In the play A Doll’s House, playwright Henrik Ibsen explores gender, social hierarchy and the plight of women’s inferior social status through the relationships of the play’s characters. Ibsen advocates women’s liberation throughout the play by using a variety of themes such as love versus duty and freedom versus power amidst the backdrop of patriarchal, male dominated 19th century society. Social distance is also examined through the placement of the actors and actresses on stage, which emphasizes a power differential between men and women. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen created a play that replicated contemporary society in the early 19th century, in hopes that the audience could relate to the power struggles that existed for women at the time.
The title A Doll’s House contains both positive and negative implications regarding femininity and prescribed gender roles. The negative implications are directed at Nora and are conveyed through the nicknames Torvald uses to address her. These nicknames invoke imposed roles of female fragility and inferiority. For instance, Nora is likened to a variety of petite birds, which again implicates a childlike, delicate and diminutive interpretation of her character. The nicknames Nora is constantly referred to are “my little sky-lark” (1), “my little squirrel” (2), “my little spendthrift” (2), “my little singing bird” (3), “my pretty little pet” (4), and “my little sweet-tooth” (5). The trappings of Nora’s life also contain negative implications because she lives in a controlled, artificial, puppetry, constricted, unreal, manipulated and cliché life. The use of the possessive noun ‘my’ emphasises the increasing power Torvald holds over Nora. Torvald is perceived as a concerned and protective husband but he controls Nora as if she were a daughter or a child. The possessive attitude Torvald has towards Nora indicates his perception of his wife. This childlike image inflicted upon Nora enhances her naivety, as she is only concerned with living up to her husband’s desires. The relationship is stereotypical of the time, where men of higher social position and power maintained their wives and men and women were expected to fulfill strict gender roles dictated by society. All of these aspects of the play’s content are alluded to in the title A Doll’s House.
In addition, Nora’s nickname, ‘sweet-tooth’ connects with her obsession over macaroons in the beginning of Act One. She secretly “takes a bag of macaroons out of her pocket and eats one or two; then she walks stealthily across and listens at her husband’s door” (1). This scene demonstrates the secrecy and apprehensiveness that Nora embraces in order to conceal her true character because according to her husband, eating macaroons is something she should not do. Later on, Torvald questions Nora “Didn’t go nibbling a macaroon or two?” and Nora responds: “No, Torvald, honestly, you must believe me…!” (5). Again, this shows Nora’s tendency to lie to Torvald, confirming her childlike behaviour but also illustrating the power that Torvald weilds over even simple actions. This suggests that Torvold assumes a parental figure over his wife and children’s eating habits. This is acceptable for children, as they need guidance, but not for his wife who is a grown adult. This is obviously an unhealthy dynamic between the two spouses. Their relationship is ideal in the sense that both characters fulfill their prescribed roles in society, however, they lack the qualities of a deep and equal relationship, which is built upon honesty and trust. This is later revealed in the play as Nora’s secret business with Krogstad and the unexpected money, which leads to her undoing. Ibsen explores the power versus freedom motif through the inferior-superior, child-parent dynamic between Torvald and Nora.
In contrast, Kristine Linde, embodies freedom and independence despite the fact that she leads a difficult and impoverished life. Kristine and Nora are cast as polar opposites. While Nora is privileged, childlike and whimsical, Kristine is practical, guileless and centered. Due to her privilege and sheltered life, Nora is insensitive to Kristine’s situation. Nora’s attitude toward Kristine portrays an inability to understand freedom because she is constantly taken care of by Torvald or other superiors. Yet, she is aware of inferior status, and instead of connecting with Kristine on this, Nora fails to make the connection. In the end of the play, however, she realizes this and confronts Torvald regarding the farce of their marriage. This dynamic emphasises the social and gender roles between women and men in modern society as men are expected to control the household, and women are expected to persevere with the responsibilities of reproduction and domestic duties.
The theme of love versus duty is clearly seen in the relationship between Krogstad and Mrs. Linde. Kristine’s previous affair and real love for Krogstad was usurped by the duty she felt to marry her husband and fulfill societal roles. On Mrs. Linde’s side, she steadily serves her family and lets propriety guide her actions. Mrs. Linde manifests an independent figure, one that opposes the typical role of a woman in society. She is a widow and only concentrates on work “Well, I had to fend for myself…they can look after themselves” (11). This suggests that Mrs. Linde believes it is her duty to work for and provide for someone else, not only herself. Instead of marrying her husband for love, she married for duty and obligation. Even her relationship to work is duty bound and for her family, which contradicts the domestic maternal role of the time period. Later on, the stage directions suggest Mrs. Linde is anxious as she “(stands up restlessly)” (13). The restlessness suggests the urge and desperation to fulfill her duties to earn a living and support her family. Act III is the culmination of Kristine’s admittance of the sacrifice she made earlier in her life when she broke off her relationship with him: “it was my duty also to put an end to all that you felt for me.” From that moment Krogstad was a “shipwrecked man” who never fully recovered from the heartbreak. Also, Mrs. Linde discusses the rationale for her behavior and thinking: “I have learned to act prudently. Life, and hard, bitter necessity have taught me that.” Kristine broke with Krogstad in order to marry a more financially stable man not one that she loved. This shows not only how duty-bound she was to follow societal norms on marriage but also her inferior status as a woman because she was not free to marry who she loved.
Krogstad is another character that also illustrates duty and self-imposed obligations. Krogstad’s business with Nora is to build a positive relationship for himself again as he states, “I had to do something…back into the mud” (26). Here Krogstad indicates his attempt to improve himself and his reputation in society, and is clearly motivated to do so, however, his methodology to improve are clarified as immoral; especially for Nora. His anxiety to fulfill his duties is clearly seen again through his threats towards Nora “If I get thrown into the gutter for a second time, I shall take you with me” (50). The relationship between Krogstad and Nora is another example of gender hierarchy and the power versus freedom motif. Krogstad is using the power he has over Nora to blackmail her in the hopes of attaining more financial freedom. He has the power to make threats and scared Nora into following his orders. However, society ultimately finds them both guilty of committing forgery, and does not treat them different due to their gender.
Furthermore, Nora’s indiscretions are a product of the tension generated from the struggle between power and freedom. She uses deceit as a subtle form of subverted power over her husband. For example, she continues to assure Torvald with lies such as “I would never dream of doing anything you didn’t want me to” (5). While Nora may feel torn between her duty as a wife and her family responsibilities, she desires to cast off her inferior status. However, she does so selfishly and imprudently. At the end of Act One, she realises what her actions have caused, “(pale with terror). Corrupt my children…! Poison my home? (Short pause; she throws back her head.) It’s not true! It could never, never be true!” (34). Nora is also excited by the chance of independence, as she confronts Mrs. Linde “But it was…being a man” (16). The idea of being independent and working excites her, which shows the limitations women have in modern society, and how they may be deprived from doing what they want without being accepted in society.
In Act II, Nora’s character evolves from being entirely childlike and frivolous to a more thoughtful, future oriented thinker as the reality of her crime sinks in. She reveals her crime to Mrs. Linde who responds in a logical fashion, but Nora is beside herself with what to do. In the final scene of Act III, Torvald confronts Nora about the loan which he finds out from Krogstad’s letter. At first he tirades, and belittles her, but when Krogstad’s second letter arrives saying he has returned the money, Torvald forgives his wife. In this moment, Nora realizes that her husband’s love is conditional and superficial. This is the final impetus for her to declare her freedom, and she leaves her husband and family to go find herself. Torvald’s shock and disbelief illustrates how severe members of 19th century society could react when someone broke out of their prescribed gender roles. The love she has for Torvald is almost artificial corrupted by lack of trust and honesty. However, she is torn by the duty she feels and sees Torvald as a symbol of her growth as a woman according to society’s measure. In Act III, the farce of their marriage becomes evident to Nora and she lucidly declares that: “During eight whole years we have never exchanged one serious word about serious things.” This signifies a turning point in her awareness and desire for something more substantial. Throughout the play, Nora’s desire for freedom grows until she comes to a crossroads in herself. She can either stay in her superficial marriage and shell of a life, or she can strike out on her own and “find herself.” Thus, she is forced to do the only thing she can, which is abandon her family and husband.
In conclusion, the themes of love versus duty, and power versus freedom are woven throughout Ibsen’s work A Doll’s House. They are especially prominent in Nora and Torvald’s relationship, Krogstad’s blackmail of Nora, and Krogstad and Mrs. Linde’s prior relationship. One exception to Torvald and Nora’s stereotyped relationship is Kristine, who represents an alternative female role model and epitomises independence, logic, and rationality which are qualities commonly attributed to men. Lastly, Ibsen offers rich social commentary on society’s expectations of acceptable female and male roles, and the social constraints placed on women of the time.