Theme of A Doll's House
Research papers on the themes within Ibsen’s A Doll’s House often focus on the feminist themes within the novel. Money, gender and feminist freedoms are all common themes that research papers explore. Although feminist critics have long debated the stance Henrik Ibsen adopts towards the question of women’s social equality in his 1879 play A Doll’s House, the critical interpretations of gender in the text have varied widely. Dissenters often cite Ibsen’s own statement that he did not explicitly set out to address the issue of women’s equality. To this, feminist critics have responded that since the emergence of New Criticism in the mid-twentieth century, an author’s statement of intention has not been regarded as the definitive interpretive key to a particular text.
While the significance of gender in A Doll’s House continues to be hotly contested among literary critics, it is clear that gender is a prominent component of the text. Throughout the play, traditional notions of femininity and masculinity are adopted by the characters and just as readily discarded when they are no longer of utility. Throughout A Doll’s House, constructions of gender are linked with two key elements of the play, namely, role-playing and money. In this paper, the thematic association of these elements with the overarching question of gender and the inherent constructedness of gender roles will be explored.
Money has a very important role in A Doll’s House, functioning as both a figurative reminder of Nora’s legal subservience, as well as a central plot device. It is money that ultimately forces Nora into a desperate panic that her scheme to fund an Italian trip will be revealed. Because of this incident, Nora is forced to re-evaluate herself, her marriage and her position in life, finally choosing to give up her role as wife and mother in acknowledgment of her unsuitability for these roles.
Throughout the play, Nora uses money as a way to define herself as an autonomous individual, distinct from her husband. Since it is a quantifiable, tangible proof of value, Nora develops various ways in which she can manipulate the couple’s finances, all without the knowledge of her husband. In Act One, she tells Mrs. Linde of the ways she has devised to appropriate funds for paying back the illicit loan:
“And I made money in other ways too. Last winter I was lucky enough to get a lot of copying to do. I shut myself up in my room every evening and wrote far into the night. Sometimes I was absolutely exhausted—but it was fun all the same—working like that and earning money. It made me feel almost like a man!” (17)
Clearly, Nora equates being able to freely earn and deal with money with the freedom, autonomy and independence that she associates with manhood. While Nora outwardly adopts a guise of coy helplessness, she has made a practice of secretly hiding, saving, and borrowing money. In Norwegian society during this era, it was strictly forbidden for women to have anything to do with significant financial transactions without the approval of a male family member.
Indeed, several sources suggest that Ibsen was inspired to write A Doll’s House after being told of a friend’s experience in secretly taking a loan without her husband’s knowledge. However, unlike Nora, this woman was committed to an insane asylum. Ibsen was outraged, and decided to include the incident in a dramatized retelling. Although Nora is not shown entering an asylum at the conclusion of the play, it is clear that she does not have a wide array of options.
Although the illicit loan that is the crux of the plot is the most significant instance of money in the play, even Nora’s seemingly unimportant squandering of minute sums signal her passive-aggressive use of money to affect some degree of autonomy and control. While she allows Helmer to characterize her little extravagances such as macaroons as part of her feminine illogic and helplessness, in reality they function as tacit assertions of power (4).