19 March 2011

Book Review: A Doll's House

Title: A Doll's House
Author: Henrik Ibsen
Publisher/Year: Penguin Classics / 1879
Date Finished: 19 March 2011
Source/Format: Bought / Print

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges:Year of Feminist Classic, TBR DareTwentyEleven Challenge

The Short and Sweet of It
When Torvald gets sick, his wife, Nora, takes out a loan in secret to pay for the trip to Italy his doctors insist upon. She has been paying off her debt consistently - without her husband's knowledge - but now it looks like her dirty secret must come to light.

A Bit of a Ramble
I read the Introduction to the play, and what I found shocked me. A plot spoiler follows, so if that's not your cup of tea, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. In 1880, Ibsen was forced to rewrite the end of the play to appease the contemporary ideology. The idea that Nora could "forsake" her husband and children in an effort to, as she puts it, "become a human being" was so contradictory to the concept of woman and wife and mother that Ibsen had to rewrite the end with Nora remaining in her husband's care. Can you imagine? The idea that not even in fiction could a woman realize her own potential and take active steps to grow as a person is horrifying.

Now to my thoughts on the text. I read it in one sitting and feel perfectly fine about it. I think the story is simple and short enough that a quick read doesn't leave you lacking. There are so many ways one could go about reviewing this story, that I thought I would focus on a few of the questions I found most interesting from the Year of Feminist Classics discussion.
Throughout most of the play, Torvald treats Nora, his wife, like an overgrown child or a care-free pet, and she does kind of act like one. But by the end we realize that Nora is not the shallow, vapid creature she appears at first to be; she has been, at least in part, consciously playing a role. Why? Has it been to her benefit or her loss?

Throughout the play and after finishing, I was struck by the role Nora plays for her husband. She is his "songbird", his "little obstinate one", and his "little squirrel"; she plays tricks for him, singing and dancing, and in general acting the role of a court jester, entertaining her lord and master. Much of what she says and how she says it is - and how she behaves - merely reinforces Torvald's notion that Nora is a brainless, fun-loving child. She has been complicit in her own subordination.

I recognize that options were few and women were brought up - nay, trained - to fulfill this role. And breaking out of the mold you've been cast in all your life is no easy feat. But I do believe that Torvald's treatment of Nora, the fault of it, does not lay entirely on his doorstep. Just as she has been trained to behave in a certain way, so has he. And the shock of her about-face at the end of the play certainly justifies his incredulity.

Now, I am not saying that he is justified in all of his actions. His response to Nora's "crime" is outrageous and in no way reflective of the behavior of a man in love with anyone other than himself. And Nora's reaction to it seems rather fitting and mature. But I do honestly believe that women must not lay blame entirely on men's shoulders, whether in the past or now, for the ridiculous, hurtful, and oppressive role women must play. In many ways, we are a part of the problem and until we take responsibility and action - almost like Nora did - we are complicit in our oppression.

To answer the question itself, Nora's performance has clearly been to her detriment. While she may have done an admirable job of pleasing her husband and children, she admits that she herself has not been happy, merely gay (an important distinction). And now that the proverbial shit has hit the fan, her command performance throughout her entire life is certainly putting her in an untenable position.
Torvald tells Nora, in the end, that “I’d gladly work for you day and night, Nora–go through suffering and want, if need be–but one doesn’t sacrifice one’s honor for love’s sake.” Nora responds by saying that “Millions of women have done so.” This line gave me chills. It was this, above everything else in the play, that resonated with me and felt still too relevant today. What resonated with you?
That same line gave me chills. The truth is that women have continually risked or sacrificed their honor for the men they loved (not that men haven't done so as well). Nora herself risked her reputation, risked everything really, in order to save her husband's life. Now, I am not positive that Nora truly understood what she was doing, but she had to have at least an inkling of the risk she was taking.

This section also got me thinking about love in general. How much must one be willing to sacrifice for love? Is love any less real if a person won't sacrifice their honor? I am not a romantic, so to me, the answer is no. I love my husband, but if tomorrow, he asked me to kill someone for him, I would say no. Period. If he asked me to run drugs because we needed money, I would say no. And I refuse to believe that this means I love him any less. (Luckily for me, the chances of my husband asking for either are positively nonexistent as he is a much more honorable person than I in the first place).

At a mere 88 pages or so, this play is ridiculously short, and the plot is relatively simple, but thematically, the story is overflowing with important and relevant issues that provide food for thought. If you haven't yet read this play, I would highly recommend doing so.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

The Blue Bookcase; Erin Reads; things mean a lot; and check out the Year of Feminist Classics blog for more reviews!

Question: How much would you sacrifice for love?


  1. Terrific review of this play...like you, I found it to be an important look at feminist issues. Here is the link to my review.

  2. Excellent review. Very thought provoking. I think you may be going a bit too far in your final question, though. I don't remember the play well enough to get specific, but is the 'sacrifice of honor' Nora has to make as serious as killing someone or running drugs. What if 'sacrificing honor' meant simply turning a blind eye to cheating on taxes, or not correcting a mistake on the check after eating out?

    At some level, shouldn't love be more important than honor? I don't know. Maybe not. But you've raised an interesting issue.

  3. I had no idea what this play was about when I read it during the readathon last fall, but I was completely blown away by the end!

  4. I read and reviewed this last year but took a jokey approach to my review...now I feel guilty after reading your insightful and impassioned review. I do think Nora creates some of her own problems with the way she behaves. It bothered me how she acted like she didn't have a brain in her head. I too ha d trouble with her decisions at the end.

  5. I've heard so much about this book and never really knew much about it. It sounds like one I need to pursue.

  6. Thanks very much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking review. I was unable to view Nora as both victim and hero, and I kinda felt guilty about it. Does my ambivalence toward Nora make me not a feminist? Your thoughts have made me feel more confident about mine.
    The more I read about it, the more amazed I am at how much meaningful discussion can come from such a short and simple work.

  7. Wonderfully perceptive review! I have read quite a bit about this book in the last few weeks, and am endlessly fascinated by the fact that Nora is so able to forge such a simpering role for herself in regards to her husband. I can only believe that she must have felt it smarter for her to do this effectively than to own up to her behavior, though in the end, I know things change. I need to read this story, as I am sort of commenting off the cuff and really need to investigate the source and see all these things for myself.

  8. Ok.... spooky cover...LOL

    I think I would like to read this just by what you said here....

  9. You make such great points, Trisha. I loved the fact that Ibsen did such a great job of showing that even though there was a clear power inbalance between Torvald and Nora, they both played a significant role in maintaining the relatioship dynamics.

  10. I did not know that the contemporary audience wanted him to change the ending! Awful. In 1881 he wrote a play that seems to me to be like a companion: Ghosts. I just posted about the two plays -- with spoilers. Ghosts focuses on a woman after the death of her husband -- and the effects of staying with him, the double standards between men and women and so forth. A darker play but I liked it too.

    Anyway, I think it was the double standards that stood out to me in A Doll's House -- the fact that Torvald doesn't expect her to be anything but a squirrel.

  11. I didn't know Ibsen had to change the ending. A Doll's House is currently in my TBR pile, and I intend to read it this April. Your review made me look forward to it even more. :)

  12. I really enjoyed this one, though I completely missed that it was a Year of Feminist Classics book! Had I realized, I'd have put my reactions to the feminist issues in it into my review :-) Ibsen is one of the few playwrights I really enjoy reading. I'm hoping to read others of his in the near future.

  13. Loooove it! Love teaching it. Can't wait to get to it later this term with my Intro to Lit students. :D


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