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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

11

"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, at that time, the quickest and the most popular form of long-distance transportation in Europe and the Americas and 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.

"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.

"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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