Ms. Nadia Abdallah
Exploring the Theme of Gender in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll House”
Henrik Ibsen’s play-in-prose, A “Doll’s House”, centres around the dysfunctional relationships between the characters. An exploration of this necessarily requires a closer look at how the playwright defines gender roles, (women and femininity, and men and masculinity), marriage, and gender conflicts. From the very beginning the readers are presented with a clear picture of the traditional roles of husband and wife in the Nineteenth Century. Ibsen defines these in the contexts of love, sacrifice, domination, freedom and handling of money and conveys them through interesting use of literary devices including alluding to the metaphor of the title itself “A Doll’s House” and gender-specific vocabulary.
Nora is unquestionably the prime example of the author’s notion of femininity. As a protagonist, she embodies all of the ideals attached to women at that time: she is a beautiful, delicate homemaker who is servile to her husband. Clearly Ibsen is referring to Nora in his title “A Doll’s House” where she is a painted, perfect and beautiful female. From the very beginning we learn that Nora has an obligation to keep a clean home and to listen wilfully to her husband. In sharp contrast, Torvald is depicted as the main masculine figure in the play. His masculinity is linked with his role as a husband and the breadwinner: Nora’s lord and master.
Bearing in mind the commonplace dominance of men in the Victorian Era, it is logical for the importance of the sacrificial role of women (in order to keep harmony and unity in a marriage) to be implied. The writer relays a crystal clear notion that women take on the role of the martyr and sacrifice motivated by love (whether it be parental love, spousal love, filial love or maternal love) for the benefit of others. The readers cannot overlook the doting relationship between Nora and her husband, which entails sacrifice and patience on her part. Her conversation with Mrs. Linde, for instance, shows how Nora plays the role of the dutiful wife who is concerned about sparing her husband’s feelings regarding money and not compromising his role as the provider: “And besides, how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything!”(Ibsen, 22) By referring to “his manly independence” Nora shows respect for his masculine ego and role as the breadwinner. Similarly, Ibsen sheds light on the sacrificial role of women towards parents and siblings. A prominent example would be Mrs. Linde who worked hard throughout her life looking after her bed-ridden mother and providing for her brothers, claiming: “I had to provide for my two younger brothers; so I did not think I was justified in refusing his [her husband’s] offer.” (Ibsen, 19) Moreover, in his portrayal of women as sacrificial figures in the family, Ibsen may appear to be elevating their status to heroines at the centre of family life.
The social status of men in this work is clearly much higher than that of women as expressed in the characters of Torvald and Krogstad. Both men exercise some financial dominance over Nora, although Torvald is also socially domineering. Torvald exemplifies the typical husband of the day; provider of the household and interacts with his wife in a condescending manner, as seen in his choice of name-calling. Prominent examples include: “squirrel” and “skylark”; seemingly weak, vulnerable, sweet, pretty, and amusing animals. In addition, he controls her natural habits and urges to the extent that he manipulates her behaviour and demeans her. He even goes as far as to forbid her from eating macaroons, by checking up on her: “Not been nibbling sweets?…Not even a macaroon or two?” (Ibsen, 14) Torvald’s financial and social control over his wife, Nora, alludes to the use of the word “doll” in the title referring to her as a puppet that is easily controlled. However, the financial matter that binds Krogstad and Nora, allowing him to exert his dominance over her is quite different; the lawyer blackmails her for forging a signature in the past. Fearing he may lose his job, Krogstad manipulates Nora by using mind games and bluntly threatens her to make her suffer some personal as well as legal consequences. (Ibsen, 34) As a result, her roles as wife and mother are at risk; indeed her very existence in life has been shaken.
Furthermore, the author clearly portrays women as diminutive individuals who are reduced to being submissive sexually to their possessive husbands. This is conveyed when Torvald claims to own his wife’s good looks, by boasting: “All the beauty that is mine, all my very own.” (Ibsen, 67) The playwright’s integration of words indicating possession such as “mine, own” serves to depict women as objects of amusement and not necessarily as spousal companions or equals. Once again, Nora is likened to a “doll” which gives Torvald visual, physical and materialistic pleasure. There also seems to be no evidence of an emotional tie between Nora and her husband. She regards her marriage as a mere contract rather than a spiritual union between man and woman in her reference to her decision to leave Torvald; “When a wife deserts her husband’s house…he is legally freed from all obligations towards her.” (Ibsen, 81) To add fuel to the fire, Torvald even goes as far as to call his wife “A hypocrite – a liar, worse, worse – a criminal” (Ibsen, 72) for concealing her actions from him, failing to realise that she did what she had to do in order to save his life. The readers notice that the element of intellectual motivation is missing from their daily interactions, since they have not had a proper conversation. Nora admits: “We have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.” (Ibsen, 76) Clearly, there is no concept of love attached to Nora whose role as wife seems to hold no emotional value to Torvald.
Not only is Nora’s role as a wife reduced to being that of a sexual object, but her role as a mother is minimised as well. It seems as though Nora has been stripped of her motherly responsibilities, to the extent that the maids take care of the children and “know all about everything in the house – better than [she does].” (Ibsen, 81) Interestingly, the ‘doll’ motif is extended to her own children who are dolls to her; she enjoys playing with them once in a while. Nora even asks the maid’s permission to hold her daughter, “the sweet little baby doll,”(Ibsen, 28) which implies the fact that her daughter is almost unreal, but rather something that is handled delicately with precaution in the same way a doll is handled by its owner. It is no wonder she is not portrayed as a dedicated mother if she herself is childishly competing for attention. She has been described on occasion as sneaking sweets into her pocket and lying about doing so, “No Torvald, I assure you really…I [Nora] should not think of going against your wishes.” (Ibsen, 14-15) In light of her child-like behaviour and tendencies, her vanity and the lack of responsibility assigned to her by her husband, it is no surprise that she is not functioning effectively to her best as a wife and a mother. Indeed, the tone of this play at the beginning is biased towards Nora and the readers sympathise with her and her husband’s condescending treatment of her. However, the tone changes later to being a more objective one and the readers start to empathise with other characters including Torvald. Perhaps his treatment of Nora can be viewed as sheltering her from responsibilities that may overwhelm her. If so, then his position is not regarded as one of control but perhaps seeking her best interest in fulfilling his role as provider.
Ibsen’s idiosyncratic technique of incorporating melodramatic devices serves to make the play more interesting. For instance, he integrates into the scene secret letters showing up to reveal Nora’s motivations for her financial actions and the roots of the conflict. (Ibsen, 72) He also introduces into the act the sudden rings of the doorbell at interesting times to bring unexpected revelations and, more so, trouble for the central character. (Ibsen, 73) In addition, Ibsen includes few characters on stage at a time, usually a male and female, in order to portray their interactions effectively and carry the plot forward.
As the play comes to a close, the readers necessarily question Ibsen’s main goal in writing this piece and his message behind the outcome of the play. The focal character of “A Doll’s House” gains sudden insight and strength and decides to leave her husband and children in order to challenge societal gender roles that are dictated for women so as to “make out who is right, the world or [herself].” (Ibsen, 79) Nora even rejects Torvald’s desperate plea when he suggests that they live as brother and sister in the guise of a marriage. (Ibsen, 80) Nora’s decision to leave Torvald and “stand quite alone if [she is] to understand [herself] and everything about [herself],” (Ibsen, 77) may be viewed as the playwright’s way of encouraging female emancipation and individualism to those who may find themselves in this social dilemma. One questions if Nora would have ever considered this decision had she been given a more pivotal role as wife and mother. Whether we choose to admire Nora for her courageous decision and wish her luck for the future or fear for her fate is left to the reader. One thing is for sure: Ibsen is challenging the readers to think about the social gender conflicts or decisions presented in this play and decide for themselves.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Clayton, Delaware: Prestwick House, 2006. Print.