The Drama of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is Contained Equally in that which is Hidden, Disguised and Suppressed as it is in that which is Revealed
Henrik Ibsen possesses the ability to condense an entire theme into a tight logical construction and it is this ability which provides the drama with its plausibility. The characters have already been moulded by unconscious social mores prior to the play commencing. It is because of, and within this unawareness that the hidden, the disguised and the suppressed emotions dance the tarantella of anxiety. In particular, A Doll’s House focuses on the difficulty and the negative ramifications of playing the socially ascribed feminine gender role. Nora is the doll – moulded and placed in the house to play her part. The title encapsulates a toy with which a child might play; a society in miniature; for Nora, a mental prison. We are looking from the outside into the doll’s house. The opening scene describes ‘A comfortable room, furnished inexpensively but with taste.’ It is a homely and tranquil scene. It seems idyllic but look closer, Ibsen is conveying that the individuals are socially manufactured – they wear a social veneer covering who they really are.
A summary of the situation is that Nora once secretly borrowed money by forging her father’s signature in order to pay for a trip abroad to save her ailing husband’s health. The loan was made by Krogstad [who works with Nora’s husband at the bank]. The dilemma arises when Nora’s husband is made manager. He plans to give Nora’s acquaintance, the young widow, Mrs Linde, the post that Krogstad wanted. Krogstad then places Nora in a situation of blackmail; the former insists that the latter persuades her husband to at least ensure that Krogstad keeps his ‘subordinate’ position at the bank. If Nora and her husband do not ensure that Krogstad remains, he will tell the truth about the borrowed money and forged signature. Nora becomes full of dread.
She is preparing for Christmas. She wants everyone to be happy. She conceals her inner fears - tries to ride over them.Torvald Helmer, Nora’s husband, refers to her as his little skylark, his little squirrel, his sweet tooth, his little featherbrain. She cannot even have a sweet when she likes. She has been ‘naughty’ eating macaroons. The macaroons provide Nora with comfort but also serve as a sort of inner defiance. Helmer treats her like a child:
It’s a sweet little bird but it gets through a terrible amount of money. You wouldn’t believe how much it costs a man when he’s got a little song bird like you.
Nora colludes with Helmer’s image of her because she feels dependent and a need to please him. [I wouldn’t do anything that you don’t like!]. She does not possess any financial independence. Passed from father to husband and ostensibly socialised into her ascribed gender-role as a demure, middle class carer and appeaser, Nora has no autonomy. She does not know who she is because she has never been provided with the opportunity to find out. All she can do is play the part expected of her in the marriage in order to secure her survival. In many ways, she is an adult-child, although not lacking in intelligence. Like many women, particularly in the era when Ibsen was writing, ‘a good husband’, a cosy but not extravagant home, is probably something Nora had always dreamed of. At face value, domestic bliss is something the setting depicts aptly. Nora is tender and romantic. She is not at all selfish. Her need to feel safe and secure is more profound because she lost her mother in childhood. Throughout her life, as mother, wife and daughter, Nora has felt obliged to practice self-deception and to conform to the masculine ideal of femininity. She believes in the rightness and reality of the child-life she leads in the doll’s house. She expresses to Torvald:
Now that you’re going to earn a big salary, you’ll have lots and lots of money.
Money compensates and prevents Nora from facing the reality that resides in her shadow. Lots and lots is childlike language. She knows that this way of talking is what Helmer likes. Denying her intelligence, she complies in her determination to play up to Helmer’s image of her. Some critics state that there is something quite disturbing about an adult male having an adult-child as a wife and something equally disturbing about an intelligent woman colluding in such a role. We know why Nora colludes but why does Helmer want to infantilise his wife by using patronising language? It provides him with a sense of masculine power, yes, but the fact that she is a sexual partner makes the relationship tantamount to a sort of child abuse despite Nora’s chronological age. We are initially uncomfortable with this view and do not want to acknowledge it. Are the couple conscious of it? Is this what Ibsen was trying to convey? However, we later note the way Nora plays with Torvald's waistcoat buttons. Perhaps he could not cope with a sophisticated, educated woman who possessed self-awareness because this would pose a threat to the foundations on which he has built his ideas. More specifically, a woman who possessed self-awareness would cause him to face the reality of his own social conditioning.
When she cannot obtain money from her husband Nora ‘goes over to the stove’ [for comfort] and sulks. Is the squirrel sulking? Helmer asks. Nora is eyeing his wallet. She is not stupid. She plays the game in a shrewd sort of way. When her husband gives her a wad of money is seems to cure her feigned dejection causing her to exclaim: Oh thank you Torvald, thank you! which reinforces his sense of himself as being in control. But notice how Nora is actually in control here. She uses what might be rather disparagingly called ‘feminine wiles’ in order to get what she wants. This is the way the pair relate to each other. She plays right into Helmer’s hands in exchange for her ‘keep’.
Nora’s obsession with obtaining money from her husband is due to the fact that she needs excess in order to help repay the loan to Krogstad but it is also her anxiety that precipitates her shopaholicism. She also wants money and acquisitions for her family in order to show her affection, keep them distracted and to cushion her feelings of guilt.
At the beginning of the drama, the stage directions point to the Christmas tree being at the centre of the stage. The tree is central to the play. Christmas is a holy and family festival mainly devoted to the happiness of children and family stability. It is the symbol of security. We see the tree long enough for it to suggest ideas of this kind but then the maid takes it away. It reappears after Nora has experienced the blackmailing forces at work which threaten her domestic world, where it is placed to the side or in the corner, symbolic of Nora’s disintegrating equilibrium. She dreads every knock at the door. To Nora, someone being at the door is much more than a nuisance. She is full of dread.
The stage directions indicate that Nora is always on edge. She listens ‘cautiously’ at doors, especially Torvald’s. She hums and ‘twitters’ in order to create the impression that everything is fine. She seeks solace by going to the warmth of the stove. Helmer ,with his parent to child mentality ‘takes [Nora] playfully by the ear’. Nora, fulfilling her role, does not look directly at Torvald but plays ‘ with his waistcoat buttons’ rather like a child but with deliberate sexual connotations. She is certainly aware of what she is doing here:
Ah if only you knew what expenses we skylarks and squirrels have, Torvald,
Nora expresses that with an air of cynicism. Helmer ‘wags a finger’at his’ little sweet tooth’ again, treating her as a five-year-old. He calls her ‘a scatter brain’. Ironically, Nora does become rather scattered due to her increasing dissipation. It becomes increasingly difficult for her to play her lifetime habit of adapting her real self to Torvald’s image of her. Such a manifestation is trying to enter Nora’s consciousness. Her attempts at suppressing it contribute to her breakdown. When Ibsen wants us to see the virulence of Nora’s malady, he makes her dance the tarantella on stage. Nora’s thoughts have become suicidal. “The tarantella is the play”, [The Ibsen Secret – Jeanette Lee] in that Nora’s frantic struggle against complete mental deterioration is represented in action, in the tarantella, traditionally the dance of victims of the poisonous tarantula spider. The brightly coloured shawl worn during the dance is symbolic of Nora’s light-hearted, jovial pretend life which covers up her real essence in addition to concealing her acute, current anxiety state.
Near the end of the play, Torvald has learned the truth about Nora’s ‘misdemeanour’. He acts in an appallingly chauvinistic manner considering that Nora only borrowed the money from Krogstad because Torvald needed medical attention due to his poor health! Nora, now more aware of herself, of the marital relationship and Torvald’s lack of understanding, decides to leave him. She needs ‘air and light’. She can no longer live with a husband who cannot accomplish the ‘wonderful thing’; a bridge of the mental gap which would bring Torvald’s understanding and sympathies into greater alignment with her own.
It is really the theme and the dialogue rather than the setting which give A Doll’s House its artistic quality. Nora and Torvald do love each other after a fashion. It might not be after a fashion that we or Ibsen could relate to but we have to remember that people can only live and love according to their levels of consciousness. In the context of the play, with the exception of Dr Rank perhaps, the relationships of the characters seem superficial and business-like. They are concerned with money, social appearances and aspiring embourgeoisement with little enquiry between them regarding the underlying emotions in their current states of consciousness. They cannot 'see'. The audience can see the hidden, the disguised and the suppressed, the characters cannot. The drama is completely set indoors suggesting mental, intellectual and spiritual imprisonment. The setting is deliberately lacking in order to convey this very theme. Nora is trapped in the role which is expected of her until she decides to journey on a voyage of self-discovery independently.
In conclusion, the audience cannot help but feel some compassion for Torvald. There must be many difficulties in deciding how he is to be played. He too is a victim of socio-environmental influences which do not generally facilitate psychological insight. Instead, the socio conditioning precipitates alienation from the self . There is no true communion between most of the characters. They can only relate superficially due to alienation but like many people in real life they are probably not even aware of the concept of alienation. Ibsen probes the farcical lack of communication and lack of awareness that constitute many marriages; looking in from the outside. He also probes consensus social mores predominating over independence of being. Moreover, he probes the social dilemmas for women in patriarchal societies especially where they have been prepared only for marriage. In order to survive, women will often adapt to the whims of their husbands and collude in the games expected of them sometimes turning it to their own advantage. They will accommodate themselves to his job, even adapt to his culture; rarely is it the other way round. Such probing raises the quandary of whether male/female relationships can ever be true as long as they are economic units with one being wholly or largely dependent on the other. Another quandary is whether Nora is making the ‘right’ choice. Will leaving her husband and children facilitate her happiness? It certainly begs the question of how Nora can survive the practicalities of her new-found quest for self-awareness all on her own, with no career prospects and without any money. It is a strange play; quite nihilistic. It leaves a feeling that something elusive is definitely missing.