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Historical Context in A Doll's House

A Doll’s House, written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, was first performed at the Det Kongelige or “Royal” Theater in Copenhagen in December of 1879. The play was incredibly successful from the start, but it gained immediate criticism for, what were at the time, highly controversial views on the institutions of marriage and family. Critics of Ibsen’s play felt that it threatened to dismantle traditional values of the Victorian household and workplace due to its advocating for reform of women’s rights. However, fans found something relatable, inspiring, and refreshing in its realistic, complex depictions of modern individuals and families.

Historical Context Examples in A Doll's House:

Act I

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"It's not true. It can't possibly be true...."   (Act I)

In traditional Romantic dramas, soliloquies—speeches wherein characters reveal their inner thoughts out loud—were the primary way of offering insight into characters’ feelings and intentions. The “to be or not to be” speech in act III, Scene I of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, wherein Hamlet contemplates suicide, is a famous example of a soliloquy. Though Ibsen largely rejects traditional dramatic techniques in his works, he makes use of the soliloquy at the end of Act I and throughout the play to offer audiences the chance to see Nora’s inner thoughts and imagination at work.

"I asked you if it was only a disagreeable scene at home that you were afraid of? ..."   (Act I)

Nora is so caught up in her fantasies about earning Torvald’s respect that she doesn’t realize Krogstad is threatening her with legal action. By forging her father’s signature, she committed a serious crime. Though there is no exact information on the punishment for such a crime in 19th century Norway, there is one often-cited piece of contextual evidence. Nora’s situation is very similar to that of Ibsen’s friend, Laura Kieler. Kieler is often cited as the inspiration for Nora since she also illegally forged a signature to obtain money for her husband’s tuberculosis treatment. Upon finding out, Kieler’s husband institutionalized her. As a woman, Nora likely would not have been imprisoned, but the social consequences for both Torvald and her would have been severe.

"Nothing at all, then...."   (Act I)

Widows in Victorian Europe had three options: remarry, move in with their children, or pick up a trade. For Christine, whose husband left her no money and no children, the first two options are unavailable since she has little to offer a future husband and no children to support her. Nora’s questions emphasize how dire Christine’s situation is: as a childless widow with no inheritance, she essentially has “nothing at all.”

"I assure you, Christine, I meant ever so often to write to you at the time, but I always put it off and something always prevented me...."   (Act I)

After marriage, 19th-century Norwegian women traditionally moved in with their husbands, often moving away from their friends and families. Since women rarely traveled alone in the 19th century, they typically maintained contact with their families and friends by writing letters. Nora’s excuse for never writing to Christine is lackluster, characterizing her as someone who has neglected her friend’s distress in favor of enjoying her happy life.

"[counting]. Ten shillings—a pound—two pounds! Thank you, thank you, Torvald; that will keep me going for a long time...."   (Act I)

Two pounds in 1879 would be worth around 230 pounds, or 300 US dollars, today. Nora, as a woman, does not have direct access to family finances, so Torvald is essentially giving her an allowance. This characterizes the relationship between Nora and Torvald as an inequitable one, wherein he handles the money and she must ask before making purchases. Their dynamic more closely mirrors the relationship between a father and daughter than it does a married couple, with Torvald acting like an indulgent parent.

"[SCENE...."   (Act I)

Henrik Ibsen did not adhere to traditional Romantic drama conventions, which dominated the theatre in the 18th and 19th centuries. He instead inspired the genre’s movement towards realism. The Romantic movement is characterized by idealized depictions of nature and the past, with emotional exploration at the forefront. Realism rejects these conventions and mimics more natural speaking patterns and interactions. Realism is also more straightforwardly concerned with socio-political issues.

"odds and ends, needlework, crotchet-work, embroidery..."   (Act I)

In Ibsen's era, married women didn't work outside the home because it would've reflected poorly on their husbands who were considered the bread-winners and providers. If women needed to make money, they took on "odds and ends" like needlework, washing, or copying. This made it harder for women to enter the workforce when they weren't married.

"two hundred and fifty pounds..."   (Act I)

The original English translator would've converted the Danish krone (crown) to the British pound when this scene was first translated. Adjusting for inflation is difficult in this case, but 250 "pounds" back in 1879, when the play premiered, would be upwards of 20,000 pounds today.

"pretty little hands..."   (Act I)

In the 19th century, when this play was written, women of Nora's social station weren't allowed to "work." Nora wouldn't have done much of her own cooking and cleaning, thus sparing her "pretty little hands." Their softness is a source of pride to Torvald and a symbol of her inability to manage her own affairs.

"Well, I had to turn my hand to anything I could find—first a small shop, then a small school, and so on. The last three years have seemed like one long working-day, with no rest. ..."   (Act I)

Mrs. Linde represents all the women in the 19th century who, for one reason or another, had to fend for themselves. In this sense, Mrs. Linde is very lucky not to have children to provide for or a family to support; however, the same cannot be said for Nora.

"There is a shilling. No, keep the change...."   (Act I)

Since the play was translated from Norwegian into English, the translator used the English equivalents (shillings and pence) for the Norwegian coinage. The Porter asks for sixpence, but Nora gives him a shilling, which is twice what he's asked. In other words, Nora is giving the Porter a 100% tip.

"your father signed this bond three days after his death..."   (Act I)

Nora signed the note with her father's signature which constitutes several problems: first, this was illegal in the 1800s as women could not take out loans; second, it constitutes fraud because the signature is a forgery.

"she is frightfully anxious to work under some clever man, so as to perfect herself..."   (Act I)

Nora appeals to Torvald Helmer's ego when she pretends Christine is desperate to find a man to mentor her and help her professionally.

"Well, I'm damned..."   (Act I)

The use of vulgar language would have been deemed socially inappropriate—even scandalous—for a woman of the 1800s.

"copying..."   (Act I)

In the 1800s, "copying" meant sitting at a desk and handwriting documents verbatim over and over again. This was a dull and time-consuming process that wouldn't have earned Nora much money and in the end probably wasn't worth the time and effort. Nora certainly wouldn't have done it if she'd been in a better situation.

"my housekeeping money..."   (Act I)

In the 1800s, a middle-class man with a good job would provide his wife with a bit of "housekeeping money." This was like an allowance and was used to pay for household items, such as food, ice, coal, clothes, or shoes for the children. It wasn't meant to be used for the wife's gain, as Nora attempts to use it here.

"steamer..."   (Act I)

"Steamers" or steamboats were, in the 19th century, the quickest and most popular form of long-distance transportation in Europe and the Americas. They regularly shipped both passengers and goods. It would've been fairly easy and common for a woman of Christine's age to buy a ticket for a steamer, but less so for her to move from one city to another without a husband.

"For a big proof of your friendship—..."   (Act II)

According to many scholars, A Doll’s House is based on the situation of Ibsen’s friend Laura Kieler. When Kieler’s husband contracted tuberculosis, she initially reached out to Ibsen, hoping that he would help her get her work published so that she could raise sufficient money to pay for his treatment. Ibsen was uncomfortable with the idea and denied her request. Kieler forged her husband’s signature to secure a loan and ended up institutionalized after her husband discovered her forgery. Ibsen’s feelings about his role in the scandal led to his composition of the play and his choice to portray Nora’s, and Kieler’s, plight sympathetically.

"scurrilous newspapers..."   (Act II)

The modern equivalent of a “scurrilous newspaper” is a tabloid magazine. Such publications spread scandalous stories designed to damage reputations. Nora uses the fear of Krogstad publishing unflattering articles about the Helmers as a cover story to win Torvald’s support. Ironically, it is the closest to the truth that she has gotten in her persuasions. If news of her forgery were published in the newspaper, the Helmers would face severe social consequences.

"Torvald can't bear to see dressmaking going on...."   (Act II)

In Norwegian culture, dressmaking has traditionally been considered a feminine skill. Though homemade clothes were less common as department stores gained popularity, most 19th century women still knew how to sew and mend dresses at home. Fabric was expensive, so it was often repurposed in order to keep up with the fashions of the day without spending extra money. Torvald’s refusal to engage with his children and his inability to “bear” the sight of dressmaking paints him as someone who enforces traditional gender roles. He refuses to associate himself with anything that might be perceived as feminine, just as he refuses to allow Nora to participate in anything deemed masculine, such as work or finances.

"And can tear it into a hundred thousand pieces,..."   (Act II)

A “bond” is a legal document that lays out the conditions of a loan. The person who issues the loan keeps the bond in order to ensure the borrower pays them back. Once the conditions of the loan are met, the document is returned to the borrower. Notice that Nora uses the same language to describe what she wants to do to the dress and the bond. Her desire to tear the bond “into a hundred thousand pieces” suggests that Nora wants it to disappear so she can return to her happy, carefree life. Torvald bought the dress for her during their trip to Italy, the reason Nora took out the loan. This links her stress over the loan to the dress.

"You are still very like a child in many things..."   (Act II)

Mrs. Linde is suspicious of Nora’s relationship with Doctor Rank and believes that he is the “rich admirer” who lent Nora the money. While readers know this is false, Mrs. Linde still raises valid concerns about the relationship between Nora and the doctor. For Nora, as a married woman, to be so open and casual with a wealthy, single man would have been considered highly inappropriate, even if the man is a family friend.

"changed his mind at his wife's bidding—..."   (Act II)

Torvald suggests that part of his unwillingness to change his mind about firing Krogstad is because it will reflect badly on his reputation. At this time in history, a man who could be swayed by his wife’s (or any woman’s) opinions in business would have been considered weak. Torvald feels obligated to his decision, at least in part, because he is worried that his coworkers would view him as weak or less “manly.”

"Tarantella..."   (Act II)

The “Tarantella” is a lively and incredibly fast-paced Italian dance. Torvald is deeply attracted to Nora when she dances the Tarantella as it requires that Nora allow herself to be more free and spirited than in the home. Torvald keeps her under strict confines in the home, but he is captivated by her uninhibited side, a contradictory quality that might speak to the role of women in marriage at the time. Women were “supposed” to be refined child rearers, but also alluring when their husband wanted them to be.

"[The sound of a door shutting is heard from below.]..."   (Act III)

When A Doll’s House first premiered in Germany, a famous actress, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, was hired to play Nora. However, she felt that the ending was unrealistic, since she could not imagine abandoning her own children. In response, an alternate ending was devised where Torvald forces Nora to see the children before she leaves. Upon seeing them sleeping peacefully, she falls to her knees and realizes that she cannot leave them motherless. Though Ibsen consented to the alteration, he viewed the alternate ending as a disgrace to the play since it undermined the themes of personal autonomy and self-discovery. The original ending, in which Nora slams the door, is far more widely used in stage productions, and reflects a more authentic culmination of Nora’s personal transformations.

Tornqil, Evist, Ibsen: A Doll's House (Cambridge University Press: 1995)

"NORA: I have other duties just as sacred. HELMER: That you have not. What duties could those be? NORA: Duties to myself. HELMER: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother...."   (Act III)

Women in 19th-century Norway had very little agency. From birth until marriage, they were under the protection of their fathers, and once they married, they belonged to their husbands. Motherhood was considered the ultimate achievement for women, whereas working was viewed as an unfortunate circumstance. Women like Mrs. Linde were pitied for having no family to take care of. For Nora to assert that she has duties to herself is to admit that women have desires and interests beyond being wives and mothers. This was a revolutionary concept in 1879, and Ibsen’s play sparked a great deal of controversy as a result. Nora’s decision to leave her husband and children led to accusations that Ibsen was undermining marriage and the traditional family, which were seen as holy concepts.

"I will take nothing from you, either now or later...."   (Act III)

In order to be fully independent, Nora must separate herself from Torvald both physically and financially. By promising to take nothing from him “now or later,” she indicates that she is not looking for a short-term separation to clear her thoughts, but rather a more permanent dissolution of their relationship. It was difficult for 19th-century Norwegian women to support themselves financially, as seen in Mrs. Linde’s situation, so Nora’s rejection of Torvald’s present and future interventions shows her resolve.

"Am I not your husband—?..."   (Act III)

19th century western feminism was the first major cultural movement to challenge the idea that all sex in marriage was automatically consensual. Throughout most of the world, It was thought that married people, especially women, could not be assaulted or sexually coerced by their spouses since sex was viewed as an obligation of marriage. Torvald’s surprise at Nora’s rejection of his amorous advances reflects this view, as does his earlier mockery of the idea that Nora could act contrary to his wishes. In his mind, the fact that he is her husband should be enough to make her to do whatever he wants her to.

"a heartless woman jilts a man when a more lucrative chance turns up...."   (Act III)

Mrs. Linde married her husband because she needed to support her mother and younger brothers. Women had very few economic opportunities in 19th century Norway, so a lucrative marriage was oftentimes the only viable way for a woman to be financially stable. Nora mentions earlier in the play that barristers, or lawyers, like Torvald and Krogstad oftentimes do not make very good money. Particularly as a young lawyer, Krogstad would not have been wealthy enough to help Mrs. Linde care for her family, but he still holds the decision against her.

"I have often wished that you might be threatened by some great danger, so that I might risk my life's blood, and everything, for your sake..."   (Act III)

Here, Ibsen calls attention to Torvald’s desire to save the “damsel in distress,” so to speak. Torvald wants to be a hero, and we can see this reflected in his actions towards Nora throughout the play. Consider his tendency to imagine her to be helpless—he views her as childish. For example in Torvald’s eyes, Nora is incapable of managing finances, but we know that she is actually quite capable of doing so. By highlighting this character flaw, Ibsen makes a larger commentary on how society, at this time, perceived women as being helpless and men as being the ones to save them.

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