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Theatre / A Doll's House

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A Doll's House (Norwegian: Et Dukkehjem) is an 1879 play in three acts by Henrik Ibsen.

The main character is a middle-class wife and mother, Nora Helmer, who spends most of her time acting like a child for the amusement of her husband, Torvald. The play revolves around her realization that she has spent her whole life being defined by her identity as a daughter, wife, and mother, and that both her father and her husband have treated her like a doll rather than a person.

The play is a scathing critique of nineteenth-century marriage, and it is very feminist in outlook for its time. Ibsen tended to see his own work as being primarily about the need of all people to be able to choose their own roles and paths in life, and he wrote several other plays that espoused these beliefs through the stories of male protagonists. However, simply by taking for granted that women were as entitled to this right as men, A Doll's House struck its original audience as shockingly radical.

A Doll's House was also written as a subversion of the well-made play, a genre of plot-heavy melodramas with essentially interchangeable characters. Ibsen used the same plot points: a secret unbeknownst to Nora's husband, only known by her good friend; a fate hinging on a letter; and a villain set out to ruin everything. Ibsen manages to flip all of this around, confusing his 19th century audience.

A Doll's House provides examples of the following tropes:

  • An Aesop: The play condemns the contemporary (1870s) state of affairs between men and women. Nora realizes throughout the play the the norms of the time rob women of personhood and outright says so to her condescending husband.
    Torvald: There's no one who gives up honor for love.
    Nora: Millions of women have done just that.
  • Anti-Villain: Krogstad's desire to protect his children ends up causing a lot of trouble for Nora. He's not a bad guy at all, but he's still an antagonist.
  • Broken Bird: Nora's long time friend Kristine Linde.
  • Casual Kink: Torvald seems to enjoy the thought of Nora, his wife, retaining her peasant girl role from the masquerade and being his secret lover. Quite racy for an upstanding bank manager at the time.
  • Character Development: The reason a lot of the play's drama occurs. Nora is at first a bright-faced, happy wife who only does small acts of rebellion in order to support Torvald and herself. Eventually she opens her eyes and realizes the poor state of her marriage with Torvald. By the end of the play, Nora is more well-spoken and thoughtful than beforehand.
  • Childhood Friends:
    • Nora and Linde
    • Torvald and Dr. Rank.
    • Torvald and Krogstad, leading to the First-Name Basis problem below (and contrasting sharply with Nora's slightly clueless but genuinely well-intentioned warmth towards her childhood friend, Christine.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Nora acts like a silly, frivolous airhead to her husband Torvald, but she's actually a very shrewd, intelligent, frugal woman who can juggle her duties as a mother and house wife with little typist jobs on the side (something that required skill and schooling at the time), and stretch every penny for all it's worth to secretly pay back a loan she used to save her husband's life while pretending to use said money to buy frivolous dresses for herself; dresses that she herself made and pass off as professionally tailored clothing. In fact, Torvald's inability to recognize the Badass under the Moron exterior (which she had assumed her husband knew was an act) is part of what disillusions Nora about her husband.
  • Dance of Despair: Nora's tarantella becomes more and more frantic. At one point, she is clearly desperate because she knows she may be busted by Krogstad any minute and she dances out of despair.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Dr. Rank has an extremely dry sense of humor. When Nora says "One must live," Rank responds by quipping, "Yes, it's generally thought to be rather necessary." He even snarks about his own death.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Nora alludes to this original intent if the scandal of her forgery went out, in hopes of drawing away public disgrace from her husband, who she believed would stand up for her. The extremity of this plans basically illustrates how she romanticized her marital devotion to Torvald.
    • Krogstad acknowledges he thought of suicide during his disgrace, but didn't have the "courage" to go through with it.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: For Krogstad and Linde. They risk financial ruin and social humiliation through most of the story, but they avert both and are able to rekindle their relationship because they choose to do the right thing.
  • First-Name Basis: Torvald names the trope when discussing Krogstad's behavior while working at the bank. Krogstad seems to think familiarity will ensure a promotion, but it actually leads to him being fired.
    • While Nora, because of social conventions, never addresses the male characters other than her husband except as "Doctor" (for Rank) and "Mister" (for Krogstad), a major hint there is more going on between them than is obvious at first is Mrs Linde always calls Krogstad either simply by last name without "Mister" (in the Norwegian to him, and to others in English) or "Nils" (in most translations) when they're alone, and when speaking to her, Krogstad simply calls her "Kristine." It's also a shock to her (and a clue to nineteenth century audiences what's coming) when Dr. Rank calls Nora by her name, instead of "Mrs Helmer", when confessing his love to her. When she is disturbed by his confession, he switches back to "Mrs Helmer." The social rules of the time meant men did not use women's given names nor the other way around unless they were on close terms.
  • Foil: Several of them. The inclusion of foil characters in A Doll's House serve not only to advance the story, but to magnify Nora and Torvald's relationship and differences.
    • Dr. Rank is one to Torvald. Rank is a modest, unfortunate figure who shows a degree of respect towards Nora, whereas Torvald is a big presence with the perfect life and vague respect to Nora.
    • Mrs. Linde is melancholic and more down-to-earth in regards to her views on the world; Nora, on the other hand, is lively (to the point of being a bit childish) and idealistic.
    • Linde and Krogstad's relationship are this to Nora and Torvald's. The latter is a long-lasting marriage built on lies, the other one of childhood friends who know and love each other for who they are and finally find themselves together.
  • Foreshadowing: Nora speaks to her trusted Nurse (who was Nora's childhood maternal figure) that "If anything were to happen, would you..."
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: The play manages to talk about Dr. Rank's death by syphilis by calling it "tuberculosis of the spine" and saying that he got it from eating too many rich excess of "pleasure" that's clearly implying he had a lot of sex in his youth. In the 1800s, this was probably the only way Ibsen could talk about STDs without setting off the censors.
  • Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Part of the reason that the Helmers have had so many financial problems is that Torvald, according to Nora, will only take the cases he feels are morally right.
  • It's All About Me: Torvald is a grave offender at the end of the play. This, more than anything, convinces Nora that he is not half the man she thought he was.
  • Irony: Torvald spends most of the play condescendingly chuckling about what a silly little child Nora is without his patriarchal and paternalistic guidance. In the original ending of the play, when Nora gains enough confidence and self-resolve resolves to leave him, Torvald himself becomes nervous and fumbling, and half-begs her to stay, as he has no idea how he'll get along without her.
  • Jerkass: Torvald falls into this when he finds out about Nora's loan. He brutally chastises her, even to the point of labeling her as an unfit mother, without even so much as a thank you for getting the money to pay his medical bills. When the debt is forgiven by Krogstad, Torvald immediately snaps back to his usual self, as though nothing had even happened, and neglects to acknowledge how badly he's damaged Nora's feelings, her perception of him, and their marriage.
    • Before that we see foreshadowing, from his admitting his biggest problem with Krogstad is his tendency to speak to Torvald as an equal (they were friends in school), to calling Mrs. Linde an insufferable bore behind her back, to his casual dismissal of the announcement Dr. Rank has locked himself away to die, in part to spare Torvald's feelings that it's all for the best, really. Basically everyone we see who's some way in his power, he's disdainful of or outright cruel. Realizing he can turn it on her is Nora's final disillusionment.
  • Leaving You to Find Myself: The play's conclusion, which might be the Trope Codifier. Nora's decision was quite controversial at the time, as it entailed not only leaving Torvald but abandoning her children - the actress playing Nora in the German production of the play forced Ibsen to write a new ending (which he detested) where Nora isn't shown leaving, "because I would never leave my children!" Said actress did change her mind, however, and went back to the original ending.
  • Loan Shark: Krogstad, although his methods are rather unorthodox.
    • Also deconstructed. Not only was paying up the last part of the debt more troublesome for Nora than the debt as a whole, but Krogstad turns out to be a complex person with his own motivations instead of a mere money-grubbing asshole.
  • Love Cannot Overcome: In the original ending of the play, Nora realizes that though she loves her husband and children, she cannot stay with them.
  • Love Redeems: Zigzagged. Krogstad forgoes the blackmail for Linde's sake and is willing to bury the whole debt thing as well so Torvald never finds out, but she tells him not to do the latter (and send in a retraction) in order to show Nora the truth of her own marriage. When Torvald finds out he doesn't 'redeem' himself and everything comes crashing down as a result.
  • Loving a Shadow: Nora eventually realizes her and Torvald's marriage is this, on both sides.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Deconstructed: Nora deliberately plays up her whimsicalness for Torvald's amusement, but it turns out that a result of her behavior, she and Torvald have never sat down and had a serious conversation about anything, and thus their views on each other were severely distorted. Neither takes the discovery well.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Averted by Torvald (but ultimately played straight) and played straight (but ultimately subverted) by Krogstad. It's complicated.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: After the truth comes out about how Torvald doesn't really love Nora for Nora, she removes her proverbial mask and tells Torvald why she must leave him. After spending the entire play masquerading as an airheaded ditz whenever her husband's around, she suddenly shows him how serious and well spoken she truly is.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: When Torvald mentions that they must have no debts and later when he expounds upon how very unforgivable it was for Krogstad to engage in forgery.
  • Precision F-Strike: Nora's first sign that she wants more out of life is her confiding in her friends that occasionally she just wants to randomly shout "Well, I'm damned," quite a shocking line at the time.
  • Promotion to Parent: This happened to Anne the nursemaid when Nora's mother died. Also reoccurs again when Nora leaves her children to Anne's care.
  • Reconstruction: The reunion scene between Linde and Krogstand makes it clear that their relationship is based on understanding. So traditional marriage can work when the couple respect each other.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The play has been examined numerous times from many angles with symbols found everywhere, but one of the most subtle comes from the metadrama which the title invokes: not only is Nora treated by Torvald like a doll, but the nature of theatre as literally looking into the stage rooms where the characters interact like dolls in a dollhouse reinforces Nora's predicament, reminds the audience they are watching a play, and implies how all of Real Life involves similarly being on display to family and society; Nora's Leaving You to Find Myself moment then becomes a challenge writ large to the audience to do the same in their own lives.
  • Stealth Insult: Krogstad gets one of these in after badmouthing Torvald in front of Nora.
    Nora: Mr. Krogstad, a little respect for my husband, please.
    Krogstad: Certainly - all the respect he deserves.
  • Sweet Tooth: Nora from the start. She constantly hides some snacks - and eats it when Helmer is not looking. Eventually, he calls her out on it.
  • Trophy Wife: It's possible to view Nora as this. One interpretation would be that Torvald doesn't really care about Nora at all and just wants a doll, in her words, to look good, entertain his friends, and fit the expectations of a model wife, but another would be that he genuinely loves Nora but is simply incapable of understanding her due to his conservative views.
  • Unrequited Love: Dr. Ranke.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: When Torvald learns about the loan Nora (illegally) took out to pay his medical expenses, he turns on her, brutally chastises her, and practically disowns her because he fears how public knowledge of this might ruin his reputation. Nora's realization about his true character causes her disillusionment and desire to leave him.
  • Victorian Novel Disease: Dr. Ranke has "tuberculosis of the spine", which sounds like the above but was an actual disease, being a euphemism for syphilis. It is not, however, the result of Rank's father's dissolute life and Ibsen probably intended this as a Lampshade Hanging of Torvald's unforgiving nature. It's referred to in this way because Ibsen couldn't openly refer to STDs during this time.
  • Villainous Lineage: Zigzagged. At the climax of the play, Torvald (incorrectly) infers that Nora broke the law not out of a desire to help him but because she inherited her crooked father's moral weakness; she replies by suggesting that the worst hereditary problems in their society are passed on through flawed social ideals, not blood. Meanwhile, poor Dr. Rank dies of a literal disease implied to be the legacy of his father's immorality.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy:
    • Nora spends most of the play thinking her situation will unfold like the plot of a typical Victorian domestic drama; the fact that Torvald doesn't follow the "script" as she hoped he would is what finally makes her turn on him.
    • The play itself also plays with audience expectations, using the five traditional archetypes of Norwegian theatre of the time, and then subverting them. This leads to the audience being Wrong Genre Savvy about how the play will unfold.

Alternative Title(s): A Doll House