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A Doll's House
By Henrik Johan Ibsen  (1828-1906)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication, First Performance
Language: Dano-Norwegian
Setting
Characters
Introduction to the Play
The Ibsen Stage
Plot Summary
Style
Climax
Themes
Symbols
Questions, Essay Topics
Biography of Ibsen
Complete Free Text
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

Type of Work

.......A Doll's House is a realistic stage drama in three acts. It depicts ordinary life as it is, not as one would like it to be. A Doll's House is sometimes referred to as a problem play because it centers on social problems and controversial issues. Examples of other problem plays by Ibsen are The Wild Duck, An Enemy of the People, and Ghosts

Publication and First Performance

.......Frederik Hegel & Son first published the play on December 4, 1879, in Copenhagen, when realism was just beginning to take root. Seventeen days later, it was staged for the first time in Copenhagen's Royal Danish Theater.

Language: Dano-Norwegian

.......Ibsen wrote the play in Dano-Norwegian, a mixture of the Danish language and Norwegian dialects. Dano-Norwegian evolved from Danish while Norway was a province of Denmark. Although Norway gained its independence in 1814, Norwegians continued to speak and write in Dano-Norwegian, also known as Riksmål. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Norway began developing a new Norwegian language, Landsmål (the language of the land or country), free of Danish influence. Meanwhile, Riksmål developed further and eventually became known as Bokmål, the language of books. 
.......Today both varieties of Norwegian are written and spoken in Norway. The Dano-Norwegian of Ibsen is simple, concise, to the point. However, it takes a talented translator to capture the subtleties of the language and the nuances written into the dialogue of The Doll's House. Therefore, English-speaking students of Ibsen should choose their translations carefully. One highly respected Ibsen translator was William Archer (1856-1924), a Scottish-born London journalist, drama critic, and playwright who translated many of Ibsen's works, including A Doll's House. The 1889 translation helped popularize the play in the English-speaking world. 

Setting

.......The play is set in Norway in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Torvald Helmer during the Christmas season in the late 1800's. All the action takes place in a single room in the Torvald household. However, in many respects, this room is the world, a microcosm representing every culture suffering from the same types of social malaise present in the Torvald household. 

Characters
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Torvald Helmer Lawyer who accepts a job as a bank manager with a substantial salary. He treats his wife like a playthinga doll, for examplecalling her pet names and occasionally scolding her as if she were a child. His primary interests are his work and his social standing. When he learns that his wife is involved in a legal problem that would embarrass him if it became known to the public, he reveals who he really isa hypocrite preoccupied with his own welfare.
Nora Helmer Torvald’s wife. She is a bit of a spendthrift, a fault to which her husband frequently calls attention. She accepts his criticism on this and other matters and generally submits to his will on day-to-day decision-making until he shocks her with an angry outburst revealing that he is not the man she thought she married. She then makes an important decision of her own.
Nils Krogstad Employee of Torvald’s bank whom Torvald plans to fire because of an incident involving forgery. To save his job, Krogstad threatens to reveal the details of the legal problem involving Nora.
Dr. Rank Frequent visitor at the Torvald residence. He is terminally ill. Dr. Rank enjoys Nora’s company and reveals a secret to her when he believes he is on the brink of death.
Mrs. Kristine Linde Acquaintance of Nora who married for the wrong reasons. When she attempts to help Nora with her legal problem, she pleads with Krogstad and reveals that he was the man she wanted to marry.
Torvald Children The three children of Torvald and Nora who appear in the drama when Nora plays with them. They are not named. Their significance lies in what will happen to them after Nora makes her important decision in the final act.
Anne Marie The children’s nanny.
Helene Maid in the Torvald household.
Porter Man who receives a tip from Nora when he carries a Christmas tree and a basket into her home. His tip symbolizes Nora’s spendthrift ways.

The Ibsen Stage

.......In keeping with his realistic plots and dialogue, Ibsen's stage sets attempt to capture the atmosphere of the everyday life of his characters. On the Ibsen stage, actors did not embellish their lines with broad flourishes of a hand or other exaggerated body movements. They become ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. The proscenium arch was important, however. This arch, from the sides of which a curtain opens and closes, acts in an Ibsen drama as a frame for the realistic portrait painted by Ibsen, a portrait that moves. The proscenium arch became a doorway or window through which the audiencepeeping through the archcould eavesdrop on people in quiet turmoil. The arch helped Ibsen create the illusion of reality. 

Introduction to the Play

.......A Doll’s House (Et dukkehjem) was a revolutionary play, for it was among the first stage dramas of the nineteenth century to depict, with extraordinary skill, ordinary life realistically instead of romantically and sentimentally. In so doing, it exposed dirty little secrets about the middle-class values of Norwegians and other Europeans. On a single stage, set up as a single room where all the action takes place, Ibsen slowly opened a fester, allowing the pus to run with hypocrisy, inequality, condescension, deception. The ending of the play shocked audiences of Ibsen's time. Some producers reworked the ending before staging the drama. 
.......Today, A Doll’s House represents a turning point in the history of drama. Professor Bjørn Hemmer has written: "More than anyone, he [Ibsen] gave theatrical art a new vitality by bringing into European bourgeois drama an ethical gravity, a psychological depth, and a social significance which the theatre had lacked since the days of Shakespeare. In this manner, Ibsen strongly contributed to giving European drama a vitality and artistic quality comparable to the ancient Greek tragedies."

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

.......Nora Helmer is in a cheerful mood when she arrives home Christmas Eve with armloads of packages. Helene, the maid, holds the door open to receive a Christmas tree and a basket from a porter. Nora tells Helene to hide the tree from the children, who are out with their nanny. They must not see it until it is decorated in the evening. Though Nora owes the porter only 50 öre, she gives him a crown and tells him to keep the change. 
.......After greeting his wife as his “little skylark,” Nora’s husband, Torvald, comes out of his study and teases her about all the money she spent on the presents. But there is seriousness in his tone, for his wife is a bit of a spendthrift. Nora thinks he ought to be a little freer with money now that he has given up his law practice in favor of a prestigious position as a bank manager. He is to begin his new job in January.
.......After Torvald goes into his study, visitors arrivefirst, Dr. Rank, an old family friend, and then Mrs. Kristine Linde, an acquaintance whom Nora hasn’t seen in ten years. Rank goes into the study to chat with Torvald while Nora and Mrs. Linde become reacquainted. Mrs. Linde confides that after her husband died three years before he left her childless and impoverished. Now she wants Torvald to get her a job to provide income and assuage her loneliness. 
.......Nora brags about her husband’s new job, saying he’ll get a good salary and commission. It hasn’t always been easy for the Helmers, Nora says. In fact, Nora herself has had to take on odds jobs sewing and embroidering. But, she says, she was clever enough to get the money she needed to give her husband a vacation in Italy at a time when his health was poor and he needed to rest and recuperate in a warm climate. She didn’t tell him, though, where or how she got the money. She kept everything a secret and has been paying off the loan bit by bit. 
.......A third visitor, Nils Krogstad, an employee of the bank where Torvald is to work, arrives and goes into the study. Moments later, Rank comes out, makes small talk, and criticizes Krogstadfor some reasonas morally corrupt. When Torvald appears, Nora tells him of Mrs. Linde’s need for a job. After questioning her briefly, he says he can probably accommodate her. Mrs. Linde and Dr. Rank leave while Torvald escorts them out. The children return just then with their nanny, Anne-Marie, and Nora plays with them until she notices that Krogstad has remained behind. 
.......It was Krogstad who approved the loan for the trip to Italy, but he has found out that Nora forged her father’s name on the bond she used to secure the money. (Her father died three days before the bond was signed.) He tells Nora that his job at the bank is in jeopardyTorvald plans to fire himand he threatens to reveal her illegal activity unless she prevails on her husband to retain him. Krogstad has the documents to back up his accusations. Such a disclosure would drive a knife into the Helmer marriage and humiliate Torvald at work. 
.......After Krogstad leaves and Torvald returns, Nora does her best to persuade her husband that Krogstad is a worthy employee. But Torvald will have none of it. He says Krogstad once forged a document; he must go. 
.......On Christmas Day, Nora is in a tizzy over the developments of the previous day. Mrs. Linde comes in to help her sew the trimming back onto a torn costume she is to wear to a ball the next day at the home of neighbors, the Stenborgs. When Mrs. Linde asks why Dr. Rank seemed depressed on Christmas Eve, Nora discloses that he is dying of tuberculosis of the spine, a disease he inherited from his father, who had many mistresses. When Mrs. Linde asks how often he calls at the Helmers, Nora says every day. Mrs. Linde, thinking there might be something untoward about his frequent visits, leaps to the conclusion that he was the one who lent Nora the money for the trip to Italy. Nora says it isn’t so: “I swear.”
.......Torvald, who has been at the bank preparing for his new job, enters with documents. Nora renews her pleas on behalf of Krogstad. As Torvald’s “little skylark,” she says, she will sing all day for him if he will only allow Krogstag to keep his job. Torvald scolds her for bringing the matter up again and says his mind is made up: Mrs. Linde will be replacing Krogstad. When Nora continues to plead with him, he finds it remarkable that she is so persistent just because she promised to speak up on Krogstad’s behalf. Nora says there is more to it than that. She explains that Krogstad, a part-time journalist, might write harmful things about Torvald if he is dismissed. Torvald is unmoved. He says it’s already well known at the bank that Krogstad is out and Mrs. Linde is in; he can’t have the employees thinking that he allowed his wife to talk him into keeping Krogstad. Besides, he says, he finds Krogstad extremely irritating because he thinks he is Torvald’s equal. 
.......When Nora says he’s being mean-spirited, Torvald, angry, immediately calls in Helene and sends her off with a letter informing Krogstad of his dismissal. After Torvald goes into his study, Dr. Rank arrives downhearted, saying his health continues to decline and that he expects to die soon. Nora tries to cheer him upand seems to succeed somewhat when she shows him the silk stockings she will be wearing to the ball. Saying how much he has enjoyed his visits to the Helmers over the years, Rank then reveals a secret: He is in love with Nora. Although Nora says he really shouldn’t speak of such shameful things, she appears flattered and hints that she knew about his feelings for her all along. While maintaining propriety and never directly saying she has feelings for him, she encourages him to continue his visits.
.......When the maid comes in and whispers to Nora that Krogstad has arrived by the back stairs and is in the kitchen, Nora pretends that a new costume has arrived for herone that Torvald mustn’t see until the balland asks Dr. Rank to keep Torvald occupied in his study. He obliges. When Krogstad comes in, he discloses that he has altered his demands. Not only does he want to be retained by the bank, but he also wants a new, more important position. Although he has decided not to make public Nora’s forged document for the time being, he does plan to leave a letter informing Torvald of the details of the loan. Before leaving, he places it in Torvald’s mailbox; only Torvald has the key to it. 
.......After Krogstad is gone, Mrs. Linde comes in with the costume. In a panic, Nora tells her everything about the loan, the forgery, and Krogstad. Mrs. Linde offers to help, saying she knows Krogstad and will go to talk with him. After she leaves, Dr. Rank and her husband come out of the study. When Torvald goes to check his mail, Nora distracts him, making him play the piano while she practices the tarantella that she will dance at the ball. Rank then plays while Torvald steps back to watch her. She is so upset about the letter that she dances wildly, fitfully, and Torvald says it looks as if her life depended on her dancing. 
.......It does, she says. Then she tells him not to open any business letters. It is Christmas, after all, and he can shut himself off from business affairs at least until after the ball the next evening. He agrees.
.......Meanwhile, on the evening of the masquerade ball, Mrs. Linde meets with Krogstad. At one time, she was Krogstad’s fiancee, and she tells him now that she regrets their breakup, admitting she jilted him so she could marry another man for his money. But she didn’t want his money for herself, she says; instead, she wanted it for her two young brothers and her mother, who had little means of support. Before the meeting ends Mrs. Linde and Krogstad not only reconcile, but they also agree to marry. What’s more, Krogstadaware that Mrs. Linde had come to plead on Nora’s behalfsays he will retrieve the incriminating letter from Torvald’s mailbox. However, Mrs. Linde advises him not to, saying she now realizes that Torvald and Nora must get everything out in the openfor their own good. Krogstad takes her advice, but says there is one thing he can do to help make things right. 
.......After the Helmers return from the ball, Torvald opens his mailbox, reads the letter, and angrily denounces his wife. He calls her various namesliar, hypocrite, lawbreakerand says she has ruined his whole future, putting him at the mercy of Krogstad. He then makes plans to pacify Krogstad and to keep up the appearance of normalcy in his home life. He decrees Nora will be allowed to continue living with him, but no longer in a close relationship. In addition, she is to have no say in bringing up the children, for she is a bad influence. Their happiness? It is now a shattered dream.
.......The doorbell rings. It is the maid, delivering a message from Krogstad to Nora. Torvald opens it immediately, fearing the worst. But in the message, Krogstad apologizes and returns the incriminating document. Torvald is saved. The nightmare is over. Torvald then says he and Nora should forget the whole affair, as if it never happened, and begins pampering and coddling her as he has done in the past. 
.......“I forgive you,” he says. “I know you only did what you had to do because of your love for me.”
.......He says she no longer has to worry about anything; he’ll make all the decisions. Nora takes off her ball dress and slips on an ordinary dress. Torvald, wondering why she has not gotten ready for bed, says “You’ve changed?”
.......Nora says, yes, she has changed, then asks Torvald to sit down to hear what’s on her mind. First, she says, she is tired of being treated like a toy, a plaything, a doll. Her father did it; then Torvald did it. Next, she announces that she is leaving Torvald; he is not the man she thought he was. Torvald forbids her to leave, but she says he can no longer forbid her to do anything. She is in control of her life now. When Torvald says she has a duty to him and the children, she says she has a duty to herself. In the future, she wants no letters from him, no communication of any kind.
.......Then she leavesfor good.

Climax

.......The The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to the first definition, the climax occurs when Torvald reads the letter and angrily denounces his wife, provoking Nora to make her decision to leave him. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Nora declares her independence from her family.

Style

.......Because Ibsen wanted to make his plays uncompromisingly realistic, he wrote the dialogue in simple, everday, middle-class language rather than elegant, lofty, or trope-laden language characteristic of romantic plays. But in mimicking vernacular speech, he chose and arranged his words carefully; every word and every sentence counted. Thus, the dialogue in A Doll's House is spartan but powerful; little by little, it bares the human psyche. In addition, virtually every object in the playthe Christmas tree, Nora's clothing, the money she gives the porterhas meaning; they are symbols underscoring Ibsen's theme. For more information about the symbolism in the play, see "Symbols," below. 
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Themes

Individuals and familiesand society itselfmalfunction when males oppress females. This theme does not necessarily reflect Ibsen's own views. He was said to believe in the traditional role of women in society. 
The unexamined life is not worth living. This paraphrase of a Socrates aphorism applies to Torvald and Nora. However, Nora eventually stops to look at herself and her marriage and doesn’t like what she sees. So she steps out of her old persona and into a new one, then walks into an uncertain future. She has begun examining her life. 
Living a lie is not living at all. Torvald and Nora have a pretend marriage. He pretends to love her, and she pretends to love him. The same is true of Kristine Linde with respect to her late husband. She walked to the altar pretending to love him. In reality, she married him for the money she needed to provide for her brothers and mother. 
Freedom cannot be purchased. Nora thinks her husband’s new job and higher salary will free her from worry. But she eventually learns that it is not debt that enslaves her, but her husband’s unbending will.
There is always hope for a better future. Krogstad, who appears to be a cold-hearted villain through most of the play, exhibits compassion at the endafter he and Mrs. Linde decide to marrywhen he apologizes for the trouble he has caused and withdraws his suit against Nora.

Symbols

.......Following are examples of symbols in the play.

The New Year: The new life that Nora will begin after leaving Torvald.
Masquerade Ball: The lies and deceits people resort to in everyday life. 
Christmas Tree: Nora as a pretty decoration that brightens the Helmer home. 
Tip for the Porter: Nora’s spendthrift ways.
Torvald’s Study: The sanctum sanctorum of male dominance and decision-making.
Dress Change at the End of the Play: Nora's embarkation on a new life.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  1. When deciding to leave her family at the end of the play, Nora takes a considerable risk. After all, males in nineteenth-century Europe dominate not only the home but also the workplace. Moreover, a woman who declares her independence from her family is little esteemed by society. Taking into consideration the social attitudes of the Europe of Ibsen's time, decide whether Nora can succeed on her own. Then write an essay expressing your view on whether Nora succeeds or fails after becoming an independent woman. Support your position with strong research. 
  2. Many readers find Nora an admirable character for having the courage to make a radical change in her life. However, one question that must be considered in evaluating her character is this one: Was she right to abandon her children? 
  3. Research the life of Ibsen, then discuss whether he would defend male preeminence in in the home or advocate equality between spouses. You might be surprised by what your research turns up. 
  4. Why did Ibsen include Dr. Rank in the play? What purpose does he serve?
  5. Does Torvald have any redeeming qualities?
Biographies of Ibsen

Biographies of Henrik Ibsen are available at the following web sites:

Wikipedia
Infoplease

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