I’ve just finished two – of a three act play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen who was a 1879 Norwegian playwright. It’s about an apparently typical housewife, with three children, who becomes unenthusiastic and malcontent with her supercilious husband.
TORVALD HELMER, a lawyer
NORA, his wife
The couple’s three children, EMMY, BOB and IVAR.
NILS KROGSTAD, a barrister
MRS. KRISTINA LINDE
ANNA-MARIA, the nurse
HELENA, the house-maid
The action takes place in the married couple’s flat.
Set at Christmas time, Nora Helmer arrives home after shopping, she’s full of the joys of spring. Her husband calls out
HELMER [from his study]: is that my little skylark?
NORA [busy opening the parcels]: It is.
HELMER: Scampering about like a little squirrel?
HELMER: When did the squirrel get home. [pg. 148]
NORA: Just this minute. [She slips the bag of macaroons in her pocket and wipes her mouth.] Come in here, Torvald, and you can see what I’ve brought.
HELMER: I’m busy! [ A moment later he opens the door and looks out, pen in hand.] Did you say ‘bought’? What, all that? Has my little featherbrain been out wasting money again?
He goes on to tell Nora that she mustn’t waste money. She reminds Torvald, that surely they can waste a little now – just the teeniest bit seeing that he was going to earn a big salary, and that they’ll have lots of money again. He points out that it will be a whole quarter before he gets paid.
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NORA: Pooh, we can always borrow till then.
HELMER: Nora! [He goes to her and takes her playfully by the ear.] The same little scatterbrain. Just suppose I borrowed a thousand kroner today and you went out and spent it all by Christmas and then on New Year’s Eve a tile fell down on my head, and there I lay –
NORA [Putting a hand over his mouth]: Sh! Don’t say such horrible things! [ pg. 148]
The bold writing is there to highlight the condescending way Torvald talks to his wife, who – through her lack of wisdom – plays along with being his object.
It is a modern realistic play loosely on women’s rights. It addresses recurrent belief in male’s power, control and dominance as well as husband’s superiority over wives, mostly when it comes to monetary possession; evident in constant metaphors and references to frail creatures to signify Nora, such as ‘little skylark’, ‘little squirrel’ and ‘featherhead’, alongside other deprecating terms as ‘spendthrift’; emphasizing women’s gender inferiority.
An old [widow] friend from her past, Mrs. Linde, who has travelled a long distance, calls to the house [at the same time as a daily friend, Dr. Rank] and is hoping to find a job. Nora’s husband, Torvald, who is a lawyer, has just recently earned a promotion in the bank, so, Nora gladly finds employment for Mrs. Linde. When her friend moans about how difficult the years have been, Nora says that her life has also been fraught with difficulties.
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Henrik Ibsen uses characterization effectively in A Doll’s House to enhance the role of each character and the effect they play on the main character, Nora.
Equally, he uses Nora as a way to bring out the main theme of the play, which is the unfair consequences that happen to people that may have their hearts in the right place, but their actions are still in direct contrast with social expectations.
Nora is characterized as a childish and oblivious young wife and mother whose role is to please and entertain her husband and children. However, when she oversteps the social expectations of servitude placed upon women by acting on behalf of her husband (something as simple as borrowing money to save her husband), she gets immediately chastised As a result of seeing her efforts unappreciated, Nora leaves her family in a state of disillusion, depression, and disorientation. Although she does not know what her next step is going to be, it is obvious to her that anything is better than to be insulted by the one person for whom she gave up her right to be happy.
Mrs. Linde is characterized as Nora’s foil. Her character is meant to be the opposite of Nora. She has lived through painful times and has already learned about the cruelties of life. Mrs. Linde serves as a guide to Nora’s inner thoughts, and not as a judge of them. She seems to expect very little of Nora, as well. She represents a real, warm-blooded woman. Nora, in contrast, shows us the silliness of her person through her nonsensical behavior towards her husband, and the world.
Helmer is an enabler to Nora. He gives her a false sense of control over him by allowing her to serve as his personal entertainment; as a “doll in a doll’s house”. He reasserts his role as “the man of the house” by belittling Nora’s role as a caretaker. The way he does this is by giving her pet names that reflect his condescension. As the main bread-winner, he may also feel as if he deserves that much from Nora. When he sees that there is more to Nora than just a “lark”, or a “squirrel” of his own, his manhood becomes affected and he decidedly rejects to appreciate the sacrifices that she made for him. In the end, he ends up alone and abandoned by a disillusioned Nora.
Like Linde, Dr Rank represents a foil of Nora in that he has had to face reality as it comes. Terminally ill, he is hopelessly in love with Nora. He also represents the cruelties of nature, since his disease was inherited from the excessive behaviors of his father. His character represents the inevitability of fate, and the sad reality of nature. When he leaves his last scene, he accepts his role as a recluse to life, and he leaves with as much sadness as he enters.
So what we basically have is that the character of Nora, immature, oblivious, belittled, and seemingly naive, is surrounded by characters with possible emotional and social control over her. In order for Nora to break free she would have needed to learn the realities of each of them, apply their lessons to her own life, and learn to face reality for what it is. Ultimately, that is exactly what she did. And she became free.
When looking for the importance in Act One of a play, you should note the introduction of characters and the set up of a major problem which will be the main event of the play.
Act One of A Doll’s House introduces:
- Nora, a seemingly flighty wife and mother who hides a secret that belies her carefree exterior
- Torvald, her husband and an up and coming banker who revels in his position at home as the king of his castle
- Mrs. Linde, the hard-working, impoverished school chum of Nora
- Krogstad, a bank associate of Torvald’s with whom Nora has a secret bond of collusion
- Dr. Rank, an old family friend of Nora and Torvald’s who also has a secret crush on Nora.
The main events of significance to the plot throughout the rest of the play are:
- Torvald has received a raise, which will drastically change the Helmers’ financial situation.
- Nora confesses to Mrs. Linde that she has “saved” her husband by borrowing money to take him on a rest cure trip, money that she has scrimped, saved and worked to pay back. She is ecstatic that this money will now be easily paid back through Torvald’s raise in salary.
- Krogstad is revealed as the man who lent Nora the money she needed for Torvald’s rest cure, and he demands that she help him (by influencing Torvald) re-instate himself in his lost position at the bank or he will reveal their secret.
This last bit of information, coming at the end of the Act, is the most important for building suspense in the audience about what will happen next in the play. This is an important dramatic device, intended to hold an audience’s interest during the interval between Acts.
I have provided a link below to the Enotes full summary of Act One (and analysis) for more detail.
Summary & Analysis