A Doll’s House as a Modern Tragedy
Table of Contents
A Doll’s House has rightly been described as a tragedy. At the same time, it is also correct to call it a modern tragedy. The whole play is pervaded by a solemn and sombre atmosphere. There is certainly a bit of comedy in it, but only a little bit, which is to be found in the flirtation scene between Nora and Doctor Rank. There is a bit of joyousness also in the play- mainly at the beginning when we find Nora in a jubilant mood and thereafter when she is playing gleefully with her children. There is also a bit of happiness in the scene in which Mrs. Linde offers to marry Krogstad who accepts the offer gratefully and most gladly. Apart from these comic and joyous elements, the whole play is serious and sad. The main action of the play is tragic, and so is the ending. Nora is a tragic heroine who wins our deepest sympathy.
The play becomes serious as soon as it is revealed to us that Nora had borrowed money in order to save her husband’s life and, in borrowing it, she had felt compelled to forge a signature on the promissory note. She has been paying monthly installments to her creditor Krogstad against the principal amount of twelve hundred dollars and the interest accruing thereon. She has been leading a life of self-denial, even though she has been cheerful and contented. But now the clouds begin to gather on the horizon. Krogstad comes and gives Nora a threat the effect of which on her is to depress her spirits greatly. She is hardly able to devote her attention to decorating the Christmas tree because Krogstad’s threat has greatly disturbed her peace of mind. In a brief soliloquy she refers to Krogstad as a revolting man and tries to console herself by saying:
“It’s all nonsense. There’s nothing to worry about.”
But she is definitely worried. After Helmer‘s condemnation of Krogstad and Krogstad’s moral lapses, Nora feels even more upset. She now thinks that she may also be exercising a pernicious influence upon her children because of the criminal act of forgery which she had committed years ago. We are deeply touched when at the end of Act I she feels that she may be corrupting her children and poisoning her home.
Nora’s Decision to Commit suicide
With the beginning of Act II, Nora’s distress has greatly deepened. From her talk with the Nurse it becomes clear that she is thinking of putting an end to her life. This is a sad development which again arouses our deep sympathy for her. She is almost on the verge of tears when Helmer, in opposition to her wishes, sends the order of dismissal to Krogstad. Her anxiety is further increased when her plan to obtain money from Doctor Rank fails. She again thinks of putting an end to her life. The main reason for her deciding to commit suicide is that she would not like to face a situation in which Helmer feels compelled to take upon himself the blame for the guilty deed which she had committed years ago. This decision to commit suicide is certainly a tragic one which again moves us to the deepest pity for her.
Nora’s Painful Renunciation
Helmer’s outburst after going through Krogstad’s incriminating letter comes as a great shock to Nora. She is now completely disillusioned about her husband. The disillusionment becomes even greater after Helmer’s speaking to her in different key altogether after reading Krogstad’s second letter. Now her mind is made up. She has always been treated by her husband as his property, as his possession, as his doll-wife. She can no longer live in the doll’s house in which she has been living for eight years, obeying every wish and whim of her husband. She has discovered that she is an individual in her own right and that she must find from a first-hand experience of life what is right and what is wrong.
Nora’s decision to leave her husband is certainly heart-breaking for us. It is a painful renunciation on her part. She is leaving not only her home and her husband but also her children. What can be more tragic than a mother finding it necessary to forsake even her children? We feel very sad not only at the thought that Nora is leaving her children but also at the thought that she is going into a strange, unknown world to face an uncertain future. Her ultimate fate is definitely tragic.
Nora, a Modern Tragic Heroine
We now come to the modern quality of this tragedy. Nora grows in stature, and is purged by suffering. In defeat she is victorious. When everything lies in ruins around her, she emerges strong and independent; she is in the process of attaining complete maturity. At the same time, her action at the end, points to a freer and more honest humanity in a healthier society. In this sense she is a modern, tragic heroine, and the play is precisely what it has been called, a modern tragedy.
Use of Modern Prose Style
A Doll’s House is modern also in respect of its technique. Prior to Ibsen, tragedies were always written in verse. Prose was all right for comedy, but tragedy had to be in verse. Now, A Doll’s House is modern in so far as it is written in ordinary everyday prose.
A Doll’s House is modern also because the characters in it belong to the ordinary middle class. Before Ibsen, tragic plays were concerned with the fate of kings and queens or princes and princesses or army generals. But all the five major characters in A Doll’s House belong to the bourgeois class. In other words, Ibsen democratized tragedy.
Use of Modern Technique
Another noteworthy feature of the technique and its modern quality is that Ibsen in this play (and in his other plays as well) employs the analytic and retrospective mode, according to which the decisive events have all taken place long before the action of the play begins on the stage. Those decisive events are then revealed and brought to a head in the course of the play. The decisive event in this case was Nora’s borrowing money and forging a Signature. The whole play revolves round this event which took place in the past and which is revealed slowly, leading to a crisis.
Closely connected with this aspect of the technique is a strict dramatic economy. All the three unities of place, of action, and of time, have been observed. There is certainly a sub-plot, namely the affair between Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, but it takes very small space and does not affect the unity of the action. The action of the play extends over just three days, and that is not too long a period of time. The dramatic action is very concentrated and therefore produces a profound emotional effect. The number of characters also is very small, and each of them is essential for the central action. Four of the main characters serve as foils for the main character who is Nora.
Then, again, in this play for the first time we see extensive use made of what a critic has called “visual suggestion”. By this is meant those visual elements on the stage which acquire a deeper, symbolic meaning in addition to their realistic function. An example is the Christmas tree. Other examples are Nora’s game of hide-and-seek with the children, and the preparations for the fancy-dress ball.
Indeed, in the matter of technique, A Doll’s House marks a turning point in the history of European drama, Naturalness of dialogue and situation; the observance of the unities; the disappearance of artificial devices: the avoidance of a happy ending when such an ending would be unsuitable these are the features of modern technique.
Finally, A Doll’s House is a modern tragedy because a wife who has always led a conventional kind of life in the household takes a revolutionary step. The step taken by her was a trumpet-call to the women of the day to rise and demand their rights. The message of the play makes it modern in the fullest sense of the word.