used each act for a specific purpose, Ibsen's acts combine these purposes. The five-act play was structured as follows:

The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action; they are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe.

However, when Ibsen wrote A Doll's House, he fused exposition and complication together—introducing Nora and other major characters and their personalities, interactions, etc.—and joined this exposition with the complication in the form of Krogstad, Nora's illegal actions, and his threats to expose her—all in the first act. The climax occurs in the second act: this is when Krogstad leaves the letter exposing Nora's actions in the mailbox, awaiting Torvald's return. In the third act, the falling action and "the catastrophe" include the reconciliation of Kristine and Krogstad, Krogstad's change of heart, the impending death of Dr. Rank, Torvald's awareness of what Nora has done (along with his relief in learning Krogstad will not pursue the matter), and Nora's realization that she has been living a lie, and married—bearing children—to a man she does not know. [While many theater-goers were aghast at Nora's departure at the end (and Ibsen had to write an alternate ending for some performances), the play was in great demand throughout Europe.]

The dialogue, very different from the work of other writers, like Shakespeare, is delivered in prose. There is stage direction included. And unlike so many plays before, there is no "interior dialogue"—there are no soliloquies or asides, for example. We do not learn about character and what they are thinking through the traditional means of speaking to the audience, but through the interaction, discussion and actions between the characters on stage. Whereas Shakespeare's characters spoke to their audiences, Ibsen's characters do not.

For example, when Nora is worried about something, she does not address the audience, but thinks aloud to herself or pours out her concerns to Kristine Linde, one of the major reasons for Kristine's presence in the play—as is also the case with Dr. Rank, who Nora also speaks openly to...to an extent.

We see this when Nora believes that she will be exposed and is afraid that Torvald will take the blame for what she has done: this is, as she explains to Kristine, what she calls "the miracle"—

But it's so awful, Kristine. It mustn't take place, not for anything in the world.

When Kristine leaves the room, Nora (in speaking aloud to herself) says that she has only a short time to live—inferring that she will commit suicide rather than have Torvald take the blame for what she has done. (It's not a moral sin, but a "social" sin.) Ibsen writes:


… [...she looks at her watch.] Five o'clock. Seven hours till midnight; and then four-and-twenty hours till the next midnight. Then the Tarantella will be over. Twenty-four and seven? Thirty-one hours to live.

Ibsen's play was controversial in many ways, and unusual in its structure as well.

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