Critical Essays Theme of A Doll's House


The interwoven themes of A Doll's House recur throughout most of Ibsen's works. The specific problem of this drama deals with the difficulty of maintaining an individual personality — in this case a feminine personality — within the confines of a stereotyped social role. The problem is personified as Nora, the doll, strives to become a self-motivated human being in a woman-denying man's world.

Refusing to be considered a feminist, Ibsen nevertheless expressed his view of a double-standard society. As he once forced a female character in an earlier play, The Pillars of Society, to cry out, "Your society is a society of bachelor-souls!" he seems to have personified this male-oriented viewpoint by creating Torvald Helmer. In his notes for A Doll's House, Ibsen writes that the background of his projected drama "is an exclusively masculine society with laws written by men and with prosecutors and judges who regard feminine conduct from a masculine point of view." Since a woman is allegedly motivated out of love for her husband and children, it is unthinkable to her that laws can forbid acts inspired by affection, let alone punish their infraction. The outcome of this tension is that "the wife in the play is finally at her wit's end as to what is right and wrong"; she therefore loses her foothold in society and must flee the man who cannot dissociate himself from the laws of society. She can no longer live with a husband who cannot accomplish the "wonderful thing," a bridge of the mental gap which would bring his understanding and sympathies into agreement with her point of view.

It is quite impossible, however, to write a whole play with such a specific problem in mind. As characters and situations are formed by the dramatist's imagination, a more general, abstract thesis develops, with the specific problem becoming only a part of the whole. Thus A Doll's House questions the entire fabric of marital relationships, investigates the development of self-awareness in character, and eventually indicts all the false values of contemporary society which denies the worth of individual personality.