A Doll's House, written two years after The Pillars of Society, was the first of Ibsen's plays to create a sensation and is now perhaps his most famous play, and required reading in many secondary schools and universities. The play was highly controversial when first published, as it is sharply critical of 19th Century marriage norms. It follows the formula of well-made play up until the final act, when it breaks convention by ending with a discussion, not an unravelling. It is often called the first true feminist play, although Ibsen denied this.
A Doll's House has been made into numerous movies, including two versions released in 1973 - one directed by Joseph Losey starring Jane Fonda, David Warner and Trevor Howard, which went directly to U.S. television, and one directed by Patrick Garland which was released to theatres and starred Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, and Ralph Richardson. Dariush Mehrjui's film Sara (1992) is based on A Doll's House, where Sara, played by Niki Karimi, is the Nora of Ibsen's play. A celebrated wireless version of the play, available from Retro-Media.co.uk, and starring Basil Rathbone as Torvald, was broadcast in the US 1947 by the Theatre Guild.
The play opens as Torvald Helmer is soon to begin a higher, and better-paid, position at his job, as a banker. His wife Nora who is treated as a silly, childish woman by her husband is the protagonist in the play. Her friend Kristine Linde, recently widowed and short of money, has heard about this promotion and comes to ask Nora for help in persuading Torvald to give her (Kristine) a job. Nora promises to ask Torvald to give Kristine a position as secretary. Nora confides to Kristine that she once secretly borrowed money to save Torvald's life when he was very ill, but she has not told him in order to protect his pride. She then took secret jobs copying papers by hand, which she carried out secretly in her room, and learned to take pride in her ability to earn money "as if she were a man." Torvald's impending promotion promises to finally liberate her from having to scrimp and save in order to be able to pay off her debt. However, she has continued to play the part of the frivolous, scatter-brained child-wife for the benefit of her husband.
At the same time, Nora finds herself the victim of blackmail. Nils Krogstad, who lent her the money, is also an employee working under Torvald but is on the verge of losing his position because he had been stealing. He has found out that Nora forged her dying father's signature on the loan application, since under the law at the time a woman could not borrow money from a bank unless a man co-signed the application. She also dated the signature of her father to a date that was after his death. Krogstad threatens to reveal this information unless she convinces her husband to keep him employed. Nora tries twice but fails.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rank, a family friend, flirts with Nora before revealing that he is terminally ill with tuberculosis of the spine, the more socially polite way of saying syphilis at the time, with only a month to live, and that he has been secretly in love with her.
After being fired by Torvald, Krogstad aproaches Nora, declaring he no longer cares about the remaining balance of her loan but will preserve the bond to blackmail Torvald into keeping him employed. Krogstad informs Nora that he has a letter detailing her crime and puts it in Torvald's mailbox, which is locked.
Nora tells Kristine of her predicament. Kristine says that she and Krogstad were in love before she married, and promises she will convince him to relent.
Torvald tries to check his mail before he and Nora go to a party, but Nora distracts him by showing him the dance she has been rehearsing for the party. Torvald declares that "the child shall have her way" and he will postpone reading his mail until the evening. Alone, Nora contemplates suicide.
Kristine tells Krogstad that she only married her husband because she had no other means to support her sick mother and young siblings, and that she has returned to offer him her love again. Krogstad is moved and offers to take back his letter to Torvald. However, Kristine decides that Torvald should know the truth for the sake of his and Nora's marriage.
Back from the party, Torvald goes to read his letters and Nora prepares to take her life. Before she has the opportunity, Torvald intercepts her, confronting her with Krogstad's letter. In his rage, he declares that he is now completely in Krogstad's power -- he must yield to Krogstad's demands and keep quiet about the whole affair. He berates Nora, calling her a dishonest and immoral woman and telling her she is unfit to raise their children. He says that their marriage will be kept only to maintain appearances.
A maid enters, delivering a letter to Nora. Krogstad has returned the incriminating papers, saying that he regrets his actions. Torvald is jubilant, telling Nora he is saved as he burns the papers. He takes back his harsh words to his wife and tells her that he has forgiven her. He also explains to her that her mistake makes her all the more precious to him because it reveals an adorable helplessness, and that when a man has forgiven his wife it makes him love her all the more since she is the recipient of his generosity.
By now Nora has realized that her husband is not the man she thought he was, and that her whole existence has been a lie. She has been treated like a plaything, first by her father and then by her husband. She decides that she must leave to find out who she is and what to make of her life. Torvald insists she must fulfill her duty as a wife and mother, but Nora believes she also has duties to herself. From Torvald's reaction to Krogstad's letters, Nora sees that she and Torvald are strangers to each other. When Torvald asks if there is still any chance for them to rebuild their marriage, she replies that it would take "the greatest miracle of all": they would have to change so much that their life together would become a real marriage.
The play ends with the sound of Nora slamming the door as she leaves, while Torvald hopefully ponders the possibility of "the greatest miracle of all."
NORA ... Where we could make a real marriage out
of our lives together. Goodbye. [Begins to go.]
HELMER. Go then! [Seizes her arm.] But first you shall see
your children for the last time!
NORA. Let me go! I will not see them! I cannot!
HELMER [draws her over to the door, left]. You shall see
them. [Opens the door and says softly.] Look, there they
are asleep, peaceful and carefree. Tomorrow, when they
wake up and call for their mother, they will be -
NORA [trembling]. Motherless...!
HELMER. As you once were.
NORA. Motherless! [Struggles with herself, lets her
travelling bag fall, and says.] Oh, this is a sin against
myself, but I cannot leave them. [Half sinks down by the door.]
HELMER [joyfully, but softly]. Nora!
[The curtain falls.]
A Doll's House is a criticism play of the traditional roles of men and women in 19th Century marriage.
To 19th-century Europeans, this was scandalous. Nothing was considered more holy than the covenant of marriage, and to portray it in such a way was completely unacceptable. In Germany, the production's lead actress refused to play the part of Nora unless Ibsen changed the ending, which, under pressure, he eventually did. In the alternative ending, Nora gives her husband another chance after he reminds her of her responsibility to their children. Ibsen later regretted his decision on the matter. A Doll's House was originally banned in Britain by the Lord Chamberlain under the 1737 licensing act. Virtually all productions today, however, use the original ending, as do nearly all of the film versions of this play, including Dariush Mehrjui's Sara (the Argentinian version, made in 1943 and starring Delia Garcés, does not; it also modernizes the story, setting it in the early 1940s).
Much of the criticism is focused on Nora's self-discovery, but the other characters also have depth and value. The infected Dr. Rank and Nora both suffer from the irresponsibility of their fathers: Dr. Rank for the father who infected his family, Nora for the father she likely married to protect. Mrs. Linde provides the model of a woman who has been forced to fend for and find herself - a self-aware, resourceful woman. As Henrik Ibsen, a man with deep-seated distrust of the masses, said, "the strongest man [or woman] in the world is he who stands most alone."
William L. Urban. "Parallels in A Doll's House." Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel. Ed. by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts. Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois, 1997.