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A Doll's House
In A Nutshell
Henrik Ibsen was born in Skein, Norway on March 20, 1828. After spending most of his early years in poverty, he eventually made a name for himself as one of the most respected playwrights of all time. He is often called 'the father of modern drama' because he helped popularize realism, which a good portion of today's entertainment imitates without even knowing it. Just about every show on television owes a little something to Ibsen. Just imagine what Law and Order would be like in verse - Oh, dearest judge, do not slam your gavel; for if you do, justice will unravel. Weird.
After a few smaller successes with plays such as Brand, Peer Gynt, and Pillars of Society, Ibsen took the world by storm with A Doll's House. Boy, was it controversial. Nora's door-slamming exit is sometimes described as a shot heard around the world. The very idea that a woman might have something to do other than keep house and raise children was pretty scandalous in the Victorian era. Party invitations were sent out, requesting that people not discuss the play. Hosts were afraid their elegant engagements would turn into all out brawls. Many critics were just as scandalized. They scathingly criticized Ibsen for undermining society's most sacred institution: marriage. However, a few critics, such as George Bernard Shaw, championed Ibsen because he was unafraid to challenge societal norms.
Though the play is often pigeon-holed as a feminist manifesto, Ibsen denied it. Once when he was being honored by the Norwegian Society for Women's Rights he said, 'I am not even quite sure what women's rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights' (source). To Ibsen, it wasn't necessarily about the fact that Nora is a woman; it's about the fact that she's a human being. He thought that all people, men and women alike, should have the courage to stand up against society and form their own opinions. Think about it - in a way Torvald, Nora's husband, is just as caged by society as his wife. Society has programmed them both into their prescribed roles: dominant provider husband, submissive homemaking wife. In Ibsen's mind, all human beings have a sacred duty to themselves.
Why Should I Care?
As we mention in 'In a Nutshell,' Ibsen didn't see his controversial play, A Doll's House, as feminist. He saw it as humanist. He thought every person, man and woman, had a right to self-actualization, to be who they wanted to be.
Ibsen seems to think that people are often herded like sheep by society. He's famously quoted as saying, 'The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.' People often get swept up by popular opinion, giving little thought to whether what's happening is right or wrong in their own minds. We have a sneaky suspicion that this might be just as true today as it was in Ibsen's time. We also suspect that it just might be as relevant to our children and grandchildren, and so on. The tension of the individual versus society will most likely never leave us.
A Doll's House Summary
How It All Goes Down
At the beginning of the play, all seems well. Nora and Torvald Helmer appear quite happy together. Torvald speaks to his wife in a rather demeaning way, but she doesn't really seem to mind. The Helmers are both quite excited because Torvald has gotten a new job as the manager of a bank. The couple won't have to worry about money anymore. Nora's old school friend, Mrs. Christine Linde, arrives. She's been recently widowed and is looking for work. Christine is hoping that Torvald might be able to hook her up with a job. Nora tells her friend that she'll ask him. Over the course of their conversation, Nora confesses to Christine that she has a secret debt.
Nora refuses to tell Christine who she borrowed money from, but does explain why she had to borrow it. Early in the Helmers' marriage, Torvald got sick from overwork. Doctors prescribed a trip south to warmer climates as the only way to save him. At the time, the Helmers didn't have the money for such a trip. To save Torvald's pride, Nora borrowed money without his knowledge and funded a year in Italy. In order to pay off the debt, she's been skimming from the allowance Torvald gives her and secretly working odd jobs. Nora is especially happy about Torvald's new job, because now money won't be a concern.
A creepy man named Krogstad shows up. He works at the bank that Torvald is about to manage. It seems like Nora knows him, but we aren't told why. He goes in to see Torvald. Christine tells Nora that she once knew Krogstad. We get the idea that they once had a thing for each other. Dr. Rank enters. He's a Helmer family friend and is dying of tuberculosis of the spine. He talks about how corrupt and morally diseased Krogstad is, to which Christine says we should try to help the diseased. Torvald comes out of his office and Nora asks him about a job for Christine Linde. Torvald agrees, and everybody is happy. Torvald, Dr. Rank, and Christine all skip away down the street together.
Nora's children rush in. She frolics with them a bit and plays hide-and-go-seek. Then creepy old Krogstad shows up again. Nora sends the kids away. Krogstad is furious because Torvald is going to fire him - Christine Linde is getting his job. It turns out that he is the person Nora borrowed money from. He's got a lot of power over Nora, because apparently she forged her father's signature after he was dead in order to get the loan. Krogstad threatens to expose Nora's crime if he loses his job. After he leaves, Nora freaks out.
When Torvald returns, Nora tries to talk him into letting Krogstad keep his job. Torvald says he can't stand Krogstad, because he's does dishonest things like forgery. Nora's husband goes on to say that he can't stand being around such awful people. He talks about how such people's presence corrupts their children. Torvald goes back to work. The maid tries to bring the children back in to play. Nora, fearing she will corrupt them, refuses to see them.
Act Two opens with Nora in a state of extreme agitation. She's hanging out with one of the maids, Anne, who was Nora's wet-nurse when she was a child. Nora asks Anne to take care of the kids if she ever disappears.
Christine stops by. Nora shows her a costume that Torvald picked out for her. They're planning to go to a holiday party in couple night at the Stenborgs', their upstairs neighbors. Christine goes off to another room to mend the costume. Torvald shows up. Nora begs him to not fire Krogstad. Her begging only angers off Torvald, and he sends Krogstad his notice. Torvald goes to his office.
Dr. Rank arrives. Nora does a little subtle flirting with him. She's planning to ask him for the money to pay off the loan. Her plans are foiled though when he tells her that he'll soon be dying. He tells her that he'll put a card in the mailbox with a black cross when it begins. He admits that he is love with her, but Nora tells him that he's being very morbid and inappropriate. She feels too guilty to ask him for the money. Dr. Rank goes in to see Torvald.
Krogstad busts in, super-mad about getting fired. He tells Nora that he's going to blackmail Torvald into giving him a better job than the one he had before. Eventually, he'll be running the bank instead of Torvald. Krogstad warns Nora to not do anything stupid like run away or commit suicide, because he'll still have power over Torvald anyway. He leaves, dropping a blackmail letter to Torvald in the mailbox on his way out.
Nora spazzes out in a major way. Christine returns, and Nora tells her everything. She's afraid that when Torvald finds out, a wonderful terrible thing will happen. Torvald will take all the blame for her. Christine says that she used to have a relationship with Krogstad and that maybe she can change his mind. She runs off to talk to him for Nora.
Torvald and Dr. Rank enter. In order to stop Torvald from opening the mail, Nora pretends she needs help with her dance for the Stenborgs' party. She dances the tarantella badly. Torvald is amazed that she forgot all he taught her. He promises to do nothing but help her practice until the party happens. That means for a little while, the Krogstad's letter will stay where it is. Rank and Torvald leave. Christine returns and reports that Krogstad wasn't home. She left a note for him. After Christine leaves, Nora counts down the hours she has to live.
Act Three finds Christine alone in the Helmers' living room. The Stenborgs' party is going on upstairs. Krogstad enters. Apparently, they used to go out, but Christine eventually ditched him for a richer man. She had to because her mother was sick and she had two younger brothers to care for. Christine says that she wants to be with Krogstad again and help him raise his children. Krogstad is overjoyed. He says he'll demand his blackmail letter back unopened. Christine tells him not to. She thinks all the lies in the Helmer household need to be revealed. Krogstad takes off.
The Helmers come down from the party. Christine tells them she was waiting to see Nora in her costume. Nora whispers, asking what happened with Krogstad. Her friend tells her that she has nothing to fear anymore from Krogstad, but that she needs to tell Torvald the truth anyway. Christine exits. Torvald is kind of drunk and tries to get Nora to sleep with him, but she's not in the mood. Dr. Rank drops by. He's super-drunk. He makes allusions that he is going to die soon and then exits into the night.
Torvald opens the mailbox. He finds cards that Rank left. They have black crosses on them. Nora tells him the cards are Rank's way of announcing his death. Torvald laments his friend's sickness. He tells Nora that sometimes he wishes she was in terrible danger so that he could save her. Nora tells him to open his mail.
When Torvald reads Krogstad's letter he totally flips out, telling her that she is a terrible person. He laments that they'll have to do whatever Krogstad says. He insists that Nora is not to be allowed near the children anymore, because she may corrupt them. Just then, a letter arrives from Krogstad. In the letter, Krogstad says that he's had a change of heart and will no longer be blackmailing them. Torvald is really happy and forgives Nora.
Nora, however, doesn't forgive Torvald. She tells him that she was expecting a wonderful thing to happen. She thought he would try to sacrifice himself for her, taking all the blame on himself. Nora, of course, wouldn't allow him to do that, and would've committed suicide to stop him. Torvald's actions made him seem cowardly in Nora's eyes. She tells him that she is leaving him, because they've never had a real marriage. She's never been more than a doll in his eyes. He begs her to stay, but she refuses, leaving both him and the kids, with the slamming of a door.
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