A Doll S House Nora Essaytyper

Earlier this year, I directed a production of Ibsen's A Doll's House for the Young Vic in London, starring Hattie Morahan in the role of Nora. Nora is a woman conditioned and formed by the patriarchal society of 1870s Norway, in which her main roles are to look beautiful, keep a comfortable home and satisfy the needs of her husband. But she has a dark, beating heart, and the play charts her attempts to understand and articulate her own desires and needs. The final, heartbreaking scene sees her leaving her husband and three children. Nora's slamming of the door to their apartment marks a pivotal moment in drama.

It is tempting, now, to look at the play's sexual politics as dated and dusty, tensions from an era that bears little or no resemblance to the modern world. But as I worked on the play, I kept having nagging doubts. Of course the landscape of women's rights has changed irrevocably in the last 100 years; but there are also complex dilemmas for many women which are no closer to being resolved. In a moment of serendipity, my friend, the playwright Nick Payne, gave me Kat Banyard's The Equality Illusion. I inhaled the book over two days, hanging from the straps of a packed Northern Line train on my commute back and forth from the rehearsal studio.

For me, it was a paradigm-shifting text. Banyard systematically unravels the idea that we have "arrived" at gender equality and points out the many areas in which we are rapidly slipping backwards. Despite many gains, she writes, British women still earn 22.7% less than men per hour, and are more sexualised and objectified than ever. The normalisation of the sex industry has led to an explosion in the consumption of pornography: during the 1990s, Banyard reports, the number of men paying for sex acts in the UK doubled. The inexorable forces of capitalism have intensified gender stereotyping, with girls beseiged by glittery-pink role models, something that continues to have a negative impact on the scope of their ambitions: in a recent UK study reported in the book, it was found that just 4% of girls betweeen 13 and 18 want to pursue a career in engineering, while 12% would like to be a housewife, and 32% a model. Female power remains intrinsically linked to looks: "In 2009," Banyard writes, "it emerged that the Bank of England had held a seminar for its female employees called Dress for Success, at which they were advised to 'always wear a heel of some sort – maximum two inches; always wear some sort of makeup, even if it's just lipstick.'"

Banyard's findings echoed many of my own concerns, both as a director and a mother, and I was fired up to try and articulate some of these big, thorny themes through my own work. Some were explored in my production of A Doll's House, which returns to the Young Vic next year. Another was the film Nick and I made in response, entitled Nora. In some respects, this is a contemporary take on the play, albeit in miniature (the whole film is slightly more than eight minutes long): our Nora, again played by Morahan, is a modern-day woman living in London, struggling to amalgamate a series of roles and identities.

Unlike Ibsen's Nora, she has a paid job – at an ad agency – and financial independence. But she is battling to juggle this with her roles as a wife and as a mother to two small children. In the film's opening scenes, we see the chaos of her trying to unblock her husband's bank card on the phone while dressing for work, making packed lunches and giving her children breakfast; then there is the frantic race with pram and toddler to nursery, the hurried changing into heels and makeup in the office toilets, before walking into a boardroom of men to make a presentation.

As many women know, it is near-impossible to get this multiple role-playing right. Our generation of women sprinted towards the promised land of true parity between men and women, but too few have partners who are interested in a role as co-parent; too many work in organisations with a total lack of flexibility, or who fail to support them in managing dual roles; and too many face casual sexism, day in, day out. In some small way, our film is an attempt to capture that experience – the unremarked yet complex reality of countless women.

In Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Nora Helmer spends most of her on-stage time as a doll: a vapid, passive character with little personality of her own. Her whole life is a construct of societal norms and the expectations of others. Until she comes to the realization that her life is a sham, she spends her whole life in a dream world. In this dream world, Nora does not take life seriously, an attitude that led to many of the plot’s complications.

Until her change, Nora is very childlike and whimsical. Her first act on stage is her paying the delivery body. Though his service only costs 50-p., she gives him a hundred. Though an additional 50-p. is not a significant amount of money, the casual way in which she gives it to him is indicative of her fiscal irresponsibility (Cummings). She hands him the hundred and before he can thank her, she decides in the middle of the transaction that she is not patient enough to wait for change. The fact that this seemingly mundane occurrence is presented as the first action on stage showcases the reckless attitude implied.

Fiscal irresponsibility is a prominent factor in the advancement of the plot. It is Nora’s fiscal irresponsibility that catalyzes the situation in which Nora's childlike expectations of Torvald are shattered. The conflict of the story is driven by Nora’s forging of loan documents to raise money for an expensive trip to Italy; Krogstad, who had processed the loan, tries to blackmail Nora over the fact that she forged the documents. Another aspect of the crime, which was not elaborated on so much, is that even if the documents were not forged, Nora did not have any means to repay the loan anyway.

Nora could be excused for trusting Krogstad not to blackmail her, but not recognizing that the loan would have to be repaid is inexcusable. Though at one point we are led to believe that whenever Nora would pry money away from Torvald, she would reserve half of it to repay the debt, when Krogstad confronts her, she confesses that she is not, in fact, in possession of the remaining balance.

An important aspect of a dream world is the suspension of cause and effect. Nora’s lackadaisical approach is very prominent throughout the story. One example of her disregard for others is when she blames Mrs. Linde for smuggling forbidden macaroons into the house. Though she is just trying to hide her indiscretions, she does not care whom she hurts in the process.

Another aspect of the dream world is the acquisition of material possessions; Nora is always trying to make herself happy by buying things: dresses, toys, candy etc., rather than doing anything meaningful with her life. She has never spent serious time with her husband of nearly a decade, and is always dumping her children on the nurse rather than bonding with them herself. This practice may have been common at the time the play was written, but Ibsen is clearly not ashamed of bold social criticism (Chandler 333).

In her dream world, Nora takes a back seat approach to life and becomes like an object, reacting to other’s expectations rather than advancing herself. As a result of her passivity, Torvald is very possessive of, frequently adding the “my” modifier to all the pet names he calls her. In the original Riksmål (Boel), there are many monetary idioms, lost in translation, that advance the concept of Nora’s objectness.

In one line, Torvald calls her “[his] dearest property”; Mrs. Linde states that she will save Nora “at any price”, as if she could be bought (Drake 32). Though she is infatuated with the acquisition of possessions, she herself is a possession of Torvald.

When Torvald enters the scene, Nora's childlike behavior becomes more patent. Torvald calls her pet names "little lark", "little squirrel", and "Little Miss Extravagant". Nora is being treated like a cute little girl and she happily accepts the epithets. Torvald finds himself having to restrain Nora with rules, much as a father would have to inhibit a child, forbidding her from pursuing candy and other temporal pleasures. (Kashan) When the play was first performed in English (in Milwaukee), it was titled "The Child Wife" (Templeton 113).

The maturity level Nora exhibits demonstrates that the relationship between Torvald and Nora is more like father and daughter than husband and wife. (Ford) She whines at Torvald, exhibits poor judgment, does not care about the consequences of her actions, and immaturely shuts her ears to unpleasant thoughts, placing her hand on her mouth and exclaiming, "Oh! Don't say such things!" when Torvald presents a hypothetical tragedy.

The father-daughter relationship is referred to later when Nora confronts Torvald in the final act. She makes this connection that life with her father was like life with Torvald. Nora’s father would force his beliefs on her and she would comply with them lest she upset him; she would bury her personal belief under Papa’s. According to Nora, Torvald was guilty of the same things. In addition to his insistence on her wearing the fish girl costume is his frustration over her inability to grasp the tarantella. The costume and dance are part of Torvald's fantasy of gazing upon Nora from across the room at a party and pretending that she is something exotic. Torvald made Nora take on a foreign identity; Torvald used her as a doll.

On the subject of the costume party, Dr. Rank suggested that Nora go as herself and that he be invisible. Under the surface, Rank is suggesting that Nora should not be a doll. With an invisible chaperon, Nora would not be dominated by a figure placing an identity over her. If this interpretation is Rank’s intended meaning, it would corroborate Nora’s judgment of his character when she explains how she always feels at ease around Dr. Rank because he does not have any expectations or demands of her.

At the end of the play, the doll symbolism becomes very powerful. Nora imagines that Torvald will two dimensionally remain morally upright and, on principle, defend Nora's honor and not allow Krogstad to blackmail the Helmers. Nora imagines that Torvald would sacrifice his own reputation and future to save her, but Torvald tells her that he would not make the sacrifice, shattering Nora's dream world.

At this point it becomes clear to Nora that “[she] had been living all these years with a strange man, and [she] had born him three children”. This realization forces Nora into the real world and she ceases to be a doll. At the end of the above statement, she adds “Oh, I cannot bear to think of it!” which echoes her childlike shutting out of unpleasant thoughts.

It is not only that Torvald would not sacrifice himself for her that opens Nora’s eyes to reality. She did not understand that though Torvald loved her, he loved her as a thing - a status symbol (Lord 25). Nora serves as a wife and mother, but not as an equal to Torvald. Torvald planned to cope with the scandal resulting from blackmail by stripping Nora of her spousal and motherly duties, but would keep her in the house for appearance sake. If Nora, with her reputation tainted as a criminal, would poison the minds of the Helmer children, she would be useless as a mother to them (Metzger).

The next thing Nora does is change out of her fancy dress. Torvald bought this dress for Nora to wear at a costume party because he wanted her to appear as a "Neapolitan fish girl". As one would put clothes on a doll, Torvald dresses Nora. When she sheds this dress, she is shedding a trapping of her doll-like existence (Cummings).

In the past, Nora was always a passive child-like possession who followed Torvald's orders, but now she is an independent adult and is able to dominate Torvald, who is used to playing with dolls. In comparison with the "real" Nora, Torvald is the doll. Nora seats Torvald at the table and explains her situation to him. She does not let him speak until she has finished what she wants to say. At the table, Torvald is still wearing the clothes he wore to the fancy dress party.

Like the fish girl outfit, these clothes are artificial; they are a costume and at the table, Torvald is put in a role where the costume is not appropriate and his "dollness" becomes apparent. He is like a G.I. Joe action figure at a little girl's tea party and he cannot cope with the situation. The incongruity of his outfit with the setting reveals that Torvald is false. He then realizes that what he thought was Nora was not, that his world was a sham, and that he is nothing more than a doll in a pretend world.

When Nora comes to the realization that her character was little more than a composite of societal and others’ expectations, she recognizes that the strong, staunch, principled Torvald she thought she was married to was only a character formed out of her own expectations. Their marriage was a doll marriage: he a doll husband, she a "doll wife”, and their children destined to be “doll children”.

In regard to the children, Nora realizes that if she continues the pattern of instilling societal norms on her children, they too will fall into the trap of dollhood. In the first scene, Nora is revealed to have bought a doll for her daughter who is so young that she is expected to break the toy in a short time; the tradition of doll playing starts at an early age.

Nora, having grown up as a manipulated tool of others, is under the impression that manipulation of others is a societal norm. Though she is usually passive, she can be seen to use others, even when the manipulation is of no benefit to her. A prime example of this is when she tells Dr. Rank that it was Mrs. Linde who brought forbidden pastry into the house. Telling the truth in this situation would not make Dr. Rank think significantly less of her, but she compulsively blames Mrs. Linde, which lowers her standing with Kristine.

Since Nora is willing to perform extraneous manipulation, even when it harms her, we can see her addiction to it (Young 74). Other examples of manipulation are having a nanny take care of her children, having Mrs. Linde repair her dress, behaving seductively around Dr. Rank, whining at Torvald to get money, and most importantly convincing Krogstad to overlook the similarity between her penmanship and her "father's".

One critic brings up the three uses of the word “wonderful” in the play. Each use heralds a conflict between Nora's dreamworld and reality. The first clash is when Nora realizes that her rebellious actions are outside the pale of societal norms: an objective shock. The second, a subjective shock, comes in the second act when Nora realizes that she is deeper than her childish and whimsical facade. The final, the “metaphysical” shock is when Nora realizes that her entire world is a complete sham; at the end of the play, Torvald, who is still a doll, is left wondering what “the most wonderful thing” is (Johnston 142).

One can think of each illusion as a wall of Nora's dollhouse; each time Nora recognizes the incongruity between reality and her doll house, a wall is torn down. At the start of the play, the house has three walls (the fourth wall being open to the audience), and at the end of the play, all the walls have been razed, leaving Nora free.

The stage itself is a good metaphor for a dollhouse. It may have the appearance of a 19th century Norwegian home, but a missing a wall grants the audience omniscience of the private lives of the characters. Would Nora have sneaked macaroons if she knew a crowd of people were watching her? The playwright can do whatever he wants to with the characters on stage; they are his dolls, but when Nora leaves Torvald, she also leaves the stage. Off stage, what was once Nora is now an actress. When Nora the character was going through the motions of her sham life, she was like an actress filling a role by adopting a prefabricated personality not her own, thrust upon her by others.


Cummings, Michael J.. "A Doll's House - a Study Guide ." Cummings Study Guides. 2003. 7 Jul 2009 http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/DollHouse.html

Chandler, Frank W. Aspects of Modern Drama. London: MacMillan Co., 1914

Boel, Herman. "Norwegian." The Language Database. 2008. Herman Boel. 7 Jul 2009 http://www.hermanboel.eu/language-database/lg_norwegian.htm

Drake, David B.”Ibsen’s A Doll House.” Explicator, 53.1 (1994): 32-34

Kashdan, Joanne G. "A Doll's House." Masterplots. Rev. 2nd ed. Salem P, 1996. MagillOnLiterature Plus. EBSCOHost. Victoria College/University of Houston Victoria Library, Victoria, TX.05July 2009 http://search.epnet.com.

Templeton, Joan. Ibsen's Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press ,1997

Ford, Karen. “Social Constraints and Painful Growth in A DOLL’s HOUSE” Screen Education 37 (2005): 156-58

Lord, Henrietta F. and Henrick Ibsen. The Doll's House. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1894.

Metzger, Sherri. "A Doll's House (Criticism)". Answers.com. July 5, 2009 http://www.answers.com/topic/a-doll-s-house-play-8

Young, Robin. Time’s Disinherited Children. Norwich: Norvick Press, 1989

Johnston, Brian. Text and Supertext in Ibsen's Drama. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.


  1. Mrs. Linde and Dr. Rank are the only characters who are recorded in the dramatis personae with titles. They are also the only characters who are not doll like.
  2. A Danish-Norwegian dialect that Ibsen wrote in.
  3. Evidenced when she whines "But we can waste just a little bit, can't we? Just a teeny bit?”
  4. Evidenced when she says "If something so terrible happened, I wouldn’t care"
  5. Evidenced when she says "who cares about them, I don’t know them”

Cummings, Michael J.. "A Doll's House - a Study Guide ." Cummings Study Guides. 2003. 7 Jul 2009 http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/DollHouse.html

Chandler, Frank W. Aspects of Modern Drama. London: MacMillan Co., 1914

Boel, Herman. "Norwegian." The Language Database. 2008. Herman Boel. 7 Jul 2009 http://www.hermanboel.eu/language-database/lg_norwegian.htm

Drake, David B.”Ibsen’s A Doll House.” Explicator, 53.1 (1994): 32-34

Kashdan, Joanne G. "A Doll's House." Masterplots. Rev. 2nd ed. Salem P, 1996. MagillOnLiterature Plus. EBSCOHost. Victoria College/University of Houston Victoria Library, Victoria, TX.05July 2009 http://search.epnet.com.

Templeton, Joan. Ibsen's Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press ,1997

Ford, Karen. “Social Constraints and Painful Growth in A DOLL’s HOUSE” Screen Education 37 (2005): 156-58

Lord, Henrietta F. and Henrick Ibsen. The Doll's House. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1894.

Metzger, Sherri. "A Doll's House (Criticism)". Answers.com. July 5, 2009 http://www.answers.com/topic/a-doll-s-house-play-8

Young, Robin. Time’s Disinherited Children. Norwich: Norvick Press, 1989

Johnston, Brian. Text and Supertext in Ibsen's Drama. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.


Endnotes

  1. Mrs. Linde and Dr. Rank are the only characters who are recorded in the dramatis personae with titles. They are also the only characters who are not doll like.
  2. A Danish-Norwegian dialect that Ibsen wrote in.
  3. Evidenced when she whines "But we can waste just a little bit, can't we? Just a teeny bit?”
  4. Evidenced when she says "If something so terrible happened, I wouldn’t care"
  5. Evidenced when she says "who cares about them, I don’t know them”

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