A Doll's House Critical Overview
by Henrik Ibsen

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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

In Norway, A Doll's House was published two weeks before its first performance. The initial 8,000 copies of the play sold out immediately, so the audience for the play was both informed, excited, and eagerly anticipating the play's first production. The play elicited much debate, most of it centered on Nora's decision to leave her marriage at the play's conclusion. Reaction in Germany was similar to that in Norway. Ibsen was forced to provide an alternative ending by the management of its first German production, since even the actress playing Nora refused to portray a mother leaving her children in such a manner. Ibsen called the new ending, which had Nora abandoning her plans to leave upon seeing her children one last time, "a barbaric outrage to be used only in emergencies." The debate was focused not on women's rights or other feminist issues such as subordination or male dominance; instead, people were consumed with the question, "What kind of a wife and mother would walk out on her family as Nora does?" The play's reception elsewhere in Europe mirrored that of Norway and Germany with the debate still focused largely on social issues and not on the play's challenge to dramatic style.

Another issue for early reviewers was Nora's transformation. Many critics simply did not accept the idea that the seemingly submissive, flighty woman of the first two acts could display so much resolve and strength in the third act. According to Enrol Durbach in A Doll's House: Ibsen's Myth of Transformation, one review of the period stated that Ibsen had disgusted his audience by "violating the unconventional." Many reviewers just could not visualize any woman displaying the kind of behavior demonstrated by Nora. It was beyond their comprehension that a woman would voluntarily choose to sacrifice her children in order to seek her own identity. Durbach argued that the audience and the critics were accustomed to social problem plays but that Ibsen's play presented a problem without the benefit of a ready or acceptable solution. In fact, the critics identified with Torvald and saw his choice of so unstable a wife as Nora as his only real flaw. In 1879 Europe, A Doll's House was a problem play, but not the one Ibsen envisioned. Instead, the problem resided with the critics who were so consumed with the issue of Nora's decision that they ignored the deeper complexities of the play. Early in the first act, it becomes clear that Nora has a strength and determination that even she cannot acknowledge. When her eyes are opened, it is not so much a metamorphosis as it is an awakening.

In England, the play was embraced by Marxists who envisioned an egalitarian mating without the hierarchy of marriage and an end to serfdom when wives ceased to be property. But many other Englishmen were more interested in the aesthetics of the play than in its social content. Bernard Shaw embraced Ibsen's dramatic poetry and championed the playwright's work. Since the...

(The entire section is 742 words.)