A Doll’s House – Book Review

You have loved me as a wife ought to love her husband. Only you had not sufficient knowledge to judge of the means you used. But do you suppose you are any the less dear to me, because you don’t understand how to act on your own responsibility? No, no; only lean on me; I will advise you and direct you. I should not be a man if this womanly helplessness did not just give you a double attractiveness in my eyes. – from A Doll’s House –

A Doll’s House is a play written by Henrik Ibsen and published in 1879. The play is written in three acts, and takes place in the home of Torvald and Nora Helmer. It is Christmastime and the household is getting ready for the holiday. In Act I, the reader learns that Nora has committed a crime: a year before, with Torvald ill and needing a trip to Southern Italy to heal, Nora procured a loan without her husband’s knowledge and by forging her father’s signature. She has been faithfully paying off the loan, even working a bit in order to raise the funds to do so. Now, it appears that she will be out from under this financial burden and no one will be the wiser. But, as the play continues, there is a turn of events. A loan officer threatens to reveal Nora’s crime to her husband, perhaps even to seek legal action against her. Nora seeks assistance from her friend, Christine, and the two attempt to use their womanly wiles to get out of the difficult situation. The end of the play proves to be scandalous for the times -and I won’t reveal it here. Suffice it to say, that Ibsen’s play caused an uproar in Victorian society and many performances of it were changed to reveal a more conservative ending.

I found this to be an interesting book. It is very short (less than 100 pages) and certainly reflects the writing style and sensibilities of the times. Torvald is quite demeaning and paternalistic towards Nora, calling her cutesy names such as “sweet little skylark” and insults her ability to handle money by referring to her as “featherhead.” He is controlling – dictating what she can and cannot eat, and what she should wear to a party. Initially, Nora plays along with all of this. She appears to be a bit of an airhead and does not seem to have an ounce of sense about her. But, gradually her character is revealed to be someone who is much stronger willed and intelligent than she first appears.

A Doll’s House is considered to be classic feminist literature. Written at a time when women were still considered to be the property of their husbands, having no money of their own and prohibited from dealing in business without the consent of their husbands – the play takes a liberal stance on the role of women in society. Specifically, it looks at the emancipation of women from the control of men.

Money is one means by which power is obtained – and in Ibsen’s play, that idea becomes central. Nora appears to be completely under the control of her husband who stands to become very wealthy when he is promoted to a top position in a bank. Ibsen allows Nora to regain some of her autonomy through her ruse to obtain a loan – and then further empowers her by giving her the means to pay back the money. By putting money into Nora’s hands, Ibsen turns the table on tradition and allows a woman character to enjoy her own independence. In 1879, this would be a revolutionary idea.

Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian poet, playwright, and theater director. His plays were controversial, often placing women characters in a position to question Victorian society’s moral dictates. Many critics have considered Ibsen the greatest playwright since Shakespeare.

I read this play for A Year of Feminist Classics project which is discussing the play this month. To join in the discussion or learn more about Ibsen and A Doll’s House, visit the dedicated blog for the project.

Readers who are interested in feminist literature will want to add this classic to their reading list.

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  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who wasn’t blown away by this piece. I did find it interesting, though. I hadn’t considered the financial aspects you mention here, but that adds another reason for the scandal it caused.

    • Amanda on March 9, 2011 at 13:25

    I read this back in the fall and it did blow me away. I didn’t expect the ending and I had no idea it was a feminist piece. Also, I was surprised by how MODERN the play sounds. I thought it was written in the 50s or so, and was really surprised to see it was first produced nearly a century before then. I’ve read one other of Ibsen’s plays and I think the man was just way ahead of his time in terms of writing and ideas!!

  2. I have not read any Ibsen yet (bad English major, bad!). Might have to add this one, anyway! 🙂

    • Amy on March 10, 2011 at 03:47

    I’m glad this book was one of the ones we chose for our reading as many seem to think that men can’t be feminists. Silly them 😉 I love what Ibsen did through the play showing that how men perceive women (i.e. when Nora acts as an airhead with Torvald) is not actually how they are and that women can be so much more. Also loved the ending!

  3. I have read a few reviews of this book over the last few days, and admit that it does sound like the relationship between the husband and wife is a rather interesting one. I’d like to read this and see what I make of it.

    • J.G. on March 10, 2011 at 18:04

    I only know this play from a few lines in the movie “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Sounds like I’d better read it. Thanks for a great (spoiler-free) review.

    • Wendy on March 13, 2011 at 15:19

    Christina: I agree – not an over the top read for me, but interesting all the same.

    Amanda: I agree – he was ahead of his time. I just thought it was so simplistic – but I bet the live play is better.

    Coffee and Book Chick: I think it is worth the read, just for historical reasons.

    Amy: I agree!! Actually, I grew to admire Nora as the play progressed – she had to play the part, but she had some ulterior motives 🙂

    Heather: I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    J.G.: Thanks for the reminder of that reference in Hannah and Her Sisters (loved that movie!!)

    • Trisha on March 19, 2011 at 09:45

    I love your comments on the role money plays in independence. It is so true that financial means makes a world of difference.

    • Wendy on March 28, 2011 at 06:50

    Trisha: I agree – the control of money is definitely something that plays a role in power.

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