A Doll’s House

One of my reading goals for the year was to read a play, which I have now completed, as today I finished reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I was hoping, however, that the play I read would be one I hadn’t read before, which didn’t turn out to be the case, as I’ve read A Doll’s House multiple times. I read it this time around because I’m teaching it in my Literature and Composition class. Perhaps I’ll still read a new-to-me play this year. We’ll see.

But I do love A Doll’s House. The thing I appreciate about it most, having read it I don’t know how many times, is the way Ibsen doesn’t waste a line. Everything is so tightly structured, so carefully crafted, that every line every character utters furthers the plot or the themes, and it’s a delight to see the way he leads the plot toward the stunning conclusion.

Is there anybody who hasn’t read this play? I read it in High School and have taught it so often that I feel like it’s an educational staple, but I might be wrong. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a couple, Nora and Torvald, who act in the first scene as though they have a perfectly happy marriage and family, but right from the start you pick up on some warning signs, and as the play goes on, you learn that Nora has a secret, that she’s desperately scrambling for money, that Torvald has little understanding of and respect for her, and that their family life is about to fall apart.

Here’s where I give away the ending, which is the best part of the play — Nora realizes just how little her husband knows about her, how much he cares about his own reputation even if she has to suffer for it, how poor of an education she has gotten and how little she knows about herself and the world, and she decides to leave Torvald and go live by herself until she has a chance to grow up. She leaves the doll’s house, and she leaves it dramatically; the play closes with these stage directions, “The sound of a door slamming is heard from below,” and the play is over. The play was first performed in 1879, and, as you can probably imagine, audiences found it shocking.

Ibsen doesn’t follow the classical unities of time, action, and place exactly, but he’s very close; the play takes place over the course of a few days around Christmas time, it’s all set in Nora and Torvald’s apartment, and it tells one unified story, that of the dissolution of the marriage. There are three other characters beside Nora and Torvald, two of whom, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, operate as foils to the main couple; they have lived difficult lives, lost reputations and family members, and suffered in ways Nora and Torvald can’t really understand. But by the end of the play, they have found happiness, while Nora and Torvald have found their lives ripped apart; as the fortunes of one couple fall those of the other rise.

The other character is Dr. Rank who appears to have little to do with the plot; he’s the one character who is possibly expendable, if one is concerned about keeping the action unified. But Dr. Rank brings together many of the play’s themes. He’s suffering because of his father’s excesses — his father contracted a venereal disease which he then passed on to his son — and so introduces the idea of inheritance and the legacies, both good and bad, that parents leave for children. We learn that Nora’s father supposedly passed on his spendthrift ways and dubious moral character to her, and now Nora is deathly afraid of passing along her own errors to her children. As Dr. Rank says,

“To have to pay this penalty for another man’s sin! Is there any justice in that? And in every single family, in one way or another, some such inexorable retribution is being exacted.”

Nora’s decision to leave at the play’s end is partly an attempt to break this chain of heredity; she wants to live on her own until she has figured out what she believes and how she will live, and only then will she consider living with a family again.

But, of course, her leaving is also about her refusal to live with a man who won’t recognize her as a human being and who treats her as a child instead. Although Ibsen backed away from the claim that this is a feminist play, it’s very hard to read it otherwise; what Nora walks away from is a very narrowly defined role of wife and mother — she walks away from the husband who, when Nora talks about the sacred duty she has to herself, can say, “Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.” I noticed this time through that Mrs. Linde talks eloquently about the value of work, and Nora herself speaks of enjoying the little work she has been able to do, sewing to earn a little extra money. She’s longing for a taste of independence, for a challenge, for something to push her so that she can discover who she is.

So, yes, I enjoyed this play, and I think my students are enjoying it too. We’re discussing the conclusion to the play this week; we’ll see what they make of Nora’s dramatic exit.

7 Comments

Filed under Books, Teaching

7 responses to “A Doll’s House

  1. I haven’t read this play (or any of his actually), so I only skimmed your post. I did buy an anthology that has several of his plays and I do want to read at least one of them this year. I keep thinking of reading Shakespeare or Ibsen, and then watching the movie/staged version on DVD, but I never seem to get around to it. I have heard he is quite good, though and am looking forward to reading him!

  2. I don’t think I have ever read this either. But I have read several of Ibsen’s plays–Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt, The Master Builder, and When We Dead Awaken all of which I thought very good. He seems to be rather underappreciated, or unnoticed by all those who don’t fully appreciate him. Even if one doesn’t like Shakespeare, everyone knows he wrote Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet. But who the heck are Ibsen and John Gabriel Borkman?

  3. I love this play. I’ve only read 3–Hedda Gabler (too many years ago), A Doll’s House, and An Enemy of the People. I love the timelessness of his characters who seem contemporary,not confined to the time period. The same is true of the content.

  4. Cam

    It has been many years since I read this play or seen it performed. What I find amazing is how modern this play is.

    I saw Ibsen’s Ghosts a few years ago. I had not read it before I saw it performed. Like A Doll’s House it is carefully crafted, nothing wasted.

  5. I can’t remember if I read the play in high school or college, but I do remember reading it. And liking it. Thanks for reminding me about it!

  6. I’ve only read his Peer Gynt, and I really liked it. Ibsen the nonconformist, as you note his not following the “classical unities” of time, action and place, neither does he do this in Peer Gynt! In fact, my favorite quote of Ibsen is his, “The majority are always wrong”. I’ve used it, many times. And believe it to be true.

  7. Danielle — I hope you can get to both — you have a lot of fun ahead of you! I do admire Ibsen tremendously. I’m like you, though, I’d like to read plays, but I don’t, unless I’m teaching them.

    Quillhill — I wonder if Ibsen gets thought of as a “writer of plays that High Schoolers read” and then not taken as seriously? I’d like to read more Ibsen, a couple of those you mention I’m not familiar with.

    Jenclair, Ibsen does seem to be a very contemporary playwright, even though he was writing over 100 years ago — that’s partly what’s so fascinating, I think.

    Cam, I’ve never seen Ibsen performed, so I’m jealous — it must have been quite wonderful.

    You’re welcome Stefanie :)

    Cipriano, That’s quite a motto, isn’t it!

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