You are currently viewing A Doll’s House as a Problem Play

A Doll’s House as a Problem Play

The Problem Play, as a genre, emerged during the 19th century as part of the Realism movement in theatre, notably influenced by Henrik Ibsen. Unlike the conventional, formulaic “well-made play” of the time, Ibsen’s work focused on real characters grappling with real-world issues, spurning farcical plots, and exploring controversial social and human questions that had never been dramatized till then. This form of drama engages with pressing social concerns through the portrayal of characters in conflict, reflecting the diversity of perspectives within society.

In A Doll’s House, the central issue revolves around Nora’s treatment and societal worth as a woman in the 1800s. During this era, women lacked control over their finances and were restricted from employment outside the home, leaving them trapped in marriages. Torvald’s demeaning pet names for Nora reflect his condescending attitude towards her despite her significant contributions, such as secretly funding his medical care. Ibsen confronts audiences with stark truths: Married women are often relegated to mere ornaments and submissive servants to their husbands, challenging the unchecked authority of men within the home. The play emphasizes the imperative of forging an authentic human identity independent of societal expectations. Nora’s shocking willingness to sacrifice everything, including her children, to assert her autonomy sparks enduring debates about her motivations and ethical justifications. While some critics question the realism of Nora’s transformation, her plight sheds light on the pervasive challenges faced by women in a patriarchal society. Through Nora’s struggle for autonomy and recognition, the play effectively highlights the pressing social issues of its time, fulfilling the role of a problem play.

There is an intimate and often symbiotic relationship between realism and problem play. In “A Doll’s House,” Ibsen primarily presents the subordination and triviality of a woman in marriage as a problem. For this, he needs a realistic set-up for the plot and stageplay. On the other hand, because he presents a realistic set-up, the relationships on stage reveal the inherent social problems in reality in these relationships. At the same time, Ibsen’s play does not become a dry thesis on an exploration of a specific problem, but a lively, engaging piece of theatre. As Henrik Ibsen’s biographer, Michael Meyer, has observed, “No play had ever before contributed so momentously to the social debate, or been so widely and furiously discussed among people who were not normally interested in theatrical or even artistic matter.”

Ibsen accomplishes this by effectively using two significant tools- characterization and symbolism. The central character, Nora, is introduced early in the play, without creating unrealistic anticipation or glorification. Although problem plays are supposed to reject all conventions of “well-made plays,” Ibsen builds his initial plotline following many conventions of such idealistic theatre. The stage is set as a picture-perfect living room; the central character is the conventional cheerful angel in the house, with a perfect family and prospect of wealth. It is right when the audience begins to feel that they are looking at just another conventional, well-made play, Nora’s words jar them out of their stupor: “They all think that I am incapable of anything really serious—”

Nora said those words to her friend Christine, but she apparently used the pronoun ‘they’ to include everyone else in her life. However, this might also mean that “they” refer to not just dramatic personages but also the audience, which had not taken Nora seriously up to that point.

The problem presented in A Doll’s House is not just about the oppression women face in marriage; it is about how they are not taken seriously by their spouses and by society at large. Nora is not talking just about the way her husband has treated her but about society at large. To consider Nora’s case as just a domestic situation between two individuals is to misinterpret Ibsen’s real statement in the play.

Nora’s final exit is a confirmation of this. Her home is established as a doll’s house, and Nora has to leave this space and enter a new one to attain even an ounce of profound regard. Her exit becomes a rejection of frivolity and courting of seriousness, no matter the consequences. Her slamming of the door claps like thunder to mark the commencement of her promotion to a world of seriousness. A contemporary play reviewer also declared: “When Nora slammed the door shut on her marriage, walls shook in a thousand homes.”

In a problem play, alternative perspectives and circumstances are also presented. The situation of Mrs Linde, for instance, is diametrically opposite to that of Nora. She represents a free woman capable of sustaining herself through economic independence. However, Ibsen does not present her as content and happy; instead, she reveals her desolation. Her decision to reunite with Krogstad stems from her realization that independence does not necessarily mean loneliness and despair. In their union, Ibsen validates the possibility of equality and interdependence in marriage as Linde says: “I want to be a mother to someone, and your children need a mother. We two need each other.”

The problem that Ibsen dramatizes is not a simple one about family hierarchy or marital dynamics. He presents the problem of an individual, not just a woman, trapped within a prison of societal expectation, unable to achieve one’s true potential. He does not belittle a woman’s role as a wife or mother, and neither does he belittle a woman as an independent loner. He points out the incompleteness of any woman who fails to experience life as wholesome and empowering. It is not just a play about Nora’s problematic circumstance but also about Torvald’s. Despite his illusion of accomplishment, Torvald has never fully utilized the great potential of companionship and bond that a “real wedlock” (as Nora puts it) promises. It is, therefore, a liberating experience for both Nora. People who find the ending of the play negative miss the most important phrase, “a wonderful miracle.” The play does not end with despair but hope, where the problem of inequality and insincerity in relationships is not left without hope of a solution and faith in miracles. Therefore, the play may be classified as a Problem play with a rich exploration of not just the problem but also the possibility of resolution.

Watch Video Lecture on A Doll's House

Additional Reading

Leave a Reply