“A Doll’s House” written by Henrik Ibsen was the first naturalistic play set in 1879 of Norway. Ibsen was called the father of naturalism as he explores themes such as gender inequality and the reality of appearances within the male-dominant society. He primarily conveyed the portrayal of women through the centralized character, Nora and her relationship with her husband, Torvald. However, Ibsen also conveyed the portrayal of women through the characterizations of Mrs.Linde, the Nurse, Helen, and the maid. He criticized the Norwegian society and embodied the human struggles against the humiliating constraints of the social norms.
In this play, the female characters are confined to the social values of that era therefore, they are portrayed to be inferior to men within a restrictive environment. This can be shown through Nora’s epithet and Torvald’s use of language towards her. In the opening scene, Nora is portrayed as a middle-class wife as she tips the porter a shilling when she only had to pay sixpence. This suggests how her understanding of the value of money was limited as she had always been dependent on men for financial support since, during that time in Norway, most women were not allowed to compensate for themselves and be in control. Initially, Nora comes off as a child-like character, however, as the play progresses it is revealed that she was treated like a doll. This can be first shown in the use of Torvalds language and tone towards her: “Come, come, my little skylark … Is my little squirrel out of temper? Nora, what do you think I have got here? “NORA: “Money!” This shows how Nora is constantly referred to as an animal like a “little skylark” or “little squirrel” and allures her with money as Nora finds her happiness through the careless use of money on items such as macaroons, dresses, and toys for the children. The way Torvald treats Nora is often in a patronizing tone for example when he was addressing Nora: “It’s incredible what expensive pet she is for a man to keep.” This quote further highlights how Torvald is comparing Nora to a pet which is degrading and belittling thus, shows the dominance Torvald has in their relationship. In addition, Nora expresses how she is treated like a doll by men, both by Torvald and her father for example in Act III: “Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll wife just as at home I was Papa’s doll child … That is what our marriage has been, Torvald”. The use of metaphor with the doll and the little animals reflects the male-dominant society in Norway and the role of the women as being the man’s property.
However, as Nora is financially dependent on Torvald, she occasionally secretly borrows money and this implies the secretive nature that Nora has due to the dominating attitude of Torvald. Even in her household, she is hiding around which can be shown through the stage directions and symbolism of the macaroons: “She takes a packet of macaroons … then goes cautiously to her husband’s door and listens” The macaroon that Nora conceals from Torvald further reveals her childlike attitude as it represents how she is capable to deceive in secret rebelliousness against Torvald’s parental authority over her which indicates Nora’s disobedience. She also lies to Dr. Rank about having been given some of the macaroons by Mrs.Linde and even after the performance of the tarantella, she asks for macaroons to be served at dinner, indicating a relationship between the macaroons and Nora’s inner passions both of which she must hide within her marriage. In addition to being secretive, due to Nora’s feminine charms, she often manipulates her way into getting what she wants. For example, she would call herself his ‘skylark’, ‘little squirrel’ and ‘little bird’ in order to win his cooperation and conforming to his desired standards. Thus, making him more willing to give in to her wishes. This shows an act of manipulation in Nora’s part hence, highlighting the theme of reality and appearances. As she is only acting this way in order to suit her purpose and play the role of his ‘Doll-wife’. Furthermore, the women not being incapable of financially supporting themselves are viewed as being manipulative and secretive.
Ibsen also paints a sacrificial role played by women which can be seen by Nora and Mrs.Linde. In order for Mrs. Linde to support her mother and two brothers, she had to abandon Krogstad, the man who she truly loved and marry a man that was fortunate. For example, “Free. To be free, absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it.” This quotation in Act I from a conversation between Nora and Mrs.Linde implies her lack of understanding of what ‘freedom’ truly as she highlights the factors that constrain her and claims that freedom will give her time to be the ideal mother and wife that society has created. However, she is not able to simply find ‘freedom’ in this way but in fact, she must change her life. Her understanding of ‘freedom’ evolves accordingly and towards the end of the play, she sees how freedom entails independence from societal constraints and the ability to explore her own identity and beliefs. Despite this freedom to earn and spend their own money, the employment for women was limited and not enough to financially support themselves, as we can see in Mrs.Linde’s case. This is another way to express the sacrificial role of women within this society therefore, marriage was seen as a trap.
In conclusion, due to the simple nature of male-dominance of Norway in the 1800’s, women’s identities were restricted to be mothers and wives. They could not express their true identity due to the societal standards that had been created and women were merely regarded as being the ‘man’s property’ and having no control over their say. Due to this dominant attitude, men had, as the women were also dependent on men for financial support, it influenced them to become manipulative and secretive in which Nora’s characterization had shown in becoming Torvald’s ‘Doll-wife’ in order to get what she wants. Ibsen, however, contradicts the societal norms in the final scene of the play where Nora walks out of the relationship with Torvald to gain experience herself. Ibsen conveys this key theme to help him criticize the Norwegian society and escape being trapped by the social norms.