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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen-Free Book Notes
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It's Christmas Eve at the Helmers' house, and a warm fire crackles against the cold winter day outside. Nora Helmer, a beautiful young wife and mother, happily comes home with her arms full of presents. She puts the packages on a table and gives a generous tip to the delivery boy who's brought the Christmas tree. Then she tells the maid to keep the tree hidden from the children and hums to herself as she guiltily nibbles on macaroons, her favorite snack. We're immediately caught up in the surprises and planning that surround Christmas.


Ibsen's stage description of the Helmers' drawing room is unusually precise and detailed. You'll find that this fits in perfectly. The play is so carefully planned that every prop serves a function. Already we know the home fire is burning, and we'll soon see that, by eating macaroons, Nora is playing with fire. Her first word, "hide," portends that the appearance of a happy home is just that: an appearance. Many things besides the tree are hidden from view.

Nora "steals" over to listen at her husband's study door, much the way a child might sneak around a grown-up. Torvald's first words to her, "Is that my little lark twittering... my squirrel rummaging...?" could be a father's to a small daughter. But if she's treated like a child or a pet, she's an adored one. Torvald is genuinely glad to see her, and he comes from his study to talk to her and see what she's bought. Nora seems to be content with this relationship. From the beginning she manipulates her husband with the same ingenious plots that children use to get their way. She pleads and pouts and flirts, and bolsters his ego by chiming "Whatever you say, Torvald," and "You know I could never think of going against you."


This dominant husband/submissive wife relationship represented the ideal for many middle-class Europeans who first saw this play. But recognizing their own type of behavior at the beginning of the play made the ending seem a personal insult. How do you view Nora and Torvald from this early exchange between the two?

Ask yourself how you feel about relationships between men and women. Is there always some kind of role-playing going on? If so, what kinds of roles seem to fulfill women? to fulfill men? Are roles necessary? As you read the play, try to figure out how Ibsen would answer these questions.

Despite their playfulness, Nora and Torvald are speaking about a serious subject: money. Torvald is sure that Nora has a woman's understanding of money-that is, she can't handle it properly. Thus, all the finances in this household are attended to by him, and when Nora wants money she must wheedle it out of him. Now she wants him to borrow money for Christmas gifts. Even though he has just been made manager of the bank and they won't have to worry about money, Torvald doesn't want to owe anyone anything, even for a month, for then a bit of "freedom's lost." This question of borrowing foreshadows the revelation of Nora's great secret of the past. When it is revealed, think back to how she might be reacting now to this lecture about debt.

Still he rewards Nora's pout with money and condescendingly lays the blame for her alleged mismanagement on heredity. According to Torvald, Nora's father let money carelessly run through his fingers in the same way.


This is a favorite theme of Ibsen's. His next play, Ghosts, deals with a fatal illness that is inherited by a son because of his father's sexual activities.

Throughout this play, heredity will be credited for passing on physical traits or problems (like brown hair or Dr. Rank's disease) from parent to child. Heredity will also be blamed for passing along moral traits like Krogstad's dishonesty and Nora's mismanagement of money. But Ibsen wants you to wonder how much of moral character results from heredity and how much results from environment. Is character determined by genes or by what you're taught? What are the consequences if character is something you're born with? How is the situation different if it's something you learn? Be on the lookout for how each character views heredity. Who is proven wrong?

Torvald suspects Nora has been eating macaroons, another extravagance of which he disapproves. She repeatedly denies it. You now have a clear picture of the control Torvald exercises and his way of thinking. Borrowing money or eating sweets is forbidden in the Helmer house. Nora is adorable and impractical, and money runs through her fingers. But there is one flaw in this picture: Nora has lied about the macaroons. It's a small thing which seems to fit into their domestic games. You will soon become aware of how important lies have been in their married life. Almost immediately after presenting this picture of typical middle-class married life, Ibsen will take you beneath the surface. Past truths will be exposed to challenge this marriage.

The first voice from the past to disturb the comfortable present is that of Nora's old school friend Kristine, now Mrs. Linde, a widow who has just returned to town. The Helmers' friend Dr. Rank comes in at the same time. The men go into the study, leaving the women to talk. At first Nora acts the same way with Kristine as she had acted with Torvald, continuing her pleasant, empty-headed chatter. But instead of being manipulated by it, Kristine treats Nora with pity and subtle insults. Kristine has been through years of hardship. She married a man she didn't love because she needed money to care for her ailing mother. Since then, both her husband and her mother have died. Kristine is now alone, trying to support herself. She assumes, justifiably, that Nora has been coddled and protected all her life. There is no sign in Nora's childlike behavior up to this point that she's ever faced hardship. The need for money and the way men in an earlier era controlled it at the expense of women is again being raised. As you read, keep in mind the role of money and the way women had traditionally obtained it.


Kristine's description of her empty marriage, of how her husband left her nothing, not even children or "a sense of loss to feed on," is beyond Nora's comprehension. Here is another foreshadowing, this time of how completely Nora's attitude toward Torvald and marriage will change in two days' time.

Nora at once plans to help Kristine get a job in Torvald's bank. She boasts about how she'll arrange it by manipulating Torvald. Kristine thinks her offer of help is very kind, especially since Nora has no concept of life's burdens.

Can you remember a time you've been indignant with someone for passing judgment on you when that person didn't even know all the facts? That's exactly how Nora feels when Kristine, who should be her equal, treats her like a sheltered child. She's annoyed enough to tell Kristine her biggest secret- the key "event" of the play, even though it has already taken place. Like Kristine, who has made a sacrifice for her mother, Nora, too, has sacrificed for someone. Near the beginning of her marriage, Torvald became very ill and might have died if he hadn't traveled south to a milder climate. Knowing that Torvald's principles would never have allowed him to borrow money for the trip, Nora herself secretly arranged for a large sum from a moneylender and pretended it came from her father, who had recently died. For seven years she's scrimped and saved to pay off the loan. In fact, far from being a spendthrift, she has been economizing by making her own Christmas decorations and by secretly copying documents to raise money!

Now, with Torvald's new position, she'll be able to pay off the remainder of the debt and bury her secret.

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