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Shifting Gender Roles in Doll's House

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The play A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, offers a critique of the superficial marriage between Nora and Torvald Helmer. Written in 1879, the play describes the problems which ensue after Nora secretly and illegally takes out a loan from a local bank in order to save Torvald’s life. Throughout the play, the delicate relationship between Nora and Torvald is based largely upon the enactment of conventional gender roles. For example, Torvald plays the part of the masculine hero, vowing always to shield his helpless wife from harm, while Nora plays the submissive wife who relies upon her husband’s opinions as her own. Through the performances of these roles, A Doll’s House challenges the traditional notion of gender, implying that gender is not the result of biology but is instead a part one plays in order to fulfill the demands of society.

At the time A Doll’s House was written, the patriarchal society of the nineteenth century dictated the social standards for both men and women. Men were seen as leaders; they ran businesses and governments, made the important decisions, and served as the protectors of the weaker members of society, the women and children. Throughout the play, Torvald appears to take on the characteristics of traditional masculinity. He is proud that he has been promoted to the head of the bank, and he finds satisfaction in playing the part of the protective husband, telling Nora, “When the real crisis comes, you will not find me lacking in strength or courage. I am man enough to bear the burden for us both” (565). However, upon closer examination, one can see that Torvald’s masculine identity is not intrinsic, but rather a role which he plays in order to meet the expectations of society. Instead, his sense of masculinity comes primarily from the preservation of certain social hierarchies, which place him in a position of power.

This quest for power can be seen in Torvald’s work at the bank. He confesses to Nora that he is firing Krogstad primarily because Krogstad refuses to address him with respect. Torvald says, “We—well, we’re on Christian name terms. And the tactless idiot makes no attempt to conceal it when other people are present. On the contrary, he thinks it gives him the right to be familiar with me. He shows off the whole time, with ‘Torvald this’ and ‘Torvald that’. . . If he stayed, he’d make my position intolerable” (564). As Langas explains, Torvald refuses to hire Krogstad back “because he needs to confirm his authority as a man” (Langas 159). Society’s notion of masculinity requires one to be successful in business, and Torvald must maintain control at the bank in order to maintain his masculinity. Krogstad loses his job because he is a threat to the traditional structure of power at the bank and therefore a threat to Torvald’s own sense of power and manhood.

Torvald’s masculinity is also inexorably tied to his role as the patriarch of the Helmer household. In the first half of the play, Torvald continually exerts his power over Nora, forbidding her to eat macaroons and belittling her with pet names such as “squirrel” and “my little songbird”. He even refers to Nora as his pet, saying, “The squanderbird’s a pretty little creature, but she gets through an awful lot of money. It’s incredible what an expensive pet she is for a man to keep” (561). While one could characterize Torvald simply as an overbearing chauvinist, another view is that his apparent misogyny reflects his desire to fit in to the social construct for masculinity.

Nora’s own behavior supports Torvald’s manly power. Moi writes, “Helmer’s sense of masculinity depends on Nora’s performances of helpless, childlike femininity” (Moi 264). That is, the more submissive Nora acts, the stronger Torvald feels. For example, when Nora confesses to Torvald that she is in trouble with Krogstad, he responds, “Just lean on me. I shall counsel you. I shall guide you. I would not be a true man if your feminine helplessness did not make you doubly attractive in my eyes” (576). The fragile relationship between Nora and Torvald is built largely upon the perpetuation of Torvald’s feelings of power and masculinity, and even Nora is aware of this. When she explains to Mrs. Linde why she could never tell Torvald that she had taken out the loan, Nora says, “And besides—he’s so proud of being a man—it’d be so painful and humiliating for him to know that he owed anything to me. It’d completely wreck our relationship” (565). Langas comments, “Nora’s acknowledgement demonstrates that she realizes that marriage is based upon a gendered hierarchy that she, for the time being, accepts” (Langasa 157). Ultimately, it is clear that Torvald’s ability to feel that he is in a position of power determines his performance of the masculinity dictated by nineteenth century society.

Nora’s femininity is also shaped by the demands of a patriarchal society. At the time Ibsen was writing, the governing social code was the “Cult of True Womanhood,” as Welter calls it. The “cult” prescribed certain standards for acceptable female behavior: “The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife—woman” (Welter 152). Throughout the play, Nora continually adjusts her identity in order to please the person she is with at the time, playing the flirt around Dr. Rank or the strong women when she is with Krogstad. However, the easiest role for her to play is that of the ‘true’ woman, the submissive woman, which is seen most explicitly in her relationship with Torvald.

Some critics believe that Nora has a miraculous awakening in the final act and suddenly realizes that her marriage has been “a masquerade where neither of the partners is honest to the other” (Orjasaeter 33). However, it is my belief that from the beginning Nora recognizes the “performative structure of identity” (Langas 165) and attempts to use her femininity to exert her own form of power in the patriarchal society. Early in the play, Nora admits to Mrs. Linde that she acts in a certain way because it amuses Torvald to see her “dance and dress up and play the fool” (555). This purposeful decision can be seen in the way that Nora often uses her subordinate position to boost Torvald’s own sense of power, which in turn allows her to manipulate or distract him from the situation at hand. For instance, when she tries to convince Torvald to hire Mrs. Linde at the bank, she takes advantage of his masculine pride, saying, “You see, Christine’s frightfully good at office work, and she’s mad to come under some really clever man who can teach her even more than she knows already” (557). Later, when she is trying to divert Torvald from criticizing Krogstad’s forgery, she again morphs into the part of the vulnerable wife and pleads, “You know I trust your taste more than anyone’s. I’m so anxious to look really beautiful at the fancy dress ball. Torvald, couldn’t you help me to decide what I shall go as, and what kind of costume I ought to wear?” (561). Finally, with a letter from Krogstad waiting in the mailbox, Nora uses the tarantella dance to manipulate her husband. She appeals to his male ego, saying, “I can’t get anywhere without your help. I’ve completely forgotten everything. . . Help me, Torvald. Promise me you will?” (569). However, while Nora believes that she is gaining power from these interactions with Torvald, by continually placing herself in an inferior position, she both allows him to maintain his feelings of masculinity and perpetuates the patriarchal culture which originally gave such credence to female subordination.

As the play progresses, Nora becomes more and more caught up in the theatrical roles she is forced to play. This can be seen in her close relationship with Dr. Rank. Unlike her interactions with Torvald, when Nora is with Dr. Rank, she is able to shed the allusion of the submissive wife. However, she is still playing a role; she takes advantage of his affection for her; actively defying the standards of true womanhood and uses her coyness to get what she wants. When Nora contemplates asking Dr. Rank for the money to repay Krogstad, she shows him her silk stockings and says, “Flesh-coloured. Aren’t they beautiful? It’s very dark in here now, of course, but tomorrow–! No, no, no, only the soles. Oh well, I suppose you can look a bit higher if you want to” (566). In this scene, the room is dark, Nora is showing off her legs, and she is playing the seductress role beautifully—the audience is sure that Dr. Rank will say yes to Nora’s request. Langas states, “The scene is a kind of striptease, where the woman attracts the man’s desire. . . The female body as an object takes part in a gendered negotiation for power” (Langas 162-163). However, Nora’s sense of control is shattered when the doctor confesses his love for her. She never expected that Dr. Rank would cross the boundaries set forth by respectable masculinity, but once he does, Nora is no longer comfortable with the role of temptress. After calling for a lamp, she returns to playing the role of the loyal wife, saying, “Well, upon my word, you are a fine gentleman, Dr. Rank. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, now that the lamp’s been lit?” (567). With the room once again lit and the propriety of the situation restored, Nora and Dr. Rank are then able to function within the boundaries of traditional gender relations.

In the final act of the play, Nora becomes increasingly frustrated by the social constructs for gender. After Torvald reads the letter from Krogstad detailing Nora’s loan from the bank, he immediately forgets his vows to rescue Nora from harm. Although Nora believed that Torvald would forgive her because she took out the loan in order to save him, he instead becomes enraged, threatening to cut off her contact with the children and saying, “Now you have destroyed all my happiness. You have ruined my whole future. Oh, it’s too dreadful to contemplate!” (575). For the first time in the play, and seemingly for the first time in their marriage, the couple is able to interact entirely without artifice, and the result is a heated argument. The relationship does not end with this argument, however; it ends after Krogstad’s second letter arrives and Nora is released from her debts. Here Torvald attempts to reestablish the conventional gender roles and reclaim his position of power. He tells Nora that things will soon return to how they were before: “There is something indescribably wonderful and satisfying for a husband in knowing that he has forgiven his wife—forgiven her unreservedly from the bottom of his heart. It means that she has become his property in a double sense; he has, as it were, brought her into the world anew; she is now not only his wife but also his child. From now on that is what you shall be to me, my poor, helpless, bewildered little creature (576).” During much of Torvald’s speech Nora has been offstage, changing dresses, and at this point, she returns. She now wears everyday clothes and tells Torvald, “I’ve changed” (577). Yet the change is much more than taking off the fancy clothes from the masquerade ball. In removing her physical costume, Nora now finds that she is unable and unwilling to return to the characters she has been playing.

After finally freeing herself from the restrictions of playing a part, Nora is confronted with the extent of her own theatricality. Although she has been an active participant in the charades, she was unaware of the lasting consequences. After playing so many roles throughout her life, she finds herself unable to formulate her own sense of identity, apart from the men for whom she has performed. She has become “a person who exists only as roles dictated by society” (Tam 190). Nora’s lack of identity can be seen through her interactions with men, including her father, whom the audience never sees but hears much about. Nora says, “When I lived with Papa, he used to tell me what he thought about everything, so that I never had any opinions but his. And if I did have any of my own, I kept them quiet, because he wouldn’t have liked them. He called me his little doll, and he played with me just the way I played with my dolls” (577). She also goes on to criticize Torvald for her lack of opinions, saying, “You arranged everything the way you wanted it, so that I simply took over your taste in everything—or pretended I did. . . I’ve been your doll-wife, just as I used to be Papa’s doll-child” (577).

Nora’s continued use of the doll image is not simply an allusion to the play’s title but an important means to understanding the extent of Nora’s roles. In allowing her father and her husband to manipulate her as if she were a toy, Nora has in fact taken on the identity of a doll. She moves and gives the impression of being alive but is ultimately lacking in the qualities which allow one to feel human (Moi 266). When Nora finally comprehends that her identity has been permanently linked to other people, she makes the difficult decision to leave her family and set off on “a journey of self-quest and self-creation” (Tam 189); she leaves in order to establish an authentic sense of identity. She tells Torvald, “I must stand on my own feet if I am to find out the truth about myself and about life. So I can’t go on living here with you any longer” (577). To this, Torvald respond she must stay because of her duties to him and to the children. He says, “First and foremost you are a wife and mother” (578). Nora answers, “I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that I am first and foremost a human being, like you—or anyway, I must try to become one” (578). This exchange is significant in that it shows Torvald’s desperate attempt to force Nora back into the roles which she has been playing, those of wife and mother. It also illustrates Nora’s adamant rejection of these roles and her desire to free herself from the culturally constructed gender norms.

As Nora continues to tell Torvald of her need to leave, he makes one last effort at convincing her to stay. He says, “Do you need to ask where your duty lies in your own home? Haven’t you an infallible guide in such matters—your religion?” (578). However, Nora’s newfound feeling of agency also allows her to critique her own experience of religion. Piety was one of the requirements for the Cult of True Womanhood and, as Torvald demonstrates, it was often used by patriarchal societies to validate the idea of gendered hierarchies. Langas cites nineteenth century theologian Marcus Jacon Monrad, who believed that any critique of the patriarchal system was “an irrational quest for equality, a demolition of the order of nature and of the definite commandment of the Holy Book” (Langas 150). After Nora’s refusal to return to her role of piety, she realizes that, like many other things, her view of religion has been tied to the view of a man. She says, “I don’t really know what religion means. . . I only know what Pastor Hansen told me when I went to confirmation” (578). Ultimately, in spite of Torvald’s attempt to appeal to Nora’s senses of duty, piety, and morality, Nora leaves her family behind in search of freedom from a social system which consistently placed women in a subordinate position.

Overall, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a critique of the gendered roles which one plays as well as the social system which seems to require one to perform a certain way. This can be seen in the character of Torvald who, at the expense of others, continually places himself in positions of power in order to measure up to the nineteenth century standards of masculinity. Gender as a performance is also seen in Nora. Throughout the play, Nora willingly adopts different forms of femininity in an attempt to exert power in the patriarchal society, but it is only at the conclusion of the play that she realizes the consequences of this theatricality and refuses to resume her submissive role. Instead, she leaves her husband and children behind, challenging the traditional standards of femininity and calling into question the very social, political, and religious institutions which originally labeled her as inferior and forced her to essentially perform her gender.

Works Cited

Langas, Unni. “What Did Nora Do? Thinking Gender with A Doll’s House.” Ibsen

Studies 2005: 148-171.

Moi, Toril. “‘First and Foremost a Human Being’: Idealism, Theatre, and Gender in A

Doll’s House.” Modern Drama 2006: 256-284.

Orjasaeter, Kristin. “Mother, Wife, and Role Model.” Ibsen Studies 2005: 19-47.

Tam, Kwok-Kan. “Spatial Poetics of the Self and the Moral Dramatic Structure in A

Doll’s House.” Ibsen Studies 2005: 180-197.

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18.2

(1966): 151-174.

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