A Doll’s House is available to read on Project Gutenberg’s website.
Trigger Warning: This play is primarily about a toxic marriage and emotional abuse by a husband to his wife. It includes continuous yelling that comes out of nowhere and occurs for several minutes, gaslighting, and other forms of emotional abuse.
I recently saw A Doll’s House for the first time at Grove City College. This is a well-written play and I would highly recommend watching it. The actors at Grove City College were phenomenal and they really captured the drama and characters well. I am including spoilers for the play in my review, so if you don’t want to know, well, almost everything, I would stop reading after this paragraph.
Now, onto the review.
Before I went to see this play, I looked it up to see what it was about, and I was slightly surprised that Grove City College chose to cover a story about a Norwegian woman struggling in her marriage and a male-dominated society. Considering the ending, I was even more surprised that they chose to put it on.
The ending my college chose also is not the remade ending, but some details were changed. For example, there are no child actors in this play, likely because we are college students, and the couple’s children are only referenced. But other than that, the play is pretty much the same show that was and still is extremely controversial.
I read the director’s note, which was written by director and professor Dr. Betsy Craig, and I realized that my assumption was completely wrong. This play is more connected to Grove City College than I thought was possible. The author, Henrik Ibsen and A Doll’s House are drawn and written on the stained glass windows, among other famous intellectual figures, in Crawford auditorium. Ibsen is considered the father of modern drama, so it makes sense that he is included in this list.
I also learned by reading the director’s note that Ibsen did not intentionally write a feminist play. He was invited to a meeting with his wife for the Norwegian League for Women’s Rights, but he told them didn’t know what the women’s rights movement was even about. Craig says Ibsen said that the problem meant to address in A Doll’s House was: “True enough, it is desirable to solve the women problem, along with all others; but that has not been my whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity.”
Typical of a man, I think, to reduce half of the populations lack of rights and ability to make important decisions for themselves into the phrase “the women problem.” But of course, his point proves that the troubles of women are universal and necessary for us to acknowledge, as members of the human race. Isben didn’t address the women’s suffrage movement, but his play this play broke barriers, nevertheless. Some audiences were outraged, and alternative endings and rewrites were required.
Ibsen perhaps unintentionally tells us the message that we need to hear. That women’s rights are the rights of the humanity. He sees Nora’s plight not just as a “woman’s problem”, that only concerns the “feminists”, but a problem that humanity as a core holds, and that problem too, should be addressed and put on center stage.
Nora’s feeling of entrapment is attributed to the patriarchy, and her concerns are validated. The play shows the brokenness of a system that desperately needs mending and it doesn’t end with complete brokenness. Dr. Craig even notes in the director’s note that the play ends on a hopeful note.
There is hope for the audience–for us to listen to Nora, Torvald, and the people around them and to empathize and understand them. There is hope for us to learn to listen to others and understand what they’re going through rather than assume.
I’ll say now that I can’t completely hate Torvald. His actions are inexcusable. He insults, objectifies, and treats his wife, Nora, terribly. His shift from anger and blame to begging for forgiveness is shocking. He is self-centered and doesn’t attempt to understand anyone around him. But no one has told him that he needs to understand anyone else. Torvald is a man with power and he feels like his wife should serve his every need.
He is part a product of a time where men and women lived in different spheres. He is allowed to diminish Nora and call her a “songbird” and “a child.” Such terms are romanticized and celebrated. Torvald is considered what is called a successful man. The culture was fine with reducing your spouse to a child and creature that exists to give you joy and music.
Money and forgery
Nora’s forgery is a dumb mistake that drives the plot. It is also a result of not educating women on finance. Nora’s decision to forge her father’s signature on a loan, and then accidentally dating it after he already died, is what drives the conflict in the story. But the problem goes deeper than that.
At the beginning of the story, Torvald berates her for not managing money well, but he doesn’t know she’s paying off a loan that saved his life. As a woman, she can’t even take out a loan without a man’s signature according to the law. She is also forced to keep this a secret, because her husband doesn’t want to take out loans. Dude, your life is at stake, let down your pride for a second…man…
The major obstacle is the patriarchal society that refuses to allow women to manage their own money. Nora is utterly unable to manage money herself, and if she could, none of this would have happened in the first place.
I want to talk about Mrs. Linde for a moment.
Mrs. Kristine Linde
Mrs. Linde is a fascinating character. I think without her, much of the message of this play could be lost. She too is a woman living in a world where women are treated as secondary.
She often tells Nora that she is older, that she has had life experience that Nora hasn’t had yet. She has worked her entire life. She never got to be a wife supported by her husband, who she married to pay to take care of her mother instead of love, and she has no family. Her husband ended up dying and leaving her a poor widow. When she returns to see Nora, it has been ten years since the two have stayed in touch.
Mrs. Linde isn’t the idealized working woman. Nora tells Mrs. Linde that must be so much better than Nora’s, but Kristine responds:
“No, indeed; I only feel my life unspeakably empty. No one to live for anymore.”
She has been doing manual work and hopes for an office job. She has few friends and family. I think it is important to note that we can’t exist on work alone, we need people, desperately, in our lives. Life is not filled by financial autonomy, although I’m sure Kristine appreciates that she will no longer have to worry about money.
But when we look at the ending, it is unclear whether or not Kristine will stay in touch with Nora. We don’t know if she has any friends to spend time with and survive her.
I suppose this leads me to wonder, does Mrs. Linde love Nils Krogstad? She initially talks with him to help distract him from Nora, and then she decides she wants to be with him because she’s loathes being alone. I can’t help but wonder if she really does want to be with him romantically. Does she, or is she terrified of feeling empty and he is there? I’m not sure.
As much as I question, I do hope they found a way to be happy together.
I’m not sure what else to say about Dr. Rank except that I feel sorry for him. I wonder what would have happened if he had lived or if Nora had fallen in love with him instead. It was sweet of him to admit that he would make sacrifices for her before he died. It shows she has options too, that Nora has options, that care for her isn’t reduced to Torvald. He also shows how unfair the world is and how in different circumstances it could be better. His story ends unfairly; Mr. Rank, a kind person, dies while Torvald lives.
II wonder about Nora’s ending. She decides to leave and start a new life, but she has no one. Her children are left behind, and she doesn’t have anyone who cares for her. I’m going to dive into the children in a bit, but I’m going to look at Nora’s speech first. One interesting thing I noticed was the religion and religious language in the play.
Religion and religious language in the play
A doll’s house touches on religion, Christianity, and relates to it as a moral system. The story interestingly takes place during Christmas. Nora also keeps a lie for three days, a notable number in the Bible. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not. But, while the characters decorate the tree and dance around, there are no, at least outwardly devout, Christians in this play. Torvald accuses Nora of a lack of religion when she is leaving him, saying that she has “no religion, no morality, no sense of duty.”
Nora’s father was a Christian, but she personally never claims to follow his faith. Torvald doesn’t mention his own faith, so it is unclear whether he is a practicing Christian or not. It doesn’t seem like it. Also, Torvald is betraying his duties as a husband to love his wife as himself. So, he’s not one to talk–at all.
But he does, idiotically, use her father’s Christian faith to argue for Nora’s place in the home while doing nothing to acknowledge his own failure as a husband.
“Can you not understand your place in your own home? Have you not a reliable guide in such matters as that?—have you no religion?”
Christianity is used justify the wife’s place in the home and judge Nora’s decision to leave, but little else. Nora it seems also does not know much about religion, she says she was told things by a clergyman, but she feels little to have any personal connection to his statements.
She says that she wants to think it out for herself, when she is alone. Nora’s arguments show her reasoning out how she understands the world for herself. She is also humble, she admits that she does not understand the world fully and that she plans to learn in the future. All while she processes this, Torvald insists she doesn’t know anything and is being a child. But he’s wrong. She is growing in understanding and self-awareness. She is realizing what it means to be an adult and can make moral and ethical judgements for herself. Her husband fails to recognize his own problematic behavior and goes on to invalidate her feelings.
Nora leaves because life with him is always a life under a man’s thumb. She is being suffocated under his objectification of her. This argument erupts into the truth about Nora. That she as an individual has a complex life, a spiritual, emotional, and political life that deserves to develop and grow without just extending from the men around her.
Now, if she were a married woman without children, the story might be simpler. Marital counseling also was not common at the time, and even then, I’m not sure if her husband would agree to go.
I’ll also note that this story supports marriage as an institution, Nora says that her relationship to her husband would be “real wedlock” if he changed. The part where she leaves her children is a part I do struggle with, but it is necessary for us to remember that neither of these characters are perfect. I don’t see Nora’s decision as a call for all mothers who feel like Nora to leave their kids behind in search for financial success and independence. If there is a husband who is capable of change, marriage can be made right. But this isn’t Nora’s situation.
Nora’s Decision to Leave her Husband and Children Behind
Nora made a decision to leave a toxic marriage, and she leaves knowing that the children would be in good hands. She doesn’t not care about her kids at all.
For example, in the script, which I found on Project Gutenberg, there is a scene where Nora sees her children. Nora talks to them after they have played outside:
“How fresh and well you look! Such red cheeks like apples and roses. [The children all talk at once while she speaks to them.] Have you had great fun? That’s splendid! What, you pulled both Emmy and Bob along on the sledge? —both at once?—that was good. You are a clever boy, Ivar. Let me take her for a little, Anne. My sweet little baby doll!”
Nora clearly loves her kids, and cares about them. The play I watched didn’t include the children as characters. Either way, I don’t think that Nora wanted to leave her children.
One argument that I thought of, admittedly before I actually watched the play, was that Nora could take her children with her and leave them Torvald behind. Looking at the play now, this is not an option, considering that first, Torvald would never to allow Nora to take their children from him. Second, if Nora chose to take them with her, she would be desolate and would be putting innocent kids into poverty.
Torvald has the money and resources (and nannies) to provide for the children financially at the very least.. The situation can be awful in any case. It sounds like Nora is unlikely to return to them, but we don’t know. I’m not saying that this completely justifies her decision, but it explains her reasoning.
If she were to try to make it work with Torvald, he would have to be open to really listening to her and treat her not just an object, but a human being with feelings and emotions as complex as his own. I’m not a marriage counselor, but I’m not sure if they could have worked it out on their own. Perhaps if a real marriage counselor were available at the time perhaps they could make it work or perhaps they would separate anyway. Considering the way Torvald insults to her at the end, I am leaning toward the latter.
He never appreciates her as a person or her abilities. After all, she took a huge risk to save her life.
When Nora tells Torvald that she is leaving him, she says that there will be freedom on both sides when she leaves him. Neither have any obligation to the other. She needs to cut ties because she knows he will try to rope her back the moment he even gives her an inch. She also knows that her children will be taken care of in this house.
You could say she’s being irresponsible, that she is thinking for herself alone. I’m not sure we have to agree with her choice, and we also have to remember that Nora is a victim of emotional abuse and she is escaping a this situation and intense pressure in the only way she knows how.
I also don’t think Nora will experience self-actualization and a perfect life outside of her marriage. Mrs. Linde, after all, works for herself but has no one. Nora’s decision, while perhaps preferable, is not ideal. Nora faces isolation and the same emptiness that Mrs. Linde feels by deciding to walk away. Perhaps she will find happiness and community somewhere, but that’s not the main point of the story. Nora’s decision is objectively risky, but she still feels like she cannot make any other choice.
In a society where women are objects without rights, Nora rebels. The system crushes her and she abandons responsibility to a world that belittles and refuses her dignity as a person. In all honesty, the ending is uncomfortable, but I’m not just uncomfortable with a mother, who has been shown to love her children, leaving them indefinitely.
I’m uncomfortable with her husband’s objectification of her, and his dismissal of her individuality, growth, and personhood. I’m uncomfortable with a patriarchal society that reduces women to their physical appearance, and their purpose to serving men and their needs. I’m uncomfortable with a world that only offers men the ability to grow as individuals, provide financially for themselves, and understand the world and their place in it. I’m uncomfortable with a society that only expects them to be mothers and wives and expects them to always comply without receiving any respect.
This is an amazing play. The dialogue is great and it is full of emotional depth. Henrik Ibsen is the father of modern drama for a reason, and I’m glad I saw his work in person.
Today, the message is still relevant and it is important to remember. A Doll’s House inspires empathy, for Nora, Dr. Rank, Mrs. Kristie, and Torvald. It reminds us of the necessity understanding each other and realizing that our view of the world is not universal and that just because we are happy with the way things are doesn’t mean they are right. We understand Torvald’s position without defending him. Maybe we even see ourselves in his viewpoint, in his complacency, in his unwillingness to listen.
Perhaps most importantly, Nora express that she is not happy with the male-dominated society, her expected role in it, and the man that she’s supposed to love. I don’t expect Nora to be perfect, and I appreciate her watching the play and really listening to what she says, we give her the same right that everyone deserves, the right that her husband and society deny her. The right to make choices, to think for herself, to share a different perspective, and ultimately, the right to be human.
I think, that is why I’m glad to have seen this play and to see A Doll’s House and Henrik Ibsen on the Crawford windows.
Have you seen or read A Doll’s House? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments below!