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Gender and Power in ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen

A Doll’s House (Bokmål: Et dukkehjem) is a play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879.


This three-act play is set in a Norwegian town circa during the late nineteenth century. The
play deals with the subject of the position of a middle-class wife in family and society. The
play exposes the restricted role of women during the nineteenth century and the problems that
arise from the drastic power imbalance between men and women. The fact that this play was
written at a time when the society was conservative, to say the least, makes it significant in its
approach. A play, written by a man, depicting the lack of opportunities for women for self-
fulfilment in a male-dominated society, made it progressive for its times and was a sensation
when it was published. Ibsen has been seen as a social realist, a revolutionary thinker, and a
benefactor of the suppressed, repressed and oppressed women of the nineteenth century
Norway and Europe by the feminist critics.

Inequalities between men and women are one of the most persistent patterns in the
distribution of power. The society defines certain specific roles, behaviours and attitudes that
are considered appropriate for men and women that create power imbalances at various
levels. From personal to political, all decisions are affected by these gender roles. When one
is at the disadvantaged position in terms of power, it largely restricts their acceptable
behaviours and actions. Power gives freedom to control various aspects of the life of oneself
and others. The societal structures and institutions further reinforce this inequality.
Household activities, policy-making, property and marriage laws, etc. all are affected by this.
Ibsen’s play brings forward these differences in gender and power roles while critically
evaluating it.

The play is centred on Helmer’s family, which includes Nora, a nineteenth-century


middle-class wife, and her husband Torvald, a newly promoted bank manager. Nora secretly
borrowed a large sum of money to save the life of her husband. However, she forged the sign
of her father. Ibsen exposes the regressive society of Norway in the nineteenth century, where
a woman could not even borrow money without the consent of her father or husband. This
systematic oppression and dependence did not allow a woman to be financially and
ultimately emotionally self-sufficient. Moreover, Nora’s husband calls her not by her name
but using several pet names such as “Featherbrain”, “skylark”, “squirrel”, and “singing bird”
which denotes the that he thinks of her like a pet animal and not as an equal human being.
This use of anti-feminist language by Torvald shows how he treats his wife like his
“property” showing that her worth as a woman, especially his wife, is below that of her
husband. Nora is not taken seriously by any character in the play, and even Mrs Linde calls
her a “child”. Even though this treatment frustrated her mildly, Nora plays along with it and
calls herself “little Nora” and promises that she would never dream of disobeying her
husband. Thus, she conforms to the fact that he holds more power over her in every aspect.

Everything that goes in and around the household is controlled by Torvald. He even
controls what she eats, what she wears, and whom she meets. Torvald banned the sweets
from his household, thus controlling her basic desires. He decided what she will wear for the
party and how she will dance. He used Nora as his trophy or toy that he wanted to show the
world. There are several instances in the play where women characters are oppressed, and
their feelings are suppressed subtly. All the important decisions such as that of controlling
money rested with Torvald. Nora felt that it was her “pride” and fun to be in control of
money and explains that she was “almost like a man”. This highlights the strict gender roles
that existed in the society. While a woman is expected to be the caretaker of the family and
children, men are expected to be ambitious and provide for the family. Both Torvald and
Krogstad desire to achieve a higher status in society. When Nora reveals her secret about
borrowing money, Torvald’s first concern was his reputation. To maintain his status in
society, he could not be seen as a man who could be influenced by his wife.

The title of the play is an irony in itself. The family portrayed in the play depicts a
“doll’s house” that is controlled by the societal norms. All the characters are the puppets of
this societal structure that does not allow one to transgress their gender and power roles. The
doll wife, Nora, is a typical housewife who is concerned about her beauty and is expected to
take care of the children and home. The doll husband, Torvald, is the breadwinner of the
family who wants his wife to look perfect so that she can show her to the world. The doll
children are their kids who are supposed to always be happy and playing. Thus the pressure
under which social relationships function is highlighted. All the characters are expected to be
obedient to the power relations of their society. When Mrs Linde discusses with Nora that her
decision of borrowing money might be rash, since Nora took the situation in her own hands,
Nora says that “In any case, Torvald, a man, proud to be a man—how d’you imagine he
would feel if he knew he owed anything to me? It would break us apart. Our lovely home, our
happiness—all gone” (Ibsen 17). This sentence shows that a happy and loving family could
only exist when one party (man) holds power over another (woman). This idea is so
internalised in the characters that they feel if they dare to cross the line, their world will fall
apart. This restricts women and does not let them come out and explore their potential.

Their marriage is seen as a relation between the superior and inferior in which the
wife is a creature of little intellectual and moral capacity, whose right and the proper station
is subordination to her husband (Templeton 138). Nora, throughout the play, tries to cross the
boundary by doing things that are considered “manly” such as borrowing money, lying, using
manipulation, deception, etc. However, her truly rebellious act to counter the hierarchical
power relations in the patriarchal society came in the third act where for the first time in her
life she had a taste of freedom and independence. When a woman is born, she is first given
her father’s name, and when she is married off, she adopts her husband’s name and never
receives a chance to create her own identity. Nora did not want to remain like this for the rest
of her life.

When Nora realises that all her life she has been living under the disillusion that she is
happy and that Torvald loves her, she confronts Torvald and says that “We must come to a
final settlement, Torvald. During eight whole years…we have never exchanged one serious
word about serious things.” Torvald never considered her important enough to discuss serious
matters with her. She is gaining her independence from the shadows of her husband and is
searching for her place in the world. She decides to leave him for good. Torvald is appalled at
idea. He could not believe that she would be bold enough to do this. He asks her whether she
will “desert your home, your husband and your children! And you don’t consider what people
will say!” When she says that she could not consider that at all, he tries to persuade her using
the societal pressure. He tries to constrict her by saying that these are her “most sacred
duties” and that she can’t abandon them. Here again he tries to control her. The gender
difference is highlighted when he says that his most sacred duties as a man is to himself,
while for Nora her most sacred duties as a woman are to be a wife and a mother indicating
that a woman cannot put herself first. Nora takes a stand for herself and says that’s he can no
longer be governed by what society says or what is written in the books. She wants to see for
herself whether all the things that she has been told are true or not. Before being a woman,
she is a human first who must try to become a reasonable human being.

The idea of woman being an independent person with her own sense of identity was
not an acceptable thought in the Victorian era. The regressive male-dominated society could
not accept Nora abandoning her husband and living happily. This forced Ibsen to write an
alternative ending for the play to be screened in the German premiere. To make the play more
acceptable, in the end, Nora is led to her children, where she collapses after seeing them, and
the curtain is closed. This ending gives the impression that she stayed. Even after arguing
with her husband, she is just a woman who dare not cross the social boundaries of her gender.
Ibsen later called the ending a disgrace to the original play and referred to it as a “barbaric
outrage”. Even though this play is considered to be a realist play, the reality of gender and
power discrimination that exists in society cannot be removed even in the play which exposes
the social and cultural power imbalances.

For Ibsen, this play is not feminist but humanist. He feels that it is the need of every
individual, whether man or woman, to find out the kind of person he or she really is and to
strive to become that person. One should not limit themselves due to the gender roles that
society tries to constrain them in. Being confined to one’s gender expectations without a
choice to change one’s situation perpetuates the power imbalance and gender difference in
society. The play appropriately highlights the problems that arise due to the drastic imbalance
of power that comes as a cause and consequence of gender differences.
References

"The alternative ending of A Doll's House". National Library of Norway. 30 May 2005.
Retrieved 30 May 2017.

Ibsen, Henrick. “A Doll’s House.” London: J.M. Dent and Sons LTD,1958.

Koester, D. (2015). Gender and Power. DLP Concept Brief 04. Retrived from
https://eige.europa.eu/taxonomy/term/1200.

Templeton, J. Ibsen’s Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.