A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s nineteenth-century stage play chronicling a young woman’s brief but powerful journey of self-realization, is one that certainly turned (not to mention reddened) quite a number of heads back when it was first produced. Viewers were so outraged by the story’s conclusion that Ibsen was forced to write a second, more ‘appealing’ ending, which completely undermined its intended message and Ibsen himself described as a “barbaric outrage.” It is partially these themes and ideas which the contemporary audience found so offensive that make the play so interesting to examine in depth.
For me, easily the most impactful element of the entire play was the character Torvald Helmer. Although any surface level description of his character would paint him as a caring, protective individual, every single one of his lines I read made me dislike him more. Ironically, this is indicative of how well the character is written. His saccharine, borderline creepy interactions with Nora create a sense of unease in the audience, slowly building up to the conclusion when his pleasant veneer falls away, before being replaced just a little bit too quickly. However, one of the most unnerving things about Torvald is it’s clear he’s not being intentionally harmful or malicious. His worldview and experience have simply shaped him into an individual who always wants to be in control of every situation, something he himself probably doesn’t even realize.
A relatively minor detail that I personally appreciated is that the play takes place entirely within one room of Nora and Torvald’s house. Although this is most likely just a matter of it not being feasible to switch out or move around so many props between scenes, this choice in setting creates a subtly constrictive atmosphere for the entire play. Every relevant interaction and conversation takes place within this one room, illustrating how this house is literally Nora Helmer’s entire life and how trapped she is by it.
All of these little events and clues culminate in the conclusion of the play, easily the part that sparked the most controversy among the contemporary viewers. It’s at this point that Nora realizes the harm done to her by her father and husband, describing herself as a “doll,” treated by both of them as a plaything rather than an actual human being. Seeing Nora finally accept what the audience has known for the entire play is an exceptionally cathartic moment, as is her decision to leave behind her old life so that she can discover who she is beyond the influences of others. In mid-eighteen hundreds society, when women’s social duties were extremely family-centric, it’s no surprise that such a narrative development would be so controversial. However, this may be one of the most emotionally powerful scenes of the entire play, a fact that the play’s audience obviously missed due to it not fitting into their fragile worldview. Hilariously, this is probably proved Ibsen’s point.