Other Plays on DVD
By Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......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.
.......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.
.......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.
.......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.
.......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 audience—peeping through the arch—could eavesdrop on people in quiet turmoil. The arch helped Ibsen create the illusion of reality.
.......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.
.......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 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.
.......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 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.
.......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 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.
.......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 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.
.......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 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.
.......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, 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.
.......After 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.
.......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 leaves—for 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.
.......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 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 females. This theme does not necessarily reflect Ibsen's own views. He was said to believe in the traditional role of women in
.......Following are examples of symbols in the play.
The New Year: The new life that Nora will begin after leaving Torvald.
Biographies of Henrik Ibsen are available at the following web sites: