When I first looked at the title of Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece, "A Doll House", I thought this must be a comedy. But to my surprise, and to Ibsen's audience surprise, this play is a tragedy. As we all know, dolls' houses are one of the children's favourite toys, where beautiful dolls like Barbie and Ken are "living in". So why did Ibsen name his tragedy "A Doll's House"? That is because the doll's house is a prison constructed on patriarchy. The dolls are obviously men and women who are forced to perform acts of gender. We have been performing these for so many years that we come to believe.
In "A Doll's House", Nora demonstrated the perfect Victorian roles of a lovely daughter, devoted wife and caring mother. She was also a charming dancing figure and was regarded by her husband Torvald as his "joy and pride". All she did was what the male-dominant society expected. Under the "protection" of her father and husband, Nora became a delicate, childish and "care free" housewife. She even seemed to be delighted with her husband calling her with animals' names.
However, Nora is not a "perfect doll". She had a thoughtful reservation far exceeding that of a child bride. At the beginning of the play, Nora rebelled against Torvald by eating the "forbidden" macaroons. Then, without Torvald knowing it, Nora had forged her father's signature to borrow money so that she and her husband could spend a year in Italy. This trip to a warm climate was important to preserve her husband's life. Therefore, Nora considered the success as something as something she can be "proud of". In order to repay Krogstad, Nora worked as a copier. Instead of being tired of it, she thought, "it was really tremendous fun and almost like being a man" (Ibsen, 162). Her wishes for money from Torvald to repay Krogstad and flirt with Dr. Rank also reveals that she is not as naive as she seemed to be.
So why did she act as a songbird, a skylark and a squirrel?
According to Ibsen's "Notes for a Modern Tragedy", " a woman cannot be herself in modern society. It is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess female conduct from a male standpoint" (Berman, 591). What is feminine is created by men because female are inferior to male in the patriarchal social hierarchy. Women are considered to be less intelligent, less career-interested, more appearance conscious and emotional insight than men. This is exactly what Nora performed to the social audience. In the Victorian era, women were judged in terms of purity and domesticity. The clinging-vine personality in women prevailed in the society. Women should be modest, virtuous and sweet. They should also be weak and be dominated by strong men. Thus, typical housewives obviously had a higher social status than working women like Mrs. Linde, who were considered miserable. Nora was obviously playing the former. Although she displayed her discontent by insisting on how happy her married life was, she didn't want to lose her peaceful life because she was not fully aware of what she represented in the patriarchal society.
Apart from female, there are roles for men to play in the society. Men are suited to political, economical and intellectual roles. They are expected to be strong, active, and to be a role model to the society. Torvald was trying to play this role, but he did not succeed. On the surface, Torvald was a stereotyped Victorian man. He was powerful man and a typical 'master of the house'. He had a secure job and a happy family. He was also a moral, emotionally distant and tasteful person. Nonetheless, his illness, his unreasonable worries about being killed in accidents and his anger towards Krogstad who called his Christian name implies that he was a fragile, coward and small-minded. Therefore, Torvald failed to play the "masculine" role of a 'sturdy oak'. He was only a hypocrite who wanted to show off his 'happy family life'. However, after he came to know Nora 's crime, he tried hard to maintain his image of being the lord of the house. He didn't want Nora 's fault to ruin his role of a respectable man, which he played throughout his life.
If the line between man and woman is drawn so clearly, what will happen if
man (woman) tries to take one step over woman's (man's) field? In A Doll's
House, Ibsen tried to provide another perspective on gender performance by
the couple- Mrs. Linde and Krogstad. Mrs. Linde was trying to play a more
'masculine' role while Krogstad tried hard to play the 'feminine' role. Mrs.
Linde was a clever woman. Although she was a widow, she had run a shop, opened
a small school and looked after her family at the same time. She did what
only men could do at her time. Despite this, in the patriarchal world, a woman's
family happiness and appearance were valued more than her intelligence. Since
Mrs. Linde had lost her husband and had to work alone to earning her living,
her face became worn-out. Thus, in spite of her hard working, Mrs. Linde was
still regarded as a poor woman. Therefore, in the end, she reunited with Krogstad
and failed to break the gender stereotypes. Krogstad' s life was also similar
to Mrs. Linde' s. Krogstad had tried hard to play his 'feminine' role as a
caring father. Although he had forged documents and blackmailed Nora, he only
wanted the money to provide his children with a better life. However, despite
his effort, Krogstad failed to do what is supposed to be a woman's job and
this job was given to Mrs. Linde.
As people continuously failed to fight against the patriarchal ruling, it further intensifies gender inequality and the imprisonment of a person. For example, Torvald, the patriarchal symbol had showed his pride towards the people with a lower social status, especially for women throughout the play. His cold attitude towards the widow, Mrs. Linde and his conception of Nora as his skylark implies that women were expected to be subservient than men in all walks of life. Torvald also separated his life with Nora' s by hiding in the study and not to discuss serious matter with her because didn't considered Nora as a human but a pet. Women only play the role of mothers, sex objects and domestic workers. No women were active outside of the family domain. Working outside the home became tantamount to prostitution. Thus, Torvald had never thought that Nora would leave the doll's house.
In the last act, however, Nora finally realized that her father and husband had been playing with her like a doll. She had sacrificed "herself" to please these two men and the male-dominant society. Despite she didn't know where she was heading when she slammed the door, she was determined to establish her own identity and to live with respect.
I am not supposed to guess what will happen to Nora after she left the doll's house, but what would be happened to her is definitely not as good as we hope. It is because many men and women are still playing Torvald and Nora in this 21st century. We are bounded to play our gender roles as we are being socially pressured. Beliefs and attitudes about characteristics and activities appropriate to men and women still exist. Cultural practices tend to exclude women from the public sphere and confined them into the "doll's house". For example, girls should be playing with dolls (in the house), while boys should be playing with cars (traveling outside). This gender stereotypes are fed from the moment they are born. That's why we are still under the shadows of Torvald and Nora. Although many women have been very successful in "masculine" fields such as business, law and government, while many men are now good helpers at home, it does not necessarily means that the performance of gender will end. What is important to us is to have a firm assertion of our rights to be ourselves. It is also the basics of gender equality. If we continue to pretend what is being socially expected, we will be locked in the doll's house with the ghosts of Torvald and Nora hanging around.
Ibsen, H., A Doll's House and Other Plays The Penguin Group May 1976
Barnet, S., Berman, M. and Burto W. Types of Drama Plays and Essays Scott Foresman and Company 1989
Miller, J.Y. The Heath Introduction to Drama Houghton Mifflin Company 1996
Shafer, Y. Henrik Ibsen: Life, Work and Criticism York Publisher 1983