Ibsen’s implementation of female sacrifices in A Doll’s House brings to light the prominence of prescribed gender roles during nineteenth-century Norwegian society. Female sacrifices are one of the many ways that Ibsen conveys the realistic situations that women were facing during that time, such as gender discrimination, which were mainly supportive of men disallowing women basic rights. The distressing aspects of gender role distinction and how they came about are presented through these female sacrifices; personal opinions and desires, materialistic comforts, honour and dignity, and most importantly, identity and autonomy.
The first instance of female sacrifice is seen in Act 1 through the interaction between Torvald and Nora, where Nora sacrifices her opinions and desires to satisfy her husband. Nora puts on a submissive façade, whose characteristics are similar to a child. This is a result of the distinct gender roles where women are moulded to be submissive beings. Ibsen displays this through Torvald’s act of prohibiting Nora from eating certain foods such as macaroons, to which Nora responds, ‘I shouldn’t think of doing what you disapprove of’ (Ibsen, 8). Torvald frequently rebukes Nora and oversees her expenditures, shown through the line ‘Bought… all that? Has my little spendthrift been making the money fly again?’ (3). Ibsen uses this metaphor to profess Torvald’s ideals, in which he can only trust himself to manage his finance and that Nora just precariously spends it. This gives the audience the idea that women are incapable of being entrusted with important tasks. Ibsen uses explicitly the possessive pronoun ‘my’ and attributive noun ‘spendthrift’ in conjunction with each other to strengthen the distinction that Torvald is in control and that Nora is merely the possession of his. Torvald often belittles Nora, shown through pet names such as ‘little rogue’ (5), ‘sweet little lark’ and ‘little bird’ (6). Ibsen has used repetition of the diminutive diction ‘little’ to emphasize the father-daughter relationship and show the authoritative power gradients between the two genders. To illustrate the submissive and childlike façade of Nora, Torvald comments ‘A song-bird must never sing false notes’ (44). The utilization of metaphor in this phrase is used by Torvald as a subtle warning to Nora not to disobey him, this outlines the societal norm that the wife is to never do what the husband does not instruct. Ibsen uses the literary technique of symbolism to show the psychological state of Nora. The tarantella dance is symbolic as it reflects the way Nora carries herself; a bright and cheerful façade, while internally, she is afraid as to what her future holds. The poison imagery from the tarantella represents the secrets that Nora needs to reveal to Torvald, and shows her last attempt at saving the relationship ironically observed by Torvald in his response, ‘You’re dancing as if it were a matter of life and death’ (82). Therefore, the tarantella symbolizes Nora’s transformation out of the role of the submissive wife, which breaks many societal norms in nineteenth-century Norway.
Ibsen illustrates the sacrifice of Nora’s materialistic comforts to compensate for the loan that she covertly borrows from Krogstad. This sacrifice brings to light the female role where women are viewed as financially dependent beings. Ibsen implements this through Nora’s revelation of her precarious actions displayed between Nora and Mrs Linde’s dialogue. Nora had to make personal sacrifices such as reserving a portion of her allowance to reimburse Krogstad, ‘I never used more than half of it; I always bought the simplest things’ and ‘all I got for them, I spent on them’ (22). Ibsen uses adverbials such as ‘never’ and ‘always’ in conjunction with the personal pronoun ‘I’ to emphasize Nora’s daily situation, in which she must sacrifice many luxuries such as buying clothes in order to repay the loan. This gives the idea that women in nineteenth-century Norway were to prioritize their family before themselves. Ibsen emphasizes the financial imbalance women were given in society through the dialogue where Mrs Linde comments, ‘Why, a wife can’t borrow without her husband’s consent’ (19). This shows that women were not given much information about the outside world and that it was stereotypical for the husband to be the provider, while the wife takes care of household chores. Forbye, it was inevitable for Nora to make personal sacrifices to repay the loan she procured as she said, ‘It would utterly upset the relation between us; our beautiful, happy home would never again be what it is’ (21). The use of foreshadowing illustrates Nora’s innocence to the situation as she could not foresee the consequences of her actions. This gives the idea that women were oblivious to the events happening outside of their home, due to the restrictive laws put in place.
The concept where masculinity outweighs femininity is notably prominent in Nora’s case, where the sacrifice of her honour and dignity contrasts with Torvald’s to do the same. This brings to light the idea of sacrifice versus the reality of it. Nora’s action of sacrificing everything she has for love, in contrast with Torvald’s idealism of it versus his practical nature is shown through a conversation between them. Torvald comments ‘But no man sacrifices his honour, even for one he loves’ and Nora replies ‘Millions of women have done so’ (120). The hyperbole highlights the fact that Torvald is not prepared to make the sacrifice for love even though he admits he does, while Nora does because it is in her nature. The plural noun ‘women’ is used as a literary technique to display Nora as a representation of women in society. Ibsen’s purpose behind this dialogue is to depict the idea that women were expected in their nature to sacrifice everything for their family. Nora’s gesture of forging the signature underpins the act of sacrifice of her honour. However, Torvald becomes furious with Nora using denouncing names seen in the line, ‘a hypocrite, a liar, worse a criminal’ (107). The tricolon represents Torvald’s priorities, where he puts his career and reputation over Nora. The dramatic irony shows that while calling Nora ‘a hypocrite’, he is describing his hypocritical actions when he professes, he would give up everything for love, seen through Nora’s speech ‘You have never loved me! You only thought it amusing to be in love with me’ (113). Ibsen uses Torvald’s hypocrisy to show that in nineteenth-century Norway, men had careers, societal status, and were the breadwinner of the household. This meant that women were dependent on their husband for societal status, which further emphasizes the limited rights women had.
As the play progresses, Nora becomes aware of a vital element she has sacrificed due to the suppression of various men throughout her life. The sacrifice of her identity and autonomy. Ibsen uses doll imagery in the title A Doll’s House as a symbol representing Nora’s role in this play as Torvald is always controlling her. Nora realizes that she has been an object for men with the duty to enthral them, and her thoughts and opinions were sacrificed in place of her father and husband, causing her to lose her identity. She reminds Torvald through a dramatic dialogue, ‘I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald’, ‘Our house has been nothing but a playroom’ (114). The past tense applications such as ‘lived’ and ‘has been’ represent Nora’s developed maturity, especially the rejection of her past reflecting her present. This shows that women were encaged to their homes and did not have the opportunity to express themselves. Furthermore, Nora uses the phrases; ‘I have other duties equally sacred’, ‘My duties towards myself’ (116-117). The possessive pronoun ‘my’ in conjunction with the personal noun ‘myself’ is now used by Nora as it represents that she is in full control of her life. Towards the ending of the play, Nora uses very firm diction, ‘I must stand quite alone to know myself…’ (115), ‘I must think things out for myself…’ (117), ‘I must make up my mind which is right – society or I’ (118). The repetition of the modal verb ‘must’ in conjunction with the personal noun ‘myself’ is used to portray Nora’s thinking process to the audience, in which she continuously reassures herself that she is making the right decision to leave everything behind. Ibsen uses this to profess his humanist ideals, where humans should be treated equally disregarding gender.
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Ibsen’s purpose of using Nora’s sacrifices is to illustrate that an imbalance in gender roles between men and women can cause detrimental effects. On a personal level, it can ruin relationships as seen in Nora and Torvald’s marriage, and from a societal perspective, it can lead to financial issues and social discrimination. It was important for Ibsen to talk about female sacrifice in A Doll’s House as he is a humanist who supports equal rights for all humans. Furthermore, Ibsen saw the damaging effects that come from gender role imbalances. This play helped deepen my thinking by teaching me that there are many things in life that get sacrificed which do not get noticed enough.