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Realism in Ibsen’s Doll’s House

Realism, as a socio-literary movement, was a natural consequence of the Scientific Revolution that transformed European perspectives on faith, life, and religion. Realism in art portrays life as it is, without idealization or romanticism. It provides a stage for playwrights to express social views. The artist’s duty is honest observation and description of the world. Drama, a performative social genre, was the primary vehicle for communicating realism. It was Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright who was a pioneer in the field. Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” brought to theatre a radical departure from unrealistic and unnatural dramatic conventions to usher in the new era of realism.

Departure from Convention

Aristotle’s concept of tragedy and tragic hero focused on creating a larger-than-life personality whose choices and eventual failure are magnified against the petty lives of the spectators. He prioritized spectacle, where this magnification is reinforced. In Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” this idea is challenged and dismissed from the very beginning. Instead of creating anticipation in the audience about some heroic magnitude through the delayed entry of the protagonist, Ibsen defies spectacle and introduces Nora immediately, establishing her as an ordinary individual. The detailed stage directions, with a preference for realism in stage and props, underscore Ibsen’s commitment to realism, a trend later embraced by playwrights like Shaw and Osborne.

Gender Dynamics

In “A Doll’s House,” Ibsen explores women’s societal roles, particularly Nora’s evolution from conforming to expectations as a wife and mother to asserting her individuality. Torvald Helmer embodies societal ideals, his self-worth tied to others’ perceptions. His moral compass aligns with societal norms, reflecting a patriarchal 19th-century mentality. Torvald categorizes people based on their significance to his social standing, which is evident in his treatment of Mrs. Linde and Krogstad. Ibsen skillfully depicts Nora’s awakening and the tension between societal expectations and personal fulfillment, illustrating broader themes of gender dynamics and societal constraints. Addressing the challenges of mature capitalist societies, Ibsen’s works engage with the transformations and complexities of modernization and the rise of bourgeois culture.

A Crack in the Fourth Wall

Realism in the play is achieved not just through the use of everyday language and setting but also through clever dramatic techniques. Being kept almost always under the audience’s gaze, Nora is initially made to look childish and incapable of seriousness. So, when she says to Mrs. Linde, “They all think that I am incapable of anything really serious,” her use of the pronoun ‘they’ appears to include not just Torvald or people around herself but also the audience. It is as if Nora is addressing the audience at large, creating cracks in the age-old fourth wall that would be eventually torn down by Bertolt Brecht.

Reality in Characterization

The difference between the world of the audience and that of Nora is progressively fused with the development of the plot. Unlike the traditional protagonists, Nora is seen lying, engaging in forgery and hypocrisy, and putting on a show of pretense. She is no tragic hero; this is not a tragedy. The line between tragedy and comedy exists in some black-and-white romantic idealist literary universe. However, the genre of serious domestic drama, fusing elements of both tragedy and comedy yet free from the sentimental overtones of tragi-comedies, is the true mark of realism that Ibsen introduced in European theatre.

Nora’s Transformation

Ironically, the central character of the play is an idealist at first. Nora manages to put on the appearance of cheerful mirth because of her innate faith in the goodness of Helmer, as well as some superior forces, even when she is filled with anxiety and economic deprivation. It is when Helmer makes her feel completely powerless and exposed, without offering his support, that Nora’s idealism transforms into realism. The audience visualizes the advent of realism on stage in such moments of anagnorisis as she answers back Torvald’s question with: “Taking off my fancy dress.”

Realism is about taking off the fancy dress of romantic idealism to establish verisimilitude. With Ibsen, it is also about exploring the symbolic nuances of reality. Nora’s domestic world is presented with utmost care to realistic details, but it is revealed to be just a fantasy world, “A Doll’s House.” Children are given toys based on their gender. Still, there is a hint that a rebellion might be underway as Nora unknowingly gives the prophetic statement about her daughter’s toy furniture: “She will soon break them in pieces.” While slamming the door on her husband and her family, Nora uses the word “real” for the first and last time in the play, the only time it is uttered as she talks about marriage: “That our life together would be a real wedlock.” Nora’s exit is an acceptance of her realization that her life had been a prison, masked as a delicate toy-house. Her exit, reverberating across the theatre, marks the end of an era of idealistic romanticism to lay the foundation for realism in theatre.

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