When Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, the institution of marriage was sacrosanct; women did not leave their husbands, and marital roles were sharply defined. The play, which questions these traditional attitudes, was highly controversial and elicited sharp criticism. The character of Nora Helmer, a favorite with actresses seeking a role of strength and complexity, has dominated the play from its inception. She is the one who gains audience empathy, who grows through the course of the play. Some early critics viewed Nora as a prime example of the “new woman,” a breed seeking independence and self-definition, and the play as a polemic advocating women’s rights. Some insisted that although a woman might leave her husband, she would never leave her children. Later critics faulted Nora’s sudden conversion from a sheltered child stroking her husband’s ego to a mature woman seeking independence. Yet, others maintained that Ibsen skillfully foreshadows Nora’s departure in her behavior throughout the play in her gaiety, generosity, and unselfishness. Further, Ibsen himself declared that he was not writing solely about women but instead about issues of his society and about the need for individuals, both men and women, to be true to themselves.
Thus A Doll’s House can be viewed thematically not only as a picture of an innocent nineteenth century woman struggling to achieve self-definition but also as a devastating indictment of a routine marriage between two ordinary people who lack awareness of themselves and who have differing views of right and wrong. Torvald unquestioningly accepts society’s dicta of the husband as the breadwinner and moral authority, but Nora’s attempt to conform as the submissive wife forces her into lies and deception. Both care about what people think; neither consciously considers opposing society’s mores.
The need for communication contributes to the thematic pattern of the play. Nora and Torvald communicate only on the most superficial level; he speaks from the conventions of society but neither sees nor hears her, while she can only play out the role that he has constructed for her. This inability or unwillingness to express themselves verbally leads to unhappiness and pain.
The theme is echoed in the subplot of Kristine and Krogstad, both of whom have struggled with the cruelties of society. Kristine endured a loveless marriage in order to support her elderly mother and young brothers; Krogstad was forced into crime in order to care for his ill wife and children. Although within the plot their union seems somewhat contrived, Ibsen characterizes them as aware of themselves and honest with each other.
One of Ibsen’s masterful touches is the use of concealment as a motif; it permeates the play in several manifestations and reinforces the major theme of the need for openness in marriage. Nora’s first word, “hide,” initiates the motif. Thereafter, she hides the Christmas presents, lies about eating macaroons, continues to deceive Torvald into believing that she is a spendthrift and flighty female, and invents distractions to prevent him from opening the mailbox. Torvald too participates in concealment. Fearing exposure in the third act, he starts and orders “Hide, Nora! Say you’re sick” when the doorbell rings.
The primary agent of empowerment in A Doll’s House is money. Private and public rewards result from its presence. It enabled Nora and Torvald to travel to Italy for his health. Money from Torvald’s new salary at the bank will provide prestige for the Helmers and allow Nora, in particular, to breathe more easily. Yet, all the major figures—Torvald, Nora, Kristine, and Krogstad—have been affected adversely by its absence: from the deception in the marriage of Torvald and Nora to the prior unhappy marriage of Kristine and the criminal acts of Krogstad.
In the complex pattern that Ibsen has created, lack of self-knowledge, inability to communicate, and unthinking conformity to convention affect the institution of marriage most adversely.
by Denise Coday
In the play A Doll House, by Henrik Ibsen, the convention of marriage is examined and questioned for its lack of honesty. The play is set in the late 1800s, which provides the backdrop for the debate about roles of people in society. Ibsen uses the minor character, Dr. Rank, to help develop the theme of conflicts within society. This, in turn, creates connections with the plot. Dr. Rank's function in the play is to foreshadow, symbolize, and reflect upon the truth of life and society and to break down the barrier between appearance and reality.
One function of Dr. Rank in the play is to foreshadow events to come. Upon Rank's introduction in Act I, the reader is immediately given insight into the conflict Nora will face with Krogstad. Rank provides the reader with minute details into Krogstad's past that will help in understanding his desperate blackmail attempt. The reader can begin to see this in Rank's statement to Nora and Mrs. Linde: "Oh, it's a lawyer, Krogstad, a type you wouldn't know. His character is rotten to the root--but even he began chattering all-importantly about how he had to live" (1574). Rank also foreshadows the change of society that is a constant throughout the play. One can begin to see this foreshadowing in the statement Rank makes about the morally sick being forgiven, "That's the concept that's turning society into a sanatorium" (1574). Through these insights, Dr. Rank provides the reader with an ability to form opinions important to the plot.
Ibsen also uses Rank as a symbolic tool, enabling the reader to look deeper into the plot. Dr. Rank is used as a symbol of a dying society as the main characters in the play portrayed it to be. Rank's illness, tuberculosis of the spine, is used by Ibsen as a symbol of the deteriorating backbone of society. It is also believed that Rank's illness is a product of his morally corrupt father, which widens the connection with society's ignorant beliefs. On the night of Rank's final examination, one can see the symbolic connection between Rank's death and the "death" of Nora and Torvald's marriage. This can clearly be seen in what happens after the statement Nora makes about receiving Rank's calling cards telling of his coming death, "That when those cards came, he'd be taking his leave of us. He'll shut himself in now and die" (1604). It is with this extremely symbolic statement that the reader can see the connections between Rank, the death of a society which does not allow honesty in marriage, and the end of pretending by Nora. Almost immediately after Nora makes the statement about Dr. Rank, she decides to perform a final "examination" of her life and lets the letter from Krogstad be revealed. It is through the symbolism of Rank that the reader sees the deterioration of society as it was known by the main characters.
Another function that Dr. Rank serves is that of reflecting upon the true personalities of Nora and Torvald. Rank's friendship with Nora and Torvald is thought to be the same, yet they are independently different. Nora is able to talk more seriously with Rank then she is with Torvald. This aspect of Rank's friendship with Nora becomes evident in her statement:
From this statement the reader is able to understand that Nora is putting aside her true self to please Torvald. On the other hand, when she is with Rank she is no longer acting the part of a "doll." Rank's friendship with Torvald is also revealing, and through their friendship the reader can see Torvald's inconsistencies. In the play Torvald describes the effects of Krogstad's moral corruptness as "poisoning his own children with lies and pretense . . ." (1583). The reader can connect this statement with the fact that Rank is also a product of a morally corrupt father, yet Torvald continues their friendship. Rank's friendship with Torvald reveals him to be a man who will act only in ways to benefit himself, not thinking of what he may have once declared to be truth. Ibsen uses Rank to make these truths about Nora and Torvald's personalities evident to the reader.
You see, Torvald loves me beyond words, and, as he puts it, he'd like to keep me all to himself. For a long time he'd almost be jealous if I even mentioned any of my old friends back home. So of course I dropped that. But with Dr. Rank I talk a lot about such things, because he likes hearing about them. (1585)
The roles that Ibsen gives Dr. Rank are crucial in the reader's understanding of the plot. The functions that Rank performs are able to move the story along, adding connections that force the reader to think about the appearance and reality of the major characters' personalities. The greatest achievement in the play is that of breaking down the walls of society, enabling Nora to evolve. Ibsen is able to do this through the connections he provides through Dr. Rank in A Doll House.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll House. The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. 5th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999. 1564-1612.