A Doll's House eNotes Lesson Plan
- Release Date: February 11, 2020
- Subjects: Language Arts and Literature
- Age Levels: Grade 10, Grade 11, Grade 12, and Grade 9
- Pages: 42
By the end of this unit, students should be able to
- define the family roles husbands and wives were expected to play in late 19th-century Norwegian-bourgeois society;
- describe the play's primary characters—Nora, Torvald, Mrs. Linde, Krogstad, and Dr. Rank—and identify their distinguishing traits;
- explain how A Doll's House illustrates Ibsen's ideas about gender roles;
- define the concept of realism as it applies to theater in general and A Doll's House in particular;
- compare and contrast characters in a drama;
- recognize how subtext and implication are used in the play to convey meaning.
Common Core Standards: RL.1, RL.2, RL.3, RL.5, RL.6, W.9, SL.1
A Doll’s House is the most widely read and frequently produced play by the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), who is often lauded as the greatest playwright of the nineteenth century. The popularity of A Doll’s House stems primarily from two factors. First, it’s a groundbreaking work of realism. It portrays a contemporary world where complex characters are often driven by subconscious and conflicting motivations. Ibsen’s original audience members were, for the first time in the theater, seeing a mirror held up to their daily lives. Second, A Doll’s House addresses a theme that was highly controversial in its day and continues to resonate across cultures: the confining roles that a patriarchal society imposes on women, particularly through the institution of marriage.
For the first half of his career, Ibsen’s plays were written in verse and dealt with fables and historical subject matter. He was an advocate for Norwegian cultural traditions at a time when the country was controlled by Denmark and Norwegian culture was held in low esteem.
In 1864, under growing frustration with the theater world in Norway, Ibsen moved to Italy. It was the start of a twenty-seven-year, self-imposed exile, mostly spent in Germany, during which he wrote what would become his most famous works. During that time, his work underwent a major shift in style and subject matter. Starting with The Pillars of Society in 1877, he produced a dozen plays, one every two years, that were composed in prose and took a realistic approach to contemporary social issues. A Doll’s House, written and first produced in 1879, was the second of these works.
The play is relatively short, with straightforward vocabulary and a dramatic ending, which make it accessible for ninth- and tenth-grade readers. Some of the elements that qualify A Doll’s House as a work of realism present sufficient challenges to make it suitable for study in accelerated classes or with older students.
One potential issue in presenting the play to students stems from the fact that Ibsen wrote it in the nineteenth century with his contemporary audience in mind, and as a result, the play can feel dated and not relevant to twenty-first-century readers, at least initially. In particular, the main male character, the bank manager Torvald Helmer, is so vain and condescending to his wife, Nora, that he may come off as a caricature. In addressing this issue, it can be worthwhile to tell students that the play is based on a true story involving a family Isben knew personally and that Torvald’s views weren’t unusual for the time. Also, if students find Torvald unbelievable, ask them if they can think of any figures in contemporary culture, or people in their own lives, who are similarly self-absorbed and insensitive. Present-day Torvalds aren’t so hard to find.
Two other pieces of historical context can be stumbling blocks for students. First, the play takes place over Christmas, but the celebration is much more low key than what typically takes place in the present-day United States. Before reading, students might do some research into how Christmas was celebrated in Ibsen’s time. Second, a crucial plot point involves the Helmers having spent a year in Italy so that Torvald can recuperate from illness. This may sound to students as if they went on a vacation, but during Ibsen’s time, extended stays in milder, southern climates were a common part of medical treatment for those who could afford them. Have students familiarize themselves with the harsh Norwegian weather; note how characters in the play are frequently warming themselves by the stove.
A more significant challenge posed by the realism of A Doll’s House is that things are often not what they seem. In dialogue, characters communicate through implication and innuendo. The plot hinges on a secret, and a crucial theme of the play is the difference between appearance and reality. To further complicate things, there are elements of randomness and ambiguity. The characters’ actions are not always predictable, consistent, or logical. No one is purely a hero or a villain, and at the end of the play, while there is some high drama, there’s no real resolution. What might become of the characters after the curtain falls is anyone’s guess.
All of this calls for attentive, patient reading. It also makes A Doll’s House a particularly good play to read aloud in class. Doing so can be a revelation for students: they can find themselves instinctively delivering dialogue in ways that reveal meanings they hadn’t recognized while reading silently, and they can make discoveries by hearing classmates say lines in unexpected ways.
In some classroom settings, it may work to read the entire play out loud, but another productive approach is to have pairs of students practice and perform the same scene, giving the class the chance to see several interpretations. Good choices for this activity are the scene where Krogstad threatens Nora near the end of Act 1, the scene in the middle of Act 2 where Dr. Rank tells Nora he’s dying and then declares his love for her, and the exchanges between Nora and Torvald that open and close the play.
Ultimately, the renown of A Doll’s House rests on its final scene, which should be examined in detail in class. In it, Nora rebels against Torvald and leaves him, delivering a riveting condemnation of the domestic life the rest of the play has portrayed. The play’s message is succinctly expressed in the devastating moment when Torvald says, “I’d gladly work for you day and night, Nora—and take on pain and deprivation. But there’s no one who gives up honor for love,” and Nora responds, “Millions of women have done just that.”
A note regarding translation: There are numerous English translations of A Doll’s House. This lesson plan uses the one by Rolf Fjelde, which is the most widely circulated version from an American publisher and intended for an American audience.
Our eNotes Comprehensive Lesson Plans have been written, tested, and approved by active classroom teachers. Each plan takes students through a text section by section, glossing important vocabulary and encouraging active reading. Each is designed to bring students to a greater understanding of the language, plot, characters, and themes of the text. The main components of each plan are the following:
- An in-depth introductory lecture
- Discussion questions
- Vocabulary lists
- Section-by-section comprehension questions
- A multiple-choice test
- Essay questions