A Doll's House Analysis
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 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...
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