Introduction to a Doll House
Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House is divided into three acts. Ibsen followed the form of a well-made play. Features of a well-made play include increasing suspense by methodical plotting, introducing past events early on and unraveling a secret, which leads to the climax of the play.
In Act 1, we're introduced to Nora preparing for Christmas. Her mood is exuberant. When her husband Torvald returns home, he makes fun of her spirit. He keeps calling her a squirrel because she's been eating so many macaroons. Right from the start, the audience sees that Torvald treats his wife like a little doll.
Also, in this opening act, the couple quarrels about Nora's spending. Torvald puts Nora, and women in general, down when he says to his wife,
Nora, Nora, how like a woman! No, but seriously, Nora, you know what I think about over spending. No debts! Never borrow!
Essentially, Torvald is using the term woman in a negative way. He believes that women are incapable of serious thinking. Once he sees that Nora is upset by his anger, he then tries to soothe her, the way one might soothe a little girl:
Now, now, the little lark's wings mustn't droop. Come on, don't be a sulky squirrel. Nora, guess what I have here.
He pulls out his wallet and hands her money. When Torvald emphasizes there must be no debts, this foreshadows the major conflict of the play. Foreshadowing is when an author hints at the major conflict of the play. As we'll learn later on, Nora took out a loan behind her husband's back, a loan she's almost finished repaying.
Once Torvald leaves the house, returning to work, Nora's old friend, Mrs. Linde, stops by unexpectedly. It has been ten years since Nora last saw Mrs. Linde. Mrs. Linde is now a widow without children or money, and she is visiting Nora to see if Nora could help Mrs. Linde find work at Torvald's bank.
Mrs. Linde is a dramatic foil for Nora. A dramatic foil is when one character serves to highlight the differences in another character. Mrs. Linde's presence stirs at Nora's own longing to be independent and making it on her own.
Nora tells Mrs. Linde that she will talk to Torvald about a possible job for Mrs. Linde. Nora also does something very revealing: she admits to taking out a secret loan. Nora withholds much of the details about the loan, but Nora wants Mrs. Linde to view her as independent, too. When Mrs. Linde makes fun of Nora for being frivolous, saying, Nora, aren't you sensible yet? Nora explains that she took a loan so she could take the family to Italy. Nora did this because her husband's health was failing, and the doctors suggested a warmer climate. While it's true that Nora did borrow the money, she did so to help save her husband's life.
Nora ends up revealing the whole truth to Mrs. Linde, again trying to prove her strength and independence. Nora admits that she borrowed the money from someone other than her father. At this time, women could not borrow money without a husband or father's consent. Mrs. Linde asks how Nora could possibly take out a loan, and Nora basically says she has her ways with men. Nora confidently adds that Torvald will never know the money came from someone other than her father because her father had died at the same time Nora took out the loan.
While Mrs. Linde and Nora talk, Krogstad stops by. He works with Nora's husband. He is also the man who loaned Nora the money. He stops by briefly and leaves because Nora is not alone. It turns out that Mrs. Linde recognizes him from her past. Nora does not want to talk about Krogstad at all because he represents Nora's sense of guilt.
Dr. Rank then visits. Dr. Rank is a family friend who stops by once a day. He is in love with Nora and Nora flirts with him, enjoying the attention. Dr. Rank symbolizes a lot of the darkness that shrouds the play. He's incessantly ill, complaining he won't have much longer to live. His presence reminds the audience that there's a sense of doom in the air.
When Dr. Rank and Mrs. Linde leave, Krogstad returns and blackmails Nora. He will tell Torvald the truth about the loan unless Nora convinces Torvald to promote Krogstad at work. Nora explains how difficult this would be. She says she has no power over such matters. Krogstad takes it a step further, proving that Nora forged her father's signature on the loan note from Krogstad. (On the date the loan was signed, Nora's father was dead). Essentially, Krogstad says that if he doesn't get this promotion at work, he will tell Torvald everything.
Torvald returns home, seeing Krogstad on the way out. Torvald thinks it's suspicious, confronting Nora:
I can see by your face that he's been here, begging you to put in a good word for him…You wanted to hide it from me that he'd been here…My little songbird must never do that again. My songbird needs a clean beak to warble with. No false notes.
This quote is an example of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that a character doesn't know. When Torvald believes his wife is not being discrete by merely speaking with Krogstad, it reminds us that he doesn't even know the half of it. Also, the fact that he refers to her as needing a 'clean beak' reminds us how much guilt Nora feels regarding her deception.
Torvald and Nora then begin to chatter about the upcoming costume party. But Krogstad is brought up again. Torvald mentions that Krogstad has a mixed past with problems related to forgery. Then Torvald goes on and on about how sinful Krogstad's behavior is, and how his wrongdoings will infect Krogstad's own children. This is also an example of dramatic irony. Nora is guilty just like Krogstad. When the maid enters, offering Nora her children, Nora says No, no, no, don't let them into me. Nora is afraid she will infect her own children.
In Act 2, we find Mrs. Linde and Nora picking out clothes for the masquerade ball. Mrs. Linde will help with sewing. Mrs. Linde says that Dr. Rank must be the man who loaned Nora the money. Nora sidesteps Mrs. Linde's questions. Then Torvald returns home, and Mrs. Linde leaves.
Torvald and Nora argue because Torvald says he will fire Krogstad to make a place for Mrs. Linde. Nora says that there are other bank clerks he could fire. Torvald says it's insulting to have a wife second-guessing his business decisions. He gives the maid a letter to send, and tells Nora the letter is Krogstad's notice. Then, Torvald returns to his study.
Dr. Rank visits and he and Nora flirt. She shows him her silk stockings, a symbol of female sexuality. Some part of Nora believes she needs a man's assistance in getting out of trouble. She wants to confess to Dr. Rank what she's done, but he confesses his undying love for Nora first. Nora says she enjoys Dr. Rank's company and continues flirting with him. Part of Nora believes that sexuality is her only source of power.
Once Dr. Rank leaves, Krogstad comes by, threatening Nora one last time. As he leaves, he drops a letter into Torvald's mailbox. Only Torvald has the key to the mailbox. The letter proves that Nora had been dishonest and had committed forgery.
Mrs. Linde returns and Nora confesses everything to her. Mrs. Linde devises a plan and tells Nora to stall Torvald and distract him from opening the mailbox. Then Mrs. Linde explains she will track down Krogstad (who does remember Mrs. Linde with fondness), and convince him to ask Torvald for his letter back.
Nora, trying to distract Torvald, asks him to help her rehearse her dance for the masquerade ball. Torvald plays the piano while Nora dances the Tarantella. The Tarantella is an older Italian Folk dance. The dance usually includes a lot of female dancers. It's a flirtatious, wild dance. The dance is based on the tarantula spider. The whirling movement of the dance is meant to get rid of the poison of a tarantula's bite.
Symbolically, this dance serves to show Nora trying to get rid of her own infection. As she dances, Torvald says: Slower. Slow down…Not so violent, Nora. Torvald is witnessing Nora's out-of-control behavior and it makes him uncomfortable. Torvald worries that he has lost control over his own wife.
Mrs. Linde returns after leaving a note for Krogstad. Mrs. Linde says that Krogstad was out. Nora, still breathless from the Tarantella, is remarkably careful about it all, saying Don't try to stop anything now. After all, it's a wonderful joy, this waiting here for the miracle.
Once Mrs. Linde leaves, Nora counts down the hours until the Tarantella performance is over. The miracle Nora is expecting is unclear. The audience must wonder at this point if Nora is planning to kill herself.
Act 3 opens with Mrs. Linde and Krogstad stealing a private moment during the masquerade, which is at the Helmer's home. Krogstad says he will ask for the letter back if it would make Mrs. Linde happy, but she says not to bother, that everything must come out in the open. Then she asks him to meet her after the party. She wants Krogstad to take her home. From this scene, we can assume Mrs. Linde and Krogstad are starting a romantic relationship.
Then Nora and Torvald come downstairs, leaving the party. Nora had wanted to stay longer because she was energized after her performance, but Torvald insisted she go downstairs to rest. Torvald's not sleepy, but rather, he says he feels 'quite exhilarated.' In other words, he's feeling frisky. He says that sometimes he looks across the crowded room to look at Nora not as his wife, but as a romantic conquest he has just met. Nora tries to avoid his romantic talk, since she's not in the mood for his advances.
Dr. Rank stops by, talking morbidly about his impending death. He leaves, and Torvald goes to his study and says he needs to empty his mailbox. As he reads the letter from Krogstad, Nora starts for the hall, running from the scene. They argue and he says to her,
Oh, what an awful awakening…How infinitely disgusting it all is! The shame! I should have known. All your family's flimsy values…No religion, no morals, no sense of duty.
At the time of this play, many people placed great value on genetics. In other words, Torvald blames Nora's father for passing on bad DNA to Nora. Eventually, Torvald forgives Nora, but his wounding words are too much for Nora. Nora says to Torvald that he never understood her. She says, We're closing our accounts, Torvald.
As Nora announces she will be leaving him and her children, Torvald says, Before all else, you're a wife and mother. For what else were women supposed to be doing at this point in history? Nora believes she has another purpose:
I don't believe in that anymore, I believe that, before all else, I'm a human being, no less than you--or anyway, I ought to try and become one. I know the majority thinks you're right…But I can't go on believing what the majority says, or what's written in the books. I have to think over these things myself.
This passage demonstrates how Nora's character represents a feminist theme. Feminists as you probably know, are concerned with women's rights, which was a fairly new idea at the time of this play. Nora no longer wants to be a doll in Torvald's home; she wants to be a human. She packs a bag and leaves the house. The last scene shows Torvald sitting alone.
Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House is comprised of three acts and is considered to be a well-made play, which has features that include increasing suspense by methodical plotting, introducing past events early on and unraveling a secret, which leads to the climax of the play. Despite not being a feature of a well-made play, A Doll House also ultimately serves as a feminist parable, meaning that it's concerned with women's rights. These themes are mostly explored through the interactions between characters like Torvald, his wife Nora, her debtor Krogstad, Mrs. Linde and Dr. Rank.
Several other dramatic features are employed in this play, such as foreshadowing, which is when an author hints at the major conflict of the play and dramatic irony, which is when the audience knows something that a character doesn't know. It also includes Mrs. Linde serving as Nora's dramatic foil, which is when one character serves to highlight the differences in another character.
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