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A Doll's House | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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A Doll's House | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in 1879, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House was first performed in Copenhagen, Denmark, just three weeks after publication to a sold-out crowd and great acclaim. It soon had performances in theaters throughout Scandinavia and Germany. In its initial four months, the play had three printings and became Ibsen's first international success.

In the play, Nora secretly owes money to Krogstad, who works at her husband Torvald's bank. When Torvald fires Krogstad, Nora's illegal loan is revealed, and Torvald rejects her. He changes his mind when Krogstad forgives the loan, but Nora is no longer content to be his property—his doll—and walks out.

The play focuses on individualism and the rights and status of women in society, brutally critiquing the institution of marriage. The subject matter made it highly controversial, which only increased its popularity—despite Ibsen's claim that he wasn't a feminist. These themes also helped keep the play relevant in modern times: it is still performed frequently all over the world.

1. A Doll's House was influenced by the mental breakdown of Ibsen's friend.

Ibsen's friend Laura Kieler borrowed money to take her tubercular husband to a southern mild climate for his health. She ended up forging a signature to get the money. When the forgery was discovered, her husband divorced her and her children were taken from her. She subsequently had a nervous breakdown and spent time in a mental hospital. Many of these events formed the plot structure of A Doll's House.

2. Ibsen viewed alterations to his manuscript as "barbaric"—even when he did them himself.

Early in 1880 Ibsen was told that a German publisher planned a version with an alternate ending. With no legal recourse, Ibsen decided to write the ending himself, stating in a Danish newspaper:

In this version Nora does not leave the house. Instead, Helmer forces her into the doorway of the sleeping children's nursery, the parents exchange a few lines, Nora sinks to the floor and the curtain falls.

He called it a "barbaric act of violence" toward his work. It was performed only a few times.

3. Early reviewers didn't know what to make of Ibsen's play.

One reviewer stated, "one leaves with a despondent feeling of ... what is hollow and disappointing in much of so-called human happiness, but—without any of the joy." Another complained, "I ask openly: is there a mother ... who would leave husband and children and home so she herself first and foremost can become 'a human being'? And I answer most decidedly: No, absolutely not!" But The Social Democrat raved, "Go and see this play, you mighty supporters and defenders of morality."

4. All four silent film versions of the play have been lost.

Silent films of A Doll's House were made in 1911, 1917, 1918, and 1922. Despite the loss of these artifacts, the remaining publicity materials, including photographs and some reviews, provide insight into the evolution of gender roles over time.

5. A group of early Chinese feminists were known as "Chinese Noras."

Chinese playwrights and audiences were strongly affected by Ibsen and in particular by A Doll's House. "Ibsenism," another term for individualism, encouraged modernization and led Chinese women to discuss independence from their families, avoidance of arranged marriages, and the necessity of financial security. Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing was a "Chinese Nora"—and even played Nora onstage before she married Mao.

6. Filmed versions of A Doll's House include one from Nora's point of view.

A short, eight-minute film called Nora, made in 2014, was billed as a response to the play, with the action seen through the eyes of the character Nora and updated to the present. The film's director, Carrie Cracknell, was inspired by an exploration of modern women's issues and the realization that women still juggle difficult roles. In the film she aims to capture the "unremarked yet complex reality of countless women."

7. Ibsen claims The Doll's House was not a message about female empowerment.

At the time of its publication, A Doll's House was viewed by critics, readers, and viewers as Ibsen's take on how women should be treated and viewed in society. Ibsen, however, offered a different view of the theme, saying:

True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem ... but that has never been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity.

8. There have been some pretty strange stage versions of the play.

A wild German production in 2004 featured a Nora who dressed up in a Lara Croft outfit during her mental breakdown and ended with her waving a gun. Mabou Mimes put on a version of A Doll's House in 2003. In it, the women and children are squished into a tiny house, and the male characters are all little people. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman directed a version called Nora, in which the characters are all onstage in hell for the whole play.

9. The original draft of the play had a different title.

Ibsen's original draft of A Doll's House, written in Rome in 1879, was titled "Notes on the Tragedy of the Present Age." These notes later became the play with the title the world knows, but Ibsen remained firm in his belief that the story he told was a tragedy.

10. Ulysses author James Joyce wrote a fan letter to Ibsen.

For a few years in his youth, the Irish novelist James Joyce made known his appreciation for and connection with Ibsen's work in a lecture, in an essay, and in letters to Ibsen's translator. When Joyce wrote Ibsen a birthday greeting in 1901, he explained how he hid Ibsen's true influence on him from others:

I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me—not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead...

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