The late, great Maya Angelou once said, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” This idea is one that is clearly embraced my Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, a dramatic script filled with many heavy themes that leave a reader questioning all views on some rather hot topics. Feminism reigns supreme in the play, as the rights to equality for womankind are demanded, not requested. The theme of marriage is also found as readers discover what marriage was truly meant to be, not the simple concept humanity has allowed it to become. Finally, we see a great theme of respect and learn that it is something that is earned, not something one should just simply expect. A Doll’s House is a powerful script offering strong opinions on some heavy matters, and the strongest of these is the controversial subject of feminism.
In A Doll’s House, the reader sees the heroine of the drama, Nora, fight the superiority of her controlling husband, Torvald. There are many hits towards the oppression of women throughout the entirety of the first act of the play, but we begin to see blatant thoughts of feminism in the second act. In Act 2 Line 217, Nora asks Mrs. Linde, “Surely you can understand that being with Torvald is a little like being with papa.” In saying this, she implies that for her entire life, she has been controlled by a man, first her father and now her husband, and it’s not something she is happy about. Later in Act 3, Torvald tells Nora, “I shall not allow you to bring up the children; I dare not trust them to you.” In saying this, he discredits Nora not only as a mother, but as a woman. The pride of a mother is her children, and by admitting his distrust in her as a mother, he strips her of the most important part of her femininity. We finally see Nora stand up for her rights as a woman later in Act 3:
NORA. What do you consider my most sacred duties?
TORVALD. … your duties to your husband and your children.
NORA. I have other duties just as sacred. … Duties to myself. (3.310-3.314)
In this, we see Nora finally defend herself to her husband, telling him that she has concerns other than him, and that her happiness is just as important as his. Soon after this, Helmer argues with her that “No man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves,” to which Nora’s rebuttal is strong, as she says promptly, “It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done” (3.345-3.346). In saying this, she is explaining that while a man feels that his honor should always come before his loved ones, women give their lives for their families every day. This play was controversial with its theme of feminism, which ties directly to the theme of marriage that can also be found throughout the script.
While marriage is understood to be a bond between two equal parties who love one another, that is unfortunately not always the case. The evidence of the marriage between Nora and Torvald is far from equal; though at first, they almost seem content, the audience soon learns that happiness on the surface can easily be misery at its core. We first see how this could be a problem in Act 2 Line 82, when Nora asks Torvald, “But don’t you think it is nice of me, too, to do as you wish?” to which Torvald responds, “Nice? — because you do as your husband wishes? Well, well, you little rogue, I am sure you did not mean it in that way.” Torvald is obviously ungrateful for the things Nora does for him and their children, as he makes it clear that those actions are not kind works of care from Nora, but actions that are simply expected of her, and he implies that it is disrespectful of her to imply otherwise. Finally, we see the break of the marriage due to the inequality between the two in Act 3:
TORVALD. Nora — can I never be anything more than a stranger to you?
NORA. Both you and I would have to be so changed that…our life together would be a real wedlock.
In Torvald saying this, we see that he is shocked by the reality that Nora is woman enough to stand up for herself and leave him, and he finally realizes what he is losing. Nora’s response is so simple yet so powerful, as she explains that not only Torvald would have to change, but she would have to change as well in order to fit the mold he desires her to fit into. He would have to change his masculine ways of ranking men over women, and she would have to dumb herself down to succumb to the desires of a man regardless of her own desires. This is the only way she sees a possibility of a “real wedlock,” or a marriage of actual substance. This play tells the story of a damned marriage, which is so due to lack of respect, the third theme found within the play.
Respect is an odd concept within this play, as it is something Torvald always expects to receive, but something he refuses to share with any woman. The main line that raises questions of the respect between the two within their marriage comes in Act 2 Line 92, when Nora says, “Your squirrel would run about and do all her tricks if you would be nice and do what she wants.” Torvald refers to Nora as his “squirrel,” therefore in saying this she is letting him know that maybe she would do as he wishes if only, he would show her kindness and respect her wishes and desires from time to time as well. Later in Act 2, in Line 109 more specifically, Torvald tells Nora, “Your father’s reputation as a public official was not above suspicion. Mine is.” In saying this, he not only insinuates that he reigns superior and is above the slander and disrespect of the public, but he also blatantly disrespects Nora’s family, specifically her father. There are several other situations of disrespect throughout the play between Torvald and Krogstad, but the main source of disrespect can be found in the ties that bind Nora and Torvald.
There are various themes that can be identified in A Doll’s House, but the most prominent of these are the ideas of feminism, marriage, and respect. Though all these ideas are represented in various ways throughout the script, I feel as though they can all fall under the bigger category of the idea of feminism. Feminism is a concept that demands equality in all aspects of life, including marriage. Nora makes this obvious as she eventually leaves Torvald due to their failed marriage. But think about it, what caused their marriage to fail? Of course, it was the lack of respect within the marriage. Therefore, all three themes tie together to support the bigger idea that women are equal and deserve to be treated as so in all aspects of life. As Gloria Steinem once said, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
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