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Oftentimes, human beings are caught up in the dilemma of determining whether a wrong deed done with the goal of helping another person is still a misdeed. Henrik Ibsen’s three-act play A Doll’s House puts forward, among others, this question. Nora is happily married to her husband, Helmer, who recently received a promotion as the bank manager. The play takes its readers through the woman’s marriage, and how their relationship and her perception of the same changes influenced by a number of decisions and actions. Nora is not portrayed as a strong female role model for her time period in A Doll’s House because she relies on her husband to provide almost everything, is submissive as it was expected of women at that time, and believes that working for a living is tiresome.
From the beginning of the play, it is clear that Helmer is the sole provider of the family and that Nora expects the same from him. She has grown up in an affluent household, going by her father’s habit of being a spendthrift and goes ahead to marry a man who provides everything for her and the children (Ibsen). When she comes back from shopping, which Helmer has funded, he still gives her more money and she exclaims, “Ten shillings--a pound--two pounds! Thank you, thank you, Torvald; that will keep me going for a long time” (Ibsen). Additionally, even with Helmer providing all the financial aid for her, Nora seems ignorant and lacking knowledge about it. Her unconcerned dismissal when she tells her husband, “Pooh! We can borrow until then,” after he raises a concern about her spending behaviors cements this argument (Ibsen). Even with an upcoming promotion, a typical strong woman is likely to help her husband save by spending on the most important things, and at the very least, not suggest that the man borrows money to fund her whims. However, it seems a tentative conclusion to make by stating that Nora is dependent on Helmer for everything, and especially finances, without putting into consideration that she borrowed money to help her dying husband. While it may seem like a heroic act and matches that of a strong female role model, her actions are committed from an uninformed point of view, which does little to save her character. In a summary of criticisms on this play, Templeton reports that most critics akin do not view her act of borrowing money as brave or even lacking ulterior motives (30). In addition, Nora mentions that she had tried all sorts of persuasions to compel her husband to fund their trip to the South, even though he did not know the severity of his condition. She tells Mrs. Linde, “Do you suppose I didn’t try, first of all, to get what I wanted as if it were for myself… and that he ought to be kind and indulgent to me;” (Ibsen). Therefore, Nora had first attempted, by all means possible, to acquire the travelling money from Helmer before she went ahead to take a loan for the same without his knowledge. Besides financial support, Nora also relies on her husband for protection, as it was expected of women. During their conversations, Helmer constantly refers to Nora using pet names. Templeton opines that the pet names are an indication of weakness, as that found in someone who has not fully grasped the issues going on in the world (30).
Nora is also submissive to her husband as it was expected of women at that time. Throughout the play, it is also evident that the character abides not only to her husband, but also her father, which implies that it is in her nature. When Nora tries to justify her feelings and why she chooses to leave the marriage, she says, “When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions.” (Ibsen). Even when their views differ, she cannot raise it with her father albeit the seemingly close relationship Ibsen paints between Nora and her parent. She also fits in the role of a submissive wife, doing most of her chores carefully, just as Helmer would wish, or with specialty not to go against his orders. The man jokes to Nora about her eating one or two macaroons that he has prohibited her from taking because they are too sugary and will spoil her teeth, and she responds by saying that she does not wish to go against his wishes. Templeton adds on to this argument by stating, “As for the secret macaroon eating… in which Nora is expected to practice cookie-jar trickeries in the game between the strong, wise, put-upon husband and the weak, childlike wife” (33).
Finally, Ibsen portrays Nora as a lazy woman who abrogates taking care of her children and believes that working for a living is tiresome. It disqualifies her as a strong female of her time because during that time, a wife’s job was to take care of her family and especially children. In Templeton’s words, “Brought up to be ornaments and mothers, women marry suitable men and devote their lives to their husbands’ careers and to their children” (36). Additionally, strong women of that time often considered looking for employment to avoid being fully dependent on their spouses. In one instance, Nora complains to Mrs. Linde that thinking about business is tiresome (Ibsen). In another, she feels that the latter will tire much if she has to work at the bank as a source of income. Of more interest is how she has a nurse to take care of her children and helpers to assist with any kind of hard work. While many could argue that her husband’s current wealth gives Norah the privilege of employing someone to look after her young ones, strong women in the 19th century were expected to solely look after the entire home. Furthermore, as she leaves Helmer, she states that, “The maids know all about everything in the house--better than I do” (Ibsen). Inarguably, this statement speaks volumes in explaining her ignorance and weakness in taking care of the house and family.
In summary, Ibsen does not portray Nora as a strong woman of her time because she relies on her husband for almost every need, is utterly submissive to Helmer and her father, and dislikes doing much work because she feels it is tiresome. Her husband’s wealth puts her in a position to be seen as weak in the eyes of the audience. It is not until the end of the play that she finds her voice and stands up to Helmer, as she desires to be her own person. In this regard, some may argue that the last act saves her character from that of weakness, but it is also possible that she would not have changed had Helmer defended her as she hoped. Therefore, the entire play depicts Nora as one conforming to the 19th century standards of an ideal woman and wife.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. 1879, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2542/2542-h/2542-h.htm. Accessed 22 Oct. 2018.
Templeton, Joan. “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 104, no. 1, 1989, pp. 28-40.
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