The society Henrik Ibsen lived in, when he wrote his play A Dolls House in 1879, was oppressive and sexist. Women were treated worse than second class citizens and were regarded by men as their possessions. A woman had no power and no legal standing in society. Ibsen saw the problems in his society and he knew that this was not the way people should be treating one another. He believe that it was time for social change so he set about writing a play that would challenge the current structure in society and make people question it. He wanted people to think about and discuss the issue, to change peoples perceptions of gender roles in society. Ibsen was not afraid of a public uproar or backlash. He was determined to get his message out there. A Dolls House is set in the home of Nora and Torvald Helmer. It is here that we learn about these two characters and the marriage they have. As the play progresses we come to know how this oppressive society of Ibsens is reflected in the lives of the main characters and what impact it has on them. Nora believes that her husband is a good man until the times comes for him to step up and save her. It is then that Nora realises that her life and her marriage have been a sham. Everything she has known has been false and she must start again in order to discover who she is. Ibsen uses the themes of the role of women, appearance vs. reality and social conditioning as well as his characters to criticise the society he lived in.
Just after the play opens, it is clear to us that Ibsen is addressing the issue of the role of women in his society. Nora Helmer eats macaroons in the opening scene, but we learn shortly after, when her husband arrives home, that he has forbidden her from doing so. Hasnt Miss Sweet Tooth been breaking rules in town today? In that time, if a woman was given an order by her husband, she had no choice but to obey it. Nora is meant to do as her husband tells her to because the consequences for a wife disobeying her husband were severe. A husband was expected to keep his wife under control. If he was seen to not be in control of her, it would be greatly embarrassing for him. In the middle class society the Helmers lived in, men and women had their own separate roles which they must conform to in order to fit into society. Nora role is to be the perfect housewife, the loving, caring mother and always present herself immaculately. She is expected to live only for him, think only of him, feel only what he feels and believe only what her husband believes. She is not considered to be able to think for herself. She is a mere possession, a pet who is there for her husbands amusement. Ibsen wrote the character of Torvald to portray these exact beliefs of a husband of that time. He treats Nora like an inferior child. His is constantly calling her my little skylark or little squirrel. This animal imagery also reflects that of a caged animal, trapped, just like Nora is in her home. She is duty bound to remain in her home until she dies. Leaving is unthinkable. The role that Nora is playing makes her a doll. She grew up being her fathers doll child and when she was married she was transferred into Torvalds possession to be his doll wife. Because of this she looks up at him and obeys him as she has her father. Ibsen almost writes with sarcasm to show his viewers that he disagrees with the roles society forces on women.
Ibsen also uses the theme of appearance vs. reality to criticise his societys rules and restraints. What at first appears to be a happy and healthy marriage in the home, is later revealed to be far from that. The biggest deception in the marriage is the fact that Nora procured a loan without her husband knowledge. She got the loan in order to save her husbands life. He was sick with tuberculosis and she needed the money for a holiday in warmer climates. But a woman could not acquire a loan on her own in that time. So she forged her fathers signature and Torvald recovered from his illness. Nora could not tell her husband this because that would mean that he owed her, a woman and that would be humiliating for him. ...how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed my anything! A marriage is supposed to be about partnership and equality but Nora is vastly inferior to her husband and she knows it. When anyone is in a subordinate position Mr Krogstad, they should really be careful to avoid offending someone who-who- [Whom has influence?] Exactly Ibsen shows us that domestic life was not all that it seemed. While it was believed that a woman was always happy in her home looking after her family, Nora was feeling the burdens. She had to work secretly to pay the loan so that Torvald wouldnt find out. To him she appeared to be spending all the money she was given, wasting it in town. But we know that she has really been saving all she can. Torvald himself first appears to be something he is not. At first we see an honourable man who loved his wife and would do anything for her. This is how he is seen by his society. But we know that this is not the real Torvald. He is really an arrogant man who is self absorbed and pompous. He says he would give anything for his wife but in reality, he turns on her at the first sign of trouble.
A Dolls House also expresses Ibsens views and opinions against social conditioning. Be believes that society moulds people to have the desired characteristics and behaviours. If you want to fit in and be accepted you must conform to this conditioning. Children grow up, as Nora did, seeing the way their parents treat each other, the tasks they undertake and the responsibilities they have. When they then marry, they take on the role the assumed is meant for them, the role have to play. Society has conditioned Torvald into believing that he can treat his wife with little respect and as if her were his possession. He thinks it is all right to objectify her and assert extreme amounts of control over her. Nora goes along with his demeaning pet names and his patronizing because she thinks she cannot stop it. She believes that she cannot leave her husband and family because it was not the done thing in those days. But when Torvald comes to learn of Noras loan she discovers the man he really is and she doesnt like it. She realises that she has been married to and bore children to a stranger. She knows that she also does not know who she really is. She wants to learn about herself and she knows that she cannot discover this while she is still in her home. Noras break away from social conformity shows that Ibsen, too, did not conform to society. He did not believe that social conditioning was right and that men and women should be equal. It is clear from Noras exit from her family life that Ibsen wanted to inspired thoughts in people that change was necessary and that society was holding people prisoner in their own lives.
Ibsen uses his characters to represent the different views of people in his society and breakdown the flaws within it. Nora, the desperate housewife, represents those who want change. Her rebellion against conformity and rules shows that Ibsen felt compassion for women and the struggle they face to secure a place in the world. Nora wanted independence from her controlling husband ...to stand on my own two feet... Torvald, the control freak, is those in Ibsens time that would always follow those before them, not questioning and strongly believing that it was right. He believed that he was in control of his wife and could demand anything from her Am I not your husband? Some of Ibsens minor characters also support either side. Mrs. Linde, a friend of Noras, pushes for Nora to tell her husband everything. She wants things to be out in the open so that the Helmers will finally know the other properly. She does not think that the two should remain together. Another minor character, Krogstad from whom Nora received the loan, also tries to control her, blackmailing her and threatening to expose her.
The use of theme and characters in Henrik Ibsens A Dolls House reveals to us that Ibsen was very critical of the society he lived in. The way that society was conditioning people into behaving was not right in Ibsens view. He wanted equality between men and women and for husbands to treat their wives with the respect that they deserve as human beings. He did not believe in male superiority, that being born a male gives you more power. The three main flaws in society at the time, the role of women, appearance vs. reality and social conditioning become the main themes in his play. He wanted to show his audiences that thing could be different if people have the courage to accept something different. He knew the possible backlash of presenting this play to the public, but he knew that it would end up being a good thing in the long run. He wanted people to know that change is imminent and that whether you agree with it or not, it is inevitable.