Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165
Theme of Women as Possessions: One of the most central themes of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is the concept of women as possessions in marriage and society as a whole. Highlight how the play’s title alludes to this theme—Nora is Torvald’s “doll” and not his equal. Emphasize how the play is concerned with how all of its characters, but especially women, are forced to keep up appearances in order to fit into society’s roles. Focus on how Torvald refers to Nora with “pet” names, and how his relationship with Nora develops throughout the play.
- For discussion: What language does Torvald use when speaking to and about Nora? What language does Nora use when referring to herself? Does this language change over the course of the play?
- For discussion: Contrast Torvald’s attitude towards Nora with Dr. Rank’s attitude. How are they similar? How are they different?
Theme of Deception: Naturally, the unyielding expectations of society necessitate deception as characters struggle to force their outward appearances into these unrealistic, repressive standards. Not only must Nora be a doll but also she must live in a doll-home, successfully convincing Torvald and their social world that both her marriage and household are perfectly happy and problem-free. Just as social norms require deception on the part of all characters, non-inclusive and unjust laws elicit deception for the marginalized, forcing arguably “honorable” people to commit crimes or to keep secrets.
- For discussion: Is it ever okay to lie to keep other people happy? What does Ibsen teach us about deceit?
- For discussion: Examine the physical setting and objects of the play. What role do doors, locks, and keys have in the play? What about letters, documents, and money? How do these physical objects influence and support the theme of deception?
Theme of Growth and Identity: Nora’s exit at the play’s conclusion has been criticized by some as a perceived abandonment of her children and marriage. However, her exit may also be viewed as an act of immense courage, in that Nora defies social norms to seek out her own identity beyond that of mother and wife. Ask students to trace Nora’s development from the beginning of act 1 to the final moments of act 3, noting the differences in her language choices and intentions.
- For discussion: Do you agree with Nora’s decision to leave at the end of the play? Why or why not?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Examine the letters and other documents present in the play. What roles do these have? How do they support the play’s themes?
- Highlight the centrality of financial matters in the power dynamic between Torvald and Nora. What is the difference between Torvald and Nora’s attitude to money? What do these attitudes reveal about who has the power in the relationship?
- Highlight the way Nora addresses her children. Are there certain similarities with the way Torvald relates to Nora? Consider the implications of these similarities.
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The 19th-Century Feminist Movement Differs from Modern Feminism: While Ibsen was a pioneering voice for women’s rights, his brand of feminism is undoubtedly different from feminism today. A Doll’s House focuses on one main issue—that of the confining roles of women in the institution of marriage. In Ibsen’s time, it was largely unheard of for women to have careers outside the home, just as it was for women to seek identity in the world beyond devoted wife and mother. While students may not find Nora’s exit particularly shocking or revolutionary, it is important to remind them that Nora’s world drastically differed from the one we inhabit today.
- What to do: Before reading, provide students with an overview of the societal roles expected of 19th-century women, emphasizing their lack of freedom beyond the home. Typically, women transitioned between the authority of their father to the domain of their husbands, never having a significant voice in financial or career matters. Note that there was little in the way of a safety net for women who left the confines of their husbands or fathers.
The Specifics of Setting: There are a few instances throughout the play that demonstrate how the Norwegian way of life differs from that in the United States. One major example is how the Helmers celebrate Christmas. For your students, the Helmers’ Christmas may seem like a subdued and modest affair. However, there are hardly any specifically Norwegian references in the play—a deliberate choice by Ibsen to keep the play relatable to as wide and varied an audience as possible. However, while students may be able to relate to the generic, middle-class domestic setting, they may struggle with the temporal setting of the Victorian era. Understanding the repressed values of the Victorians— especially when it came to gender, sex, and sexuality—is key to grasping the full impact of Ibsen’s play.
- What to do: Note that the play’s Nordic roots do not greatly influence the plot apart from its depiction of Christmas. Ask students to discuss why Ibsen may have chosen to keep the play relatively universal. What might its universality suggest about Ibsen’s goal for his play?
Alternative Approaches to Teaching A Doll's House
Mrs. Christine Linde as a Foil to Nora: The two couples of the play essentially act as foils to one another. While Nora has lived a life of leisure and privilege, Mrs. Linde has lived through struggle and toil as part of the working class. Conversely, while Nora is first introduced as a wife and mother, Mrs. Linde is presented as childless and widowed. This opposition is reversed at the play’s conclusion, as Mrs. Linde finds happiness in her relationship with Krogstad and the possibility of building a family, whereas Nora chooses to leave her family behind in search of self-discovery and independence. Ibsen’s portrayal of Mrs. Linde demonstrates that he does not condemn the traditional role of women in the home, as long as the woman has made the active decision to fulfill this role—not forced by society’s expectations.
- Focus on each woman’s journey to their eventual decisions. How do they influence one another? How do both find fulfillment in very different roles?
Nils Krogstad as a Foil to Torvald: Comparably, Krogstad offers a foil to Torvald Helmer. While Torvald is presented as a respectable, upstanding citizen, Krogstad’s status is that of a lowly blackmailer. However, when Torvald goes along with Krogstad’s blackmail, we see Torvald lacks true integrity. Similarly, while the ending sees Torvald left alone, Krogstad appears destined for a more hopeful future with Mrs. Linde.
- Focus on Krogstad and Torvald’s contrasting roles at the beginning and end of the play. Why does it seem like Krogstad’s future is more hopeful? How has Torvald lost respectability over the course of the play’s events?
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