The famous play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen has been variously interpreted during the past century and a half, and the main character of Nora and Torvald Helmer have been studied and portrayed literally thousands of times, by thousands of performers throughout the world. It was Ibsen’s first “modern tragedy, a domestic drama that dealt with concrete problems of modern life” (Shepherd-Barr 21-22). Looking at each character separately, and then comparing their actions throughout the play, we can begin to understand their personalities and what drives them to act the way that they do. Historically, there has been a transition from viewing Torvald as the protagonist when the play was first written, to Nora being viewed as a modern day heroine, with Torvald as the possessive and condescending husband who creates a fantasy world in which the two of them live; however, in closer examination we can see heroic qualities in both characters, and perhaps more easily find the faults which have helped build the doll’s house in which Nora feels she lives.An examination of Nora and Torvald’s personalities gives us better insight into the narcissistic and selfish sides to both of them. From the beginning of the play it is obvious that Torvald is the head of the Helmer household, that he, and only he, is able to do the finances right, that only he can be reasonable and keep things in order, and he feels Nora is not capable of being able to do what he does (Ibsen 1055-1058). His family must live up to the expectations he places on them, and he especially places this burden upon his wife. We see this show of narcissism particularly in the final scene, after he discovers that Nora borrowed money for their trip to Italy from Krogstad and that she has forged her father’s signature.
At this revelation he goes from the gentle (if condescending) husband to a man whose first and only worry is their appearance to the outside world, “From now on there can be no question of happiness.All we can do is save the bits and pieces from the wreck, preserve appearances…” (Ibsen 1103). He views her not as the wife he loves anymore, but as someone who has “ruined [his] entire happiness, jeopardized [his] entire future” (Ibsen 1102).
The moment she no longer lived up the expectation he placed on everyone in his life, she became only a problem to him and not someone worth loving or helping. “Torvald’s self-righteous vision of a structured, organized, and fair world, in which he is the master of his house, conflicts with the reality around him” (Shideler). Nora may not share this trait of narcissism, but her childish selfishness is evident throughout the entire play (Drake).
She forges her father’s signature, but does not think about how it would affect herself or her family later, she spends money that they don’t have and ignores her husband’s warnings, she uses her husband’s view of her as a child as a means to manipulate him and get what she wants, and in the final act of the play, she leaves her children behind so she can “try to educate” herself (Ibsen 1105-1109).Nora has traditionally been considered the most beloved of Ibsen’s characters in A Doll’s House, in stark contrast to Torvald’s image as a quiet, but consistent, antagonist to Nora’s protagonist, largely due to the way they are both portrayed throughout the play. Though Nora’s depiction as a disobedient child throughout most of the play may seen strange to the modern reader, it was perhaps simply a means for Ibsen to prove a point about the subordinate position women held in society during the time of his life.
By showing the resourcefulness Nora possesses, and then contradicting it with showing the personality she had to acquire to survive in a male-dominated society, we are led to believe that if she only had the chance to prove herself in the world, she would be able to. Throughout the play Nora consistently shows that she is torn between the woman she is supposed to be according to her husband and society, and the woman she wants to be (Schwarez). In understanding the point Ibsen was trying to make we can begin to see the reason why so many people have grown an affection for her character, despite her faults, and viewed Torvald as a domineering and chauvinistic husband (Drake).
While Nora’s faults are often overlooked so that the overall moral of the story can be appreciated, very few have found any redeeming qualities in Torvald, largely due to the symbolic value of his character in the story. His treatment of his wife throughout the entire play shows him restricting what she eats, what she spends, and even how she feels about herself. Through Torvald’s treatment of Nora Ibsen asks his audience to reexamine traditionally ‘happy’ marriages and the way in which men generally treat women (Schwarez). Again, we see a situation in which the characters are representations of something greater than just a single person and a single situation.Looking at both characters, it is hard to assign either of them the title of hero. Both possess qualities that would automatically be viewed as faults and not something to be viewed as heroic; however, history and such movement as feminism have claimed Nora as the ultimate hero, a woman who, in discovering that she is in no way independent from her husband, progresses during the course of the play, eventually to realize that she must discontinue the role of a doll and seek out her individuality (Drake).
Nora’s struggle to break free opens up doors to her that were at one time closed. From her quiet defiance of her husband by eating the macaroons, to the final scene in which she finally stands up for herself and forces Torvald to see her as a woman and a person, and in so doing Nora realizes that she is worthy of more than what society, and her husband, have given her (Schwarez).From Nora’s faults we see emerge a strong and independent woman whose final actions are heroic in the eyes of modern society, yet the heroic qualities that Nora expects Torvald to exhibit never come to pass. At the end of the play Nora says, “For eight years I have been patiently waiting.
Because, heavens, I knew miracles didn’t happen every day. Then this devastating business started, and I became absolutely convinced the miracle would happen” (Ibsen 1107). Nora admits that for eight years she had been expecting Torvald to prove that he loves her and has kept her secret dream of being saved by Torvald.
She was hoping that, in the midst of all her trouble, Torvald’s love for her would bring heroic qualities to the surface, that he would step forward and miraculously prove his true character:Torvald is characterized by his preoccupation with himself and his failure to recognize and return the kind of love that Nora has given him. And Nora’s love is characterized by sacrifice and devotion – and by the fact that her kind of love must be kept secret in their society (Bo 2).For the once selfish Nora, to be willing to sacrifice everything because she did something wrong to save her husband’s life is certainly a step towards her own empowerment. Nora becomes willing to sacrifice all of herself for her husband and his honor, but in the end, despite the fact that Nora was hoping for a miracle, Torvald is not willing to sacrifice anything for Nora. The hero Nora had been hoping for does not come to the rescue, and so she realizes that the only way for her to go on will be to develop heroic qualities herself (Shideler). Unfortunately, in doing so Nora must leave behind the life she has created, her home and her children, perhaps the only actions of Nora’s in that final scene that makes her seem less than heroic (Ibsen 1107-1109).
Yet, these actions are a product of the oppressive, male-dominated society in which Nora lives, a society where she cannot even feel qualified enough to raise her own children without her husband’s guidance. Nora’s character verbalizes this when she speaks to Torvald in the final scene:On the contrary, you were quite right. I’m not up to it. There’s another problem needs solving first. I must take steps to educate myself. You are not the man to help me there. That’s something I must do on my own.
That’s why I’m leaving you (Ibsen 1106).In this final act Nora is seen as “the incarnation of the will to reach self-fulfillment through liberation from oppression and self-deceit” (Schwarez).The characters of Nora and Torvald are both extremely flawed. Both of them are the products of their time, a time when women were overpowered by men, when a marriage was a reflection of the male-dominated society in which they were born, and both act accordingly. Yet, when the opportunity arises for both of them to either abandon the repressive standards placed on them or to stay in their comfortable home, play-acting the roles of husband and wife, Torvald does not stand up to the occasion.
It is Nora, who in the midst of her doll’s house, realizes that in order to be saved, she must save herself (Shideler). Nora is not a hero because of the way she has lived her life, or because she is perfect, but because she was the one that found the strength to deny the patriarchal world that has denied so many women the right to realize that they are human beings as well, a realization that Torvald is not willing to accept (Ibsen 1107-1108). As Ibsen stated himself, his mission when writing Nora’s exit was “to awaken individuals to freedom and independence—and as many of them as possible” and in so doing he created a heroine, not for the women of his day, but for women of ours (Shepherd-Barr 21). Nora is not a heroine of the play because of her strengths or because she is perfect, but because she is real. She has faults like everyone else and yet is able to recognize that there is something greater out there for her in the world than a loveless marriage, and a life without educating herself. This is what makes her a heroine.