Doll's House: Ibsen's Prescient Commentary On The Problems With Patriarchy
"I mean that I was simply transferred from papa's hands into yours," Nora tells her husband Torvald at the end of the play, right before the walls come crashing down on their fragile marriage. Nora's awakening is precipitated by a strong and decisively realization that patriarchy is a primary moral problem in society. Before the awakening, Nora remains ensconced in patriarchy, decorated like a doll and enjoying life from within the doll's house. Oblivious to the objective reality of patriarchy, Nora fails to recognize the structural issues that create systematic oppression until Torvald's self-centered outburst. Significantly, it is a woman who catalyzes Nora's growth. Mrs. Linde, who is herself childfree and confident in her sexuality, consciously wants to help her friend by lifting the veil of dishonesty that clouds the Helmer relationship. Therefore, a Doll's House has an ancillary theme related to female friendships and the concept of "sisterhood" that is a prerequisite for the social, political, and economic liberation of women. The gender inequalities explored in Henrik Ibsen's a Doll's House continue to play themselves out today, in various cultural arenas, which is why the drama continues to remain relevant a century after it was first written.
Nora and Torvald are the perfect doll couple. Happily married and middle class, their family is the pre-television equivalent of the Brady Bunch. Their children have a nanny, but the parents are not too wealthy to be confined to the stuffy upper classes. The Helmers are still among the people. As middle class folk, money is an issue in the Torvald household. Money does become a central motif in a Doll's House, as it is the primary means by which Nora and Torvald negotiate their social relationships. Torvald does this quite literally as a banker; his relationship with money is explicit. Nora uses money as a means to negotiate social relationships too but in a black market manner due to her having taken out a black market loan from Nils Krogstad. Money reveals the paradoxical power conflicts within the Helmer household. Nora has worked legitimately, as she mentions to Mrs. Linde about her and Torvald's lean years when they first got married. Because Nora has engaged in the mainstream workforce, Torvald is not cast as the sole breadwinner as he might be if the couple were not middle class but were upper class instead. At the same time, money becomes a symbol of patriarchal power. Once Torvald landed the stable position with the bank, he is the sole official breadwinner in the family. Nora's odd job working on the side would have insulted Torvald's masculinity, calling into question his position as core patriarch. Money is indeed one reason for Torvald's outburst at the end of the play. Nora has usurped Torvald's power by (a) working on the side and thereby emasculating Torvald; and (b) proving that Torvald never had sufficient funds to display masculine prowess to begin with. After all, if Torvald were able to provide for his family as patriarchy dictates, Nora would never have needed to take out a loan from Krogstad.
However, there is more than that to Torvald's outburst, more than money. Torvald reveals two key things about his character, and both of these things are surprises to Nora. Nora realizes that the two never knew each other to begin with. Their marriage is but a sham, as real as a doll's house is. Torvald first displays the real reason why he finds Krogstad distasteful and as he keeps repeating, immoral. Torvald complains that Krogstad "calls me by my Christian name; and he insists on doing it even when others are present. He delights in putting on airs of familiarity," (Act II). This outburst shows how concerns Torvald is with his status, reputation, and ego. Nora never before knew this about Torvald, and it comes as a shock to her that her husband is more shallow than she once thought. Torvald admits that he wants to fire Krogstad because, "He would make my position at the bank perfectly unendurable." In other words, Krogstad would insult his masculine prowess in the same way that Nora insulted his masculine prowess by paying for his trip to Italy. The power Torvald has at the bank as a manager is parallel to the power he has in the marital relationship, as the manager of the doll's house. As a manger, he then dictates to Nora the terms of her metaphorical "dismissal" of wifely duty, just as he would have fired Krogstad. Torvald states directly, "I will advise you and direct you," (Act II).
Until the end of the play, the extent of Torvald's power-mongering remains invisible. Yet upon closer examination of the subtext earlier in the play, it becomes apparent that Torvald has treated Nora like a doll all along. The audience come to the realization simultaneously with Nora, as she hears Torvald speak as if for the first time. Torvald speaks with overt condescension to Nora. "You have no idea what a true man's heart is like, Nora. There is something so indescribably sweet and satisfying, to a man, in the knowledge that he has forgiven his wife -- forgiven her freely, and with all his heart," (Act II). That Torvald would re-frame the issue as a matter of his forgiveness of her is what ultimately drives Nora away. Torvald continues, expressing outright that his view of marriage is one of total control. "It seems as if that had made her, as it were, doubly his own, he has given her a new life, so to speak," (Act II). Here, Torvald shows that his belief is that wives are but mere possessions ("doubly his own"). Moreover, Torvald explains that the husband "gives her a new life," as if bestowing upon the wife her ability to live. This view of bestowing life upon the wife continues in the sense that Torvald makes an analogy between wife and child. For Torvald, as in any patriarchal marriage, the husband is the lord of the house. Wife is one of the children: "and she has in a way become both wife and child to him. So you shall be for me after this, my little scared, helpless darling. Have no anxiety about anything, Nora," (Act II).
How any critic could possibly miss the overt social commentary on gender is mysterious; such literary critics do not deserve respect in their own milieu due to the gross misreading and misappropriation of a clearly feminist text. "Nora's exit from her dollhouse has long been the principle international symbol for women's issues, including many that far exceed the confines of her small world," (Templeton 28). Yet as Templeton states, many readers of Ibsen have tried to neuter Nora: "Like angels, Nora has no sex. Ibsen meant her to be Everyman," (28). Yet Nora cannot be Everyman; she must be Everywoman. Men do not find themselves as dolls in the marital contract; Ibsen is calling for a whole transformation of the underlying structure of society, of which marriage is its primary symbol. Gender is central to the social contract that includes patriarchal control, and that control extends into arenas such as colonialism and in Torvald's case, the banking industry. If Ibsen's play is "about the universal human experience not about women," as some critics have claimed, then it is so only because Ibsen uses the gender inequities in marriage as a springboard for broader feminist commentary and social critique (Templeton 28).
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that Ibsen makes as much of a social commentary on masculinity as femininity. Men suffer too from patriarchy, because of the pressures placed upon themselves as being the bulwark of society. By stripping power from women, men deny themselves partners in fifty percent of the human race. The social commentary in a Doll's House is on gender broadly and not limited to women's roles alone but to men's roles and responsibilities. For example, Torvald was emasculated by Nora's deceit. Likewise Krogstad indicates that his masculinity is seriously called into question and is at the root of his need to keep his job at the bank. "My sons are growing up; for their sake I must try to win back as much respectability as I can. This place in the bank was the first step, and now your husband wants to kick me off the ladder, back into the mire," (Act II). Both Torvald and Krogstad buy into the concept of the man as being in such a position of power that there is no room for collective action or cooperation; each man is for himself.
Nora's new self-awareness is precipitated by her friend Kristine Linde's own objective observation of the fragile doll's house that Nora lives inside. Because Nora has lied to her husband, the marriage is revealed to have some farcical elements. If Nora and Torvald were equals, Nora would not have needed to lie to Torvald to begin with;…