A Doll's House - Form, structure, and social and historical context

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Helen Fletcher

Doll’s House – Form, structure, and social and historical context

A Doll’s House was first published in 1879. It was a revolutionary play at a time when theatre was primarily for entertainment and to support society’s traditional Victorian values. The play was therefore a complete contrast to the typical theatre of the time, and some theatres even refused to stage it because of its controversial views on society.

        Henrik Ibsen was born in 1828 in Norway to a relatively wealthy family, yet as he grew older, his family got into financial trouble, and suffered severe social outcast and embarrassment. Nora and particularly Helmer see poverty as the worst possible status in society, “A home that depends on loans and debts is not beautiful because it is not free” and will do anything to avoid it. Ibsen shows his own fear of being socially rejected through his characters. It was hard for Ibsen to recover from being financially comfortable to becoming bankrupt, and his general concern for the effect that economy and psychology can have on ordinary people, definitely made a mark on many of his plays.

Ibsen’s home country also had a major influence on A Doll’s House, as well as Ibsen’s other plays. Norway, in the 1840s, had finally gained independence from being ruled by Denmark, and Ibsen relished this freedom. Liberation became a key feature of A Doll’s House, as Ibsen wanted it to remain important, and he disapproved of the idea that people could be forgetting Norway’s struggle for freedom. The country’s increasing prosperity made the people living there much more financially comfortable. Middle-class individuals conformed to what society required, and Ibsen felt that the freedom he had longed for did not exist. Materialistic lifestyles were very popular, not dissimilar to the Helmers’. Ibsen’s dislike of this way of living was perhaps the reason that Ibsen made Nora eventually resent the lifestyle, and leave her ‘doll’s house’ protective surroundings, away from stability, relationships and money.

The Helmer’s lifestyle was typical of a Victorian patriarchal household, this is evident from the fact that Torvald is referred to as ‘Helmer’ in the play, and not his first name. This implies that he is the head of the family, and more formal and important than the other characters, specifically Nora. Torvald also controls and manipulates Nora, from stopping her eating macaroons to keeping the key to the letterbox, demonstrating how superior he wanted to seem. The children are another example of their traditional lifestyles, as they are ushered out of the room whenever Nora is busy, and seem only to be there to be played with; the idea of being seen and not heard. However, towards the end of the play, we see the household break from tradition and Nora does the unthinkable, and leaves her husband “I do not love you anymore”. This is the element of the play that shocked theatre-goers at the time, the idea that a woman could betray a man, and not need to depend on him for any kind of support. Perhaps without intention, Ibsen had managed to glimpse at the beginnings of a very primitive feminist ideology.

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Although set in the late 19th century, the issues and themes explored in Ibsen’s play can still be seen in modern day society. In the 21st century, women leaving their husbands is not nearly as uncommon or taboo; yet audiences in 2005 may still see abandoning one’s children as unjustifiable. Torvald’s behaviour would be seen as severely unfair now, whereas it was typical in the 19th century “You are a wife and a mother before everything else” Audiences today would be appalled at this type of discrimination, and would therefore have more sympathy for Nora’s character. Plays written more recently such as Death ...

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