From our position more than a century distant, it is difficult for modern readers to imagine precisely how onerous the restrictions on Victorian era women throughout Europe really were. That a woman could be her husband's property, bereft of rights and nothing more than a child in the eyes of the state, was barbarism cloaked in the robes of gentility. Few at the time realized the inequality they perpetuated through law and culture. It was simply the way things were, the way things were meant to be. Those who saw the injustice of the Victorian woman's state needed powerful, resonant voices to pierce the shroud of silence that society had tried to drape over its deep, abiding faults.

Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House makes such a call, shattering convention in an effort to lucidly portray the state of Victorian women and gesture toward a future free of such oppression. With poignant grace he fulfills this purpose by bringing his primary character, Nora Helmer, through a painful spiritual reassessment of her state in the home--her doll's house--and her relationship with her husband Torvald Helmer.

Beginning with the establishment of Nora's illusory perspective on her state in life, progressing through the flickers of epiphany sparking within her as her world comes undone, and ending in a climactic spiritual reassessment she expresses to Helmer through a confessional dialogue, Henrik Ibsen fiercely demands that the Victorians his play shocked undergo their own spiritual reassessment and strive for true equality between men and women.

Lovely little playthings

As A Doll's House begins, Ibsen frames Nora as a childlike (perhaps childish) woman governed by her husband and blind to both her own state of unfulfilled existence and the world around her, embodying the Victorian ideal of the middle class woman. In an earnest, if somewhat naïve effort to save her husband's life, Nora takes a significant legal risk to obtain the loan she needs from Nils Krogstad. Yet by her own admission she shows an indifferent ignorance toward the implications of the law. When speaking to her of finances, Torvald asks, "Still, suppose (I died)? what then?" She replies flippantly, "If that were to happen, I don't suppose I should care whether I owed money or not" (4). While this sentiment is understandable, it is not an appropriate defense in the eyes of the law. Her entire worldview, however, revolves around a conception that, while she remains a 'skylark' and 'squirrel', nothing can harm her. As her children come in from a day at the park, she comments, "No, dogs don't bite nice little dolly children" (19). But dogs do bite, doll or no, especially when cornered and desperate.

Nora stumbles into Krogstad's trap when she admits to forgery, but expects her special status to protect her. "I don't believe it. Is a daughter not to be allowed to spare her dying father anxiety and care? Is a wife not to be allowed to save her husband's life?" (24). Krogstad's reply answers the question succinctly. "Listen to me, Mrs. Helmer. Either you have a very bad memory or you know very little of business" (22). In the revelation of her criminal liability and its implications, Nora learns for the first time that there is a world beyond her games and her minor concerns, a world that does not care whether she can "play the fairy and dance for you in the moonlight" (34) or "run about and do all her tricks" (33). Though she is expected by both Torvald and society to play the fool, in the eyes of the law she is treated as if she should know better. This inequality stings sharply, and awakens within Nora a desire to break out of her doll-like shell.

Hairline cracks and worn edges

As events spiral beyond Nora's control, she begins to examine herself in a new light that reveals the daisy chains binding her to Victorian expectations of her place as a woman. While she reinforces the condescending manner in which Torvald speaks to her, privately she expresses a frustration with this sort of bantering to her independent-minded friend Mrs. Linde. "You are just like the others. They all think that I am incapable of anything really serious" (11). Nora does not tread so far as to say she dislikes her place as a doll, but she hints toward a desire for an existence less frivolous.

She goes on to speak with pride of her secret accomplishments, small steps in the process of surmounting her financial obligation to Krogstad. "Many a time I was desperately tired; but all the same it was tremendous pleasure to sit there working and earning money. It was like being a man" (14). Clandestinely, she learns of the quiet joys of independently earning the fruits of her labor, an illicit pleasure for Victorian women. She pairs this awakened need for life beyond the doll's house, out in the 'world of men', with a slyly realistic view on her relationship with Torvald. "I mean, of course, when Torvald is no longer as devoted to me as he is now; when my dancing and dressing-up and reciting have palled on him; that it may be a good thing to have something in reserve?" (13). She rapidly rescinds this thought, but the words have already slipped away.

While she wants to pretend that her relationship with Torvald is as it should be, she knows the inequality and shallowness of it. Having no basis of comparison, she could never really act on this suspicion, however in conversation with Dr. Rank she gains a glimpse at a different sort of relationship; one in which she is no longer a doll, but a living, breathing person worthy of respect. He speaks to her earnestly about his love, without condescension or belittling. Her chastisement befits a Victorian woman, "You are a nice sort of man, Doctor Rank... don't you feel ashamed of yourself, now the lamp has come?" but his reply is unyielding in it's defiance, "Not a bit" (40).

Nora's interactions with Mrs. Linde and Dr. Rank sow the seeds of doubt and self-reflection in the rocky ground of her childish games, romantic illusions, and suppressed desires. But as the disaster of Krogstad?s blackmail staggers to its climax, a new, independent woman begins to blossom from the soil.

Things fall apart

When the climactic moment arrives in which all previous theater tradition expected Ibsen to resolve the conflict with a trite dénouement returning everything to its original state, he broke boundaries by allowing Nora to undergo a profound spiritual reassessment that not only identifies the true significance of women's oppressed state in Victorian society, but also issues a rallying cry to charge toward a future of equality. Her new revelation comes through from the very beginning, as her tone of address toward her husband changes entirely. "This is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation" (63). She is no longer his 'skylark' or his 'squirrel', but his wife, deserving of respect and finally realizing its absence in her home of illusion. She comes to an understanding of her ignorance in the ways of the world, an ignorance forced upon her by the patriarchical standards of society. "I am learning, too, that the law is quite another thing from what I supposed" (65).

No longer satisfied with having the world presented to her with childish simplicity, she decides to seek it out herself, independently. She must do this alone, as she now understands the real state of her relationship with Torvald and no longer may allow herself to continue it. "I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald" (63). She was never his wife, but his plaything, his doll, an attitude whose prevalence is evident in that this was a treatment merely transferred from her father. "I have been greatly wronged, Torvald?first by papa and then by you" (63). This is not a problem of her husband, or even her family, it is a sickness infecting the whole state of Victorian society, a sickness that she finally wishes to rebel against. She recognizes that this subservience never satisfied her, and with her new spiritual being may frankly state so. "No, I have never been happy... only merry" (63).

An appeal to her sense of duty and sacrifice does not dissuade her from this path. She has made too many sacrifices throughout her entire life to accept the weight of one more. "I have other duties just as sacred... duties to myself" (65). It has become time for her to perform those duties, a long process of learning everything over again as a new woman. Torvald, in desperation, begs her to tell him how they might again rejoin in their relationship. No longer her master or teacher, he now seeks her counsel. The solution she offers strikes to the root of the unacceptable state of women in Victorian society. "Both you and I would have to be so changed that... that our life together would be a real wedlock" (68). They must begin again, as husband and wife, as equals. She leaves not only him, but also the entire audience with this thought, her spiritual reassessment gesturing forcefully with one hand to a disease of patriarchy infecting Victorian society, and with the other to its cure; equality.

Pulling the pieces back together

In a progression of enlightenment that shocked and offended Victorian audiences with its brutal honesty, Henrik Ibsen presented the spiritual reassessment of a woman first shrouded by illusion, then slowly awakened to the real state of things, and finally brought inevitably to a fundamental change in her state of being. Nora beats the difficult path that every woman of Western Society faced as the Victorian era ended and the twentieth century began, a path toward suffrage, equal rights, and most importantly respect. Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House defied expectations to show in all clarity Nora's choice, a choice to be more than a doll, but a human being.

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