A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Author: Henrik Ibsen
A Doll’s House (Et dukkehjem) is a three-act play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It premiered on 21 December 1879 at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, Denmark.
A Doll’s House is set in a Norwegian town and revolves around Nora Helmer, a woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage. Although her married life appears perfect, she realizes her happiness is superficial.
At the time, married women like Nora had few opportunities for self-actualization in a patriarchal society. They were mostly confined to their roles as wives and mothers, leaving many of them discontented. Despite Ibsen’s assertion that he did not intend to write a feminist play, A Doll’s House is commonly interpreted as such.
A Doll’s House caused great controversy when it was first released because of the protagonist Nora’s eventual decision to abandon her husband and children. Nevertheless, it has become one of Ibsen’s most widely read and performed plays.
In 2001, UNESCO inscribed Ibsen’s autographed manuscripts of A Doll’s House on the Memory of the World Register, recognizing the play’s cultural value. In 2006, the centennial of Ibsen’s death, A Doll’s House was recognized as the world’s most performed play.
Nora Helmer is a woman who seems to have the perfect married life. She lives with her adoring bank manager husband, Torvald, and their three young children. With Torvald’s recent promotion, their family will soon be able to afford a more comfortable lifestyle.
However, Nora hides a secret. When her husband fell ill in the first year of their marriage, she forged her father’s signature to borrow money so that she could fund a recuperative trip to Italy for him. The man she borrowed the money from tries to blackmail her into persuading Torvald not to fire him, setting off a chain of events that reveal the ugly truths behind Nora’s marriage.
The story of A Doll’s House was inspired by the fate of Ibsen’s friend, Laura Kieler, who took an illegal loan to take her tubercular husband to Italy, a trip she hoped would save his life. In Italy, Kieler’s husband was able to make a full recovery.
In early 1878, Kieler sent a manuscript of her new novel to Ibsen, asking him to recommend it to his publisher as she needed money to repay the loan. However, he refused to recommend her novel, as he thought it was of poor quality. Unable to publish her novel and desperate for money, Kieler forged a check.
She was discovered by her husband, who divorced her and tried to keep her from their children. As a result, Kieler suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a lunatic asylum for a month. After she was released, her husband reluctantly took her back. She went on to become a Danish novelist.
Kieler was distressed by A Doll’s House as the play made her situation public. She never forgave Ibsen for using her life as story fodder without permission.
3. Story Summary
The play opens on Christmas Eve, and Nora Helmer enters her comfortably furnished living room carrying several packages. A porter follows her and brings in a Christmas tree. Torvald Helmer, Nora’s husband, jokingly chastises her for spending too much on Christmas gifts. Since Torvald will soon be promoted at the bank where he works, Nora replies that she thinks they can afford to spend a bit more for Christmas this year.
The maid, Helene, announces the arrival of Dr. Rank, a friend of the Helmers, and Mrs. Kristine Linde, an old schoolmate of Nora’s. Dr. Rank proceeds to the study to see Torvald while Mrs. Linde chats with Nora in the living room. Mrs. Linde’s husband had died three years earlier, leaving her with little money and no children. Nora tells Mrs. Linde that Torvald is about to get promoted, but their lives were not always so happy. In the first year of their marriage, Torvald fell ill, and their family had to move south to Italy to help him recover.
Mrs. Linde shares that after her husband died, she worked to support her mother and younger brothers. But now that her mother is dead and her brothers are grown up, she feels her life has become empty. She tells Nora she has come to town to look for a job. Nora promises Mrs. Linde to ask her husband about finding her a position at the bank.
When Mrs. Linde teases Nora about her childish nature, Nora reveals she has something to be proud of – she saved Torvald’s life. Back then, she funded the trip to Italy by forging her father’s signature to borrow money. Afraid of hurting his pride, Nora lied to Torvald that her father had given her the money. Since then, she has been secretly working and saving to repay the loan. Although it has been difficult for her, she will soon pay off the loan entirely.
A man named Krogstad arrives to speak to Torvald about bank business, and Nora appears nervous to see him. He enters Torvald’s study. Dr. Rank leaves Torvald’s study and comes into the living room. He complains to Nora and Mrs. Linde that he feels “wretched,” alluding to his illness. In contrast to himself, he says that Krogstad is “morally diseased.”
After meeting with Krogstad, Torvald emerges from the study. Nora asks him if he could hire Mrs. Linde at the bank, and Torvald tells her that a position is available. Torvald, Mr. Linde, and Dr. Rank leave the house. The nanny comes in with the children, and Nora plays with them until Krogstad suddenly enters the living room and startles her.
Krogstad tells Nora that Torvald wants to fire him and asks her to persuade Torvald to let him keep his position. When she refuses, Krogstad blackmails her about the illegal loan she took; he was the one she borrowed the money from. He produces a bond document that proves that Nora forged her father’s signature to obtain the loan.
After threatening her, Krogstad leaves. When Torvald returns, Nora asks him what Krogstad did to warrant his bad reputation. Torvald reveals Krogstad had committed a crime in the past: he forged other people’s signatures. As such, Krogstad has to play the hypocrite and lie to his family about his crime. He talks about how Krogstad would corrupt his children with his lies, causing Nora to fear that she might corrupt her children.
Mrs. Linde comes to visit after hearing that Nora had asked for her. Nora tells her she needs her help to mend a dress for a costume party she and Torvald will attend the next day. Suspecting that Dr. Rank admires Nora, Mrs. Linde asks her if he was the person who lent her money, but she clarifies that it was someone else. Torvald returns, and Nora tries to convince him to let Krogstad retain his post. Torvald rejects her suggestion and goes back into his study.
Dr. Rank arrives and tells Nora he does not have much time left; his illness is terminal. Within a month, he will probably be dead. He confesses his love for Nora, and she rejects him. Nora asks him for a favor – to keep Torvald occupied in the study so that she can receive another dress she ordered behind Torvald’s back. He happily accepts her request and goes into the study.
While Dr. Rank keeps Torvald occupy, Krogstad enters the house. He confronts Nora, saying he will use the bond document to blackmail Torvald into not just retaining but also promoting him at the bank. Nora tries to dissuade him, replying she has tried her best to persuade Torvald. Nonetheless, Krogstad refuses to back down and informs Nora he has written a letter exposing her crime and will send it to Torvald. On the way out, Krogstad drops the letter into Torvald’s locked mailbox.
Seeing him do this, Nora despairs. When Mrs. Linde comes back into the living room, Nora tells her Krogstad was the one who lent her the money, and he has dropped a letter into Torvald’s mailbox detailing her crime.
Mrs. Linde discloses that Krogstad was once her lover, so she will try to coax him to ask for his letter back unread. She hurries out of the house and tells Nora to keep her husband distracted while she goes to Krogstad. When Torvald returns and tries to collect his mail, Nora distracts him by begging him to help her practice a dance for the next day’s costume party. When Torvald and Dr. Rank leave for dinner, Mrs. Linde enters and tells Nora that Krogstad is out of town, but she has written a note asking him to come. While alone, Nora contemplates killing herself.
Krogstad arrives at the Helmers’ house to see Mrs. Linde when Nora and Torvald have gone to the costume party. Mrs. Linde confesses to Krogstad that she still loves him and wants to marry him. Overjoyed, Krogstad offers to ask for the letter back unread. However, Mrs. Linde decides that Torvald needs to know the truth and tells Krogstad not to take back the letter.
Torvald and Nora return from the costume party, and Mrs. Linde leaves. Dr. Rank arrives to give the Helmers a final farewell but does not tell Torvald that he is about to die. He goes, and Nora and Torvald are left alone.
Torvald retrieves the letter from the mailbox and confronts Nora after reading it. He is outraged that he must now obey Krogstad’s commands as his wife’s reputation and, by extension, his reputation is in Krogstad’s hands. Torvald calls Nora a liar and declares her unfit to raise their children. From now on, he is determined that their marriage will only exist ‘in the eyes of the world.’
The maid enters, bringing a letter for Nora. Torvald seizes the letter and reads it. Ecstatic, he exclaims they have been saved – Krogstad has returned the incriminating bond. Now freed from Krogstad’s blackmail threat, Torvald forgives his wife.
Nevertheless, Nora is disillusioned with Torvald, as he turns out to be less courageous than she thought. She insists he never loved her; he had “only thought it pleasant to be in love with [her].” In a dramatic scene, she announces she is leaving him and their children. Nora expresses that she wants to be alone so she can understand everything about herself and the world.
Nora leaves the room, and Torvald breaks down, burying his face in his hands. The sound of a door shutting is heard from below.
Nora is a woman who seems to have the perfect marriage. She pretends to be childlike to please her husband but deep down, she is a determined and brave woman willing to break the law to save the one she loves. After taking an illegal loan, Nora works secretly for years to pay it off, showing her perseverance. Throughout the play, she comes to resent her doll-like existence in which she is patronized, played with, and has little freedom.
Torvald is Nora’s husband, a bank manager who has just received a promotion. Although he dotes on Nora, he does not truly understand her and only sees her as a child who needs his protection. He is very concerned about appearing ‘respectable’ and maintaining his authority over others.
Mrs. Kristine Linde
Nora’s old school friend. She is a widow who works hard to support herself. When she was younger, she loved Krogstad but chose to marry a wealthier man so that she could help her ill mother and younger brothers.
Dr. Rank is a wealthy friend of the Helmers. He has an unrequited love for Nora and is terminally ill. The illness he suffers from is called ‘spinal consumption’ and is implied to be a venereal disease he inherited from his philandering father.
Krogstad is an employee at the bank where Torvald works. A widower and single father, he is desperate to keep his post so that he can remain respectable for his children. He is the one Nora borrowed money from and blackmails her into persuading Torvald to let him retain his position.
The Helmers’ maid.
Nora and Torvald’s children, Ivar, Bobby, and Emmy.
The Helmer children’s nanny.
He delivers a Christmas tree to the Helmers’ house at the start of the play.
5.1. Gender roles
The play’s title, A Doll’s House, alludes to Nora’s feminine role as the ‘doll’ of her father and later her husband. Like a doll, Nora is treated as a plaything by the male authority figures in her life and given little freedom. As a young girl in her father’s house, Nora keeps her opinions to herself, afraid of offending her father. In return, her father pampers her and calls her his ‘doll-child.’
After marriage, she obeys her husband’s wishes and entertains him by dancing and dressing up. Under prevailing gender stereotypes, both her father and husband see Nora as a foolish ‘little girl’ and not a mature person with a mind of her own.
Initially, Nora is content with the doll-like gender role that society and her family have imposed on her. However, she eventually realizes that forcing herself to fit into stifling gender roles will prevent her from achieving her full potential.
Like women, men in A Doll’s House are expected to fulfill a certain role. Both Torvald and Krogstad have a strong desire for ‘respectability,’ which means climbing up the career ladder and being able to provide for their families. As men, they are expected to be the sole providers of their families. Torvald sees himself as Nora’s protector, provider, and mentor, often giving her moral advice. Her dependence on him gives him great pride.
As such, Nora is unwilling to tell Torvald about the loan she took; doing so would injure Torvald’s pride. He would be humiliated if he knew that his wife had helped him financially, as it would appear that he depended on her instead of the other way round.
5.2. Individual vs. Society
A Doll’s House explores the conflict between the individual’s need for fulfillment and social norms. As a married woman, Nora initially follows the social norm of putting her husband and children’s needs above hers. When Krogstad blackmails her about the illegal loan, she is mainly concerned about how this might affect her husband’s reputation and her children’s development. Even when she contemplates suicide, it is not to save herself from humiliation but because she thinks Torvald will ruin his reputation in protecting her.
In her everyday life, she suppresses her true self and acts like a child to please her husband, going along with his tastes and performing tricks for him.
However, Nora cannot attain happiness by entirely devoting herself to her role as a wife and mother. Her husband does not truly love her. He loves the image of the childish, dutiful, and helpless wife that Nora presents. In other words, Nora’s happiness is an illusion that will only last as long as she can keep up the appearance of being the ideal wife and thus secure Torvald’s affection. Of course, Nora does not truly love Torvald either. She eventually realizes he is not the person she thought he was.
At the end of A Doll’s House, she asserts that her duty to herself is more important than her duty to her husband and children. She chooses to disobey the social norms of religion, law, and morality by abandoning her family to find her own identity and self-fulfillment.
In A Doll’s House, money is synonymous with power. At the start of the play, Torvald chastises Nora for spending too much money on Christmas gifts. As the family’s sole breadwinner, his ability to control Nora’s spending symbolizes his power over her.
On the other hand, when Nora takes out a loan and works secretly to pay it off, this financial activity gives her a sense of independence and power. She brags about her achievement to Mrs. Linde to show that she is not a ‘child’; she has something to be proud of. Through Nora’s story, the play shows how women must earn money to gain power over their lives. At the same time, the power imbalance between the sexes is reinforced by the unequal ability of men and women to acquire and control money.
6. Influence and Legacy
A Doll’s House was a highly popular and controversial play in Ibsen’s time. After its premiere, it sold 13,500 copies in three months and was reviewed in all major Norwegian newspapers. The ending, where Nora slams the door on her husband and children, was extensively debated.
As Denmark, where Ibsen published his works, did not join the Berne Convention until 1903, publishers and directors were free to alter his plays. Afraid of the play being distorted by lesser writers, Ibsen wrote an alternate ending where Nora did not leave her family so that theatres in Germany could show the play. However, he called this alternate ending a ‘barbarous outrage,’ and it is seldom performed today.
A Doll’s House has been re-staged in many different cultures and subjected to various interpretations. In a 2003 A Doll’s House production by Lee Breuer, all the male actors were less than 1.37m (4 feet 6 inches) tall, while the female actors were taller than average. The miniature set was made to fit the male actors, but the female actors had to bend and stoop, symbolizing how women find it difficult to fit into a man’s world. In a 2006 Egyptian production, the door is left ajar when Nora leaves, representing the possibility of Torvald changing and reconciling with Nora.
A Doll’s House has been adapted into numerous films, television, and radio series. In 1973, two movie adaptations of the play were released; one was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Jane Fonda as Nora and David Warner as Torvald. The other film was directed by Patrick Garland and starred Claire Bloom as Nora and Anthony Hopkins as Torvald.
7. Quotes from A Doll’s House
“I am going to see if I can make out who is right, the world or I.”Nora Helmer
“You see, there are some people that one loves, and others that perhaps one would rather be with.”Nora Helmer
“I can’t be satisfied any longer with what most people say, and with what’s in books. I must think things out for myself and try to understand them.”Nora Helmer
“I am afraid, Torvald, I do not exactly know what religion is. … I know nothing but what the clergyman said, when I went to be confirmed. He told us that religion was this, and that, and the other. When I am away from all this, and am alone, I will look into that matter too. I will see if what the clergyman said is true, or at all events if it is true for me.”Nora Helmer
“It was a tremendous pleasure to sit there working and earning money. It was like being a man.”Nora Helmer
8. Frequently Asked Questions About A Doll’s House
Is A Doll’s House a feminist play or not?
It is not likely that Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House intending it to be a feminist play. In a 70th birthday banquet held in his honor by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League, he said that he “must disclaim the honor of having worked consciously for the women’s rights movement…my task has been the description of humanity.” In other words, Ibsen saw Nora as a human first, not a woman. When Nora leaves her family, she asserts the individual’s right to find their own identity, rather than the rights of women specifically.
Nonetheless, some critics have interpreted it as a feminist play. A core belief of feminism is that women, just like men, are individuals who have a right to assert their own identity and pursue self-fulfillment. This view is echoed in a scene where Torvald tries to stop Nora from leaving.
Torvald: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.
Nora: I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are—or, at all events, that I must try and become one.
Moreover, the power imbalance between men and women is key to the play’s conflict. The academic Joan Templeton wrote of the play, “Now let us remove the “woman problem” from A Doll’s House, let us give Nora Helmer the same rights as Torvald Helmer, and let him consider her his equal. What is left of the play? The only honest response is nothing”.
Why is A Doll’s House called that?
In the last act of A Doll’s House, Nora expresses her frustration that her father and husband treated her like a doll: a plaything with no agency. While living with her father, Nora never disagreed with his opinions because she did not want to upset him. He played with her and called her his ‘doll-child.’ When Nora was married, she was passed like a doll from her father’s hands into Torvald’s. As a wife, Nora goes along with Torvald’s wishes and entertains him, much like a doll would entertain a child.
Why does Torvald call Nora pet names?
In A Doll’s House, Torvald calls Nora his “little skylark,” “little squirrel,” and “little singing bird.” These pet names emphasize her helplessness by comparing her to small animals. Furthermore, the word “little’’ underscores the unequal nature of their relationship, where Torvald is the superior partner and Nora the inferior.