Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882
The Doll's House is one of the strongest plays that Ibsen has produced. In the way of character-painting, and artful and artistic handling of the situations, he has done nothing better. It is a pity that we could not have had The Enemy of Society, with its strong autobiographic suggestiveness, first; but there is no more characteristic play upon the list, nor one more indicative of the author's mind and power—if only it be read with fairness and appreciation—than the one selected. The heroine of The Doll's House is its light-hearted pretty little mistress, Nora Helmer. She has been eight years the wife of Torvald Helmer, and is the mother of three bright vigorous children. She is her husband's doll. Torvald Helmer calls her his little lark, his squirrel, provides for her every fancy, hugely enjoys her charms of person, forgets that she has a soul—and is sure he loves her most devotedly. Nora has always been a child; her father, a man of easy conscience, has brought her up entirely unsophisticated. She knows nothing of the serious side of life—of its privileges, its real opportunities—nothing of the duties of the individual in a world of action. Nora is passive, she submits to be fondled and kissed. She is happy in her "doll-house," and apparently knows nothing outside her home, her husband, and her children. Nora loves her family with an ideal love. Love, in her thought, is an affection which has a right to demand sacrifices; and in turn is willing to offer up its own treasures, whether life, honor, or even its soul, be the stake. She is not merely ready for such a sacrifice—poor sentimental Nora!— she has already, though in part ignorantly, made it, and has committed a crime to save her husband's life.
There is much machinery to carry on the plot; but in spite of the abstract nature of the theme, the episodes are so dramatic and the dialogue so brisk and natural that the drama moves without perceptible jar, and our interest intensifies and the suspense increases until the denouement occurs. Herein lies the secret of the success of this and all the other of Ibsen's kindred dramas. Along with the poet's insight and the cold clear logic of the philosopher, he possesses in an eminent degree the secret of the playwright's art, and knows well how to clothe his abstract dialogue on themes philosophical or psychological, so that the observer follows every incident and every word with an interest that grows more and more intense.
It is impossible to tell all of Nora's story here. Miss [Henrietta Frances] Lord's translation will do that best, if only curiosity may be aroused concerning it. Suffice it to say that the catastrophe falls in a situation characteristically dramatic. The curtain descends just as Nora, the wife and mother, turns her back upon husband and children, and passes, by her own free choice, nay, in accord with her relentless insistence, out from her doll-home into the night, and—whither? This is the question that all the hosts of Ibsen's censors are repeating. Whither? And did she do right to leave her children and her husband? And what a revolutionary old firebrand Ibsen must be to teach such a moral, and proclaim the doctrine that all those unfortunate mismated women who find themselves bound to unsympathetic lords may, and should, turn their back on the home and abandon their offspring to the mercies of strangers! But alack, this isn't the moral of Nora Helmer's story. It was the doll-marriage and the relation between Torvald Helmer and his doll-wife that was at fault. Nora's abandonment was an accidental, though a necessary, episode. It is the denouement of the play, to be sure; but the end is not yet. There is an epilogue as well as a prologue to the drama, though both are left to the reader's imagination to perfect. "A hope inspires" Helmer as he hears the door close after Nora's departure; and he whisperingly repeats her words—"the greatest of all miracles!"
This particular phase of wedded life—and perhaps it is becoming not so very infrequent a phase even on this side the water—is a problem which confronts us in society. Is this your idea of marriage? demands Ibsen. Is it a marriage at all? No; he declares bluntly. It is a cohabitation; it is a partnership in sensuality in which one of the parties is an innocent, it may be an unconscious, victim.
Nora goes forth, but we feel she will one day return; her children will bring her back. Neither she nor Torvald could have learned the bitter lesson had Nora remained at home. It is the wife at last who makes the sacrifice. How strange it is that so many of the critics fail to see that Nora's act is not selfishness after all! There is promise of a splendid womanliness in that "emancipated individuality" that Ibsen's enemies are ridiculing. There will be an ideal home after the mutual chastening is accomplished: an ideal home—not ideal people necessarily, but a home, a family, where there is complete community, a perfect love.
Source: W. E. Simonds, "Henrik Ibsen," in the Dial, Vol. X, No. 119, March, 1890, pp. 301-03.
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