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Tuesday, November 09, 2021

A Doll's House as a Problem Play | Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen’s famous play “A Doll’s House” has been considered as a great problem play or thesis play appeared on the literary scene in 1879 in Norway; it was translated into English by William Archer in 1889. Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll’s House’ can be deemed as ‘feminist and sociological play’. It bitterly criticizes and comments on the oppression of women in marriage.

A Doll's House as a Problem Play
A Doll's House as a Problem play

Henrik Ibsen has displayed great craftsmanship while delineating a character of Nora Helmer who is the protagonist of the play and a representative of all women in general. The play “A Doll’s House” is tinged with realism.  

Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House

Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll’s House” has left its imprint on the playwrights to appear on the literary scene such as George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Priestley.  

It is important to note that Henrik Ibsen has been acknowledged as the founder of modern naturalistic drama. Henrik Ibsen’s three-act play “A Doll’s House” deals with a conflict between a husband and a wife but it has universal appeal. The play presents the problem regarding women’s status and role in society and family and leaves the final verdict to the readers. 

Nora's Quest for Identity:

The play “A Doll’s House” comments on the status of a wife in relation to her husband and her household. It does not advocate the freedom women and right of women in society but it primarily concerns with the pathetic outcome of the subordination of a married woman. Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” presents a picture of conjugal life of middle class couple: Nora Helmer and Torvald Helmer. 

In “A Doll’s House”, Henrik Ibsen has dexterously employed symbolism chiefly as a means of character-relationship. The dramatist has skillfully employed the retrospective method in order to portray characters and to give vivid idea of the situation. He has also made use of parallelism, contrast and dramatic irony in order to fetch good results. 

Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” also observes three classical dramatic unities of Time, Place and Action. The play has also been called as a feminist play for it deals with the theme of oppression of women which has universal appeal. Ibsen has focused a social problem with harsh realities. 

“A Doll’s House” presents a story of domestic and married life of a woman- Nora Helmer who has lost her identity. Henrik Ibsen seemed to emphasise a particular weakness and flaw in the social fabric. He pointed out the malady of subordination and oppression of women in general and leaves the solution to his readers. 

Relationship between Nora and Torvald;

The play, “A Doll’s House” opens with description of a marital life of Nora Helmer and her husband, Torvald Helmer. Nora is the protagonist of the play who is loved by her husband. But it is important to note that though Torvald passionately loves Nora, his expressions clearly suggest that he regards Nora as a kind of his pet. 

Torvald addresses Nora as ‘little songbird’, “my little skylark”, “little squirrel”, “little person” and “little woman”. It seems that all these expressions of Torvald points out ‘littleness’ and insignificance of Nora in his life though she plays vital role in his life. 

It is interesting to note the epithets ‘Little’ employed by Torvald Helmer before the names ‘squirrel’, ‘songbird’, ‘woman’ etc clearly gives the readers the nature of his relationship with Nora. These pet-names employed by Torvald clearly indicate Nora’s place and status in her household and in her husband’s eyes. 

There is no doubt that Torvald loves Nora but it is the love of a master for somebody lower in status and position. Torvald’s authoritative language and egoistic attitude clearly imply that he is the master of the house who repeatedly reminds Nora of her subordinate status in his life.  

Torvald insists that Nora should not spend money like a spendthrift. He thinks that Nora has inherited this extravagance from her father. He gives advice to Nora even in trivial matters in a most polite and loving manner as if she is a ‘doll’ who knows nothing about life. He asks Nora not to eat macaroons for they will spoil her teeth. 

Torvald Helmer does not like to borrow money from others; Nora borrows money from Krogstad for Doctor Rank advises her to take her husband, Torvald to some warmer place. She does so in order to save Torvald’s life. Nora had also once forged her father’s signature. She has been paying the amount to Krogstad in instalments. She has been trying to maintain harmony in her marital life. Torvald is totally nescient about her sacrifices. 

Nora is quite confident that Torvald would save her if she gets entangled into any problem. She proudly tells Doctor Rank that Torvald would even sacrifice his life for her without any fear and hesitation. Torvald also behaves in that manner of having all responsibility of his family. But he is unaware of the fact that his mettle is going to be tested in the course of time. 

Torvald Helmer is unaware of Nora’s guilt in having forged her father’s signature. He speaks in a manner of a moralist and a strict disciplinarian. Nora trembles at the thought of forgery and begins fear that she may be corrupting her children and spoiling her home by doing so. 

When Torvald goes through Krogstad’s letter, he gets agitated and anxious. Nora thought that her husband would definitely take the whole responsibility for her forgery. But Torvald accuses and blames her which shocks and surprises. Nora’s confidence is shattered to pieces when Torvald accuses her. 

Torvald thinks that Nora has ruined his happiness and future prospects. He is possessive but ego-centric. As soon as the danger from Krogstad is averted, Torvald comes back to his previous complacency and normalcy. This instance makes the readers recall George Bernard Shaw’s play “Candida” and J.B. Priestley’s play “An Inspector Calls”. 

Torvald Helmer resumes his loving and patronizing attitude towards Nora. He compares Nora to ‘hunted Dove’ whom he has rescued from the evil clutches of a ‘cruel hawk’. He tells Nora that he has forgiven her and she can now take refuge in his love and care. Torvald still thinks that Nora needs his love and guidance. 

On the other hand, Nora is completely disillusioned when she comes to know about Torvald’s self-centred attitude. She comes to know about her husband’s pretentious nature and the hollowness of his so called ‘morality’ and ‘love’ for her. She finds her lonely when she is in great need of support from her husband whose moral values collapse in the face of crisis. Torvald Helmer fails to understand his wife, Nora. 

As a result, Nora decides to leave Torvald who tries to placate her anger. Nora tells Torvald that her father treated her as a baby-doll, and Helmer has deemed her as his doll-wife. In this way, both as a child to her father and wife to Helmer, Nora has lost her own identity. 

Now Nora wants to establish her own identity and understand her own role in society. There is no doubt that she is wife to Torvald Helmer and mother to her child, but she is, first and foremost, an individual. 

Nora thought that the law of society allowed her to protect her bedridden husband from all possible dangers and her father who had been on the verge of death. Nora’s notions about society, religion, moral values, and marriage are shattered to pieces. As a woman, she has always been expected to make sacrifices for everybody including her husband, but when she gets trapped in the web of problems she finds nobody by her side. She is all alone in this sea of life while facing challenges. 

Nora revolts against the established roles of a woman who is a daughter, a wife, a mother and a loving host to the guest. Nora wants to have no further contact with her husband, Helmer who stepped back when circumstances demanded support from him to his wife. She steps out of her house slamming the door behind her with a bang. The banging of the door leaves great effect both on the spectators and reader. 

Aptness of the Title:

If the play, “A Doll’s House” ended on the note of compromise between Nora and Helmer, it would not have great impact on the audience. Thus, the title of Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” is apt and appropriate. 

The title of Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll’s House” is apt and appropriate. The play hints at Nora’s sad state in her own house as she is being treated like a doll or a puppet. In addition to this, her decisions are influenced by others till she leaves her house. 

“A Doll’s House” is modern tragedy for Nora who has maintained harmony in her married life, performs “Tarantella” in her household. It has become very difficult for her to maintain her status and self-respect in her family. At the end of the play, she takes a revolutionary step and leaves her family. The decision taken by Nora heralded the dawn for women in general and made them think of their rights. 

Use of Symbols

Henrik Ibsen has made use of a few symbols in the play. There are only five characters in the play and the action takes place in a house but the plot construction and art of characterization make the play special. There are no digressions in the plot, and the symbols are highly suggestive. For example : Nora’s eating of macaroons indicates her innocence and purity, the Christmas tree suggests sacrifices Nora has to make in her life, the Tarantella implies Nora’s desperate struggle, Nora’s black dress stands for her changed outlook. 

The action of the play runs around three days. There is fine blending of realism and idealism. Ibsen has artistically presented a contrast between real life and moral values. Nora’s departure from her house asks innumerable questions to the reader. 

Is Nora’s decision to leave her husband wise or foolish? Will her life be happy after leaving her house? Do people also perform tarantella in their real life? The answers to all these questions are left to the readers. Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll’s House” is a quintessence of a problem play which advocates reform in society.    


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