Throughout a large portion of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora leads a pleasant, mundane life. Filled with Torvald’s stern finger wagging (p. 113) and Nora’s pretty responses like, “Yes, yes, as you wish” (p. 111), the entire balance of their relationship is established. Nora never threatens Torvald’s “manly self-esteem” (p. 122), so long as he keeps providing her with a comfortable lifestyle and spending-money. Torvald calls Nora his “squirrel”, his “songbird”, his “spendthrift”, and rather than annoyance, she receives those possessive pet-names with affection and silliness. At the start of this play, I was filled with anticipation for Nora’s anger to finally surface. However, at every moment where I felt my own rage toward Torvald, she seems perfectly fine with his patriarchal, paternal actions and words. Their marriage feels more playful than anything else—like a game between a father and his beloved little girl. Torvald indulges on Nora’s frivolity and childlike behaviours, whereas Nora indulges on Torvald’s earnings. It is only at her rather late breaking-point that Nora finally realizes this: the fact that as husband and wife, they have never once “exchanged a serious word about serious things” (p. 182).
Nora doesn’t experience a lengthy buildup to the culmination of this play. She doesn’t gather clues or data points supporting the toxicity of their relationship. She doesn’t consult a friend on her concerns. In fact, she doesn’t even have concerns needing to be addressed, other than the money she borrowed to save Torvald. She appears to lack perspective and intelligence, especially when talking to Kristine in Act I, yet we begin to see that perhaps that’s a product of the environment she has been raised and placed in,
Torvald: You talk like a child. You don’t understand the society you live in.
Nora: No, I don’t. But I intend to look into it. I must find out who is right, society or me. (p. 185)
Within this dialogue, Torvald attempts to gaslight Nora—to convince her that she’s being a naive child. In return, Nora provides a sophisticated response, questioning the role we all play in society. Is it our jobs to uphold societal standards when they’re perpetuating harm? Is it our duty to combat these stereotypes and norms, in order to create change? If her surrounding society has been teaching her that she’s nothing more than a silly, frivolous, scatterbrained woman her whole life, why would she act any differently? Why would she try to prove them wrong, especially since her life isn’t even bad? She has been assimilated into a typical 19th century daughter and wife—into a doll. The pinnacle of this play doesn’t occur incrementally, it’s more of a flipped switch in Nora’s mind. When Torvald doesn’t defend her after discovering that she borrowed money, she has an important realization: Torvald is only a loving husband in the good moments, which is negated by his anger and distance in this particular bad moment. When she’s conforming to a subservient position as his ideal doll, he’s satisfied, but when she acts like an actual human being—strong, imperfect, and real—he shows hostility.
In several ways, our current society reflects the one presented in A Doll’s House. Femininity is often associated with sensitivity, sweetness, modesty, and fragility, whereas masculinity is associated with strength, independence, assertiveness, and bravery. These stereotypical gender roles continuously put stress on both men and women, not to mention how non inclusive they are to those who are nonbinary. When we assign these qualities and establish this social construct, we are creating a sense of invalidity for many. In this play, Nora tells Kristine about the business she has been conducting, and says, “It was almost as though I was a man” (p. 123). For doing something as unrelated to gender as business ought to be, she feels detached from womanhood. As we witness through Nora, gender norms give people a false impression of who they can and cannot be. They build boundaries, enforce segregation. Then, when people combat these stereotypes, they are often met with problematic, even dangerous responses. Perhaps, breaking down these boundaries is exactly what we need to thrive as a society. Everyone should have the right to emulate and challenge these norms, without being forced to question their own identities (though they certainly can if they want to!). So much has changed between our society and Ibsen’s one, hopefully indicating that this progression will come, as well.