Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’
It is Christmas Eve and the doll has told maids to hide the Christmas tree from the children until it is decorated and lighted up, and she is going to dress up and perform the Tarantella in the party as it is her master’s wish. On the day after Christmas she will leave, changed forever, no longer a doll, but as Nora, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora.
At the time when the play A Doll’s House was written, marriages were sacrosanct, women were meant only to look after their husband, children and the house, in return the husband was to provide her with everything that she needed for maintenance; a rich man was a good prospect of making a happy married life.
Nora – managing the Helmer House and all the maids, taking care of her three little children, jumping around like a squirrel for her husband, Torvald Helmer – is struck by a calamity and there is no one on her side to support her, not even her master, Torvald. When the time approaches for the miracle Nora very much hoped and dreaded for to happen, she is left with absolutely nothing in her life.
From the year 1879 when A Doll’s House was performed for the first time on the stage to the modern 21st century, this play has continued to be appreciated both by the academia and the audience. Free from the in-style verbose poetical soliloquies and with the woman as the central character, it was both a pioneering and a controversial play; pioneering for bringing the element of realistic drama in the theatre world which till then had been occupied with the historical romance and the thesis plays, and controversial for a woman behaving the way Nora did was unheard of, which is why Ibsen, on one occasion, had to present a leading actress with an alternate ending as she refused to act in the play as a woman who abandons her husband and children.
Many playwrights have also criticised the sudden awakening that Nora undergoes, which then gives her the strength to walk out; the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, questioned Nora’s decision to leave her children with a man whom she doesn’t trust any more.
But, with or without any flaws, Nora’s story has touched many hearts and has made it a timeless piece of work. Its simplicity, conversational tone and ‘the slamming of the door’ climax gives us a truly dramatic, cathartic and a classic three act play. If the change of heart that Nora’s character goes through in the third act is unacceptable and absurd, then it only magnifies the fact that A Doll’s House is an absolutely realistic work because reality is stranger than fiction.
The storyline moves and grows and evolves and complexes with every scene. Nora, shifted from her father’s doll’s house to her husband’s, from past eight years had been working to decorate it. She, Torvald’s little lark, little spendthrift, knows nothing but to be at her husband’s disposal, by thoughtless choice of course. Ivar, Emmy and Bob are Nora’s dolls with whom she happily plays and she is Torvald’s doll, whom she happily obeys.
Nora (goes to the table on the right): I shouldn’t think of doing what yon disapprove of.
Helmer: No, I’m sure of that; and, besides, you’ve given me your word. (Going towards her) Well, keep your little Christmas secrets to yourself, Nora darling. The Christmas-tree will bring them all to light, I dare say.
Uninformed and an act of love becomes unreasonable and an act of forgery for Nora Helmer; she took loan to save her sick husband and forged the documents because that was the only way out. Later when Krogstad present her with the facts, Nora replies,
“Do you mean to tell me that a daughter has no right to spare her dying father anxiety? That a wife has no right to save her husband’s life? I don’t know much about the law, but I’m sure that, somewhere or another, you will find that that is allowed.”
Krogstad is determined to reveal her secret and Nora is worried only for Torvald as she is sure he will take the blame for her sake and spare her any shaming. This is her fear for she knows Torvald would do anything in the world for her safety. What happens, though, is the stark opposite of this; Trovald is only worried about his own reputation and is even ready to bow and accept Krogstad’s demands. When Krogstad sends the IOU and apologies for troubling Nora, Trovald changes euphorically and assures Nora that everything is fine.
But nothing is fine for Nora as she finally sees herself; Torvald becomes a mirror for her and the quick personality shifts he presents her with, shatters the mirror altogether and a real view of things comes in forefront. Nora starts to question – question her life, her relationship with Torvald, her role as a mother, her understanding of what society teaches and what she wishes to learn. Torvald’s little lark realises that she can fly and she, thus, chooses to do so.
Helmer: Nora, can I never be more than a stranger to you?
Nora (Taking her travelling bag): Oh, Torvald, then the miracle of miracles would have to happen.
Helmer: What is the miracle of miracles?
Nora: Both of us would have to change so that… Oh, Torvald, I no longer believe in miracles.
Helmer: But I will believe. We must so change that…?
Nora: That communion between us shall be a marriage. Goodbye.
With A Doll’s House Ibsen had no intention to serve the women’s rights movement, rather it was to present the significance of individual responsibility, the importance of understanding oneself, ones’ purpose in life and then striving to achieve it.
By the end Nora is ready to take a stand for herself, without any fear of the society or her master, without her own fears and inhibitions, without any support, but only with a determined and awakened mind, heart to know about herself and her life. And this certainly is why A Doll’s House still charms its readers, after all, the field of studying oneself is not well explored and many discoveries, many inventions are yet to be made.
(A writer and SWA member who believes in and practices the art of perpetual storytelling. Reach her at email@example.com )