Background of “A Doll’s House”

Authored by Shannon Cron

Norwegian Flag
Norwegian Flag

In the case of A Doll’s House, both the world of the play and the world Ibsen lived in are the same. Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House in Norway in 1879, and the play presumably took place sometime in the same decade. Set in an upper-middle class home, the play demonstrates the importance of social class in late-19th century Norway.  Born into the upper-middle class himself, Ibsen not only understood the importance of social class, but also the expectations placed on its members.  Likewise, A Doll’s House tells the story of Nora and Torvald: a married couple living in a society where to keep your social standing, you have to abide by its strict, and at times, suffocating standards. Nora and Torvald are living proof that upper-middle class life can be a comfortable one–if you fit into its narrow margins.

Original Manuscript of A Doll's House
Original Manuscript of A Doll’s House

The growth and prosperity of Norway’s upper-middle class began in 1843, with a great economic boom (Larson). This boom lasted until approximately 1875, meaning that Nora and Torvald were still reaping its effects (Larson). This boom can mainly be attributed to Norway’s success in foreign trade, mining and growth in agricultural productivity. Additionally, Norway––which only became an independent nation in 1814––was becoming more industrialized, and therefore bringing more money into the country as well as creating more jobs and opportunities (Hagemann 417-418).  As a result, the upper-middle class became larger. Before this class existed, most of the people with wealth were a part of the aristocracy, and therefore born into money (Larson).  Now, people could work their way up, and enter into the upper-middle class through hard work and education (Larson).

Røros, a major copper mining town, in 1869
Røros, a major copper mining town, in 1869

While this economic boom brought prosperity, it also brought an obsession with, and an over-awareness of money (Hagemann 417-419). This is evident in the plot of A Doll’s House. Nora owes Krogstad money, which causes her immense stress. Torvald is obsessed with staying out of debt. Nora and Torvald  are thrilled are at the prospect that Torvald might get a raise at the bank, which would mean more money for the entire family. However, Torvald’s tight grip around the families funds lead Nora to lie about what she uses their money for, creating tension and dishonesty in their marriage and, ultimately, influencing Nora’s decision to leave the house.

Furthermore, expectations about being upper-middle class were also forming during this time in Norway. Commonly referred to as “bourgeois respectability,” expectations of the upper middle-class included financial success without any debt, good morals (or at least making it appear that’s the case), and a stable, patriarchal family  (Willcoxon) (Hagemann 417-419).  A woman’s main responsibility centered around being a housewife, whose most prominent task was to serve her husband and children  (Hagemann 417-419). The audience sees this patriarchal structure at work when Nora lets Torvald call her his “little skylark,” who she does whatever her husband says (Ibsen 2). Torvald is the strong male figure who makes and manages the money, as well as controlling the household. Clearly aware of the subordination of women in late-19th century Norwegian society, Ibsen wrote in his notes for A Doll’s House in 1878, “A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view” (Ibsen/McFarlane 90).

This is why Nora’s proclamation that she also had “a duty to herself” shocked audiences of the time (Ibsen 82). Not only was the patriarchal structure a social tradition and something expected of the upper middle class, but there were also laws that correlated with its ideology. For example, women were not allowed to borrow money without their husbands’ consent or vote. Again, Nora goes against the social norms when she borrows from and repays money to Krogstad behind Torvald’s back. Perhaps the only thing about the world of the play that differs from the world of Ibsen is that Nora’s behavior was completely unprecedented in the 1870’s.

Works Citied

Hagemann, Gro. “Citizenship and social order: gender politics in twentieth-century Norway and Sweden.” Women’s History Review 11.3 (2002): 417-429.

Ibsen, Henrik. Ed. James Walter McFarlane. Henrik Ibsen: A Critical Anthology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970. 90. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik, James Walter. McFarlane, and Jens Arup. “A Doll’s House.” Four Major Plays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 1-88. Print.

Arup. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. 1-88. Print.

Larson, Karen. A History of Norway. Princeton: n.p., 1948. Print.

Willcoxon, Jeanne. Theatre 271. St. Olaf College. 4 April 2014.