Henrik Iben’s “A Doll’s House” aroused great irritation and outrage in the audience response in the nineteenth century. Nora’s decision to leave her husband and children, to leave the “Doll’s House”, provoked great controversy: There are different opinions regarding the development of the plot: Some see Nora as a great Heroine, a role model for the nineteenth century woman and a shocker for societies structure, a judgement which is popular especially nowadays. Others- and amongst them the majority of the nineteenth-century audience- reacted simply shocked.
When the play was actually produced, Ibsen was even urged to write a different ending, in which Nora comes back- for the sake of her children. But also today, some critics1 argue, that Nora’s decision to leave the house is either not realistic, as it does not fit to her character, or, that the decision shows her egoism rather than her heroic features.
This essay will try to investigate the different approaches introduced.
It will firstly examine the reasons for Nora’s sudden decision to leave, and secondly how her decision is justified and related with her characterisation and her character development.
The trigger for her sudden decision to leave everything, and for her sudden realisation of what she is and what she wants to be, is certainly the disappointing behaviour of her husband, ‘the miracle’- which did not happen. When Torvald received the letter she tells him, that “It was this evening, when the miracle didn’t happen- because then I saw that you weren’t the man I always thought you are.
”(Ibsen ?.: 229) This reveals what illusions she made herself of their marriage and therefore how wrong she estimated him- and herself. Her, waiting for ‘the miracle’ uncovers how impatiently she waited for a prove of Torvald’s love towards her, a prove for his heroic statements, such as “(…) I’ve often wished that you could risk everything I had- even my life itself- to save you.” (Ibsen: 219). Although Nora did not want him to, (“You shan’t save me” Ibsen: 220) she actually expected him to save her. When this does not happen, and he denies her instead, she realises suddenly, that she “saw that you weren’t the man I’d always thought you”(Ibsen: 229). In fact, she realised, that he played a role exactly as she did, that he still believes to be the brave, loving husband- which he is not. The important thing now is, that she realises that she was never herself, and that she was loved only for the role she played ( “You’ve never loved me, you’ve only found it pleasant to be in love with me.” Ibsen: 225).
Without question, Nora benefited from her “girly” behaviour: Carrying out the role as “the angel of the house”, she carried out societies expectations and gained a lot in return. Unfortunately, she underestimates how bound she is in the role she plays. The power she has over her husband she does only possess when playing her role. Now she has to realise how dependent she is, as she does not even have an own identity. She made herself illusions concerning her freedom, and has to realise now that she is not free at all. She wasted her life acting roles for other, without getting the chance to develop an identity, and without being appreciated for anything that she did. She also realises the impact and restrictions of societies’ rules, and how much they actually affect her. She lived in a “Doll’s House” were she played the doll for Torvald, and played with the children as her dolls in return. Rather than living her life, she “played” her life after a certain role. Nevertheless, she has to realise now that although being more or less separated from the outside world, she is affected by real life’s rules and restrictions. Her sudden confrontation with reality explains that she does not “really know”, that she is “so bewildered about all.” (Ibsen: 228). This enables her to develop a new sight on things, which is summed up in a part of dialogue with Torvald:
“Now that I come to look at it, I’ve lived here like a pauper- simply from hand to mouth. I’ve lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald. That was how you wanted it. You and Papa have committed a grievous sin against me: It’s your fault that I’ve made nothing of my life.” (Ibsen: 226)
Critics now argue that the plot outcome is highly unrealistic, and that Nora could never have developed in such a way, to suddenly go out and start a new life. But firstly, it was not really “her”, the child-wife, but a role she played in order to please others, and to reach what she wants. Yes, she could have stayed for the sake of the children, or for the families’ reputation, but that is simply not her: One could argue that she showed the ability to sacrifice herself by forging the signature of her father to save her husband. And indeed, this, and her efforts to pay the money back, shows how strong she actually can be. It is important now to recognize that she carried this out in the conviction to do the right thing in her position as loving and caring wife. She did not care about societies’ rules care back then- she neither does now. She is not making compromises, and as she was ever able to get what she wants- so she does now.
The important point is, that she suddenly realises how many illusions she had made herself concerning society and her husband, and that she, by acting the way everybody wanted her to act, was never able to develop an own identity as a human being. She claims her husband and her father to have forced her to play this roles, and therefore to make her dependent on them. She expresses this when confronting Torvald with: “You’ve never understood me. I’ve been dreadfully wronged.”(Ibsen: 225) She has no identity, and now seizes to gain one. This is her goal, which she is committed to fulfil now, and which does not leave any space in which she could listen to Torvald’s or societies expectations anymore. (“I can’t consider that. All I know is that it is necessary for me.” Ibsen: 227)
On one hand it does, indeed, show a good deal of egoism: She leaves her husband and children, which ruins her husband in the eyes of society and will make life hard for her children. But it has to be considered, that she thinks of her marriage as broken, and that she believes not to be any good for her children anyway. Torvald did not sacrifice his life for her, as she had expected him to do, and explains it with “no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.” Nora cannot accept that, and replies “Thousands of women have”: Nora is aware of the way women restrict themselves in order to serve husband and children but is not willing to act in the same way- not anymore.
And what should make her stay? What principles does she possess, what morals justify her stay? As she says herself, when she replies to Torvald’s question whether she possesses any morals “I really don’t know.” And yes, one might argue she is naive, and that she heads up towards a life, she has no idea of. But this is exactly what she wants; she wants to find herself, wants to develop her own moral knowledge (“I must try to get some experience, Torvald” Ibsen: 227). In contrast to the ignorance she had shown in the beginning of the play, she wants to learn now which shows clearly her character- development. That is the reason why she refuses any help from Torvald, as she wants to gain total independence and freedom, without tying her to his help.
And yes, she is a heroine, as she decides her self- respect, and her identity over the easier way, over luxury and comfort. Her comprehending, that she was never herself and that she will never find herself and be appreciated the way she really is if she continuous like this, makes her come to the unchangeable decision to leave home. She knows now, that they “must both be perfectly free.” (Ibsen: 231) in order to be equals. Only this way, she will be able to find her identity, to fulfil the “duty to myself” ( 228)
Ibsen makes a strong statement with his play, establishing the rights of women as “human beings”- before her “most sacred duties as wife and mother.” He emphasis the women’s need for freedom and self-determination, and even apologises the need to leave husband and children to find the own identity. Ibsen confronts the audience with a critic of the current state of affairs, and expresses that this “status quo” has to be changed. He does not, however, dismiss the women’s role as mother and wife, whereas he emphasis, that her rights as a human-being go first.