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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Essay on Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House

A brilliant philosopher once remarked that there is no universal standard of morality.   By this he meant that the morality of an action should be determined and measured not according to a universal law that sets the standard for what is right and what is wrong for everyone.  It is man that determines what is right and what is wrong.  Thus, an action is moral if such act promotes his needs.  An act is immoral if it does not promote his needs.

This is the ethical concern for the main character in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  The character in this story is confused on the morality of her action.  By her own standard she has done nothing wrong.  By forging her father’s signature for the purpose of saving her husband’s life, she thinks she has not violated any law.  On the other hand, the society considers that a law has been violated.  She has also put her husband to shame.  The question here is not limited to the morality of her action rather who determines whether an action is moral or immoral.  Should the wife be allowed to suffer because the society condemns her action?  

Background of the Play
The play A Doll’s House represents the different interpretations of morality every individual must face in life.  Every individual must struggle against the morality that is imposed by the society.  Henrik Ibsen, however, questions the authority behind the prevailing morality in our society.  For him, the prevailing interpretations of morality are imposed upon the majority by the ruling elite.   Thus, morality is not the question of what is right or wrong but rather it is a question of power. 

In this play, Ibsen shows how the society creates powerful rules for the people to follow.  Anybody who can comply with these rules of morality apparently lives a relatively stable economic life.  In the case of the Helmers, the main character in this play, they have a nice home, and they have servants who work for them.  They were happy according to the society’s standard.  They live within the comforts of their own home. 

However, society demands absolute obedience to its standard.  Society demands that everybody must be within the circle of obedience.  If any person fails to comply within its own standard then they fall outside of its circle.  Everybody must conform to a view of proper conduct which in many respects, extremely narrow and unforgiving.   In this play we find the society giving importance to respect for the sanctity of contracts, money and conventional roles of men and women in marriage.  The society is quite unforgiving to people who cannot comply with these standards. 

This is apparent in the two other characters in this play.  In the case of Christine, she has made an immoral decision early on in her life by leaving the love of her life for someone else.  As a result, she has become outside of the circle.  This is depicted in how the author showed the disparity in the social status and how it would seem that she had aged a lot compared to Nora.  In the case of Krogstad, he also had been outside the circle for a long time as he was caught forging another person’s signature.  Society considered him immoral.    

The playwright likewise showed that both their characters, Christine and Krogstad, are attempting to re-enter the society’s circle.  This is manifested in the way Christine tries to go back to Krogstad to start over.  In the case of Krogstad, he wants to maintain his job because his society only respects someone who earns well. 

The question now is will the main character of this story stay within the circle or would she choose to go outside of the circle just like what Krogstad and Christine did.  Ibsen showed his criticisms on the traditional roles men and women play in marriage.  In this play, Ibsen criticized the dominant role played by man.  This was the situation especially during the 19th Century for Europeans.  They regarded the husbands and wives as unequal. Here, Ibsen showed that in a marriage the spouses should live as equals so that they will have the opportunity to live as normal human beings.  

Summary of A Doll’s House
Act 1 opens with a very happy Nora Helmer, one of the main characters in the play.  Immediately, Ibsen reveals so many things that will guide the entire play.  Nora Helmer is shown eating Macaroons which her husband has always reminded her not to eat.  This could be an indication that she is concealing a secret from her husband.  Torvald, her husband, immediately calls her ‘my little lark’ and ‘my little squirrel’.  This symbolizes his low regard for his wife.  Also, the conversation between them centers on money which serves as a sign how important money is for this family.

They talk about their good future because Torvald has just been promoted to bank manager.  Nora is very happy because she thought she can buy so many things for her and for her family.  Torvald senses that Nora may have been violating the rules by eating sweets but she denies this.  Later on Dr. Rank, a family friend enters and Torvald talks with him in a separate room.  Upon leaving, Nora is visited by a friend, Christine Lindie.  Christine wastes no time recounting her unfortunate life to Nora.  She shares with her that she was forced to marry someone she did not love.  Now, she has been a widow for several years.  She narrates the hardships the she had to endure to make ends meet.  She also gives a comment about how lucky Nora is.  Nora replies that she too had to work hard for her family.  She boasts that because of her hard work for several years she was able to save someone she dearly loves.  She proceeds to tell Christine how she had to borrow a large sum of money from one person just so she and her husband could travel to another country with a better climate which greatly helped her husband’s health and condition.  She explains to Christine that she secretly saves money from her personal expenses and that she accepts additional work at night just so she could repay her loan in installment.   She reveals to her that she has to do this secretly since her husband would not approve of this.  She even expresses that their happy marriage would fall apart if he finds out that he owed money to his wife.  She is proud to say that someday she will inform her husband that she has done something to save his life that is after “my dancing and dressing-up and reciting have palled on him.”  She sincerely believes that a “wonderful thing” will happen if she tells him what she has done.           

Their conversation is stopped by the entrance of another character, Nils Krogstad, who is a money lender. He now works in the same bank that Torvald works.  Krogstad makes it clear with Nora that he came only to talk to Torvald about a very important business matter.  At this point, Dr. Rank makes a remark about Krogstad being a morally diseased person.  

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When Torval re-emerges, Nora attempts to convince him to accept Christine as his employee.  Torvald remarks that he will study the matter.  As Torvald leaves, Krogstad once again emerges.  He asks her if she could help with in his predicament.  He learns that Christine may be accepted and he may be dismissed from her. He explains that the society has lost respect for him because of the crime he has done in the past.  Though Nora was not listening at first, Krogstad reminds her of a crime she has done in the past.  He tells her that she has committed forgery.  He tells her that he has evidence that will prove that she borrowed money from him using her father’s signature.  Nora defends herself as she merely wants to save her husband’s life.  Krogstad informs her that forgery is a crime regardless of her intention.  Thus, Krogstad pleads that she should help him with his predicament. 

When her husband enters, Nora attempts to convince her husband not to remove Krogstad from work and retain him in his position.  She warns him that he might do the same thing Krogstad had done to her father before.  Subsequently, Torvald admits that Krogstad’s moral failings as a person can be overlooked but what he cannot stand is Krogstad’s familiarity with him.  He points out that since he knew Krogstad from years back, Krogstad has been calling him on a first-name basis even at his office.  Surprised by the flimsy reason for his plan to remove Krogstad from his work, Nora remarks on how narrow-minded Torvald was.  Torvald is angered by this remark and he immediately gives orders to the maid to post the letter of dismissal of Krogstad.  As this conversation progresses, the author shows that Torvald had little regard for the opinions of his wife.  He thought that he will never let his wife influence his decision. 

Nora is now seen talking with Krogstad who is now aware that Torvald wants to dismiss him from work.  Irked by the actions of Torvald, Krogstad warns Nora that he plans to blackmail Torvald.  He tells her that she committed the crime of forgery at the time she loaned some money from Krogstad and signed her father’s name.  Krogstad narrates to Nora that he intends to humiliate Torvald in the society by telling them that his wife forged her father’s signature when she borrowed money from her.  Nora becomes very worried.  She thinks that she does not want her husband to be humiliated.  She would rather die than allow Torvald to be blamed for a crime that she committed.  He warns her to do something about his situation otherwise he will inform Torvald about her secret.  As he leaves, he drops a letter inside the letter box. 

Nora now tells Christine everything about the money she borrowed from Krogstad and the forgery she committed.  She asks Christine to stand as her witness so that should anything happen to her she should tell her story that only she is responsible for the forgery and that Torvald had done nothing wrong.   Christine tells Nora that she would help her by immediately going to the house of Krogstad to visit him and convince him to change his plan.  During this time, Nora desperately tries to distract Torvald so that he will not have the opportunity to read his mails.  Later on, Christine returns.  She tells Nora that she was not able to talk to Krogstad since she was away but she left a note for him to read in case he comes back. 

Krogstad and Christine are now seen talking with each other.  He expresses his anger to Christine for having left him for somebody who is better able to support her.  He tells her that now she comes back again this time to take away from him his position in the bank.  Christine denies this and reassures him that she still loves him.  She tells him that she came back for him to renew their love for each other.  She also tells him to recall his letter to Torvald.  Krogstad eventually tells her that he is willing to recall his letter to Torvald.  This time, Christine changes her mind.  She tells Krogstad that it would be better for their marriage if Torvald finds out the truth. 

Despite all her distractions, her husband finally gets hold of Torvald’s letter.  When he finds out about what he had done, he shouts at Nora and expresses abusive language at her.  He scolds her for bringing shame to him.  He declares that the public may even think that it was he who told Nora to do the act she did.  He tells her that he denounced Nora as his wife and that she will no longer be allowed to raise their family.   

At this moment however, the maid brings another letter to Nora.  Torvald grabs it and reads it.  He finds out that Krogstad had surrendered the bond indicating that he no longer wishes to bring dishonor to them.  At this point, Tovald is overjoyed.  He tears the bond and shouts that he is saved.  He instantly tells Nora that she has been forgiven.   

At this point, Nora lets everything out.  She reveals to him how unhappy she had been for the past eight years.  She narrates that all those years there was never an opportunity that they were able to talk seriously about their disagreements.  She compares her life as his wife to her life at her father’s house.  She tells him that they are basically the same. In both houses she was never given an opportunity to express her own opinion.  Her father disliked it when she disagrees with anything that he said.  She remarks that she was always treated as a toy.  She now realizes that her life at Torvald’s house is basically the same with her life at her father’s house.  She declares that they both committed a sin against her.  She thinks that because of them she made nothing of her life.  For his part, Torvald admits that he may have some shortcomings though most of her statements are exaggerated.  She responds that she will accept nothing from him that tells her how to be a proper wife.  She explains that she is not yet ready to raise their children.  She realizes that she must first try and educate herself before undertaking the serious responsibilities of motherhood.  Then she leaves their house. 

Character Analysis
A.  Nora Helmer
Nora Helmer represents the antithesis of the 19th Century society.  At first we thought that she is a selfish woman who only cares about material wealth.  Towards the middle of the play we found out about the sacrifices she made for her husband and for her family.  Nora Helmer is described as an innocent person who questioned the narrow-mindedness of society’s standard of morality.  She was confused when Krogstad revealed to her that her act of signing her father’s name in a loan is a crime.  She could not understand why it could be a crime when her intention was pure and noble.  Towards, the end of the story, she experiences a realization that the person she married is no longer her husband.  She learns that her husband was not proud of what she had done to save her.  In the end, she decides to leave the comforts of her own home as she tries to leave her family behind.  It would seem to be a liberating experience for Nora who will finally learn how it is to live without the dictates of her husband and the society.  However, the author also shows that what she did may cause her self-destruction as she tries to go outside of the society’s circle. 

B. Torvald Helmer
He is what Ibsen considers as typical head of the family during the 19th Century.  At first we thought that he is a loving and generous husband who wants to take care of his own family.  Towards the middle of the story we found out that he is more concerned with maintaining is reputation to the society rather than his love for his wife.   He is a representation of the social malaise in Europe in the 19th Century.  He considers himself as superior to his wife.  He regards her wife as a sex object whose role is to gratify the sexual desires of her husband.   His concerns about his family are limited to supporting them and making sure that they are well-off financially.  He is shallow minded as he wants Krogstad dismissed from work because of flimsy reasons.  He tries desperately to make sure that he complies with what is moral and immoral according to society’s standard.  He even prefers his public reputation over his wife as he renounces and disowns his wife for having forged a loan even if that was done for his health.      

C.  Christine Linde

Christine Linde depicts the exact opposite of Nora’s character.  Early on in her life, she obeyed her father’s wishes by leaving a man whom she loved for someone else who can support her and her relatives.  She eventually finds out that she made a mistake.  Because of this mistake she lives in poverty and was forced to make ends meet in order to survive.  Now she tries to go back within the circle so comfortably created and dictated by the society.   Nora’s character is being compared to her character.  Ibsen shows that at the end of the story just as Christine attempts to go within the society’s circle Nora’s character decides to live her life outside of that circle. 


d. Krogstad

Krogstad also depicts the exact opposite of Torvald’s character.  He is judged by the society as morally diseased since early in his life he was caught forging another person’s signature.  In the past he chose to live his life outside of what the society considers an acceptable standard for morality.  However, Ibsen also shows that he experienced the society’s cruelty to those who cannot comply with its laws and standards.  Krogstad now suffers from poverty.  He realizes that the only way society will respect is if he keeps his job. 


Theme of the play
This play addresses so many social issues.  The first is the desire for material wealth that was prevalent during Ibsen’s time.  During the 19th Century, there was a huge social and economic change in Europe.  Manufacturing and production were at their peak which led to the development of the urban centers.  The consequence of this is that the society measured a person according to his ability to make money.  Those who had money were respected and revered.  The more money a person has the more he is able to control his own life and other life of other person.  They were also the ones who determined which people lived a moral life and which did not.  It was the affluent who set the standards not only for morality but how everybody should live.   This is apparent in this play as Torvald, the representation of the 19th Century middle class male, controls her wife and manipulates her like his little toy.  He also judges Krogstad character and he decided for no important reason to remove him from work.

Another theme which Ibsen sought to address is the unequal stature given to married women.  During the 19th Century, the women played more of a secondary role to the family.  Their responsibility is only to raise children and take care of their husband.  They cannot work and earn money on their own.  If they do decide to work they will find it hard to get an acceptable work which pays good.  Since women could not earn their own money, they depended on their husband for support.  Consequently, they cannot spend this money without their husband’s consent.  They also were not allowed to make decision on their life.  This has left women in the 19th Century totally dependent for their husband even for smallest decisions in their life.  They had no voice in their own family.  They were not respected by the society.  This explains why in the middle of the play, Torvald was infuriated by the idea of him being influenced by her wife in his work. 

Conclusion
The play concludes not with a revelation of an important plot in the just like any other story.  It ends with Nora’s self-discovery.  It is also considered as a tragedy because she finds out that her husband does not love her as much as she loves him.  Unlike, the other plays that end in the death of one or both of the main characters, this play ends in death of the love between two couples. 

She also discovers that aside from her role as a wife and as a mother she is also a woman.  She discovers that aside from her duties to her husband and her duties to her children, she also has duties to herself.  She became totally disappointed by her husband’s reactions to the one thing that she was proud of doing.  When her husband discovers about the loan and the forgery though she was afraid of his reaction, she thought that he will be proud of her for saving him.  But for her the wonderful thing that she had been waiting for several years did not happen.  In fact, she was astonished that her husband was willing to renounce and forsake her just because of the reputation that he has to protect.  The play concludes with Nora leaving her husband to try to search for her self-identity.  

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