Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
and First Performance
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.
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
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.
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.
Torvald Helmer Lawyer
who accepts a job as a bank manager with a substantial salary. He treats
his wife like a plaything—a doll, for example—calling
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 is—a
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.
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
Helene Maid in the
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.
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 audience—peeping through the arch—could
eavesdrop on people in quiet turmoil. The arch helped Ibsen create the
illusion of reality.
to the Play
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.
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."
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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.
Torvald goes into his study, visitors arrive—first,
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.
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
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 Krogstad—for
some reason—as 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.
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 jeopardy—Torvald
plans to fire him—and 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 up—and 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.
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 her—one that Torvald mustn’t see
until the ball—and 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.
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.
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.
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, Krogstad—aware
that Mrs. Linde had come to plead on Nora’s behalf—says
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 open—for
their own good. Krogstad takes her advice, but says there is one thing
he can do to help make things right.
the Helmers return from the ball, Torvald opens his mailbox, reads the
letter, and angrily denounces his wife. He calls her various names—liar,
hypocrite, lawbreaker—and 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.
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.
forgive you,” he says. “I know you only did what you had to do because
of your love for me.”
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?”
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.
she leaves—for good.
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.
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 play—the
Christmas tree, Nora's clothing, the money she gives the porter—has
meaning; they are symbols underscoring Ibsen's theme. For more information
about the symbolism in the play, see "Symbols," below.
Individuals and families—and
society itself—malfunction when males oppress
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 end—after
he and Mrs. Linde decide to marry—when he
apologizes for the trouble he has caused and withdraws his suit against
are examples of symbols in the play.
The New Year: The
new life that Nora will begin after leaving Torvald.
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.
The sanctum sanctorum of male dominance and decision-making.
Dress Change at the End
of the Play:
Nora's embarkation on a new life.
Questions and Essay Topics
Biographies of Ibsen
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
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?
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.
Why did Ibsen include Dr. Rank
in the play? What purpose does he serve?
Does Torvald have any redeeming
Biographies of Henrik Ibsen
are available at the following web sites: