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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen-Free Book Notes
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(Spelling of the characters' names may vary according to the translation.)


Nora is a fascinating character for actresses to play, and for you to watch. She swings between extremes: she is either very happy or suicidally depressed, comfortable or desperate, wise or naive, helpless or purposeful. You can understand this range in Nora, because she wavers between the person she pretends to be and the one she may someday become.

At the beginning of the play, Nora is still a child in many ways, listening at doors and guiltily eating forbidden sweets behind her husband's back. She has gone straight from her father's house to her husband's, bringing along her nursemaid to underline the fact that she's never grown up. She's also never developed a sense of self. She's always accepted her father's and her husband's opinions. And she's aware that Torvald would have no use for a wife who was his equal. But like many children, Nora knows how to manipulate Torvald by pouting or by performing for him.

In the end, it is the truth about her marriage that awakens Nora. Although she may suspect that Torvald is a weak, petty man, she clings to the illusion that he's strong, that he'll protect her from the consequences of her act. But at the moment of truth, he abandons her completely. She is shocked into reality and sees what a sham their relationship has been. She becomes aware that her father and her husband have seen her as a doll to be played with, a figure without opinion or will of her own- first a doll-child, then a doll-wife. She also realizes that she is treating her children the same way. Her whole life has been based on illusion rather than reality.

The believability of the play hinges on your accepting Nora's sudden self-awareness. Some readers feel that she has been a child so long she couldn't possibly grow up that quickly. Others feel that she is already quite wise without realizing it, and that what happens is credible. There are lines in the play that support both arguments. It's up to you to read the play and then draw your own conclusions.

There is a parallel to the story of Nora in the life of one of Ibsen's friends, a woman named Laura Kieler. She, too, secretly borrowed money to finance a trip to a warm climate for a seriously ill husband. When she had difficulty repaying the loan, she forged a note but was discovered and placed in a mental institution. Eventually, she was released and went back to her husband for her children's sake. The story outraged Ibsen, and he fictionalized it in A Doll's House, although rewriting the ending.


Probably all of you know someone like Torvald. He's a straight-laced, proper man, and proud of it. At first, he seems genuinely in love with Nora, even if he does tend to nag and preach a bit. But as the play progresses, you discover more disturbing parts of his character.

Like anyone who doubts his own power, Torvald must frequently prove it. He keeps tight control over who comes to his study and whom he speaks to at work, and over everything affecting Nora. He even has the only key to their mailbox.

During the third act, you see his need for dominance increase. His fantasies always have Nora in a submissive role. He is happiest when treating her as a father would a child. This gives an incestuous tinge to their relationship, which Nora comes to realize and abhor at the end of the play.

On the other hand, Torvald is not a bad man. He is the product of his society, one who seems to fit well in the middle-class mold. It's only when he's tested that his well-ordered house of cards comes crashing down.

Some readers question the believability of Nora's love for Torvald. How could she have been blind to the obvious faults of this dull, petty man for eight years? He must have qualities that make Nora's love credible, but at the same time he must become odious enough at the end for her to break all ties and leave immediately upon discovering his true self. What kind of marriage relationship would put a premium on Torvald's good qualities?

Besides being Nora's weak and unsupportive husband, Torvald represents a "type" of thought and behavior that contrasts with Nora in several effective ways. He represents middle-class society and its rules, while Nora represents the individual. He stands for the world of men and "logical male thinking," while Nora's thinking is more intuitive and sensitive. Can you think of other ways that Torvald and Nora are compared?

In light of these comparisons, how would you interpret Torvald's defeat at the end? Certainly at the play's start, Torvald appears to be in command in contrast to Nora's weakness. But by the end of Act Three their roles have been reversed: he is the weak one, begging for another chance, and Nora has found strength. Does the author mean to suggest that the ideas of male supremacy and middle-class respectability were changing?


Dr. Rank is an old family friend, whose relationship to the Helmers is deeper than it appears. He always visits with Torvald first, but it is Nora he really comes to see. Both Rank and Nora prefer each other's company to Torvald's.

Although Nora flirts with Rank and fantasizes about a rich gentleman dying and leaving her everything, she never acknowledges her true feelings-the attraction she feels for older, father-figures. Rank at least is honest in declaring his love for Nora.

The doctor serves several important functions in the play. His physical illness, inherited from his loose-living father, parallels the "moral illness" shared by Krogstad and Nora. The hereditary nature of Rank's disease, although it is never identified, suggests the possibility of immorality passing from generation to generation. Rank's concern with appearing normal despite his illness parallels Torvald's concerns with maintaining the appearance of a normal marriage after he discovers Nora's moral "disease."

Dr. Rank helps Nora on her journey to self-discovery. He forces her to face the reality of his death, which prepares her for the death of her marriage. He also forces her to look behind appearances to see the romantic nature of her and Rank's relationship. Nora refuses to deal with both of these issues in the second act, but by the third act she and Rank are through with masquerades and are both openly preparing to die. At the end, Rank realizes and accepts his approaching death, while Nora realizes and accepts the death of her marriage.


Mrs. Linde, Nora's old friend, is the first "voice from the past" who affects the future. On the one hand, she is like Nora because she's gone through what Nora is about to face. Kristine has come out of a marriage that was socially acceptable and emotionally bankrupt. On the other hand, she is different from Nora because, having already been disillusioned, she has now gained a firm grasp on reality. She has hope, but it's based on knowing and accepting the truth about herself and about Krogstad. Kristine is the first to see Nora's marriage for the pretense it is. It is Kristine who decides, for better or worse, that Torvald has to know the whole truth about Nora's forgery.

Kristine and Krogstad's compassionate and realistic relationship contrasts with Nora and Torvald's playacting. While the Helmers' socially acceptable relationship crumbles because it's based on deceptions, Nils and Kristine's relationship is renewed and strengthened because it's based on truth.


Nils Krogstad, a clerk in Helmer's bank, is called immoral by several other characters in the play, but is he? We usually think of an immoral person as someone who has no regard for right and wrong.

But Krogstad is concerned with right and wrong. He's also concerned about his reputation and its effect on his children. Although he has been a forger, he wants to reform and tries desperately to keep his job and social standing. Once they're lost, he decides to play the part of the villain in which society has imprisoned him. His attempt to blackmail Nora sets the play's action in motion.

Through his blackmail letter he forces Nora into self- knowledge. He also affects some of the other characters in ways that reveal not only the truth about him, but the truth about them as well. For example, you discover much of Torvald's pettiness from the way he reacts to Krogstad as an inferior. Despite his superficial role as a villain, Krogstad understands himself and the world. Although some find his conversion in Act Three hard to believe, he (together with Kristine) offers that message of hope that gives promise to Nora's future.

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