Materialism in a Doll's House
We like to think in the happiest marriages, couples share many characteristics. Their common likes and dislikes keep the marriage going through turbulent times. When marriages do not have this solid underpinning, they often fail to survive the turbulence most couples encounter. One marriage that demonstrates the horror of the shared sentiment of superficiality is that of Nora and Torvald Helmer, in Henrik Ibsen's play, A Doll's House. The play is a character study of Nora, whose character develops to maturity through the course of the play, but the play is also an interesting glimpse of how couples can live together with very little in common for many years. As Nora matures, Torvald does not. She learns from her mistakes and he refuses to believe there is anything that he does not already know. Superficiality and materialism was one of the characteristics that Nora and Torvald shared and when this paradigm shifts, there was little left to the marriage and family. In fact, Nora chooses to dissolve the marriage after she realizes very different the two of them are. Materialism shapes many people and in A Doll's House, we see how it shapes Torvald to the point of treating even his wife as an object.
At the beginning of the play, Nora is happy in her marriage. She is generally pleased with the arrangement that she and Torvald share. He, the husband, takes care of things outside the home while she, the wife, takes care of what is inside the home. It is a somewhat normal relationship. Nora has no reason to worry about the future; Torvald is the man and he will provide for them. Nora is near-sighted in this sense. She thinks of only one day at a time and rarely gives notice to much that happens outside her sphere. She is also what we might term as empty headed because she does not give considerable thought to political events, sad news, or other bothersome things. She is simple in this way. This personality trait lends itself to materialism because there is little else with which Nora can consume herself. As a result, Nora becomes more shallow as time goes on. We see this reflected in her conversation with Mrs. Linde as Nora brags about her husband's promotion and soon the couple will have "heaps of money" (123), indicating they will have more money to spend on frivolous things. This is nothing new for Nora, as Mrs. Linde remarks, "In our schooldays you were a great spendthrift" (123). This statement allows us to understand how Nora was raised to be this way. Her father treated her in very much the same way that Torvald does. Each man provided her with the money she needed to be happy and that was how she coped with many of the "issues" of her life. Meanwhile, Mrs. Linde is struggling to simply get by and is considering to whom she can attach herself for financial security. While it could be said that materialism is not the greatest sin on earth nor is it the worst thing two people can share, it does becomes problematic when it is the foundation upon which people build a life, as we soon shall see.
Torvald is equally happy in his marriage. He seems to have picked up right where Nora's father left off as far as surrounding Nora with things and not expecting much from her pretty little head. He is driven by money and things and we can only assume that from his drive that he believes this is how to keep a wife happy and a marriage stable. His manhood is associated with his financial status. His past experience taught him to only deal with certain cases and his job at the bank seems to satisfy his need to think about money all or most of the time. It is also worth noting that Torvald's job puts him in the situation of dealing with people and money at the same time. Hence, he never deals with people unless he is also dealing with their money. In short, the two are never separated in his mind or in his life. This psychological attachment to money is important in that it serves to represent Torvald's inability to deal with many people on a more personal level. Money and money matters are generally straight-forward in nature. Any complications are solved without too much angst. Mathematics is like a science in this respect. Numbers do not lie and there may be some comfort Torvald discovers in this type of relationship. Money matters are not as complicated as human matters can be. Torvald must also live according to the conventions of his day. He seems to be quite happy doing this. His life and future seem to rest comfortably in this setting. His job, his wife, and his home fit the social conventions of his day. There seems to be no problem with this on the surface. Goonetilleke agrees with this notion, adding that it is in Torvald's interest to hold up the conventions. He knows his "dominant quality, self-interest, will be protected by his adherence to conventional morality" (Goonetilleke). Goonetilleke states that Torvald imposes these beliefs on his wife because it "satisfies his vanity and makes her subservient to him" (Goonetilleke). This plays into his beliefs that he owns his wife. She is a toy in many respects. He owns her and she is his to do with as he pleases. Granted, he never harms her and she, too, plays along with this role. These aspects only prove to illustrate just how deeply materialism runs in their relationship. He owns Nora and she sees nothing wrong with that.
The couple shares a common, unspoken interest. Theirs is a happy circumstance on the surface. Husband and wife are motivated by materialism and it has entered into their psyche, although it appears they are not aware of this for the majority of the play. Only after Torvald realizes how his life can change, does Nora become aware of how deeply materialism runs through his veins. After Torvald reads the letter, Nora witnesses a completely different man. Unfortunately, this is the man Torvald truly is. He accuses her of being like a criminal instead of realizing the sacrifice she has made for him. Here we see just how much he thinks, or does not think, of his wife. When he tries to seduce her, we see how he views her as a thing other than a person with real feelings. She is in their house to serve him and his whims. She does not have a mind or an opinion of her own and that is the way it has been for years. Nora was content with being Torvald's thing until she saw his true self, which opened her eyes. Torvald could not accept his wife as a person with an independent thought, much less independent actions. Torvald's materialism runs deep in his veins for he never comes to realize why is his wife is so upset with him and why she is leaving. Sadly, it has taken years for this situation to transpire. Nora's debt, her one selfless act to save her husband from ruin, is what ruins their happy dollhouse. In fact, once Nora realizes what is happening around her the house certainly does not feel like a home. He calls her a "hypocrite, a liar . . . A criminal" (190). He blames her for wrecking his future at the bank and thereby destroying his connection with money. He has the audacity to blame her for ruining his future. The last act of the play uncovers the true aspects of both characters. Instead of seeing a woman who has sacrificed for her husband, Torvald sees an enemy. He cannot see what she has done for him because his feelings of shame and embarrassment get in the way. When he calms down however, he seems to be another man. The change is dramatic and no doubt frightening for Nora. In just a few short minutes, Torvald reveals that his wife nothing but a thing for him to possess and if that possession becomes too much of a burden, then things change.
It is worth noting that there can be no hesitation whether or not Nora loves Torvald. She does and she is content being his empty-headed wife as long as things remain status quo. If there is enough money to go around, there should be no problems. This is their unspoken arrangement. She is his little doll wife living in their little dollhouse and she is more than willing to be his "featherhead" (116) so long as things do not change. Their arrangement is fine until things begin to go awry. It should also be noted that it takes a featherhead to leave the man that would be a monster. Torvald is a nice man until things begin to unravel. When Nora sees his…