Gender Roles Through a Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

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 “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes”, Paul Dunbar. The masks we wear come in various moulds ranging in different emotions from good to bad. In our life, there will come a time, when we must wear a mask to disguise ourselves, to hide vulnerabilities and at times to conceal the truth. Inside, we yearn to expose our authentic selves but we are afraid of society’s perceptions. In A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, each character portrayed has carefully crafted their ideal masks. They become dolls and puppets who are owned by society, forced to play the part due to gender and class oppression that they face.

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The first mask the audience is introduced to is the one constructed by Nora. As a female in the Victorian era, society has forced upon her the role of being a housewife having no freedom and no voice for herself. She is essentially trapped in a patriarchal society with no sense of individuality. Nora has been objectified by her husband Torvald through the use of pet names such as, “little lark”, “spendthrift” and “little songbird”, all which dehumanize and diminish Nora’s worth. These names emphasize how Torvald along with the rest of society viewed women as being weak, incompetent and frail. In order to fit into society’s values, Nora developed the facade of the perfect loving wife to play along with Torvald’s fantasies by adhering to her marital roles. She exclaims, “Take care of me, Torvald, please!” where he responds with “Tonight I’m at your service – you helpless thing…”. Not only is Nora treated as if she were a child, but she cannot be her true self as she is forbidden from performing the simplest tasks such as eating macaroons in the house. The only person she can be herself with is Dr. Rank. Unlike her interactions with Torvald, she is at ease having meaningful conversations, eating macaroons together and even swearing in front of him.

As a man, Krogstad faces a different type of oppression, that being class oppression. Through Krogstad, Ibsen successfully conveys to the reader his opposing views that contradict society’s beliefs that lower classmen were considered inferior and inadequate. Similarly to Nora, Krogstad is a character that has been wronged by society committing a fraudulent act similar to Nora which has left an everlasting mark on his reputation who is incapable of progressing his career due to his previous actions. Despite the fact that society viewed women as being inadequate of having a proper job with great responsibilities, Krogstad’s position at the bank was appointed to Ms. Linde. This proves to be significant because even though Krogstad is a man and is supposed to be viewed superior to women, his low-class status has made him so invaluable that even a woman is ranked above him. “Oh, it’s a lawyer, Krogstad, a type you wouldn’t know. His character is rotten to the root -but even he began chattering all-importantly about how he had to live”. It is evident that society, who is represented by both Torvald and Dr. Rank, view those in the lower class as being “rotten to the root” portraying people like Krogstad as being damaged goods capable of corrupting their own children.

Krogstad has to put on an immoral and evil mask, blackmailing Nora into getting him the position at the bank however it is later revealed that his motives behind redeeming his reputation are for his children, as growing up in the lower class would result in limited opportunities. “My boys are growing up. For their sakes, I’ll have to win back as much respect as possible here in town.” This explains how much class is valued in society as Krogstad is completely powerless, having to alter his facade to survive.

Torvald’s role is influenced by society’s expectations of how a man should behave, from how he manages his personal and public relationships. Being a bank manager holds a lot of responsibilities, treating Nora as one too. Torvald is very authoritative and puts his appearance and reputation ahead of his wife that he supposedly loves where in reality, cares very little about her feelings. Throughout the story, Torvald appears to take on the characteristics of the typical man in that time period. He is honoured that he is now the head of the bank, and finds pleasure in acting like the caring husband, telling Nora, “Nora – time and again I’ve wished you were in some terrible danger, just so I could stake my life and soul and everything, for your sake”. Upon closer analysis, it becomes obvious that Torvald’s masculine identity is not genuine but is instead a mask he has created in order to meet the expectations that have been set by society. After Torvald reads the letter that Krogstad had sent regarding the loan from the bank, he disregards everything he had previously said to Nora, threatening to remove all her contact with the children. He then says “From now on happiness doesn’t matter; all that matters is saving the bits and pieces, the appearance”. Here he ultimately reveals his true self, uncovering his mask declaring that he will try to keep maintain his reputation no matter what, hiding behind his status. Another scenario is when Torvald confesses to Nora that he is firing Krogstad based on the reason no respect is shown to him saying, “We’re on a first-name basis. And that tactless fool makes no effort at all to hide it in front of others. Quite the contrary – he thinks that entitles him to take a familiar air around me, and so every other second he comes booming out with his ‘Yes, Torvald!’ and ‘Sure thing, Torvald!’ I tell you, it’s been excruciating for me…”. Torvald felt belittled and fired Krogstad, who absentmindedly threatened Torvald’s sense of manhood. Torvald needs to be accepted by society through his authority as a man, as society defines being a successful businessman as masculinity where he must maintain control at the bank to assure his authority.

In conclusion, Ibsen alludes to the idea that A Doll’s House not only acts as the title of the play but also offers an analysis of the recurring theme of gender roles and oppression  that each character is confronted with. This can be observed through each character who are all forced to alter their personas by wearing masks to conform to society’s values and beliefs. Ibsen exposes the audience to how women in the Victorian era, especially Nora faced gender oppression and how Torvald and Krogstad must mask their true selves due to class oppression that they encounter.

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