In the literary work A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, the protagonist, Nora, struggles to achieve her own personal freedom from a confining and oppressive situation. Written in 1879, A Doll’s House tells the story of a Norwegian housewife and mother who chooses to leave her husband and children rather than continue living in the “doll’s house” that her husband has built for her and expects her to stay in (Ibsen 3).
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Nora represents the females of her time, those who attempted to realize their dreams, ambitions, and sense of self direction during the heavily sexist social mores and parochial way of life that dominated much of the late 19th and early 20th century.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen exudes the pristine quality of a historical document in which no detail has been expunged, manipulated, or updated; it is very much a document of its time, and as such, give readers magnificent insight into long dead social and political eras, and how they affected the human beings on the ground that lived through them.
Historically, many critics and readers alike have made the assumption that A Doll’s House is best read as a feminist manifesto in dramatic form; however, Henrik Ibsen himself did not consider the play to be about the rights of women per se. Rather, Ibsen understood the play to be about human rights (Forward 25).
According to critic Stephanie Forward, Ibsen addressed a crowd of suffragettes in 1898, members of the Norwegian Women’s Rights League, and “asserted firmly that he was not a member of the league and had no conscious aim of creating propaganda when he wrote A Doll’s House” (Forward 25). Ibsen admitted “I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general” (Forward 25).
Nonetheless, the play is one of the first examples of a female protagonist that chooses to go forward on her own, without her children, and at the time of its premiere in Denmark, Nora’s action scandalized its audience. Appalled critics condemned Ibsen as an anarchist bent on abrading the fabric of society, and deemed his character Nora as “an unnatural woman for leaving her husband and children, because such behavior undermined and threatened the stability of society” (Forward 25).
The year before A Doll’s House hit the stage, Ibsen had observed in his journal that “a woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws flamed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view” (Forward 25).
In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the main character, Nora is not an intellectual, and spends no time scouring books or libraries or trying to make sense of her situation. She is not a suffragette, and does not follow any sort of political or social party, nor does she belong to any league of feminist minded women.
That said, Nora feels the injustice of her situation acutely. She bristles as her husband’s denigration of her intelligence when he “playfully” takes her by the ear and calls her his “same little featherhead” and “my little squirrel” (Ibsen 3). Nora experiences the double standard that exists between herself and Helmer, as evidenced herein:
HELMER: I would gladly work night and day for you, Nora – bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves.
NORA: It is a thing hundreds of women have done.
HELMER: Oh, you think and talk like a heedless child.
NORA: Maybe. But you neither think nor talk like the man I could bind myself to. As soon as your fear was over – and it was not fear for what threatened me, but for what might happen to you – when the whole thing was past, as far as you were concerned it was exactly as if nothing at all had happened…I was your little skylark, your doll…so…fragile.
Helmer – it was then it dawned upon me that for eight years I had been living here with a strange man, and had borne him three children – Oh! I can’t bear to think of it! I could tear myself into little bits! (Ibsen 112).
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Nora’s disillusionment resembles the “waking up” moment for women in similar oppressive situations, those of Nora’s time who realized they were locked in a role, locked in a doll’s house, with each move they made scripted by custom, sexism, and the implicit entitlement of a traditional marriage.
Ibsen ends the play with the powerful moment of Nora Helmer leaving her family home and closing the door firmly; in that action, she walks out on her husband Helmer and their three young children, and embarks on a life of her own, dedicated to discovering freedom on her own terms.
Women of the time who witnessed this moment in the play were profoundly moved by it: “How well I remember, after the first performance of Ibsen’s drama in London, with Janet Achurch as Nora, when a few of us collected outside the theatre breathless with excitement… We were restive and almost savage in our arguments. This was either the end of the world or the beginning of a new world for women. What did it mean? Was there hope or despair in the banging of that door?
Was it life or death for women? Was it joy or sorrow for men? Was it revelation or disaster?” (Forward 24). At the end of the play when Nora leaves, her step forward is one of revolution, and represents a firm and “revolutionary step forward for all the women of her time” (Forward 25)
Nora’s moment of enlightenment and her ensuing action is a breathtaking moment of personal freedom. As Forward explains, although “Nora does not know what the future will hold…she realizes that she requires space and freedom if she is to develop morally and spiritually. At the end of the play she resolves to withdraw from the game of Happy Families…and pursue her destiny, to be first and foremost a human being” (Forward 26).
In A Doll’s House, the moments of Nora’s quest for freedom detailed in this essay represent a classic work that reflected the honest experience of a protagonist caught in an oppressive social systems or political regime. As the protagonist, Nora’s struggle for personal freedom is unique to her situation and her marriage; yet, her defiance toward and ultimate rejection of the role assigned to her by her society remains the same for all oppressed souls.
Forward, Stephanie. “A New World for Women? Stephanie Forward Considers Nora’s Dramatic Exit from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.” The English Review (2009): 24-27. Web.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2005. Print.