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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen-Free Book Notes
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ACT THREE (continued)

He has not yet performed "the miracle," so she prompts him. She won't let him suffer for her sake, she says. She won't let him take on her guilt.

But Torvald doesn't rise to the occasion. "Stop playacting!" he commands. In fact, Nora's whole idea of "the miracle" was only a fantasy. As her husband locks the hall door and begins to grill her, her illusions crumble. For the first time, she sees him as he really is. She's "beginning to understand everything now."


As in the relationship between Kristine and Krogstad, the present has the power to change the past. Nora's sudden knowledge about her relationship to Torvald changes the meaning of eight years of marriage. This process cannot be reversed, even though Torvald will try to return things to the way they were.

Torvald responds in the same old ways. He is most concerned with appearances. He insists that he and Nora must act happily married-even though he won't sleep with her or let her near the children. He is even willing to pay off the blackmailer to save his reputation.

No sooner has Torvald shown his cowardice and disloyalty than another letter arrives. It contains Nora's forged note and an apology from Krogstad. "I'm saved!" Torvald exults. "Nora, I'm saved!" Nora responds sardonically, "And I?" "You too, of course" is his reply.

Amazingly, but true to character, Torvald immediately tries to recreate the exact relationship he's just proved to be false. He goes even further. He explicitly invites Nora to rejoin him, not merely as a repentant wife, but as "his child as well." The doll should come back to her doll's house. Now you and Nora and even Torvald see the eight years of marriage in exactly the same light.

While Torvald talks, Nora goes into the bedroom to change. But instead of putting on her nightgown, she dresses in street clothes.


Notice how often clothing is used symbolically 2throughout the play. This is especially true for Nora. She goes from wearing a brightly colored shawl when practicing the tarantella to wearing a black shawl to the party-the night she plans to die.

Nora sits Torvald down and begins their first serious talk-in the language of Torvald's world, a "settling of accounts."


In the popular theater of the late nineteenth century, this play might have been put on in exactly the same way until this point. But in that theatrical tradition, there then would have been tears, pouts, and eventual reconciliation in a "happy ending." Ibsen departed from this tradition because he was concerned with the deeper issues of social and psychological truth. This direct and realistic talk between husband and wife has been called a breakthrough in modern drama. Why was such a conversation threatening to Ibsen's early audiences? Does it have the same effect today?

Nora explains to him what she's just discovered: she's never had a "self." She was a doll for her father, an echo of his opinions. Her marriage was merely a transfer from her father's house to Torvald's. Now she sees that during her eight years of marriage, she hasn't been a wife at all, but a pet, a performer who played a part to earn room and board.

Even more appalling to Nora is that she in turn is repeating the same pattern with the children. She has been teaching them to be subservient dolls in the same doll house.

Torvald claims to understand, but he doesn't have the slightest idea what she's talking about. He again lumps her with the children, promising to teach all of them how to behave better. Nora responds, "Oh, Torvald, you're not the man to teach me to be a good wife to you!"

She knows she is not yet capable of handling the job of raising children-there's another job she has to do first. She has to educate herself. To do that, she has to "stand completely alone, if I'm ever going to discover myself and the world out there."


This statement of Nora's is one of the credos that Ibsen lived by. He repeated it often in letters and other writings. When, after this play opened, a female acquaintance turned up on his doorstep with her children in tow, saying, "I did it, I left him, just like Nora did," Ibsen replied, "Madam, Nora left alone."

Nora has her immediate future mapped out. She will go to stay with Kristine for the night, and then she will return to her hometown. A modern audience needs to keep in mind the seriousness of the step Nora is taking. The moment she walks out the door, she will be a social outcast-a woman who has deserted her husband and children. She will be seen as a moral cripple, much as Krogstad has been.

Torvald is quick to bring up this point. Her most sacred duties are to her family, he insists. Before all else she is a wife and mother. Here Torvald expresses the opinion of many members of Ibsen's audience. But Nora disagrees: "I believe that, before all else, I'm a human being, no less than you-or anyway, I ought to try to become one." As if defending her against the audience, Ibsen has her add, "I know the majority thinks you're right, Torvald, and plenty of books agree with you, too. But I... have to think over these things myself."


This brings up another of Ibsen's favorite themes: the individual versus society. To him, society should serve the individual, but all too often it turns out the other way. Do you think Ibsen would still feel this is a pertinent issue in today's world? Why?

When Nora again says that she can't believe society's laws don't make allowances for a person acting out of love, Torvald insists, "You don't know anything of the world you live in." Nora intends to find out and to "discover who's right, the world or I." By asserting her right to know, she makes a claim on selfhood. She will not be just a daughter, a wife, a mother, but a person. This duty to oneself was important to Ibsen. Some may see this as pure selfishness. What is your reaction to a woman who leaves her husband and her children to find herself?

As Nora leaves her doll house, the final stage direction indicates that you hear the front door slamming shut. According to one commentator, it was "the door slam that was heard around the world."


Will Nora Return? Although these characters are fictional, ever since the play first appeared, readers and audiences everywhere have asked, will Nora return?

Ibsen's real-life model for Nora, Laura Kieler, eventually did return to her husband. At first, when Ibsen himself was asked the question, he said that Nora did return. But later, tired of the public outcry, he remarked, "How do I know? It is possible that she returns to husband and children, but also possible that she becomes an artiste in a travelling circus." The public reaction was so strongly opposed to Nora's act on moral grounds that it was performed with a variety of tacked-on happy endings in which Nora usually stays on and begs for forgiveness. Finally, to stop these total distortions Ibsen himself wrote an alternate ending in which Nora collapses and stays because she can't leave her children. How would you react to this ending? What themes would you list for such a version?

The appropriate place to look for clues to Nora's future is in the play itself. When Torvald himself asks her if she'll return, she replies that it would take the "greatest miracle" to make it a "true marriage." Using only the play as evidence, try to answer the question yourself. How would you defend both sides? Consider the following questions as you gather evidence. Can Torvald transform himself? Could Nora love him again even if he changed? Would Nora's love for her children override other factors? Would Torvald take her back?

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