A Doll's House Key Themes
In A Doll's House, Nora Helmer realizes that she has little agency in her marriage and leaves her family in order to establish a separate identity.
While Nora and Torvald appear to be an ideal married couple, in reality their marriage is based on deception.
Nora betrays Torvald by hiding her financial debt, and Torvald betrays Nora’s trust with his inability to understand her.
Nora matures from a childlike, dependent role into an independent woman who understands her own worth.
Torvald’s pride leads him to treat Nora like a possession instead of loving her as an equal.
Gender Inequality in Victorian Europe
Gender roles—and the dissatisfaction they produce—play a prominent role in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The dynamics of Nora and Torvald’s relationship reflect the Victorian belief that men should be the dominant partners in marriage. Torvald controls the money for the household, and he constantly condescends to Nora. He believes that he is her superior. Torvald’s paternalistic behavior reflects that of Nora’s father, who also treated Nora as an intellectual inferior. Though Nora is at first content to be a spoiled, submissive housewife, by the end of the play she asserts her independence and leaves her husband. Furthermore, Nora insists that the laws surrounding a woman’s ability to take out a loan are wrong. Through Nora’s opinions and actions, Ibsen criticizes the inequitable Victorian society that restricts women from obtaining true independence from the men in their lives.
Mrs. Linde’s story moves in the opposite direction of Nora’s. Rather than seeking out independence, Mrs. Linde prepares to marry again, because she wants to care for someone again. Mrs. Linde’s willingly conforms to the gender roles that Nora hopes to escape. At first glance, this works against the thematic message of the play. However, Mrs. Linde’s circumstances and experiences differ from Nora’s. Mrs. Linde already knows what it is like to be independent. She had to work hard after her husband’s death just to care for herself. Additionally, she has already seen Krogstad at his worst. Her marriage to Krogstad will have no illusions or “playtime.” Instead, Mrs. Linde is making an informed, pragmatic choice to marry a man whom she respects and who respects her in turn.
When A Doll’s House first premiered, it was accused of being “anti-marriage.” Mrs. Linde’s story suggests otherwise. The ending of the play suggests that a “true wedlock” can only exist between equals who see one another clearly and equitably. While Nora and Torvald realize that their marriage is based on illusions, Krogstad and Mrs. Linde enter into a mutually beneficial and desirable partnership. Ultimately, Ibsen seems to suggest that women ought to be encouraged to think and live independently. If women were able to support themselves without the aid of men, the institution of marriage would cease to be an instrument of oppression. Thus, marriage would reflect a genuine partnership, as it does for Mrs. Linde and Krogstad.
The Gendered Nature of Pride
While pride is important to all of the primary characters in A Doll’s House, the nature of pride differs based on gender. For the male characters, pride is a public affair, because a man’s reputation impacts his socioeconomic opportunities.
- Krogstad’s reputation was severely damaged by his forgery. As a result, he has limited employment opportunities and is forced to employ underhanded means to provide for his family.
- By contrast, Torvald’s reputation is flawless, and he has recently been rewarded with a promotion at the bank.
During their confrontation in act III, Torvald tells Nora that “no man” would sacrifice his reputation for his wife. From Torvald’s perspective, his argument is valid, because his reputation is his means of providing for his family. However, Nora suggests that Torvald’s insistence on maintaining appearances is cowardly.
In contrast to the public nature...
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