“Marriages are made in heaven”- this was a popular belief that was cemented in every household of the Victorian society. Girls from their very childhood were moulded in a way that any sprout of individualism would droop before male heads, and they would consider the male version of truth as the absolute truth.
Norwegian playwright and theatre director Henrik Ibsen observed that, “Marriage, the relationship between man and woman has ruined the human race, set the brand of slavery on everyone.” His play A Doll’s House provoked the greatest storm of the nineteenth century in England.
A Doll’s House at its outset presents the protagonist, Nora Helmer as “the angel of the house” who is in the false belief of being in a happy marriage, with Torvald Helmer, the ideal husband. Nora grew under the love and care of a single guardianship, so her father only shaped her thoughts according to his own whims and fancies.
This parochial setup led her to grow only physically, but psychologically she remained as a doll child to play with. Unlike the liberated dolls like Barbie and Bratz; Ibsen uncovers that in reality, dolls do not get to exercise roles, according to their own free will. Nora of A Doll’s House is trapped in her own house, with the least, rather no human agency. Being old enough to be compatible for marriage, her father transfers her guardianship in the hands of Torvald.
Nora post marriage, begins to assume the shape of a doll which would charm Torvald. She would dress up in the clothes which he wants and she would practice dancing only when he told her to do so. She even fancies in “making the house nice and attractive and having things just as Torvald likes to have them”.
From the beginning, one finds Nora as a victim of Torvald’s infantilisation with his salutations like – “Is that my little skylark twittering out there?”. These demands, while camouflaged in soft, wooing tones of affection, place her somewhere between a pet and a child. She is conditioned to love and cares for her family with her whole heart, so much that she would sacrifice her honour or even her life for their sake.
Torvald wanted to have an aesthetic setup of a ‘prim and proper’ family which should not be muddled by counter protests or any ‘serious talks’. He considers Nora as an object of prized possession, and wants to bank upon her success so long as she glorifies him. She also initially likes to completely submit herself and be subjugated at the hands of her husband, as she belives that it would completely metamorphosize her into an object of perfection.
In the midst of all this, she neglects valuing her own self. The super abundant gift of marriage leading to a happy home is in reality a house of bricks, which can crumble down like a deck of cards on been given a gentle stroke. Torvald understates a woman’s worth of handling financial matters as they are ‘featherbrained’, and he often says, “Has my little spendthrift been out squandering money again?” But Nora utters in defense, “As a matter of fact I save everything I can”.
Her defense and self sacrificing nature of saving money, spending money only for her family and nothing for herself, falls short when Torvald accuses her of inheriting her spend thrift nature from her father. Moreover, Nora’s unflinching nature blinds her to his real nature.
The façade of Torvald being the vanguard of all Nora’s problems gets unveiled when a crisis takes place in the family. He says, “I’m man enough to take everything on myself”. She who never dared to take any decision or serious step without her husband’s permission, borrows money from his subordinate Krogstad and even risks her own life, by forging her father’s signature.
Nora does this in ignorance of Torvald as she says, “It would be terribly embarrassing and humiliating for him, if he thought he owed me anything”. And, at that time, her father is on the verge of death. So, she takes the shortest way out of the difficulty, to the entire satisfaction of the money lender, who could only be persuaded to lend money with her father’s promissory note.
She feels that the unjust laws and inhuman society should not come in the path of saving a person’s life. Little did the doll wife know that her belief upon Helmer as the messiah of all her problems, would turn blatantly wrong. When the cat is let out of the bag, Torvald who used to brag, “It’s the thought behind it that counts after all”, does not think twice to call Nora a “hypocrite, liar worse than a criminal… you will not be allowed to bring up the children, I can’t trust you with them”.
But Ibsen shows that Torvald himself behaves like a hypocrite when he gets a second letter from Krogstad, where the latter returns the note and then Torvald behaves like nothing happened at all – “I’m saved! Nora, I’m saved! … We’ll just rejoice and keep telling ourselves it’s over … it’s all over… I have forgiven you. I’ve forgiven everything.”
Torvald is an egoistic man, who is concerned only with his public face and out of his tremendous masculine pride, he demeans Nora and her attempt to save him. He subjugates her individualism and wants everything perfect. So when he realises that the black cloud of worries have passed, he says “I am saved” and not “We are saved”.
He even says, “You musn’t dwell on the harsh things, I said in that first moment of terror …I shall hold you like a hunted dove unscathed from the cruel talcons of the hawk”. This is where Nora gets to see the hollowness of Torvald’s nature and gets a good glimpse of the hypocritical nature of his love. This incident transforms the performing ‘song bird’ into a rational revolutionary.
Nora who used to say “I would never dream of doing anything, you didn’t want me to”, becomes resolute to abandon her happy home as she realises that she had been happy with the thought of being in happiness. She is not purely impulsive, but is shown to take a huge philosophical problem in hand and arguing it successfully, “Apparently a woman has not right to spare her old father on his death bed or save her husband’s life even.” “I’ve been greatly wronged, Torvald. First by my father, and then by you… I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Daddy’s doll child”.
The inexperienced doll resolves to embark on a journey to achieve the state of Blakean Tiger, and her husband is left staring at her, helpless, bound henceforth to do without her. He tries to restrain her saying, “You are betraying your most sacred duty … your duty to your husband and children”. She arises as a triumphant tragic character exclaiming, “I have another duty equally sacred… my duty to myself … I’ve never made anything of my life…I must take steps to educate myself”.
Through this transformation, Nora emerges from being a mere character to a symbol of social change. The act of slamming the door in the end marks a turning point in a society of Victorian morality with it strict social codes, to a society that values the independence of the individual above social duty and gender roles.
Ibsen also proves that in real life there is no miracle and the sacrifice of honour that thousands of women do for their love is disregarded by the patriarchal society as silly, trivial, nonsensical acts. We must recognise the systemic nature of oppression and its imposition of gender roles, and look at them reformatively.
Sampurna Chowdhury is a student of English Honours at the Gokhale Memorial Girls’ College, under the Calcutta University. She believes that learning literature opens the eyes of an individual, helping them to become a better human being. Her writings have been previously published in The Times of India under Student editions. She has also presented a paper in a National Seminar on ‘Modern Education’ and written for magazines, notably The LLP Magazine (The Summer Edition and Winter Edition). She may be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured Image: Emily Frazier