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Character of Nora in A Doll’s House

Henrick Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” is considered to be a revolutionary play primarily because of the central character, Nora Helmer. Ibsen presents Nora as a woman caught in the cocoon of social expectations, eventually undergoing transformation through her realization and radical rejection of societal norms. The portrayal of Nora is exceptional, not just on the level of characterization but also on the level of dramatic technique.

Departing from the traditional opening of plays, where usually secondary characters appear and create an anticipation in the audience, Ibsen makes Nora appear right at the beginning. It is to do away with any possibility of establishing a larger-than-life identity of the central character. This is also significant because Ibsen is about to do something extraordinary with the way he presents Nora on stage. It is one of the rarest instances in the history of Theatre that a character never leaves the stage.

The symbolic significance of such a placement is immediately felt. The stage is not just a room for Nora; it becomes her spot of imprisonment. She is trapped within the small confines of the stage, generating a sense of claustrophobia over time as the play progresses. The worst thing about it is that she is constantly under the gaze of not just other characters but also the audience. With gaze comes value judgment. It is as if Ibsen is placing Nora right in the middle of some Foucauldian Panopticon where Nora is allowed no privacy, no room of her own. Therefore, when Nora finally is able to leave the stage, the slamming of the door reverberates across the whole theatre-house as a moment of emancipation where Nora achieves freedom not just from her domestic sphere but also from the tiring constant gaze of the audience.

On the level of characterization, Nora shows a unique combination of cheerful mirth and dark secrecy. She behaves differently with different characters as if playing a game of pretense. At first, she is presented as a chirping lark, content in her domestic world, proud of her husband, and uncomplaining of his domineering, oppressive attitude. However, right when the audience has started to believe that she is incapable of any seriousness, she turns round to comment: “They all think that I am incapable of anything really serious — “. Although she speaks to Linde, the audience is moved by an uncanny feeling that the words are also directed at them. It is as if the gaze suddenly turns back; Nora is passing judgment.

An additional aspect of Nora’s character is revealed in her interactions with Dr Rank. The two of them share a relaxed intimacy, lacking in Nora’s relationship with her husband. Nora is aware of Rank’s admiration for her but chooses to hide her knowledge underneath a mask of joviality. In a way, Nora’s character appears to dismantle all the expectations of the audience concerning the traditional qualities of a model heroine. She is seen lying, holding secrets, and even manipulating her husband when she needs to.

Interestingly, the first word Nora utters in the play is “hide.” It is easy to dismiss her as an opportunist person from her actions in the first part of the play. When she begins to ask pertinent questions, the complete picture of her characterization comes alive: “Is it imprudent to save your husband’s life?”

Marriage is a relationship of mutual respect, but Nora is seen to have no rights when it comes to her position within her marriage. Her consent is taken for granted when Torvald is desirous to be physically intimate. When Nora refuses to comply with his desire, saying: “Go away, Torvald! You must let me go. I won’t—” Torvald refuses to comply. She is his skylark, his squirrel, a pet he can control and cage down. However, his tall promises about protecting her come to nothing when she needs his support the most.

Interestingly, Nora does not speak about leaving home when Torvald is accusative and insulting. It is right when the storm has blown over, when Torvald is shamelessly trying to regain his control and composure, that Nora hits him hard with her cold, commanding tone: “Sit down. It will take some time; I have a lot to talk over with you.”

The chittering songbird has suddenly transformed into a cold voice of rejection. She knows she has only been a plaything object in the house. “I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald.” As Torvald tries to reason with her hopelessly, reminding her that she is a wife and mother, Nora declares: “I believe that before all else, I am a reasonable human being.” The idea of Individualism has never been so plainly and truthfully uttered in Theatre before, let alone by a woman. Ibsen’s realism focuses on the individual, which is best understood in the way Nora transforms into something altogether different from her initial portrayal.

Back in 1879, there was an uproar from the audience, who were divided in their opinions on whether she should have abandoned her children and home. Today, in the 21st Century, Nora is seen in an evolved light since ideas of marriage, women’s rights, questions about consent, domestic violence (emotional and not just physical), and marital responsibility have changed drastically. Back then, Norway was not ready to allow women to hold property rights, voting rights, and even the right to equal education. The women were not permitted to have personal bank accounts. The slamming of the door and stepping out into that kind of world was almost suicidal. This factor makes Nora’s departure almost madness; however, it is only because of such apparently lunatic, uncalculated moves that feminist voices rose. Nora becomes not just a singular voice of protest, not an individual railing against society, but a symbol of all women resisting violence, oppression, and belittlement across continents across ages.

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