A Dolls House Essay Shmoop
Family Drama; Tragedy
We call this bad boy a "family drama" for the obvious reason that it concerns a family. Over the course of the play, we watch the Helmer family disintegrate faster than Kool Aid in water.
Oh, and it's a "drama" not because it's full of more drama than a semester abroad program, but because it's a play—a piece of literature that's never fully realized until it's put on stage in front of an audience.
We also dub it a tragedy, though it's a bit different than the Greek or Elizabethan versions. Ibsen's version of tragedy is all about the individual vs. corrupt popular society. This is the opposite trajectory from a lot of previous tragedies.
(In Hamlet, for example, the good society has been thrown out of whack by the murderous, incestuous actions of Prince Hamlet's uncle. Hamlet must restore the kingdom to the lovely place of goodness that it once was.)
In Ibsen's version of tragedy, society was never any good to begin with. A Doll's House, for example, shows Nora (and maybe all its characters) trapped in a society defined by restrictive gender roles. In order to become more than a doll, Nora must shatter the cornerstone that her entire society is based on: marriage.
There you go: individual vs. corrupt popular society. In this tragedy, we don't get blood and death at the end; we get the death of a marriage and of the characters' old selves. Ibsen presents these things as the price of self-fulfillment: in order to make a freedom omelette, you need to crack a few marriage eggs.
At first our protagonist, Nora, seems like a bit of a ditz. When her husband, Torvald, calls her things like his "little squirrel," his "little lark," and, worst of all, a "featherhead" (ouch), she doesn't seem to mind (1.5-1.16). In fact she seems to enjoy and even play into it.
When Torvald first calls her a spendthrift, we're inclined to agree. In her first moments onstage, we see her give the porter an overly generous tip, come in with tons of Christmas presents, and shrug at the idea of incurring debt. Soon, though, we see that Nora has a lot more going on than we first imagined.
More Debt than a New College Grad
When Nora's old friend Christine arrives, Nora divulges a little secret. She's not just leeching off her husband. On the contrary, she saved his life... by getting them both into massive debt.
Unbeknown to Torvald, Nora borrowed money so that they could afford a year-long trip to Italy. Doctors said that Torvald would die without it—but that he shouldn't know how bad his condition was. Those Victorian doctors, eh? "We prescribe a yearlong holiday... but don't tell the patient that the holiday is a holiday. Yeah, we don't know how you'll do that either. So long, sucker."
Rather than being the spendthrift that both Torvald and Christine accuse her of, Nora's actually pretty dang thrifty. She's been secretly working odd jobs and even skimming money from her allowance to pay back the debt. Later on we learn that Nora was so determined to save her husband that she committed fraud to do so. This choice shows that Nora is both daring and tenacious. She values love over the law. When her secret is revealed we know that, beneath the ditzy character she plays for her husband, there's a whole other (highly competent) Nora waiting to come out.
But Victorian Ladies Aren't Supposed to be Competent!
This other, more capable Nora is eventually brought out into the open. The anguish of Krogstad's blackmail starts the process, but the final blow is Torvald's reaction when he finds out the truth. When what Nora deems "the wonderful thing" doesn't happen—when Torvald fails to attempt to sacrifice himself for her—Nora realizes that their relationship has been empty. The love she imagined never existed.
There was never any chance of her experiencing the wonderful thing she'd hoped and feared for. She tells her husband, "Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa's doll-child" (3.286). In the end, Nora has a sort of spiritual awakening. She walks out into the night alone but, for perhaps the first time in her life, she's on the path to becoming a fully realized, fully independent human being.
Go get 'em, Nora.Nora Helmer Timeline