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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen-Free Book Notes
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The major themes of A Doll's House recur in many of Ibsen's plays, including Hedda Gabler.


Ibsen felt strongly that society should reflect people's needs, not work against them. In A Doll's House, society's rules prevent the characters from seeing and expressing their true nature. When Krogstad tells Nora that the law takes no account of good motives, she cries, "Then they must be very bad laws!"

At the end of the play, she realizes she has existed in two households ruled by men and has accepted the church and society without ever questioning these institutions. In the third act, Nora separates herself from the "majority" and the books that support them. "But," she says, "I can't go on believing what the majority says, or what's written in books. I have to think over these things myself and try to understand them." The individual has triumphed over society, but at a heavy price that includes her children. When Nora walks out the door, she becomes a social outcast.


Ibsen seems to be saying that your greatest duty is to understand yourself. At the beginning of the play, Nora doesn't realize she has a self. She's playing a role. The purpose of her life is to please Torvald or her father, and to raise her children. But by the end of the play, she discovers that her "most sacred duty" is to herself. She leaves to find out who she is and what she thinks.


This was a major theme in late nineteenth-century literature and appeared in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, to name only a few.

Ibsen refused to be called a feminist, preferring to be known as a humanist. He had little patience with people, male or female, who didn't stand up for their rights and opinions.

Still, he argued that society's rules came from the traditionally male way of thinking. He saw the woman's world as one of human values, feelings, and personal relationships, while men dealt in the abstract realm of laws, legal rights, and duties. In A Doll's House, Nora can't really see how it is wrong to forge a name in order to save a life, but Torvald would rather die than break the law or borrow money. This difference in thinking is what traps Nora.

However, for Ibsen, the triumph of the individual embraces the right of women to express themselves. In the end, Nora's duty to know herself is more important than her female role.


At the beginning of the play, family life is not what it seems. Nora is Torvald's "little squirrel"; they appear to have a perfect marriage and their home is debt-free. Nora seems content and Torvald is in control. Scandal can't touch them. Everyone concerned wants to keep up appearances. But, little by little, as the play progresses, reality replaces appearances.

Nora is upset when Dr. Rank shatters the appearance that their relationship is innocent. Torvald insists on keeping up the appearance of marriage even after rejecting Nora for her past crime. He is appalled when Krogstad calls him by his first name at the bank-it doesn't appear proper. Dr. Rank wants to appear healthy. Krogstad and Nora want to hide their deeds and are enmeshed in a tissue of lies.

Only when the characters give up their deceptions and cast off their elaborately constructed secrets can they be whole. Ask yourself how all the characters achieve this freedom from appearances by the play's end. Do any of them fail?


Nora seems to be under the impression that her father was perfect, and she tried to replace him-first with Torvald, then with Rank. When she realizes her father wasn't looking out for her best interests, it's only a short step to discovering that Torvald isn't either.

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