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A Doll's House | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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A Doll's House | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Nora act differently with Torvald than with the other characters in Act 1 of A Doll's House?

Nora puts on a show, or pretense, for Torvald and tries to please him in Act 1. He is the only character, besides her children, she tries to please by being cheerful. She puts on a different show for Christine, pretending to be the perfect, bird-like happy wife, but Nora does allow herself to be vulnerable and somewhat honest with Christine, as well as a little mean and competitive—character traits Nora is careful to hide from Torvald. With Krogstad, Nora becomes an extension of her husband by using Torvald's social power. She speaks condescendingly—in the way Torvald does to those he feels are inferior to him—even after Krogstad backs her into a corner. With Dr. Rank, Nora shows her intelligence, compassion, and rebelliousness openly, but she also puts on a show for him by acting mysterious and enjoying being puzzling.

What is the significance of Nora saying, "Such a thing couldn't happen; it is impossible—I have three little children" in Act 2, Section 1 of A Doll's House?

In the beginning of Act 2, Nora's hope of paying back Krogstad and returning to her normal life is dissolving, and she is wondering if Krogstad will expose her to Torvald. Here, she is visualizing the worst possible outcome and says these words as a way of determining that Krogstad cannot possibly be so heartless as to cause a mother to be taken from her children. The fact that she never reverses this type of thought nor uses it to arouse sympathy for Krogstad's dire situation of losing respect in society and his job when he has several young children and a deceased wife is important. Later in Act 2, Section 1, when Nora begs Torvald not to fire Krogstad, she says, "you could just as well dismiss some other clerk instead of Krogstad." She does not think of the misfortune such a move would cause others, only that it would save her. Nora comes across as a callous person, but her words reveal what truly motivates her in this moment: love of her children and the understanding that they depend on her. This reinforces her motivation for abandoning her children at the end of the play. She determines that she is unworthy to be their mother due to a lack of understanding of herself and the world she lives in.

What is the significance of Torvald's choice of Nora's costume in Act 2, Section 1 of A Doll's House?

Torvald has chosen for Nora to attend the costume party dressed as a "Neapolitan fishergirl," wearing a dress he had made for her when they vacationed in Italy restoring his health. When Nora tells Christine about the dress and she replies, "I see; you are going to keep up the character," the dress is given figurative meaning relating to Nora trying to maintain the façade of her marriage as it spirals out of control. The dress comes from Italy, where Torvald and Nora experienced happiness together, which is also the reason for all of the conflict now—needing money for the trip. The dress is torn, as is the relationship. Torvald choosing this particular dress connects with his desire for Nora to play her role of obedient wife and doting mother. Furthering the metaphoric meaning of the dress, Christine says, "We will easily put that right" and it is only "some of the trimming," that has come apart. Christine does not know about the forgery in this moment. Just after discussing the dress, Christine promises to visit later and see Nora "in your fine feathers," using Torvald's perception of Nora as a songbird.

Based on what Nora says to Christine in Act 2, Section 1 of A Doll's House, how important is Dr. Rank to Nora and why?

When Christine is suspicious of Dr. Rank and says that he is the sort of man "anxious to make himself agreeable," Nora sticks up for him, saying "not in the least," which could mean that she sincerely respects him and is being truthful when she tells Christine she would never ask her friend, Dr. Rank, for money. However, the fact that she tells Christine Dr. Rank didn't have the money until after Nora needed it for the trip to Italy implies that Nora at least thought about asking Dr. Rank enough to find out if he had the money. Then Nora says twice she is certain Dr. Rank would give her the money now, and he would be able to handle Krogstad better. All the while, she is simultaneously assuring Christine: "it would never come into my head to ask Dr. Rank." The audience notices the duplicity here which, when combined with Nora's fantasy in Act 1, Section 2 about a rich man dying and leaving her money, makes it seem clear she harbors thoughts that Dr. Rank cares enough for her to get her out of her situation.

How might an audience's ability to experience the dramatic devices Ibsen uses in the play, particularly lights and sounds, deepen the audience's understanding of A Doll's House?

Ibsen uses sound throughout the play, including the iconic final sound—the slamming of a door—to underscore the seriousness of certain actions. When the play opens, Nora is seen listening intently at her husband's door. The audience quickly realizes she will conduct herself in one way if Torvald is present; in another way if he is not. She must act properly as his doll when he is around and be careful to hide her small and large deceptions. Then, throughout the play, Nora consistently listens nervously for sounds that indicate people coming and going, or the dreaded evidence that Krogstad's letter has been dropped in the letter slot. With Nora the audience listens, thereby better understanding the suspense of these moments. Nora's voice also escalates in pitch and volume as her stress level goes up. Ibsen's use of light as a dramatic device is most noticeable in Act 2, Section 2, when Nora and Dr. Rank have their conversation about his death. As the scene develops, the stage grows darker and darker. Then, when Dr. Rank professes his love for Nora, she abruptly calls for a light to be brought in. It's as if she can suddenly see the truth and knows she must no longer hide in the dark. As the light comes in, the audience cannot help but notice the huge shift that has just occurred.

How can the view of A Doll's House as a significant work in the progression of theater from melodramatic entertainment to realistic social commentary be supported?

A Doll's House invites the audience to go on Nora's journey toward self-awareness with her. Rather than focusing on making the audience readily laugh or cry in a knee-jerk way, Ibsen carefully constructs the play to make the audience think about what is happening. At the time the play was written, the themes it explores—especially sexism—were just beginning to be exposed, and so the audiences of the time were inflamed by the ideas, resulting in the type of emotional response the theater of the day was expected to provide. Nevertheless, the response was based upon thoughts that remained with those seeing the play long after it ended rather than functioning as a momentary diversion. A Doll's House is significant not only for helping to redefine the purpose of theater, but for its staying power. So artful was Ibsen as a playwright that the play remains compelling in modern times, even though the themes it explores are less shocking to audiences.

What does Dr. Rank mean by "inexorable retribution" in Act 2, Section 2 of A Doll's House?

This idea springs from an Old Testament reference to the sins of the father being paid by the next generation or generations. Dr. Rank's father may have had syphilis or another such disease caused by excessive vices, and Dr. Rank thinks he is physically paying for it now with his health condition, which will lead to an early death. Because it is considered improper for Dr. Rank and Nora to speak about the actual sins of Dr. Rank's father, they use veiled language about rich-tasting and expensive foods—"oysters," "champagne," "truffles," and "port" wine—to substitute for sexual vices. Even though Dr. Rank does believe he cannot escape paying for his father's sins, he goes ahead and says it is a shame these delicacies "should revenge themselves on ... those who have not had the satisfaction of enjoying them," to bait Nora into flirting with him.

Why does Nora suggest that Dr. Rank should imagine she is dancing the tarantella for him in Act 2, Section 2 of A Doll's House?

It is impossible to know if Nora has ever spoken this intimately with Dr. Rank prior to this conversation, but the audience does know that Nora has decided that asking Dr. Rank for help is better than her other alternatives—losing her husband, children, and place in society—so it is likely she is being seductive and also considering, possibly, trying to persuade him for help in this moment. She also flirtatiously reveals to him her stockings, which is similar to the behavior she uses when she needs money from Torvald or tries to influence him. She uses very similar tactics with both Dr. Rank when she is considering asking for his help and Torvald when she asks him for money. Because of the difficulty Nora faces in procuring money, she uses seduction as a means of persuasion. She is attempting to find power within the role allowed her by men.

Why does Nora change her mind about asking Dr. Rank for advice and money in Act 2, Section 2 of A Doll's House?

After Dr. Rank tells Nora he loves her, she says, "that was really horrid of you," but the key to understanding why she thinks he is horrid is hidden in her response to his asking whether she has known all along that he loves her: "Oh, how do I know whether I had or whether I hadn't." For Nora, pretending she did not know, pretending to flirt without speaking any real intentions, maintains her innocence. Dr. Rank's confession has put Nora in a position that, to her, is a real betrayal of Torvald and she chooses not to betray him. The other reason Nora changes her mind is that her feelings of friendship for Dr. Rank are genuine. Later, when Krogstad asks Nora, "Or perhaps ... you have some expedient for raising the money soon?" she replies,"No expedient that I mean to make use of." It is subtle, but she is referring to Dr. Rank here. Nora isn't willing to use her friend after he shares his sincere feelings.

Why does Krogstad decide not to expose Nora and Torvald publicly in A Doll's House?

Krogstad has been contemplating Nora's situation, and, by doing so, he has found empathy for her. This is why he decides only to expose Nora to Torvald, but not both of them publicly. He does not want to ruin their social standing. He only wants to keep his job. Nora is shocked when Krogstad guesses her thoughts of wanting to run away or commit suicide. Krogstad, who was previously the villain, comes to represent the individual capable of love and empathy. Nora and Torvald, who were previously the characters the audience has rooted for, come to represent cold, unyielding society in this scene. This is a significant leap from the distinction Ibsen made earlier when Nora railed against a legal system that did not take her motive of love into account. The complex scene completely switches Nora and Krogstad in the eyes of the audience. Through the switch, Ibsen shows the power of empathy and makes the point that a person can easily be heartless when his or her life is not at stake, and that is how society, as an institution, gains power over individuals—in that individuals lack empathy for other individuals.

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