A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen.

A Doll's House (Et dukkehjem) is a play by Henrik Ibsen first performed in 1879 following The Pillars of the Community (1877). It's a play in three acts and tells the story of Nora Helmer, a Norwegian housewife treated like a pet, and indeed appearing to act like a pet, however she's realised her life is a lie and her 19th Century model of a marriage is stifling her.

It begins innocently enough: as she sneaks a mouthful of macaroons her husband Torvald calls her:
Hᴇʟᴍᴇʀ: Is that my little sky-lark chirruping out there?
Nᴏʀᴀ: Yes, it is.
Hᴇʟᴍᴇʀ: Is that my little squirrel frisking about?
Nᴏʀᴀ: Yes!
Hᴇʟᴍᴇʀ: When did my little squirrel get home?
Nᴏʀᴀ: Just this minute. [She stuffs the bag of macaroons in her pocket and wipes her mouth.] Come on out, Torvald, and see what I've bought.
It's Christmas, and the couple have recently suffered some financial hardship with Torvald being ill, however he has a new job as a bank manager and they are comfortable once more. Their marriage at this point seems fairly typical, Helmer very much the dominant male though kind, and Nora submissive. They talk, he teases, she reacts accordingly like a little girl, a doll, and he gently rebukes her. When she asks for money though the play takes a strange turn, it is unexpected, though the two continue to play their role:
Hᴇʟᴍᴇʀ: You can't deny it, Nora dear. [Puts his arm around her waist.] My pretty little pet is very sweet, but it runs away with an awful lot of money. It's incredible how expensive it is for a man to keep such a pet.
Nᴏʀᴀ: For shame! How can you say such a thing? As a matter of fact I save everything I can.
Hᴇʟᴍᴇʀ: [laughs] Yes, you are right there. Everything you can. But you simply can't.
Nᴏʀᴀ: [hums and smiles quietly and happily.] Ah, if only you knew how may expenses the likes of us sky-larks and squirrels have, Torvald!
Of course this exchange begs the question: why has Nora been asking for money? The answer is soon revealed with the unexpected arrival of Nora's old childhood friend Mrs. Christine Linde, recently widowed and seeking employment at Helmer's bank. She serves as an opposite of Nora, serious, mature, and above all else independent. Nora reveals to Christine that she has borrowed money (we later learn it is from an unscrupulous man called Krogstad). Nora explains their hardship and Helmer's illness, and how, in order to save his life, she borrowed the money so that the two could travel south to warmer climates. She told her husband the money came from her father, knowing he would be furious if she had borrowed from anyone else (particularly Krogstad).

This is not a story of financial debt as such: Nora is in fact very close to paying off what she owes. The fact is Krogstad has discovered he is about to be fired from the bank in which Helmer works, and he asks Nora to intercede on his behalf. When she tells him she has no such influence on her husband's professional life he threatens to expose her, tell Helmer she borrowed the money from him and forged her father's signature to do so.

For the remainder of the play, which is the final two acts, we see Nora in a state of extreme agitation, trying to hide what she's done, trying to secure Krogstad's job, and in despair of how little control she has over her life. Ibsen, as ever, slowly builds the drama, and like many of his plays A Doll's House is a psychological masterpiece. We see the toll of the sacrifices both Nora and Christine have made in their lives, and the fear Nora has of corrupting her children by her actions (this idea of a parent corrupting their child is seen physically in the Helmers' family friend Dr. Rank). Finally, most strikingly, we see the marriage not only how it may appear, jolly and sweet in those first few lines of Act I, but the complexities behind it, and how appearance may not reflect reality. It's an outstanding play, and has been a favourite of mine for many years.

Comments

  1. i know Ibsen was dynamite to the social world of the 19th C., but his work doesn't appeal a whole lot... i think i'm just too old anymore to care much about the society of humans; they just all seem so crazy and do the same stupid things over and over... mea culpa... that said, i admire those creators who attempt to brighten the social scene and overall human intelligence, even though i think it's a lost cause... maybe i'm depressed... oh well, i think i'll go read some sci fi; that usually cheers me up...

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    1. I have to be in the right mood for these types of book I must admit, so I get what you mean :) Hope sci fi did the trick!

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  2. Psychological Masterpiece is a great way to describe this play. I like this one, too. Someday I'd like to see it performed on stage. :)

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    1. I would too. I read this for A Level, so my class actually did perform bits of it. I was Nora though so didn't get to see all that much performed as I was too busy performing myself :) It would be good to see a proper performance!

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  3. Ibsen has been my new favorite as plyawrighter, after I read A Doll's House. I liked how he build the plot; it did not feel like there is a real conflict at first. But when the truth revealed, it struck like a thunder at the end. The Wild Duck is more striking than this one, though.

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    1. The Wild Duck *is* more striking, but I like the subtlety of Doll House. I read Ibsen was obliged to change the ending at some point - have you read the alternative end? It's just a few lines and I wasn't surprised to read that he was very angry about it!

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