The Importance of Female Independence in Henrik Ibsens A Doll's House

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A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen is a unique story presented expertly by an author who intended the reader to draw out different conclusions. However, the idea of gender differences comes out throughout the play as the relationship between Nora and her husband Torvald changes within the story. In the beginning, Nora is presented as a frail wife whose way of spending needs to be monitored by her husband. The impression a reader gets in the first parts of the story is that Nora is dependent on her husband for guidance on how to run her life and the family. Besides, Nora is treated like a child by her husband something that gives the reader the impression that she has no sense of independence and must be guided by her husband or else she will make wrong decisions about almost everything. In the first scene, Torvald scolds Nora for spending money on Christmas gifts, but it is the language he uses that confirms he thinks of Nora as a person who lacks self-direction because her way of thinking is the same as that of a child. By calling Nora "My little spendthrift,"Torvald sends the message that Nora cannot make concrete decisions (1:41).  The language, used in A Doll's House, the characters and characterization, the setting and the plot have all been connected to present the ideas around female independence in a seemingly male-dominated world. Most importantly, Ibsen uses Nora's secrets and the behavior of Mrs. Linde to show that even during the Victorian era, women could take control of their lives.

            Ibsen cleverly chooses the  Helmer's house as the only place where the whole play runs. The house represents family and marriage but also serves to build aspects of gender differences, the different roles society expects men and women to play and the consideration of the home as the woman's place. From the first scene, the reader learns that Torvald is the sole provider for the family an indication that Nora spends most of her time in the house and does not go to work outside. Torvald's expression of fear that he might die of a road accident and fail to repay his debts should they borrow money to spend on Christmas and New Year holidays proves that he is the only source of income for the family. Torvald insists that "No debts! No Credits! Home-life ceases to be free and beautiful as soon as it is founded on borrowing and debt"(1:65-67). Here Ibsen not only shows that Torvald is the only one working but also emphasizes the concept of homemaking being the role of a woman. In that sense, Nora has to take care of her household including refraining from making decisions that can lead them to live in debts. In a discussion about the working roles of Victorian women, Kara Barrett explains that during the era, women were viewed as people who should concern themselves with keeping their households successful (6). Those who found themselves working outside their homes were viewed negatively by society, but some were forced to seek work to support their families. However, even with the noble motivation behind working outside their households, the women were still harassed and often felt unwelcome in the workplace (Barrett 6).

            Ibsen also uses the home to build the theme of female independence by making the confinement of women happen physically and emotionally. Torvald thinks that he has the power to shape Nora's beliefs in herself and the world. For example when Nora calls Torvald to see the things she has bought he asks her not to disturb him. Later after finishing his work he comes out to look at those things, and that shows his primary role as a man is to make money that is why he has to work even at home. The lack of freedom of mind is explicitly brought out in the statements Torvald makes after seeing what Nora has bought. He forbids Nora from eating sweets to prevent ruining her teeth and also asks her to save money. Saman Balaky and Nafser Sulaiman in their feminist analysis of the play explain that Torvald sees his wife and women in general as intellectually inferior (39). The Helmer's home, therefore, symbolizes the place of a woman and also represents the restrictions on women against working outside the home. Besides, Ibsen sets the story in the house to show that Nora lacks independence to make decisions concerning family income even when it is clear that Torvald needs assistance in providing for the family.

            The language used A Doll's House explains a lot about the position of women as subordinates to men and therefore individuals who must depend on the males in the society for everything. Most of the words used to refer to Nora equate her to a child who cannot direct herself. For example, when Nora gets home from the shopping, Torvald calls out "Is that my lark twittering there?"to which Nora responds in the affirmative (1:30-31). Torvald goes ahead to ask if it's his "little squirrel bustling about?"and once again Nora responds with a yes (1:33). Here Ibsen intends to show how naive, submissive and childish Nora is because she cannot even make decisions on the titles she prefers. A lark is a small bird, and a squirrel is a small rodent yet Torvald still uses the adverb little to refer to the squirrel. The reference to Nora by describing small-sized living things bring out the idea that her thinking is limited and she needs the help of a man for her mind to work well.

            Furthermore, Nora's affirmative response to the titles Torvald gives her shows that she has to a greater extent accepted her identity as a less independent person. The confinement of women in the private sphere correlates with their second place position to men ( Balaky & Sulaiman 41). Nora's acceptance of her subordinate position to Torvald results from her absence from the public sphere and makes her economically dependent on her husband. Besides, Nora is also portrayed as not only financially dependent on her husband but also dependent on other males in society. An excellent example is her step to borrow money from Krogstad to cater for Torvald's trip to Italy for medical attention. The words Nora uses when explaining how she enjoyed working secretly to repay the funds reveal that she also had a fixed mind that only men deserved the freedom to work and earn money. Nora tells Mrs. Linde that "...It was splendid to work in that way and save money. I almost felt as if I was a man (1:490-491). Here Nora informs the audience that she considers freedom to work and earn an income a good thing which is only left to the males. The patriarchal system offers men favorable circumstances including the freedom to work but limits the right of women to the same. That ideological influence leads to monetary imbalance, and Ibsen intends to expose the kind of abuse that lack of independence causes women (Kumari and Sunalini 836). Therefore Ibsen's choice of words for the play perfectly brings out the theme of lack of independence from a psychological, physical and social perspective.

            An in-depth analysis of the female characters in Ibsen's play reveal that the author intended to leave an impression with the reader that women need the freedom to choose what to do with their lives and bodies.  That concept comes out towards the end of the play when Nora leaves her husband and children probably to enjoy an independent life. Mrs. Linde's presence in the Helmer's home also serves to build on the idea that women need liberties like the one males enjoyed in the nineteenth century. Nora's narration of her decision to take a loan from Krogstad and how she worked secretly to repay the loan is Ibsen's way of telling the reader that Nora is not submissive, naive and economically dependent on males by choice. Instead, the society's way of defining male and female roles forced Nora to trade her independence with respect from members of the community. However, if Nora is given a chance to work and support her family, she would probably do it in the same way as Torvald or even in a better way.

            Through the characterization of Nora, Ibsen shows that the limitations of female freedom which occur in domestic and social life make female lives miserable and they often fight from within to end these forms of discrimination. Based on that, Nora begins the fight against oppression and discrimination by deciding to do something in her domestic life. Although she is restricted to the private space of her home, Nora figures out a way of solving her family's financial problems. Apart from that, Nora breaks the limitation to women's freedom by expressing her feelings over male domination to Torvald (Pravitasari 39). After being scolded by Torvald for taking money from Krogstad, Nora gains the courage to speak up against oppression. Nora says "I have had great injustice done to me, Torvald, first by father then by you."(3:597-598). Here Ibsen uses Nora's dynamic character to show that women can only tolerate oppression and limitation of freedom to some extent after which they stand up for themselves and seek what is right for them.

            Readers find Nora a naive and playful person in the beginning who does not know the world outside her home. However, after the disagreement with Torvald over the borrowed money, she realizes that she has acted the happy child for her father and later acted the happy, childlike wife for her husband. Nora expresses her feelings towards her role as the happy child by telling Torvald it has been unfair of him to compel her to act that way. Nora thus makes a decision to stop existing to please men in her life and start living for herself.  In an analysis of gender struggle in A Doll's House, Guo Yuehua presents that although Nora is treated as a child by her father and her husband, she still holds the potential to be forceful and independent (83). By forging her father's signature to borrow money from Krogstad, Nora proves that she can force things to happen her way whenever necessary (Yuehua 83). Besides, her dismissal of the law and lawmakers indicate that she can reason independently and considers the laws made exclusively by men to be faulty.

            The characterization of Mrs. Linde is purposefully created to contrast that of Nora in most parts of the play. The author intends to show the difference between a woman who enjoys her independence and that who does not. Mrs. Linde who enters the play early and speaks a lot with Nora is depicted as sensible and reasonable compared to Nora. The reader learns that Mrs. Linde and Krogstad had a relationship before. However, she left him for another man because she needed money. According to Mrs. Linde, "...I had a helpless mother and two little brothers. We could not wait for you, as your prospects then stood (3:44-45). Here the reader realizes that even before marriage, Mrs. Linde enjoyed her freedom to make decisions that she felt suited her. She left Krogstad for a wealthier man so she could gain from his wealth to take care of her sick mother and two brothers.  The same sense of independence continues when Mrs. Linde suggests to Krogstad that they get back together since her husband is dead. She uses Krogstad's words "shipwrecked"and asks him if both of them could join hands since they are all shipwrecked.

Christine Linde is, therefore, a character that the author uses to demonstrate the female capability to do things without male help or influence (Khan 2). Besides, Mrs. Linde serves as a female helper who asissts Nora cover the money she owes Krogstad, and she also helps her mother and brothers.

            Despite Mrs. Linde being depicted as a reasonable and sensible woman, she does not escape the sacrificial role of women portrayed by Ibsen in the play. Her decision to leave Krogstad and marry another man is a form of sacrifice for her mother and brothers. The same can be said of Nora's nurse Anne Marie who gives up her daughter for adoption to serve as a maid in Nora's house. The nurse claims she had no other option an indication that she too lacked the freedom to choose what she believed was good for her. Jeevitha in a study of the theme of the emancipation of self in the play explains that Ibsen's characterization challenges the Victorian ideal of a woman's role in marriage and society (94).  According to Jeevitha, Ibsen was inspired by the belief that females cannot be themselves in the modern society that is male-dominated. Males made the laws while judges and prosecutors were all men who analyzed the conduct of women using masculine lenses (94). Joan Templeton summarizes these ideas by mentioning that A Doll's House is all about every woman's struggle against every man and not everybody's struggle to find his or herself (36). Fatemeh Ghafourinia and Leila Jamili on their part find Ibsen's way of presenting the theme of independence a unique approach that uses the common situation to make others experience a change in their inner world (426). The play exposes pressures that society puts on people and discusses social problems where women are victims and the society a victimizer (Ghafourinia and Jamili 426). Ibsen, therefore, helps female readers who share similar experiences as Nora to achieve inner victory over male dominance in their lives.


            Individual freedom is a central idea in A Doll's House that Ibsen perfectly brings out by presenting factors that prevent individuals from enjoying their independence and also showing that females can make better members of the society when left to do things on their own. Ibsen works with language to demonstrate male dominance over women in the society. Torvald's way of speaking to Nora and his choice of words depict him as a person who sees his wife as dependent on him in every way. Torvald is even presented as one who takes up a father role over Nora. Ibsen also uses words to show how the minds of women can be manipulated to the extent that they view themselves as only able to survive with the help of men.

            Moreover, Ibsen's characterization of Nora, Mrs. Linde, and Anne Marie all enhance the theme of female independence albeit in different ways. Finally, the setting of Helmer's home serves to build the idea of female confinement to private space and lack of liberty to explore the public space. Overall, the theme of female independence is well captured in the play by this author who has been described by many critics as a promoter of feminist ideas. There are higher chances that an individual who considers female independence a trivial matter will rethink his or her position after reading A Doll's House.

Works Cited

        Balaky, Saman Salah Hassan, and Nafser Abdull Mosawir Sulaiman. "A Feminist Analysis Of Henrik               Ibsen’S A Doll’S House". Beytulhikme An International Journal Of Philosophy, vol 6, no. 1,                2016, pp. 31-45., doi:10.18491/bijop.xxxxx. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

         Barret, Kara L. "Victorian Women and Their Working Roles". English Theses., vol 9, 2013, pp. 1-                      51., Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

          Ghafourinia, Fatemeh, and Leila Baradaran Jamili. "The Women’S Right In Henrik Ibsen's A Doll’S                 House". Journal Of Novel Applied Sciences, vol 3, no. 4, 2014, pp. 424-429., Accessed 23                       Nov 2018.

         Henrik, Ibsen. A Doll's House. Xist Publishing, 2015.

          Jeevitha. "The Theme of Emancipation of Self in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll’S House.". International                    Journal Of Creative Research Thoughts (IJCRT), vol 5, no. 4, 2017, pp. 94-96.,                               Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

          Khan, Hamid. "Feminism and The Roles Of Women In A Doll's House By Henrik                                           Ibsen". Academia.Edu, 2018,                                                                                                       Henrik_Ibsen. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

         Kumari, Velpula Nirmala. "Woman Perspective In Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House"". The Criterion:               An International Journal In English, vol 8, no. 4, 2017, pp. 835-840., Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

         Pravitasari, Destarina Intan. "Nora’s Struggles for Life Independence in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: A                Feminist Study". Yogyakarta State University, 2013.

          Templeton, Joan. "The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen". PMLA, vol 104, no.                   1, 1989, p. 28. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/462329.

          Yuehua, Guo. "Gender Struggle over Ideological Power in Ibsen's A Doll’S House". Canadian                          Social Science, vol 5, no. 1, 2009, pp. 79-87., Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

November 24, 2023

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