Societies and the culture they create binds them as well as their narrative texts, which influence each other in an endless cycle. These narratives not only reflect values and attitudes accepted by different societies, but some reinforce them and in ways that just aim to entertain whereas others delve deeper, exposing the flaws of the system. These are frequently the subject of and cause controversy. Ibsen’s realist play, A Doll’s House can be read as a social critique that portrays the patriarchal and materialist values and attitudes of the 19th century bourgeoisie as forcing a culture of people who exist within a world of meaningless façades through its use of realism and the representations created by its characters. Ibsen employs the use of language and symbolism within the plot and props to convey this critique. A Doll’s House is about not only the breakdown of one family, but also, the breakdown of societal expectations.
In A Doll’s House, Ibsen uses his characters to reflect patriarchal society and the separation of the masculine and feminine spheres, which were prevalent concepts amongst the 19th century middle class. This is achieved through the play showing the separation between the domestic and business worlds. From Act One, when Torvald is shown as a disembodied voice from his study, to the end of the play, where he picks up his papers, retreats back into the study and shuts the door, it is clear that Torvald is more a part of the business world than his own home. Nora can only listen in at the door of his study, and the letterbox and papers are all forbidden from her. The repeated door shutting in the play shows how Nora is shut out of the business sphere, and her domain is instead domestic, more trivial matters, shown by her flurrying about and preparing the house for Christmas. The audience is confronted by the way the detail of the set design reflects the domestic lives of ordinary people, as they are witnesses to a tragic social break down. This realism helps portray the patriarchal values and the separation of male and female roles in a harsh light, unlike the typical well-made plays of the time. These plays had a formulaic nature to their stories, and social order was only disrupted momentarily, and resolved at the end. However in A Doll’s House, the unexpected occurs when Nora decides to leave her home, saying “I have another duty equally sacred… my duty to myself.” The ending thus questioned the societal norms of women’s role being primarily as a mother and a wife, and not really an individual in their own right. People as a whole had not really begun to question this norm, which is why the ending of the play was the cause of so much controversy, ultimately pressuring Ibsen into writing a more acceptable alternative ending for . The breakdown of the fourth wall and the domestic setting normalize the ideas of male dominance being represented and make the audience feel like they are witnessing the disintegration of the domestic sphere rather than just entertaining them and propagating the same values present in society.
The patriarchal attitudes that Ibsen aimed to critique were shown predominantly through the construction of Nora as a doll. These attitudes were the idea that males held the power within society and within the home, and women should be submissive to their wants and needs and live mainly to please their desires. The language used in this play is mostly simple and conversational, meaning that much of the symbolism and meaning can be seen in its props and its plotline. The play’s protoganist, Nora, is constructed as a doll in her own home, which idea of male dominance prevalent in society at the time, with women expected to be a nurturing and caring daughter and then wife, and men meant to be wealthy and powerful. Ibsen constructs her as vain and