Nora as a Doll in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House
In Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Nora Helmer spends most of her on-stage time as a doll: a vapid, passive character with little personality of her own. Her whole life is a construct of societal norms and the expectations of others. Until she comes to the realization that her life is a sham, she spends her whole life in a dream world. In this dream world, Nora does not take life seriously, an attitude that led to many of the plot’s complications.
Until her change, Nora is very childlike and whimsical. Her first act on stage is her paying the delivery body. Though his service only costs 50-p., she gives him a hundred. Though an additional 50-p. is not a significant amount of money, the casual way in which she gives it to him is indicative of her fiscal irresponsibility (Cummings). She hands him the hundred and before he can thank her, she decides in the middle of the transaction that she is not patient enough to wait for change. The fact that this seemingly mundane occurrence is presented as the first action on stage showcases the reckless attitude implied.
Fiscal irresponsibility is a prominent factor in the advancement of the plot. It is Nora’s fiscal irresponsibility that catalyzes the situation in which Nora's childlike expectations of Torvald are shattered. The conflict of the story is driven by Nora’s forging of loan documents to raise money for an expensive trip to Italy; Krogstad, who had processed the loan, tries to blackmail Nora over the fact that she forged the documents. Another aspect of the crime, which was not elaborated on so much, is that even if the documents were not forged, Nora did not have any means to repay the loan anyway.
Nora could be excused for trusting Krogstad not to blackmail her, but not recognizing that the loan would have to be repaid is inexcusable. Though at one point we are led to believe that whenever Nora would pry money away from Torvald, she would reserve half of it to repay the debt, when Krogstad confronts her, she confesses that she is not, in fact, in possession of the remaining balance.
An important aspect of a dream world is the suspension of cause and effect. Nora’s lackadaisical approach is very prominent throughout the story. One example of her disregard for others is when she blames Mrs. Linde1 for smuggling forbidden macaroons into the house. Though she is just trying to hide her indiscretions, she does not care whom she hurts in the process.
Another aspect of the dream world is the acquisition of material possessions; Nora is always trying to make herself happy by buying things: dresses, toys, candy etc., rather than doing anything meaningful with her life. She has never spent serious time with her husband of nearly a decade, and is always dumping her children on the nurse rather than bonding with them herself. This practice may have been common at the time the play was written, but Ibsen is clearly not ashamed of bold social criticism (Chandler 333).
In her dream world, Nora takes a back seat approach to life and becomes like an object, reacting to other’s expectations rather than advancing herself. As a result of her passivity, Torvald is very possessive of, frequently adding the “my” modifier to all the pet names he calls her. In the original Riksmål2 (Boel), there are many monetary idioms, lost in translation, that advance the concept of Nora’s objectness.
In one line, Torvald calls her “[his] dearest property”; Mrs. Linde states that she will save Nora “at any price”, as if she could be bought (Drake 32). Though she is infatuated with the acquisition of possessions, she herself is a possession of Torvald.
When Torvald enters the scene, Nora's childlike behavior becomes more patent. Torvald calls her pet names "little lark", "little squirrel", and "Little Miss Extravagant". Nora is being treated like a cute little girl and she happily accepts the epithets. Torvald finds himself having to restrain Nora with rules, much as a father would have to inhibit a child, forbidding her from pursuing candy and other temporal pleasures. (Kashan) When the play was first performed in English (in Milwaukee), it was titled "The Child Wife" (Templeton 113).
The maturity level Nora exhibits demonstrates that the relationship between Torvald and Nora is more like father and daughter than husband and wife. (Ford) She whines at Torvald3, exhibits poor judgment4, does not care about the consequences of her actions5, and immaturely shuts her ears to unpleasant thoughts, placing her hand on her mouth and exclaiming, "Oh! Don't say such things!" when Torvald presents a hypothetical tragedy.
The father-daughter relationship is referred to later when Nora confronts Torvald in the final act. She makes this connection that life with her father was like life with Torvald. Nora’s father would force his beliefs on her and she would comply with them lest she upset him; she would bury her personal belief under Papa’s. According to Nora, Torvald was guilty of the same things. In addition to his insistence on her wearing the fish girl costume is his frustration over her inability to grasp the tarantella. The costume and dance are part of Torvald's fantasy of gazing upon Nora from across the room at a party and pretending that she is something exotic. Torvald made Nora take on a foreign identity; Torvald used her as a doll.
On the subject of the costume party, Dr. Rank suggested that Nora go as herself and that he be invisible. Under the surface, Rank is suggesting that Nora should not be a doll. With an invisible chaperon, Nora would not be dominated by a figure placing an identity over her. If this interpretation is Rank’s intended meaning, it would corroborate Nora’s judgment of his character when she explains how she always feels at ease around Dr. Rank because he does not have any expectations or demands of her.
At the end of the play, the doll symbolism becomes very powerful. Nora imagines that Torvald will two dimensionally remain morally upright and, on principle, defend Nora's honor and not allow Krogstad to blackmail the Helmers. Nora imagines that Torvald would sacrifice his own reputation and future to save her, but Torvald tells her that he would not make the sacrifice, shattering Nora's dream world.
At this point it becomes clear to Nora that “[she] had been living all these years with a strange man, and [she] had born him three children”. This realization forces Nora into the real world and she ceases to be a doll. At the end of the above statement, she adds “Oh, I cannot bear to think of it!” which echoes her childlike shutting out of unpleasant thoughts.
It is not only that Torvald would not sacrifice himself for her that opens Nora’s eyes to reality. She did not understand that though Torvald loved her, he loved her as a thing - a status symbol (Lord 25). Nora serves as a wife and mother, but not as an equal to Torvald. Torvald planned to cope with the scandal resulting from blackmail by stripping Nora of her spousal and motherly duties, but would keep her in the house for appearance sake. If Nora, with her reputation tainted as a criminal, would poison the minds of the Helmer children, she would be useless as a mother to them (Metzger).
The next thing Nora does is change out of her fancy dress. Torvald bought this dress for Nora to wear at a costume party because he wanted her to appear as a "Neapolitan fish girl". As one would put clothes on a doll, Torvald dresses Nora. When she sheds this dress, she is shedding a trapping of her doll-like existence (Cummings).
In the past, Nora was always a passive child-like possession who followed Torvald's orders, but now she is an independent adult and is able to dominate Torvald, who is used to playing with dolls. In comparison with the "real" Nora, Torvald is the doll. Nora seats Torvald at the table and explains her situation to him. She does not let him speak until she has finished what she wants to say. At the table, Torvald is still wearing the clothes he wore to the fancy dress party.
Like the fish girl outfit, these clothes are artificial; they are a costume and at the table, Torvald is put in a role where the costume is not appropriate and his "dollness" becomes apparent. He is like a G.I. Joe action figure at a little girl's tea party and he cannot cope with the situation. The incongruity of his outfit with the setting reveals that Torvald is false. He then realizes that what he thought was Nora was not, that his world was a sham, and that he is nothing more than a doll in a pretend world.
When Nora comes to the realization that her character was little more than a composite of societal and others’ expectations, she recognizes that the strong, staunch, principled Torvald she thought she was married to was only a character formed out of her own expectations. Their marriage was a doll marriage: he a doll husband, she a "doll wife”, and their children destined to be “doll children”.
In regard to the children, Nora realizes that if she continues the pattern of instilling societal norms on her children, they too will fall into the trap of dollhood. In the first scene, Nora is revealed to have bought a doll for her daughter who is so young that she is expected to break the toy in a short time; the tradition of doll playing starts at an early age.
Nora, having grown up as a manipulated tool of others, is under the impression that manipulation of others is a societal norm. Though she is usually passive, she can be seen to use others, even when the manipulation is of no benefit to her. A prime example of this is when she tells Dr. Rank that it was Mrs. Linde who brought forbidden pastry into the house. Telling the truth in this situation would not make Dr. Rank think significantly less of her, but she compulsively blames Mrs. Linde, which lowers her standing with Kristine.
Since Nora is willing to perform extraneous manipulation, even when it harms her, we can see her addiction to it (Young 74). Other examples of manipulation are having a nanny take care of her children, having Mrs. Linde repair her dress, behaving seductively around Dr. Rank, whining at Torvald to get money, and most importantly convincing Krogstad to overlook the similarity between her penmanship and her "father's".
One critic brings up the three uses of the word “wonderful” in the play. Each use heralds a conflict between Nora's dreamworld and reality. The first clash is when Nora realizes that her rebellious actions are outside the pale of societal norms: an objective shock. The second, a subjective shock, comes in the second act when Nora realizes that she is deeper than her childish and whimsical facade. The final, the “metaphysical” shock is when Nora realizes that her entire world is a complete sham; at the end of the play, Torvald, who is still a doll, is left wondering what “the most wonderful thing” is (Johnston 142).
One can think of each illusion as a wall of Nora's dollhouse; each time Nora recognizes the incongruity between reality and her doll house, a wall is torn down. At the start of the play, the house has three walls (the fourth wall being open to the audience), and at the end of the play, all the walls have been razed, leaving Nora free.
The stage itself is a good metaphor for a dollhouse. It may have the appearance of a 19th century Norwegian home, but a missing a wall grants the audience omniscience of the private lives of the characters. Would Nora have sneaked macaroons if she knew a crowd of people were watching her? The playwright can do whatever he wants to with the characters on stage; they are his dolls, but when Nora leaves Torvald, she also leaves the stage. Off stage, what was once Nora is now an actress. When Nora the character was going through the motions of her sham life, she was like an actress filling a role by adopting a prefabricated personality not her own, thrust upon her by others.
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