A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen has earned critical acclaim from many, ranging from the common masses to renowned linguists. In 1879 however, at the time of its publication, it was at sharp odds with both societal and literary conventions and so, it was heavily scrutinized. It was fundamentally different from Romantic dramas, the prevalent form of theatre at the time, with regards to themes, characters, language and structure as Ibsen felt the need to change the literary style to suit the problems of the day.
George Steiner has claimed that “at the origins of the Romantic movement lies an explicit attempt to revitalize the major forms of tragedy… [in] the great traditions of the Elizabethan and baroque theatre.” A primary theme explored in Elizabethan drama is the impact of the individual on society and the idea of the individual having the power to bend society to his or her will. The literary movement at the time advocated the articulation of emotions and personality. This triggered a philosophical blast of new thoughts moving from the objective to the subjective. Furthermore, there was no emphasis on real world, controversial issues. Deviations from these conventions can be seen most clearly towards the ending of A Doll’s House.
Unlike Victorian dramas, the play’s conclusion is realistic. As a genre, realism does not specifically demand an “unhappy” conclusion, but it does demand a conclusion that is consistent and reasonable, given the circumstances. Nora’s leaving Torvald is consistent with her character as she has grown in self-awareness. The play offers no sudden “happy ending”; even when Torvald swears he will change and begs Nora to stay, she looks truth in the face and rejects his promises, placing no faith in his integrity.
This ending was so shocking to the audience at the time that Ibsen was forced to write an alternative ending, in which after arguing with Torvald, she is led to her children, overcome with emotion, cannot bear to leave her family and decides to give Torvald another chance. Ibsen later regrets changing the original ending of his play and even calls it a “barbaric outrage”.
A predominant theme in the play “A Doll’s House” that was greatly frowned upon at the time was Nora’s rebellion against not only her husband, but also society and the law. Although now Ibsen’s work receives a great deal of feminine praise towards its unadulterated rebellion against masculine dominance, in the 19th century it was seen as outrageously shocking. This was due to the Napoleonic Code, the prevailing civil code in the 19th century, which stated that apart from familial affiliation, women had no legal identity, and therefore could not own property or concern themselves with financial matters. Additionally, divorce laws also favored men. That being said, it was not Ibsen’s intention for the play to be seen as an event to promulgate feminism or the “woman question” as it was called then. In his own words, his “task has been the description of humanity”.
Another way in which Ibsen portrays the relationship between society and the individual is through his characterization, which is a far cry from that seen in Elizabethan drama. A significant number of the interpretive essence of Elizabethan drama emerge from an inconsistency between what characters are and what they do. One dimensional characters – used to stun or grant some comic relief – present no challenges since they pretty much are exactly as they appear. More fully fleshed out figures however, much of the time unsettle us by what Madeleine Doran has called “a disconcerting unpredictability that sometimes militates against a coherent total impression, whether of type or individual.”
This is seen clearly in Krogstad’s contradictory character: Although his willingness to use unethical means to achieve his goals, his bad deeds stem from a desire to protect his children from scorn. Although his willingness to allow Nora to suffer is despicable, his sympathy for her and the hard circumstances of his own life compels the audience to sympathize with him to some degree. Krogstad is the antagonist in A Doll’s House, but he is not necessarily a villain. Krogstad has reasonable motives for behaving as he does as unlike Torvald, who seems to desire respect for selfish reasons, Krogstad desires it for his family’s sake.
Moreover, Like Nora, Krogstad is a person who has been wronged by society, and both Nora and Krogstad have committed the same crime, forgery of signatures. Though he did break the law, Krogstad’s crime was relatively minor, but society has saddled him with the stigma of being a criminal and prohibited him from moving beyond his past. Additionally, Krogstad’s claim that his immoral behavior began when Mrs. Linde abandoned him for a man with money so she could provide for her family makes it possible for us to understand Krogstad as a victim of circumstances. This also deviates from the conventions of Elizabethan drama as it shows the individual as having no true power or sway over society.
It was also common for Elizabethan plays to make use of poetic language as it served to heighten the dramatic, allowing it to surpass the dialect of the time. The characters of a lower class usually spoke in prose, while the upper class characters spoke in rhythmic speech patterns, or verse. Playwrights usually took a great deal of care in crafting dialogue shifting between blank verse, rhyming (couplets), and often used five stressed syllables in a line of dialogue, commonly known as iambic pentameter.
“A Doll’s House” deviates from this convention as the entire play is written in prose, an unconventional characteristic of romanticism, but allows Ibsen to truthfully portray the characters and conflicts as they are. However, Torvald does speak in what Michael Meyer has described as “stuffy Victorianisms”, this further serves to highlight the start difference between what one appears to be and what one truly is.
Instead of completely diverging from all the conventions, he incorporates certain aspects to make the play more reflective of society at the time. For instance, although the play is only 3 acts long, rather than the traditional 5 acts, it does by and large, adhere to the structure of Freytag’s Pyramid. This allows Ibsen to draw the audience’s attention to consequences of the act, rather than the act itself. It is also for this this reason that it only references Nora’s forgery but never shows it. This inaction, so to speak, allows the audience to fully immerse themselves into Nora’s thoughts and experience her transition from an, although courageous and loyal, naive wife, to an independent woman who desires to find an identity outside of her roles as a wife or mother.
Ibsen does not glorify or romanticise Nora’s leaving. She will be leaving her children whom she loves and she will be alone in a world where being an independent women is made all the more challenging, not just by society, but even by law. Nothing in her life has prepared her for the difficult journey she is about to embark on, however, Ibsen does not present it with a sense of glory or sentimentality, only the slam of a door and a sense of finality. Ibsen’s choice to focus on an unlikely hero, a housewife, in his attack on middle-class values quickly becoming the talk of parlors across Europe and the play succeeded in its attempt to provoke discussion.
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