"A Doll House" by Henrik Ibsen: A Marxist and Feminist Analysis

One of the primary tenets of Marxism is the belief that human thought is a product of the individual’s social and economic conditions, their relationships with others are often undermined by those conditions (Letterbie 1259), and that the weak or less-fortunate are always exploited by the richer bourgeoisie. A common theme found in Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Dolls House,” is the exploitation of the weak and the poor by the strong and the rich, and an obsession with material possession. The characters in “A Dolls House” are all affected by the lack or acquisition of money, and their entire lives and way of thinking are based upon it. Therefore, a Marxist theme pervades throughout much of the play and can be seen from each of the main character’s perspectives.

Nora’s way of thinking and her outlook on life are both completely dominated by her material wealth and financial conditions. For example, when the play begins Nora is just returning home from a shopping trip. She enters the apartment with an “armload of packages” (43) and is followed by a boy carrying a Christmas tree. Nora then tells Helene, one of their maids, to hide the tree so the kids won’t see it until it’s been decorated. When Torvald enters, she asks him for money so she can “hang the bills in gilt paper” as Christmas tree decorations (45). The tree symbolizes her obsession with money because she didn’t want anyone to see it until it had been decorated to show off their newfound wealth. Previously, she made the decorations by hand, spending an entire day on the project. Doing the same now would be “thinking poor” in her mind, so she spends excessive amounts of money on presents and decorates the tree with it because now they can afford to “let themselves go a bit” (44). Now that Nora belongs to a higher social class she practically throws money away. She tells the tree delivery boy to keep the change from the crown she gave him, paying him twice what he asks. Despite the fact that Torvald’s raise won’t come into effect for another three months, she insists that “we can borrow until then” (44) when previously she and Torvald saved every penny they could in order to get by, and they both worked odd jobs in order to supplement their income.

She becomes more selfish as well, claiming that if something were to happen to Torvald after they had borrowed money, “it just wouldn’t matter” (44) because the people they borrowed from are strangers. Now that they belong to a higher social class, her responsibility has flown out the door and she cares only for her own interests. She doesn’t care what would happen to the “strangers” she borrowed from, because she concentrates only on what she can extract from other people. Also, when her friend Kristine comes over, the first thing she mentions is her husband’s new job, claiming that she feels “so light and happy” (49) because they now “have stacks of money and not a care in the world” (49). When the wiser Kristine answers that it would be nice “to have enough for the necessities” (50) Nora insists that that is not enough-she repeats that she wants “stacks and stacks of money” (50). After she tells Kristine she borrowed the money for

the trip to Italy, and tells her about all the “hard work” she did in order to pay it off, she says her worries “don’t matter anymore because now I’m free!” (56). She equates freedom with the acquisition of wealth, saying that having money is the only way she can be “carefree and happy” (56). By the end of the play, however, she realizes that even if she is able to be free of her debts, she is still financially enslaved to her husband, because as a woman she is completely dependant on him. She refers to leaving him as “closing out their accounts,” (108) and in doing so “she renounces not only her marital vows but also her financial dependence because she has discovered that personal and human freedom are not measured in economic terms,” (Letterbie 1260). Nora’s entire outlook on life changes with a change in her economic conditions, thereby demonstrating the Marxist belief that people’s thoughts are a product of their financial situations.

Torvald is much more careful with money, but he too bases his outlook on life and relationships solely on money and the status it earns him. When he hears Nora return from shopping, he asks if “his little spendthrift has been out throwing money around again,” (44) saying that they “really can’t go squandering” (44). Nora claims that since Torvald will be making “piles and piles of money” (44) from now on they can borrow until his raise comes through, but he is adamant in his reply that they should “never borrow” and have no debt because “something of freedom is lost from a home that’s founded on borrowing and debt” (44). Torvald, too, equates money with freedom, and refuses to give up that freedom by borrowing money. He too then mentions that it is “a wonderful feeling” (47) to know that “one’s got a safe secure job with a comfortable salary,” (47) similar to Nora’s claim that she’s now “carefree and happy” because of it. Torvald cares not only about money, but about his social status as well. When he finds out that Nora borrowed money from Krogstad with a forged signature, his “love” for her is completely erased, and he says she’s “ruined all his happiness” (106). He cares only about his reputation, because “it’s got to seem like everything is the same between us-to the outside world, at least” (106). All that matters to him is “saving the bits and pieces, the appearance” (106). However, once Krogstad gives them the note and says he won’t tell anyone about it, he is suddenly, magically able to love her again, because no one will know. He still cares only about himself, however, claiming “I’m saved, I’m saved! Oh, and you too” (107). Nora is only an afterthought when it comes to his reputation. Their relationship is ruined because he continues to believe in money and social status as the source of happiness, while Nora comes to realize that money is not that important.

The Marxist theme can be seen in both Kristine and Krogstad as well. Kristine sacrificed her love for Krogstad and married another man because “his prospects seemed hopeless back then,” (95) and she had to be able to take care of her mother and brothers. Although their relationship was revived in the end, it almost failed “simply for money” (95). Once she comes back to Krogstad, she still won’t even give up the job she took from him, because she has to look out for herself-she tells Nora that in her position “you have to live, and so you grow selfish” (52). This is a Marxist attitude because her entire life and mind-set are a result of her economic situation at the time of her decisions. Krogstad committed a crime in order to support his family, and when his job was threatened he tried to save it by every means possible-even blackmail-saying he would fight for it “like life itself” (64) if need be. Krogstad tells Nora that “it was your husband who forced me to revert to my old ways,” (88) but from a deeper perspective it was really his financial situation that forced his hand and made him blackmail Nora, just as it was the reason he committed a crime years before.

The Helmer’s maid, Anna-Marie, also has a Marxist perspective on life. She had to leave her home and her child in order to get by. When Nora asks how she was able to give her child up to the care of strangers she just replies that “a girl who’s poor and who’s gotten in trouble” (73) has no other choice, and that her daughter “has written to me both when she was confirmed and when she was married” (73). Anna-Marie’s entire life as well as her way of thinking has been determined by her financial situation. Her relationship with her daughter is “interrupted and practically destroyed” yet she “accepts her alienation from her child as if it were natural, given the circumstances of class and money” (Letturbie 1260). She can’t afford to be upset about leaving her only child, because she had no other choice. She had to give up a relationship with someone she loved, just as Kristine had to give up her love for Krogstad. Anna-Marie’s situation exemplifies that “in the marketplace [women] were a labor force expecting subsistence wages” (Letturbie 1260). Marxism includes the belief “that capitalism is based on the exploitation of workers by the owners of capital.” Anna-Marie may not have been exploited directly by the rich, but she is forced to live a substandard life because she is poor, and unlike Nora, she does not challenge the laws of class and society but accepts her situation. She does not realize that social class and society’s laws were created by other people “and thus are capable of imperfection and susceptible to change,” (Letturbie 1260). So all she can expect is to be poor her entire life, and for her financial conditions to remain stagnant.

The problems that Nora, Anna-Marie and Kristine face are compounded by their gender. Ibsen’s play is considered by many to be a feminist work, illustrating the erroneous treatment of “the woman issue,” as Ibsen called it. Though he said in a speech once that Nora was supposed to represent the Everyman, and that he hadn’t been trying to address the issue of women’s rights, critics argue that the presence of feminism in the play is inherent and “justifiable whatever Ibsen’s intention and in spite of his speech,” (Templeton 111).

Nora is depicted until the end of the play as a helpless, dimwitted fool who wastes her husband’s hard earned money. She is Torvald’s plaything, his burden and responsibility. Templeton describes their marriage as “a pan-cultural ideal…a relation of superior and inferior in which the wife is a creature of little intellectual and moral capacity, whose right and proper station is subordination to her husband” (Templeton 138). Her “womanly helplessness” was attractive to Torvald, because he had to be in control. When they get the Bond back from Krogstad and Torvald “forgives her,” he says that “to a man there is something sweet and satisfying in forgiving his wife,” because it seems as if his forgiveness “had made her doubly his own; he has given her a new life, and she has in a way become both wife and child to him” (65). She was an object, his property, to whom he designed to give life; but only for his own pleasure. During the first act, he never calls her by name; he calls her his “squirrel,” a “spendthrift,” and a “featherbrain,” among other things. Her entire identity is determined by these nicknames; while she is “his squirrel” she is innocent, childish, obedient, and completely dependant on him. When he finally addresses her by name, in Act Three, her behavior is entirely different—she becomes serious, determined, and willful. She is his “doll-wife,” playing the game of marriage. She tells Torvald in the end, “You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you, or pretended to” (67). All of it is a role that Nora has been taught to play by society, the behavior expected of all women of the time.

This role was merely a mask, one that she couldn’t live with in the end. On the outside, she is entirely obedient to her husband; but on the inside, she yearns for recognition and a love that Torvald wasn’t willing to give. She was expected to be content with the life she had, though it wasn’t in any way fair or equal. When she expresses her hope that Torvald would have taken the blame for her crime upon himself, Torvald says that “no man would ever forsake his honor for the one he loves,” and Nora replies that “millions of women have done just that” (70). Her rebellion was so shocking to the audience that Ibsen “was accused of a kind of godless androgyny; women, in refusing to be compliant, were refusing to be women” (Templeton 114). Ibsen was even forced to change this ending in order for it to be performed. Obedience was the main trait that defined women; it was what separated them from men. When she decides to leave, Torvald claims that she is insane, because her “most sacred duties were to her husband and her children,” and “before all else she was a wife and mother” (68). So in leaving, she was in a sense denying the purpose of her existence. Women had no other role or function in society.

Kristine broke free from this traditional role by chance, because her husband died. Had he lived, she would have been stuck in the same situation as Nora for the rest of her life. Even so, she is still dependant on men in order to live. When her father died, she was forced to marry a man she didn’t love in order to provide for her mother and younger brothers. She wasn’t able to get a job at that point, because she was young and unmarried; so the only option she had was marriage. After her husband died and she went to visit Nora, she says “I feel my life unspeakably empty. No one to live for anymore” (11). Her entire life up until that point revolved around men; the purpose of her existence was to please her husband and take care of her brothers. When that was no longer necessary, her life lost its meaning. She came to Nora because she was looking for work, and that could only be obtained through Torvald. When he gives her a job, he feels in control of her even outside the office. When Torvald and Nora return from the party in Act III and Kristine is there waiting, he says “you really ought to embroider, it’s much more becoming. Let me show you…in the case of knitting, that can never be anything but ungraceful” (57). He presumes to instruct her on something that is traditionally women’s work, and a hobby, as if she were doing it for him. He insults her taste and her work as if it is his right and his duty to correct not only his own wife but any woman that he sees doing something “wrong.”

When Nora shut the door behind her, she wasn’t just a woman leaving her family. She was a woman seeking independence from the strictures of society and the rule of men which was placed upon her because of gender. She was the representation of Everyman, illustrating the need of everyone, no matter their background, for freedom. And she was the representation of the unnoticed, underappreciated workers of the world overthrowing the capitalists who took them for granted. Ibsen’s play was one of the greatest of its time, reaching all the way to our own with a relevance that will always be valid and true.

Works Cited

Ibsen, Henrick. “A Dolls House.” London: J.M. Dent and Sons LTD,1958

Templeton, Joan. Ibsen’s Women. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1997.

Comments 8 comments

Adreen Amir 4 years ago

the novel z quite nyc nd thnk u for givin women a chance to empower themselves. Thank uuu u saved us

Notlrat 3 years ago

Thanks a ton, helped so much

sooo 3 years ago

How can i reference this

Noelle89 profile image

Noelle89 3 years ago Author

I'm really glad this has helped so many people out! If you'd like to reference my essay, my name is Noelle Chandler, and I wrote this in 2008. You can likely use the format for web page citation.

Anonymous 3 years ago

Wouldn't a 'Marxist perspective on life' follow the character challenging the capitalist ideology of their society, as Marxists would do, not conforming to it like you write about in this article?

Anonymous 2 3 years ago

Looking at literature through a Marxist lens does not necessarily focus on just how marxists viewed capitalism and such. The marxist lens also focuses on society in general and how money affects people in society or how other social problems affect the people versus just a marxist view.

safia malik 2 years ago

i m so glad to find such valuable material

holly 4 months ago

Who is Letterbie? Or where are the quotations credited to Letterbie from? This piece is a goldmine of information and I'd like to be able to reference 'Letterbie', so if you could let me know I'd be grateful!

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