The end of the 19th Century (specifically 1879, the year in which A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen was initially published) was a time of movement into the era of modernism. While this era in English literature was not fully set into motion until after World War I, A Doll’s House shows clear examples of one of the core elements common in literature of this era: independence and individuality (Rahn). While the apparent goal of Nora, the main character, is to become an independent person, her attempts to do so behind her husband’s back do not always succeed. In A Doll’s House, Nora feels an obligation to serve herself because the controlling figures in her life, along with a false perception of confidence through more independent actions, have prevented her from completely developing into an adult; thus, she remains too dependent on others to properly raise a family.
Deducing how Nora is and has been oppressed throughout her life is a very straightforward task, as she herself explains it to Torvald by saying that “when [she] was at home with papa, he told [her] his opinion on everything… and if [she] differed from him [she] concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it” (Ibsen 76). She goes on to state that Torvald has essentially done the same to her since they were married. The intention of this statement is to convince the reader that Torvald has done Nora wrong by preventing her from becoming an individual. However, it is important to realize that in doing so, he may have protected her in the way a husband should a wife. The situation into which Nora put herself in with regards to the loan from Krogstad was terrible enough to have caused her legal trouble. While Torvald could have guided Nora through the process, and complied with her ideas and requests, in not doing so, he hoped to prevent her from making mistakes due to carelessness. It is common for those who seek rebellion against restrictions to seek the most direct way to deny these restrictions, often overlooking minor decisions that could result in significant consequences. Having lived her life as a person who is thought of as perfect based on her external ideas by her father and Torvald, Nora has likely come to a point by the end of the play that she has no desire to encounter these mistakes and the accompanying consequences. Thus, in serving herself by leaving her family, Nora hopes to start over and re-educate herself in a way that, like her friend, Christine Linde, she is no longer vulnerable to these mistakes due to single-mindedness.
While Nora has strong reasons to serve herself, the hardest idea to comprehend about her character is how she is able to give up her family so easily. Nearly always, mothers have an inherent bond with their children, so seeing one that does not is a unique and strange case. There are several reasons that Nora would be like this. The primary reason is directly connected to the fact that she has been prevented from being an individual by those with whom she lives. A side effect of this is that she effectively has not had to do a lot of the work that would have caused her to develop a connection with her children. This is confirmed by her maid, Anna-Marie, when Nora tells her, “I shall not be able to be so much with them now as I was before” (Ibsen 40), them being her children. Anna-Marie responds, “Oh well, young children easily get accustomed to anything” (Ibsen 40). Clearly, the fact that the woman who has essentially raised Nora’s children believes that they will not be affected by Nora’s absence, says something as to her importance in their life, and respectively theirs in hers. However, a reason just as significant is that Nora’s realization of her mistakes causes her to reconsider how good of a parent she could actually be. This is further augmented during the play by a statement from Torvald regarding Krogstad in Act 1. In reference to Krogstad’s crimes, he says, “such an atmosphere of lies infects and poisons the whole life of a home. Each breath the children take in such a house is full of the germs of evil” (Ibsen 37). Just after Torvald says this, Nora starts thinking about how Torvald would judge her as a parent after hearing that she had committed the same crime of forging a signature. While Torvald forgives Nora for all she has done after he receives a second letter from Krogstad stating that he will not prosecute Nora for forging her father’s signature, Nora does not forgive herself. She continues to believe that she cannot properly raise a family until she is capable of making good decisions and avoiding mistakes herself. Thus, she is willing to give up her family because she recognizes that, just as staying with Torvald would be bad for her, staying with her children would be bad for them.
Nora has a clear reason to want to leave her children, but to be able to do so without significant regret and sadness requires a very certain type of personality. As Torvald mentions in his conversation with Nora about Krogstad, a primary influence on the developing personalities of children is their mother. Specifically, Torvald says, “Almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother” (Ibsen 37). While Nora’s mother is not mentioned anywhere in the play, this statement by Torvald could reference the idea that Nora’s mother was a bad influence on Nora that caused her to become a somewhat self-centered person with the sole desire of becoming an individual. The extreme example of this would be that her mother was completely absent from her childhood. This would mean that she had no positive influence in her life to teach her family values. A more likely explanation, though, would be that Nora’s mother was subject to similar treatment by her husband as Nora is by Torvald. This would have supplied Nora with the ideals that she maintains. Overall, while people do develop independently, and have their own influence on what they think and do, there are nearly always outside influences. For Nora, this influence likely came from her parents: her father through his oppression in the same way as Torvald, and her mother as an example of Nora’s response to this oppression.
Due to the oppression of Torvald and her father, and the example set by her mother, Nora does not feel a dedication to her family, and thus feels obligated to serve herself. While this idea makes sense for Nora, it wouldn’t have been common in the culture in which this play is set: late 19th century England. Thus, it represents the increasing transition beyond the norm towards feminism and freedom for all, along with the modernist shift towards independence and individualism. Thus, the play brings up a question of what the cultural response would have been to it when it was first published. In England, the ideas portrayed in this play may have been too much to be socially acceptable, but it is important to remember that it was published by a Norwegian playwright in Copenhagen, Denmark. In modern times, Scandinavia is still considered to be more advanced in gender equality than such places as the UK and the US. It could be assumed that either A Doll’s House was a result of this more equal society, or essentially the cause of it. Perhaps it has a lot more historical significance than it is generally credited with. If this is true, why isn’t it recognized as so today? Such analysis of characters can bring to light historical ideas and occurrences that aren’t remembered otherwise today. Thus, seeing as we are able to analyze historical cultures based on their literature, how will literature writing in the present age cause modern society to be perceived by future generations?
Rahn, Josh. “Modernism.” The Literature Network. Jalic Inc., 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2012.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2006. Print.