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Publication History, Reception, and the Alternate Ending

A Doll’s House is a three-act play written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1879. It was first performed at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December of 1879. It was an immediate sensation, selling out every show of its first run. Critics praised Ibsen’s technical mastery and realistic dialogue. However, many people were appalled by the play’s depiction of a woman voluntarily leaving her husband and children. Some saw the play as an attack on the institution of marriage, which was considered sacred in 19th-century Europe. Others viewed Ibsen as a visionary and praised his willingness to criticize social conventions.

When the play was set to open in Germany, famous actress Hedwig Niemann-Raabe was hired to play Nora. However, she refused to perform the play in its original form, claiming that she would never leave her children the way Nora did. In order to prevent another writer from altering his work, Ibsen agreed to write an alternate ending. In the revised version, Torvald forces Nora to see the children before leaving. Distraught upon seeing them, she breaks down and decides to stay so as not to leave them motherless. Though Ibsen himself wrote the alternate ending, he viewed it as a “barbaric outrage” against his original play. The original ending is used far more commonly in stage productions, and Nora’s decisive shutting of the door has become perhaps the most iconic moment in the play.

Women’s Rights in Victorian Norway

At the time that A Doll’s House was written, women in Norway had very little economic agency. Lower-class women were restricted to low-paying domestic and clerical roles, and there was a negative stigma attached to working women. Married women were arguably more financially restricted than single women, who often controlled their own finances. Married middle-class women like Nora were heavily discouraged from working, because it reflected poorly on their husbands. Typically, men controlled household finances. Women and older children were given allowances to cover personal indulgences and housekeeping needs. Nora’s inability to acquire money without going through either her father or Torvald leaves her dependent on the men in her life.

As a result of their financial dependence on their husbands, women often found it difficult to leave unhappy relationships. Though divorce was legal and relatively inexpensive, it required the consent of both parties. Since divorce was heavily stigmatized, many middle- and upper-class couples chose to stay together despite their unhappy circumstances. Due to his desire to maintain appearances, it is unlikely that Torvald would have willingly granted Nora a divorce. As a result, her options were to either stay with him and remain unhappy or leave both him and her children. Many contemporary audiences viewed Nora’s decision to abandon her family as heartless. However, modern critics tend to view Nora’s decision as a radical declaration of female agency.

Ibsen’s Inspiration for A Doll’s House

In 1848, Henrik Ibsen and his wife befriended a young writer and literary critic named Laura Smith Petersen. The Ibsens helped nurture her literary talents. In 1873, Laura married Victor Kieler. Shortly after their wedding, Victor contracted tuberculosis. Much like Nora, Laura Kieler took out a loan with the help of a friend to finance a trip abroad. Her husband eventually made a full recovery. In an effort to pay off the loan honestly, Laura Kieler sent a manuscript of hers to Ibsen in the hopes that he might help her get it published. However, Ibsen was not impressed with the work and declined to help. A desperate Kieler then forged a check. When her...

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husband discovered the forgery, he threatened her with divorce and barred her from seeing her children. As a result, Kieler suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. She was eventually released, and she reconciled with both her husband and Ibsen. She went on to have her own successful writing career. However, she resented Ibsen for using her story as fodder forA Doll’s House.

Dramatic Realism

Henrik Ibsen is often credited as one of the most influential playwrights in the development of modern dramatic conventions. This is largely attributed to his popularization of dramatic realism. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Romanticism was the dominant dramatic convention. Popular Romantic conventions included poetic language, idealized depictions of life, and archetypal characters. By contrast, Ibsen wrote in a style that was designed to mimic more realistic speech patterns and events. The characters do not have lengthy soliloquies to offer audiences access to their thoughts and emotions. Instead, Ibsen uses the dialogue to add exposition and subtly convey deeper emotions.

Another element of realism is its focus on character-driven stories. Unlike Romantic characters, who tend to be flat and archetypal, Ibsen’s characters are fully developed individuals. A Doll’s House introduces Nora as a silly and childish “featherbrain.” However, this characterization is challenged and deepened throughout the play as Nora is faced with the consequences of the loan she took out. Rather than remaining static, Nora is forced to adapt to Krogstad’s demands and Torvald’s betrayal of her expectations. Her interactions with Mrs. Linde and Dr. Rank give her character a dynamic history, and the play's ending suggests that Nora will continue to grow and change.

Ibsen also took a fresh approach to thematic conventions. Rather than focusing on timeless themes like life and death or good and evil, Ibsen’s plays focus more on contemporary socio-political issues. A Doll’s House is a direct commentary on the financial struggle faced by women in 19th-century Norway. Though Nora broke the law to acquire her loan, she passionately argues that her actions were justified, given the circumstances. Her assertions pose a direct challenge to the legal precedents of the day and represent a direct call to action. A Doll’s House inspired successive generations of dramatists to explore contemporary social issues as opposed to the universalized thematic explorations of the Romantics.

Symbols: The Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree symbolizes Nora herself. When it arrives, it is unadorned, and Nora hides it from Torvald and the children. She doesn't want her family to see it until it is properly dressed, mirroring the way that Nora obscures her true persona around Torvald. Both the tree and Nora use pretty decorations to hide their true selves. Furthermore, both Nora and the tree serve as decorative elements in the home, as opposed to agents capable of action. They are both pretty, flashy things, meant to be admired and then forgotten about. At the start of act II, the once pristine tree has grown disheveled, given that Christmas has ended. Similarly, Nora’s mental state has begun to erode as a result of her stress over Krogstad’s blackmail. Though she tries to keep up appearances, Nora, much like the tree, has been slowly “stripped of [her] ornaments.” She must face Torvald as her true self.

Symbols: The Tarantella and Nora’s Fancy Dress

The Tarantella and Nora’s fancy dress both symbolize deception and performance. Much of Nora’s life is spent keeping up the facade of the silly, spendthrift wife that Torvald expects her to be. However, she also plays the part of the seductive “Neapolitan Fisher Girl,” dancing the Tarantella at Torvald’s behest. After the Stenborg’s dance, Torvald remarks that when he attends parties with Nora, he often fantasizes about her being his young, secret bride. He finds her dancing attractive, and he also seems to take pleasure in the fact that other people are impressed by his wife. When it finally comes time for Nora to confront Torvald, she removes her “fancy dress.” This act of undressing symbolizes that Nora is no longer playing a part. Instead, she is addressing Torvald as herself.

Form and Content

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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

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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

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Women's Rights In 1888, married women in Norway were finally given control over their own money, but the Norway of Ibsen's play predates this change and provides a more restrictive environment for women such as Nora Helmer. In 1879, a wife was not legally permitted to borrow money without her husband's consent, so Nora must resort to deception to borrow the money she so desperately needs. Ibsen always denied that he believed in women's rights, stating instead that he believed in human rights.

The issue of women's rights was already a force in Norway several years before Ibsen focused on the issue, and women had been the force behind several changes. Norway was a newly liberated country in the nineteenth century, having been freed from Danish control in 1814; therefore, it is understandable that issues involving freedom—both political and personal freedom—were important in the minds of Norwegians. Poverty had already forced women into the workplace early in the nineteenth century, and the Norwegian government had passed laws protecting and governing women's employment nearly five decades before Ibsen's play. By the middle of the century, women were granted the same legal protection as that provided to male children. Women were permitted inheritance rights and were to be successful in petitioning for the right to a university education only three years after the first performance of A Doll's House. But many of the protections provided to women were aimed at the lower economic classes. Employment opportunities for women were limited to low-paying domestic jobs, teaching, or clerical work. Middle-class women, such as Nora, noticed few of these new advantages. It was the institution of marriage itself that restricted the freedom of middle-class women.

Although divorce was available and inexpensive, it was still socially stigmatized and available only if both partners agreed. The play's ending makes clear that Torvald would object to divorce, so Nora's alienation from society would be even greater. There was no organized feminist movement operating in Norway in 1879. Thus Nora's exodus at the play's conclusion is a particularly brave and dangerous act. There was no army of feminist revolutionaries to protect and guide her; she was completely alone in trying to establish a new life for herself.

Christmas Celebrations Christmas was an important family holiday in Norway and was viewed as a time of family unity and celebration. Thus it is ironic that the play opens on Christmas Eve and that the Helmer family unity disintegrates on Christmas Day. Christmas Day and the days following were traditionally reserved for socializing and visiting with neighbors and friends. Costume parties, such as the one Nora and Torvald attend, were common, and the dance Nora performs, the tarantella, is a dance for couples or for a line of partners. That Nora dances it alone signifies her isolation both within her marriage and in the community.

Sources Nora's forgery is similar to one that occurred earlier in Norway and one with which Ibsen was personally connected. A woman with whom Ibsen was friendly, Laura Kieler, borrowed money to finance a tap that would repair her husband's health. When the loan came due, Kieler was unable to repay it. She tried to raise money by selling a manuscript she had written, and Ibsen, feeling the manuscript was inferior, declined to help her get it published. In desperation, Kieler forged a check, was caught, and was rejected by her husband, who then sought to gain custody of their children and have his wife committed to an asylum. After her release, Kieler pleaded with her husband to take her back, which he did rather unwillingly. Ibsen provides Nora with greater resilience and ingenuity than that evidenced by Kieler. Nora is able to earn the money to repay the loan, and her forgery is of her father's signature on a promissory note and not of a check. Lastly, Nora is saved by Krogstad's withdrawal of legal threats so is not cast out by her husband. Instead, she becomes stronger, and her husband is placed in the position of the marital partner who must plead for a second chance. Ibsen provides a careful reversal of the original story that strengthens the character of the "doll" wife.

Literary Style

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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 characters and any action offstage must be explained by the actors. The actors address one another in A Doll's House and not the audience.

Acts Acts comprise the major divisions within a drama. In Greek plays, the sections of the drama were signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans, and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action; they are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Ibsen combined some of the acts. A Doll's House is a three-act play; the exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience learns of both Nora's deception and of the threat Krogstad represents. The climax occurs in the second act when Krogstad again confronts Nora and leaves the letter for Torvald to read. The falling action and catastrophe are combined in Act III when Mrs. Linde and Krogstad are reconciled but Mrs. Linde decides to let the drama play itself out and Torvald reads and reacts to the letter with disastrous results.

Naturalism Naturalism was a literary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is the application of scientific principles to literature. For instance, in nature, behavior is determined by environmental pressures or internal factors, none of which can be controlled or even clearly understood. There is a clear cause and effect association: either the indifference of nature or biological determinism influences behavior. In either case, there is no human responsibility for the actions of the individual. European Naturalism emphasized biological determinism, while American Naturalism emphasized environmental influences. Thus, Torvald's accusation that all of her father's weakest moral values are displayed in Nora is based on an understanding that she has inherited those traits from him.

Realism Realism is a nineteenth-century literary term that identifies an author's attempt to portray characters, events, and settings in a realistic way. Simply put, realism is attention to detail, with description intended to be honest and frank at all levels. There is an emphasis on character, especially behavior. Thus, in A Doll's House, the events of the Helmers's marriage are easily recognizable as realistic to the audience. These are events, people, and a home that might be familiar to any person in the audience. The sitting room is similar to one found in any other home. Nora is similar to any other wife in nineteenth-century Norway, and the problems she encounters in her marriage are similar to those confronted by other married women.

Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for A Doll's House is an unnamed city in nineteenth-century Norway. The action begins just before Christmas and concludes the next evening, and all three acts take place in the same sitting room at the Helmers's residence. The Helmers have been married for eight years; Nora is a wife and mother, and her husband, Torvald, is a newly promoted lawyer and bank manager. They live in comfortable circumstances during a period that finds women suppressed by a social system that equates males with success in the public sphere and females with domestic chores in the private sphere. But this is also a period of turmoil as women demand greater educational opportunities and greater equality in the business world. Accordingly, A Doll's House illuminates many of the conflicts and questions being debated in nineteenth-century Europe.

Compare and Contrast

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

    Today: Women attorneys are as common as men in all areas of the law. Acceptance for women in the upper echelons of corporate law proved to be a bigger hurdle than practicing before the Supreme Court. Despite all of the advances made in the area of gender equality, women still earn less than seventy cents for every dollar earned by men.

  • 1879: Edison announces the success of his incandescent light bulb, certain that it will burn for 100 hours. Arc-lights are installed as streetlights in San Francisco and Cleveland.

    Today: Electric lights illuminate theatres, businesses, and homes in all areas of the industrialized world and have become a part of the human environment that is so accepted as to go largely unnoticed and often unappreciated.

  • 1879: In Berlin, electricity drives a railroad locomotive for the first time. George Seldon files for a patent for a road vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine.

    Today: Transportation based on the earlier combustion engine has been greatly refined and is easy, accessible, and fast. But it is only now that electricity is being researched seriously as a power source for more ecologically prudent transportation.

  • 1879: A woman's college, Radcliffe, is founded by Elizabeth Cary Agassiz in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    Today: The opportunity for an education has ceased to be a novelty for women in the United States and most of Europe. Yet even in the late 1990s, legal battles are waged over a woman's right to enter a male-only federally subsidized school, the Citadel.

  • 1879: The multiple switchboard invented by Leroy B. Firman is invented; it will help make the telephone a commercial success and dramatically increase the number of telephone subscribers.

    Today: Telephone lines are no longer used only for transmitting conversations, as communications have expanded to include computers and multimedia technology. The video phone and computers that permit visual connection in addition to vocal are now a reality and will likely become common and more affordable for much of the industrialized world.

Media Adaptations

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  • A Doll's House was adapted for television for the first time in 1959. The adaptation starred Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer, Jason Robards, Hume Cronyn, Eileen Heckart, and Richard Thomas. Sonny Fox Productions. Available on videotape through MGM/UA Home Video, black and white, 89 minutes.
  • A Doll's House was adapted for film for the second time in 1973. This version stars Jane Fonda, Edward Fox, Trevor Howard, and David Warner. The screenplay was by David Mercer. World Film services. Available on videotape through Prism Entertainment/Starmaker Entertainment, color, 98 minutes.
  • A Doll's House was adapted for film again in 1977. This film stars Claire Bloom. Paramount Pictures.
  • A Doll's House was adapted for film again in a 1989 Canadian production. Starring Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliott, Anna Massey, and Edith Evans, this is considered a superior adaptation of the play. Elkins Productions Limited. Available on videotape through Hemdale Home Video, color, 96 minutes.
  • A Doll's House was adapted for film most recently in 1991. This cast includes Juliet Stevenson, Trevor Eve, Geraldine James, Patrick Malahide, and David Calder. This is an excellent adaptation with some insightful commentaries by Alistair Cooke. PBS and BBC.
  • In A Doll's House, Part 1: The Destruction of Illusion, Norris Houghton helps the audience explore the subsurface tensions of the play. Britannica Films, 1968.
  • In A Doll's House, Part II: Ibsen's Themes, Norris Houghton examines the characters and the themes of the play. Britannica Films, 1968.
  • A Doll's House, audio recording, 3 cassettes. With Claire Bloom and Donald Madden. Caedmon/Harper Audio.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Archer, William. Introduction to The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, edited and translated by Archer. Scribner, 1906-1912.

Durbach, Errol. A Doll's House: Ibsen's Myth of Transformation, Twayne Masterworks Studies. Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Finney, Gail. "Ibsen and Feminism," in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane. Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 89-105.

Franc, Miriam Alice. Ibsen in England. The Four Seas Co., 1919, pp. 131-33.

Goodman, Walter. Review of A Doll's House, The New York Times, May 14, 1986.

Hemmer, Bjorn. "Ibsen and the Realistic Problem Drama," in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane. Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 68-88.

Further Reading Magill, Frank N., ed. Masterpieces of World Literature. Harper & Row, 1989, pp. 203-206. This book compresses literary works into easily understood summaries. In addition to plot summaries and character reviews, the editor also addresses historical context and critical interpretations. The Magill compilations provide a reliable, accessible means for students to review texts.

Meyer, Michael, ed. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, 4th Edition. St. Martin's Press, 1996, pp. 1128-1136. This anthology encapsulates several brief approaches to the study of this play. Excerpts from psychological, Marxist, and feminist readings are provided to assist students with a comparison of the different critical readings possible.

Rickert, Blandine M., ed. Major Modern Dramatists, Volume 2, pp. 1-32. This work provides an introduction to Ibsen drawn from reviews and critical interpretations of his work. Excerpts date from late in the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Compiling this information allows students of Ibsen to see how his plays have influenced succeeding generations.


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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.




Critical Essays