In most scholarly study of Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House,” the focus is on Nora and the ideals of feminism. Most of the arguments talk about how Nora has been oppressed by her husband and father. Although she has demonstrated herself to be an intelligent, resourceful, and loving woman, Nora is expected to behave like a spoiled child for the benefit of her ‘indulgent’ husband. The laws of her society prevent her from being able to do much on her own – she is not permitted to have a bank account or sign for loans on her own. That she does so must then become a secret that she is afraid will hurt Torvold rather than herself. Thus the arguments all talk about how Nora is trapped within an external definition of herself from which she must escape by the end of the play. However, when you look closely at the play, Torvold is also trapped within the definitions of a man in his society, expressing his love for his wife by allowing her to remain a child, and adhering to rigid standards of social behavior in order to raise his family right.
That Torvold actually loves his wife is made clear throughout the play, but he has been given only one standard behavior to demonstrate this love. In his society, the best way to love a woman is to provide her with everything she needs to be idle – the perfect dollhouse in which she can stay childlike. His attitude is expressed early in the play when he says, “Come, come, my little skylark must not droop her wings. What is this! Is my little squirrel out of temper? [Taking out his purse] Nora, what do you think I have got here?” (Act 1). His job as man is to keep his wife happy and he does so by ensuring she needs for nothing. As Katheryn Hughes (2015) discusses in her essay, middle class women were expected to be proficient in activities such as music, art, and singing, but not in practical matters such as housekeeping or accounting. By creating a world that looks like the social ideal, Torvold believed he was doing everything possible to love his wife the way he should.
As much as he loves his wife, Torvold also sees it as his duty to uphold the moral standards of his society. He prides himself highly on never having taken out loans or gone into debt in their married life: “No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt” (Act 1). This is a point of pride for him because it was often the only way a man could earn the hand of a ‘good’ woman. “A young man needed to be able to show that he earned enough money to support a wife and any future children before the girl’s father would give his permission” (Hughes, 2015). One of the reasons he can’t abide working with Krogstad any longer is because the man is sneaky and works out shady deals with people. He tells Nora, Krogstad “got himself out of it by a cunning trick, and that is why he has gone under altogether … Just think how a guilty man like that has to lie and play the hypocrite with every one, how he has to wear a mask in the presence of those near and dear to him, even before his own wife and children. And about the children – that is the most terrible part of it all, Nora” (Act 1). Torvold understands it is his responsibility to maintain the honor of the household in all matters outside the home. Then and now, “Society-enforced gender roles don’t only put women in boxes; men are even more locked in than women” (Ganahl, 2004). In outlining what is wrong with Krogstad, though, Torvold accidentally reminds Nora that it was the woman’s responsibility to uphold the morality of the household.
Within Victorian society, the middle class woman was supposed to be the Angel of the home, defending the family from the evils of the outside world and raising children who respected and upheld that same moral standard. Torvold clearly cares deeply about providing for his family, ensuring they have the best possible life. This is clear early in the play in his promotion at the bank, in his attitude toward Torvold, and in his reaction to Nora’s treachery later on, yet willingness to forgive. “You will still remain in my house, that is a matter of course. But I shall not allow you to bring up the children; I dare not trust them to you. To think that I should be obliged to say so to one whom I have loved so dearly, and whom I still–. No, that is all over. From this moment happiness is not the question; all that concerns us is to save the remains” (Act III). According to Hughes (2015), not only was it women’s “job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands laboured all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life.” In discovering that his own wife was corrupted in the same way as Krogstad, Torvold is shocked and dismayed, certain their life is over and there will be no way for him to redeem the good quality of the name he has worked so hard to create for his family. Ganahl (2004) says “Torvold is equally trapped in the archetype of the bread-winning male who is never allowed to display his vulnerability.” In Nora’s final decision of the play, he is also never given the opportunity to overcome or grow beyond this shock.
While readers of this play are not incorrect in seeing it as a play about women’s rights in Victorian society, they are missing half of the story. Throughout the play, Torvold can be seen to be as much a victim as Nora of the social expectations and gender roles that have been placed on him. Ibsen, cited in Ganahl (2004), once rejected the honor of being an early feminist, claiming instead that the play was instead about human rights. As such, Torvold’s story deserves greater understanding.
- Ganahl, Jane. “No one wants to be put in a gender box / ‘A Doll’s House’ about basic need, not feminism.” SF Gate. (January 25, 2004). Web. http://www.sfgate.com/living/article/No-one-wants-to-be-put-in-a-gender-box-A-2827603.php
- Hughes, Katheryn. “Gender roles in the 19th century.” Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. London: British Library, 2015. Web. http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century
- Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” Literature and its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. Ann Charters and Samual Charters. 5 th Ed. Boston: Bedford, 2010. Print.