Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House uncovers many unpleasant things about family life and men’s inclination to force women into submission in marriage. However, it is more than merely one of the sad stories of females’ subjugation. In the course of the plot’s development, Ibsen demonstrates the process of metamorphosis that the main character undergoes. In the beginning, Nora is depicted as a weak creature with no will of her own that can only do what her husband chooses for her or tells her. Nonetheless, further, the woman demonstrates power by using knowledge and seduction. Toward the end of the play, Nora is free of all restraints that have ever been put on her by Torvald, and she is a truly independent woman. Thus, Ibsen tells a story of a female that has managed to turn from a powerless possession into a powerful individual. By the end, Nora realizes her potential and is not willing to waste her life on satisfying her husband’s needs.
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Nora as Her Husband’s Possession
At the beginning of the play, nothing indicates that Nora will eventually grow her self-awareness, which will lead to leaving her husband. Nora is viewed not as an independent human being but as her husband’s, Torvald’s, possession. He rarely calls her by name, using various forms of dehumanizing references. “My little skylark” and “my little squirrel” are phrases Helmer uses to compose his wife when she is in distress (Ibsen 3). When implying Nora’s love for sweets and the possibility of her buying something at the confectioner’s, Torvald calls her “Miss Sweet-Tooth” (Ibsen 5). At the time he is dissatisfied with the amount of money she spends, Helmer calls his wife “my little spendthrift” and “featherhead” (Ibsen 2). By employing the possessive pronoun “my” when referring to his spouse, Helmer emphasizes that she belongs to him rather than somebody else or even herself.
Probably the most derogatory indication of Torvald’s treatment of his wife as an object is calling her a creature or a little thing: “One would hardly believe how expensive such little persons are!” (Ibsen 4). All of these examples demonstrate the typical position of a female in the 19th century. Women did not work, so they were entirely dependent on their fathers or husbands financially. As a result, men were inclined to consider females as beautiful things to which they had full rights. In Helmers’ family, all rules are made by Torvald, and Nora has to follow them unconditionally. The man has all the power in his hands while the woman has none. It is Torvald who decides that there should be “no debt, no borrowing” in their house (Ibsen 3). It is he who asks his wife whether she has “been breaking rules in town” when she returns home from a walk (Ibsen 5). Helmer has created so many rules and restrictions that Nora starts to feel choking in her own house. The house which, in fact, is not hers: as well as everything else, it belongs to Torvald.
Therefore, at the initial stage of the play’s development, Nora is entirely powerless and dependent on her husband. She has never experienced any other treatment: before marriage, she used to be the same little toy in her father’s hands. She is constantly dehumanized and questioned, and she cannot feel happy in such conditions. It is no wonder that the character’s self-awareness wakes up at last.
Employing Knowledge and Seduction as Power
For Nora, growing self-esteem depends on two major factors: being able to make her own decisions (behaving like a man) and having financial independence. To a great extent, these two aspects are interconnected for the woman. Thus, Nora feels excited to have a “great secret” of how she found a way to save her husband’s life several years before (Ibsen 16). In a conversation with her friend, Nora reveals with self-satisfaction that her secret can be used in the future when she needs to remind her husband of what a wonderful woman he has married. She tells Mrs. Linde that now, she cannot be thought of as a person “of no use” (Ibsen 16). This strange personification of power through keeping a mystery makes Nora feel proud and content. The idea that she has assumed a male role as a financial manager makes her realize her worth and inspires her to defend her rights as a human being.
Nora admits that working and earning money is not only rewarding and empowering but also difficult. When she gives an account of her secret work to Mrs. Linde, she tells her that “many a time” she “was desperately tired” (Ibsen 17). However, it was also “a tremendous pleasure” to earn her own money (Ibsen 17). Nora thinks that when she tells her husband about self-abnegation that she resorted to for saving his life, he will be grateful and proud of her. She does not know yet that when the truth is revealed, Torvald will become furious and blame her for inappropriate behavior.
Another dimension of power that Torvald’s wife exploits is seduction. Since men treat her as a sweet little thing, she uses that against them. Nora gently manipulates her husband through flattering words and gestures. She pretends to be a shy little girl and speaks sweetly to ask him for money. When doing that, Nora plays with his coat buttons and does not raise her eyes to his (Ibsen 4). The image of an innocent doll is presented just as Torvald expects it, and the woman manages to get what she desires.
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The same approach is used when communicating with Dr. Rank. When talking to him, Nora employs an authoritative and controlling manner. As well as in her interaction with Torvald, Nora operates both words and gestures to control Dr. Rank. She “hits him lightly on the ear with the stockings” (Ibsen 53). Then, she asks him for a “tremendously big favor” to emphasize that his response will have a great effect on her (Ibsen 54). Thus, at this stage, Nora exploits the image that men have ascribed to her to the advantage of her own. At this point, she starts realizing that she can manipulate men and that her actions can have an influence on them while making them think that they are the commanders of the situation.
The peak of Nora’s transformation is the tarantella dance during which she finally dares to tell Torvald how she feels about his treatment of her. When she shows the dance to him the night before the performance, he continuously makes remarks and says that she needs “a lot of coaching” (Ibsen 66). As always, Helmer emphasizes his little wife’s incapability of doing anything by herself. He is confident that she needs his guidance and criticism. During the culmination night, everyone is thrilled with Nora’s dance, and her husband believes it is he who deserves the praise. However, after the performance, when Torvald opens Krogstad’s letter, he becomes enraged. He calls Nora “a miserable creature” and “a hypocrite, a liar – worse, worse – a criminal” (Ibsen 84, 85). No explanations can make him feel any better, and he does not want to hear “any silly excuses” (Ibsen 84).
At this point, Nora finally realizes that this man is not worth her or her love. She has sacrificed her dignity to save his life, and the only gratitude she has got is scorn. Nora admits that she has loved him “above everything else in the world,” and he calls it a silly thing (Ibsen 84). She understands that she will never be able to forgive her husband for the way he treated her. By realizing that she can be quite well, or even better, on her own, the woman frees herself from the chains imposed on her by society and family. She will be a doll no more: she will now be a self-reliant woman with unrestrained choices and actions. When Torvald receives the message with Nora’s bond, he is willing to forgive her, but it is not the kind of forgiveness Nora expected. She admits that she has “never been happy” in her entire life (Ibsen 90). And now, she will be the only creator of her happiness, without having to adhere to someone’s commands and without feeling guilty for doing something for the sake of her beloved person.
The transformation of Nora’s character in The Doll’s House passes three important stages. At first, she is treated as her husband’s possession, and she is dissatisfied with such a state of affairs. Thus, she moves to the second stage: the point where she uses the power of knowledge and manipulation to gain significance. Finally, Nora realizes that she cannot bear being treated like a doll anymore and decides to leave the life in which she feels miserable. This recognition is the celebration of her inner power and self-awareness. By depicting the metamorphosis from a scared little caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly, Ibsen demonstrates the triumph of the woman’s independence.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Dodo Press, 1923.