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Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ has caused controversy since it’s first production in 1879 as it portrays 19th century society as an oppressive influence on the individual and their personal freedom. Victorian society emphasized Bourgeois respectability and moral code, which when defied caused the individual to be stigmatized and ostracized. The characters in Ibsen’s play both expressed and rebelled against these ideals, sparking a debate on the conventions of society and allowing audiences to reflect critically upon their own families. This ability start conversation is what makes ‘A Doll’s House’ relevant to this very day.
Freedom is a central running theory in the play, and an idea that the protagonist Nora is especially passionate about. As a woman in the Victorian era Nora would not have had the same freedoms as her male counterparts such as Helmer, Dr Rank or Krogstad. Patriarchal ideals were supported and reinforced by a social structure that women had little to no control in, they were still dependent on their husbands and fathers, as well as marriage and motherhood. Often women were still viewed as possessions of their husbands, Helmer represents this clearly with ‘all the beauty that is mine, all my very own.’ At the beginning of the play Nora’s ideas of freedom still rely on these principles, referring to being ‘Free. To be free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean and beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it.’ In this way her freedom still supported the idea of being subservient to her husband and her role as a wife and mother. This is reiterated by Helmer towards the end of the play when he says ‘first and foremost you are a mother’ However by this point Nora’s character has developed replying to Helmer ‘That I don’t believe anymore. I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as you are.’ Therefore her ideas on freedom have changed from one that revolves around her husband to one that is centered on herself.
A motif of freedom for Nora could be the macaroons that first appear in Act One, here ‘She takes a packet of macaroons from her pocket and eats one or two; then goes cautiously to her husband’s door and listens.’ The macaroons represent the little freedoms she chooses to take, this is significant as it is against Helmer as can be seen in the latter half of the quotation. The macaroons could also signify temptation, as in their second appearance when she offers one to Dr Rank, he replies ‘Macaroons? Well! I thought those were forbidden in this house.’ Helmer is shown to have shared his rule for Nora, disclosing their personal affairs to his friend Dr Rank. This shows Helmer’s controlling nature, as he I able to limit Nora’s actions despite not being there. The fact that Nora continues to eat them after this shows her rebellious nature. During a discussion of the forbidden macaroons Nora mentions to Mrs Linde that ‘the fact is, he’s afraid they will ruin my teeth’, this links to the idea of Helmer preserving his ‘property’, as it is suggested throughout the play that he married Nora for her looks, as in ‘when I am no longer as pretty as I am now. Don’t laugh at me! I mean, of course, when Torvald is no longer as devoted to me as he is now’. Contextually this would also make sense as women were often praised and valued for their beauty above all else. Therefore we can infer that Helmer is forbidding macaroon for selfish and shallow reasons rather than for worry over Nora’s health. Overall Nora is shown to have very little freedom, as both her own husband and societal expectations oppress her.
Although freedom is shown to incredibly important in the play, the actions of many of the characters are limited and controlled by social respectability. The ending and Nora’s departure in search of freedom suggests that for the individual, freedom really is the most important factor. Social Respectability plays a pivotal role in ‘A Doll’s House’, many of the character are driven or limited by this. Even the Nurse who plays only a small part is shown to have suffered badly from the effect of social respectability, as she was forced to give up her child and become a nurse due becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Perhaps the most affected character is Helmer arguably his whole personality is defined by societal expectations. This is shown most clearly at the end when he says ‘it must appear as if everything between us were just as before… but naturally only in the eyes of the world’ and again when Nora is about to leave ‘But can’t we just live here like brother and sister?’ Both times Helmer is scared of losing his social respectability and would like to put up a font in order to hide him and Nora’s issues.
Another instance of Helmer’s obsession with social respectability is his opinion of Krogstad, ‘But this tactless fellowlays no restraint on himself when people are present’ Here we see that Helmer puts great emphasis on how people present themselves in front of people. The most obvious representation of social respectability is Krogstad as all of his action revolve around his reputation, first losing it, ‘but I can assure you that my one false step which lost me all my reputation…’ Secondly he then uses social shame to blackmail Nora, ‘have you forgotten that it is I who has the keeping of your reputation?’ Due to the emphasis put on social respectability at the time Krogstad is able to control others actions, as Helmer says ‘I am in the power of an unscrupulous man; he can do what he likes with me..’ Without the fear of being ostracized by their community Krogstad would not have been able to blackmail his way back to a respectable position at the bank. When Nora tells Helmer she is leaving him one of his first reaction is ‘And you don’t consider what people will say’, which again shows that his reputation is prioritized over his wife.
Overall it is clearly shown that the social respectability plays an important and significant role in the play. Often it has more significance than the wants and desires of an individual. However the want for freedom is shown to battle strongly against this idea, suggesting that in fact they may be equals in the larger scheme of things. Ibsen has deliberately set the ideas of freedom and social respectability against each other in a time where they were not considered in the way he as portrayed them. By showing that many of the characters in the play were controlled by social expectations he has allowed the audience to question their own influences, starting a debate on the importance of personal freedom both during the 19th century and to this day
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