In the culture of the late-nineteenth-century, men and women were viewed as having strict gender-specific roles in everyday life. Most noticeably, men were supposed to be strong bread-winners of a typical household, whereas women were significantly more dainty and expected to be homemakers. The play “A Doll’s House”, written by Henrik Ibsen makes audacious statements about challenging the firm gender responsibilities of men and women the late-nineteenth-century through the actions of Nora and Torvald Helmer, proving that conventional gender roles do not account for the power of a person.
At the beginning of the play, Nora and Torvald follow the prescribed gender roles of what a man and a woman should be in late-nineteenth-century society. It is clearly seen in the First Act of “A Doll’s House” when Torvald says to his wife, Nora, “Nora! [He goes up to her and takes her playfully by the ear.] Still my little featherbrain!” His use of the term “featherbrain” while referring to Nora showing that he regards Nora as a very feminine being, obviously not someone of any great strength. Moreover, when Nora is asking Torvald for some money to purchase some items for Christmas she says, “Ten, twenty, thirty, forty. Oh, thank you, thank you, Torvald! This will go a long way.” This quote is noteworthy in that it shows that Nora feels inclined to ask Torvald for money instead of producing it herself, which is a very feminine trait of the time.
As the play goes on, the audience learns that Torvald fell ill in the past and the only way for him to get well was for him and Nora to travel to Italy from their home in Christiania. The Helmer family was short on money during that time, so Nora told Torvald she got a loan from her father but she really got the loan under-the-table from scheming extoritionist, Nils Krogstad. This observable decision made by Nora without the permission of her husband is out of character for a woman of the late-nineteenth-century period who usually would act under the permission of her husband.
Nearing the end of the play, the truth comes out between Nora and Torvald about where the loan originated. Torvald, obviously infuriated that Nora could do such a thing, begins to lash out at his wife for entering a contract without him, especially a contract with Krogstad. Ellen, the housemaid, then comes and delivers a letter to Torvald which has enclosed a letter releasing the Helmers of the debt owed to Krogstad. After the letter is read, Nora sits down to speak with Torvald about his behavior and she says, “No, that is just it. You don’t understand me; and I have never understood you- till to-night. No, don’t interrupt. Only listen to what I say.- We must come to a final settlement, Torvald.” Nora then tells Torvald that she is leaving him and carries out her plan. This clear change in Nora’s demeanor is not characteristic at all of a late-nineteenth-century woman who is supposed to be subordinate to her husband. The fact that Nora leaves Torvald and becomes a single woman is almost unheard of in the society of the time period and shows a clear shift in gender roles.
Unmistakably, the play “A Doll’s House” has obvious and strong implications for gender roles in the society of the late-nineteenth-century. In the dialogue between the characters of Nora and Torvald Helmer, there is obvious gender stereotyping in the first half of the play; yet, as the play comes to a close, Ibsen makes the extremely apparent point to give Nora empowerment as a female character set in the time period of the play. Ibsen uses gender stereotyping throughout “A Doll’s House” in order to critique society’s tendency to discount women as the weaker gender.
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