Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

A Doll’s House, a realistic three-act play, focuses on late nineteenth century life in a middle-class Scandinavian household, in which the wife is expected to be contentedly passive and the husband paternally protective. Nora Helmer, however, has subverted this model. At that time, a woman could not sign a legal contract alone; thus, when her beloved husband, Torvald, became ill, Nora secretly obtained a loan by forging her father’s signature so that they could travel to a warmer climate. As the play opens, Torvald is about to become manager of the bank and Nora has almost repaid the loan through odd jobs and scrimping on the household expenses. Nora discloses her actions to her friend Kristine Linde and exults in her accomplishment.

The structure of the play is linear; after the exposition, the action becomes complicated with the appearance of Nora’s debtor, Nils Krogstad, a man disgraced by crimes that he committed to protect his family. Insecure in his position at the bank, he threatens to expose Nora’s loan and forgery unless she pleads his case to Torvald. In her ignorance, Nora had not fully understood that forgery is a criminal act.

The major conflict of the play, concerning honesty in marriage, arises from this situation. Nora cannot discuss the blackmail with her husband, since her role in their relationship is that of a charming child; thus, she must plead for Krogstad. Torvald, however, refuses to hear her plea, labeling Krogstad morally lost for the crimes that he committed and not fit to bring up his children. The parallel is not lost on Nora, who sends her children away from her at the end of the first act.

Nora’s fear increases when Torvald rejects her second plea and fires Krogstad. As Kristine helps with her costume for the Christmas party, Nora confesses that Krogstad has left a letter to Torvald in the mailbox revealing everything. She is convinced that now a wonderful thing will happen—that, when Torvald discovers her actions, he will assume the blame and that she then will commit suicide. As the second act ends, Nora dances a violent tarantella in an effort to distract Torvald from opening the mailbox.

The final act begins with Kristine and Krogstad resuming a relationship formerly hindered by their economic circumstances. Although Krogstad now regrets his blackmail, Kristine decides that the letter should remain in the mailbox and that Torvald must discover the truth. Torvald reads the letter and immediately denounces Nora as a liar and a criminal, the destroyer of his future. When another letter arrives containing the promissory note, however, Torvald realizes that he is “safe.” He forgives Nora, promising to “be conscience and will” to her thereafter. In the classic scene that follows, Nora speaks openly with her husband, the first such occasion in their entire married life, and admits her ignorance of herself and the world beyond. Declaring that she must leave Torvald and the children to find herself, she leaves and slams the door behind her.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Helmer house

Helmer house. Home of Torvald Helmer, a successful bank manager, and his wife, Nora. The dwelling contains comfortable and stylish furniture and such items as a china cabinet, a bookcase with well-bound books, and a piano on carpeted floor—all of which demonstrate a stable financial situation. However, the house is a mere container, or doll’s house, for Nora, who spends her time entertaining or nervously accommodating (as her nickname “the squirrel” implies) her demanding husband—rather than decorating, designing, or even “taking charge of” her own life.

Sitting areas in the house realistically capture the limitations on Nora’s growth as a woman. For example, in these staged sitting areas, Nora secretly eats macaroons to escape her husband’s upbraiding; she has threatening conversations with Krogstad, concerning his reinstatement at her husband’s bank; and she prepares her costume and practices the tarantella for a Christmas ball she must attend with Torvald. All of these situations in closed rooms psychologically and emotionally demonstrate the manipulation and oppression of this doll in the house, filled with rooms of deception and corruption.

When Nora finally decides to leave her husband, she goes out of the house and slams its downstairs door shut. In so doing, she physically, mentally, and spiritually enters a new space: the unknown. For here she can truly “find herself” now and discover what she wants to do as a woman without Torvald’s rules and codes of behavior.

Helmer’s office

Helmer’s office. Torvald’s efficiently furnished banking office, which is an emblem of his kingdom—the room in which he makes the rules of conduct for his home and for his little doll, Nora. Ibsen’s social realism is evident as in his studio many despotic decisions that further emphasize the theme of female injustice are made. For example, in act 2 Torvald writes a letter dismissing the bookkeeper Nils Krogstad, who has been blackmailing Nora since she forged her dying father’s signature to a bond at the bank, when she needed money to take Torvald to Italy when he was seriously ill.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Women's Rights
In 1888, married women in Norway were finally given control over their own money, but the Norway of...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

This is a three-act play with prose dialogue, stage directions, and no interior dialogue. There are no soliloquies, and thus, the thoughts of...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1879: Congress gives women the right to practice law before the United States Supreme Court.


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Feminists are often bothered by the reconciliation between Kristine and Krogstad. Just as Nora is breaking free of the confines of her...

(The entire section is 309 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

  • A Doll's House was adapted for television for the first time in 1959. The adaptation starred Julie Harris, Christopher...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • Joyce Carol Oates's short story, "The Lady With The Pet Dog," offers an interesting contrast to the way Nora chooses to deal with her...

(The entire section is 368 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Archer, William. Introduction to The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, edited and translated by...

(The entire section is 257 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Downs, Brian W. Ibsen: The Intellectual Background. New York: Octagon, 1969. Contains preface, chronology, and index, and makes multiple references to A Doll’s House. Downs argues that the “disagreement” upon which the drama turns is not between a wife and husband as much as it is between woman and society.

Hornby, Richard. Patterns in Ibsen’s Middle Plays. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1981. A readable, helpful, and interesting discussion of A Doll’s House in one chapter. Indicates that the play’s underlying idea is the “ethical leap” that informs the technical and aesthetic development of the play.

Mencken, H. L. Introduction to Eleven Plays of Henrik Ibsen. New York: Random House, 1950. Mencken’s prose is worth reading for itself and especially so in this case for anyone interested in Ibsen. Mencken lauds A Doll’s House and declares that it represents the full measure of Ibsen’s contribution to the art of drama.

Meyer, Michael. Ibsen: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. A well-organized, readable, illustrated source with an annotated index. Includes frequent references to A Doll’s House, especially in chapter 19. Meyer also discusses the continued focus on Ibsen’s view of women’s situation in a man’s world, on the outcry against A Doll’s House, and on the monetary return it brought the author.

Shafer, Yvonne, ed. Approaches to Teaching Ibsen’s “A Doll [sic] House.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1985. Useful for both nonspecialists and specialists. Provides section about materials available for a study of A Doll’s House and a section on approaches to teaching it. Provides insight for understanding and interpreting the play.