A Doll’s House, written in 1879 is Ibsen’s best known and perhaps most controversial play. Written at a time when women’s liberation was an unheard of concept, its radical final act scandalized the conservative society of the time. Ibsen based the premise of the play on the life of writer Laura Kieler.
The play opens on Christmas Eve at the Helmer household where all of the action takes place. We meet Nora, a vivacious and seemingly frivolous woman. Her husband Torvald patronises her and treats her like a child which she seems to enjoy. She adores her children who are taken care of by her own former Nanny. Then there is Dr Rank, an ailing friend of the Helmers who secretly desires Nora. Unexpectedly, Nora’s old friend Kristine Linde drops in. There is a general atmosphere of gaiety and well being. This calm is shattered by the arrival of Krogstad. I hesitate to call him the play’s antagonist, but initially he does seem so. Nora’s cheeriness turns brittle and starts to crack. Her life is hardly the dream she’s made it out to be. Her not-too-distant past and its secrets are closing in on her and her entire world seems likely to crumble. The reckoning when it does arrive, leaves her unbroken but wiser. She finally sees her life, her husband and herself clearly. The final act is unexpected and powerful. But I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.
Every character in the play is so richly textured that you can never really pigeon-hole any of them. Even Torvald who at the start seems like a petty stock figure, reveals a hidden depth in the finale. I’d read a review which called this a feminist play, and certainly there is a strong message of female empowerment here, but I wouldn’t label it as that. Ibsen himself stated that he had meant A Doll’s House to be about self-realisation, irrespective of gender. I think it makes an impact whichever way you look at it.
Apparently, when A Doll’s House was set to be produced in Germany, it was felt that the original ending would be unpalatable to the audiences and Ibsen was forced to write an alternative ending. He is said to have termed this a “barbaric outrage” but wrote it anyway because he didn’t want it to be rewritten by someone else. The alternative ending is not exactly a cop out, just vague enough to not rock the boat too much.
Towards the end of the play Nora tells her husband that she has a moral duty to herself as a human being before she can fulfil her responsibilities as a wife and a mother. Today, over a century later, we still struggle to find ourselves amidst all the roles we must play. A Doll’s House is as relevant today as it was in 1879.