(This is an essay I wrote for an English class last year. While I may have pushed the feminist angle a little strongly, the opinion was my own.)
The title of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House refers to the feelings of the protagonist, Nora Helmer, who, through the progression of the narrative, comes to believe that she has always been treated as a plaything by the men in her life, specifically her father and her husband Torvald. In addition to her feelings of subservience, the title refers to her purported obligation as a woman to maintain the household while her husband is working. In defiance of the oppressive time period in which the play was penned, it demonstrates a progressive message in which traditional gender roles are challenged, such as the husband being the one responsible for monetary gain, the woman the one responsible for keeping the house in order, and the overall sexist concept that women are innately unable to take care of themselves without the guardianship of men.
The subject of monetary gain is prominent throughout A Doll’s House, as is Nora’s desire to demonstrate an equal or superior capability to her husband. In an attempt to feel some sense of personal worth otherwise denied to her by her husband, she committed an act of forgery she believed would go unnoticed in order to pay for her husband’s medical expenses. While she relates the act to her friend Kristine, she specifically notes that were “Torvald, with all his masculine pride”, to know, he would feel humiliated, as well as expressing the fear that without his approval he would grow tired of her. As the story progresses, her sense of capability is severely threatened both by the man Krogstad considering revealing her crime to her husband’s place of employment and by her husband’s reaction to the news.
The idea that Nora, as the woman in the relationship, should be responsible for maintaining the household while her husband works is also prominent in the work, and is called into question. Although the Helmer family employs a maid and a nurse, it is Nora who is ultimately responsible for keeping the children well looked after and seems to play with them on a regular basis. The children’s relationship with their father appears minimal, a dynamic similar to Nora’s relationship with her own father, who appears to have been cold and distant. When Nora leaves her husband at the end of the play, one can imagine that the dynamic has changed radically enough to place him in a more active position in their children’s lives.
Throughout the play, the concept of men having superiority over women is repeatedly referenced by numerous characters. Torvald often refers to his wife as if she were an amusing pet or irresponsible child. Even Nora’s friend Kristine makes innocuous remarks that support this philosophy. However, after Torvald follows up his emotional outburst by going into extreme detail about how men adore women incapable of taking care of themselves and how it’s wonderful to hold them under a debt of forgiveness for their transgressions, Nora decides she has had enough and gets away.
In conclusion, the play A Doll’s House has a progressive, feminist theme despite being written in 1879. The title refers to Nora’s placement in the family dynamic in which she feels like a doll, a plaything both of her father and her husband, as well as her both keeping house and being kept within it. When she ultimately decides to leave Torvald, she rejects that designation and goes off to stand as her own person.