Leaving the Cult of Womanhood: Nora’s departure from Patriarchal Convention in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”

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The Cult of Domesticity was the invention of late nineteenth-century traditionalists who had become alarmed by the arrival of the “New Woman:” the female who was both financially and intellectually autonomous, and independent from males. As a sort of patriarchal societal back-lash, the Cult of Domesticity was employed and the personality of the “True Woman” was developed to contain the intellectual and physical energy of women to the home, thus, preserving the sacred sphere of public life to men. However, the strict gender roles in Victorian society caused many women to suffer from depression, anxiety, “nervous prostration” and stress—some of the very disorders suffered by Nora, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Throughout Ibsen’s play, Nora is squeezed by the limited confines of the domestic sphere, undergoing a transformation from the nineteenth-century coined “True Woman” to “New Woman.” Galvanized by the pressure of the Cult of Domesticity, Nora emerges a stronger, truer version of herself, unrecognizable to nineteenth-century societal norms. Because Nora’s attitude is no longer congruent to the patriarchal model, she rejects the traditional roles assigned to women and exits the Cult of Domesticity.

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The Cult of Domesticity was a phenomenon of the nineteenth-century which defined the role of middle to upper-class white women in the scheme of patriarchal convention. Because women were barred from the male-oriented public realm, women were confined to the realm of home, and the qualities of “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 115) became their hallmark of womanhood. Essentially, this is the formula for making dolls: figures without a will of their own, but replete with accessories like a Bible and a feather duster. The idea that women existed as mere “dolls” is a theme most famously explored by Henrik Isben in his remarkable play, “A Doll’s House.” Just like the actual women who lived during the nineteenth-century, Ibsen’s heroine, Nora, is limited to the role of “wife”: marriage and motherhood being her proper occupation, and maintaining a household and her virtuous appearance her livelihood. As exemplified in the play, many women suffered under the strain of being stripped of their independence, and were tested by the limits of societal roles—one of the most significant shapers of Victorian societal roles being the law of coverture, which not only constrained and distressed Nora’s character in Ibsen’s play, but thousands of nineteenth-century women.

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Under the laws of coverture, women were subject to the rule of their fathers or husbands, had little to no chance of supporting themselves financially on their own, and were granted practically no legal rights or protections. Throughout the play, Nora’s realization of the injustices of patriarchal society build, until she snaps in the final act and leaves her marriage, her children and her home. In Nora’s final conversation with her husband, Torvold, she sum up her dissatisfaction with the role which was assigned to her by society: “It’s the truth, Torvald. When I lived with Papa, he used to tell me what he thought about everything, so that I never had any opinions but his. And if I did have any of my own, I kept them quiet because he wouldn’t have liked them. He called me his little doll, and he played with me just the way I played with my dolls. Then I came here to live in your house….Now I look back on it, it’s as if I’ve been living here like a pauper, from hand to mouth. I perform tricks for you and you give me food and drink. But that was how you wanted it. You and Papa have done me a great wrong. It’s your fault that I have done nothing with my life.” (3.1.2204-2209).

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The analogy which Nora creates between herself and a doll conjures up strong associations of a nineteenth-century woman’s static, lifeless position as a play-thing for men. This social arrangement between the sexes is an ancient one which finds its roots in the laws of coverture:

“Marriage and property laws, or ‘coverture,’ stipulated that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances. When a husband died, his wife could not be the guardian to their under-age children. Widows did have the right of ‘dower,’ a right to property they brought into the marriage as well as to life usage of one-third of their husbands’ estate. Though a married woman was not able to sue or sign contracts on her own, her husband often did have to obtain her consent before he sold any property his wife had inherited. Apart from such generally applicable laws, many women were in a position of legal dependence as a result of their particular situation, be it youth, poverty, or enslavement ” (Women and the Law)

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The laws of coverture which ruled Nora’s existence are the root of her huge dilemma—a dilemma which essentially drives the narrative of the play. Because Nora needs to secure a loan of money to visit her ailing husband, and she does not want to disturb her dying father, Nora decides to forge her father’s signature on the loan document. Although Nora considers her actions to be heroic, other characters in the play, like Mrs. Linde and Torvald, represent the voice of convention and disapprove of her acting on her own accord. When Nora tries to explain her motives to her friend, Mrs. Linde, there is a degree of disconnect between the two women on what makes rational sense in Nora’s situation:

Mrs. Linde: You couldn’t have borrowed it.

Nora: Oh? Why not?

Mrs. Linde: Well, a wife cannot borrow money without her husband’s consent.

Nora: (tosses her head): Ah, but when a wife has a little business sense, and knows how to be clever—

Mrs. Linde: But Nora, I simply don’t understand—(1.1.350-356)

To Nora, it makes perfect sense that if one needs money, one simply should apply for it—especially when the motive for money is a noble and selfless one. Her reasoning places her on an equal playing field with men, which seems “imprudent” to the more conservative Mrs. Linde. Nora raises a valid argument, simply wondering why—why can she not sign documents to save her husband’s life? And if these rules are so, than they do not make any sense. The idea that the laws of the late nineteenth-century are unfairly, if not arbitrarily written, are illuminated by a brief exchange between Krogstad and Nora:

Krogstad: The law does not concern itself with motives.

Nora: Then the law must be very stupid.

Krogstad: Stupid or not, if I show this paper to the police, you will be judged according to it.

(1.1.792-795)

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  Nora’s challenge to patriarchal convention receives resistance from all who surround her, and, in turn, Nora is made to feel as if she is living in a pressure cooker. Trapped in a world of Victorian social strictures, whose very design was suffocating to women, Nora finds herself bubbling with nervous stress throughout the play as she tries to avoid the consequences of her acting in her own right.  It is ironic that all of her trouble and distress over signing a legal document would have been nonexistent had she been born a century later, in an age where women had obtained legal rights and a great measure of autonomy. However, without the lopsided and prejudiced regulations of patriarchal society, Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” would have no dynamic tension, and the play would have fizzled out, having lost all of its narrative propulsion. The tremendous tension which tugs at the central character of the play, Nora, makes for a great story, but it also points to an injurious truth about patriarchal norms and its effect on women.

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 Ibsen brings to the surface the unnatural state which women must live in during the Victorian era not only by comparing Nora to an inanimate doll, but by placing Nora in a situation which could have easily been avoided had the legal rules of the time not been written and benefitted by men. In effect, Ibsen directs his audience to the question, “Is it Nora or patriarchal rules which are causing all of the trouble in the play?” If one takes the view that it is the manmade rules which are the cause of the dilemma in the play, one must then reject patriarchal convention; therefore, Ibsen was posing some very controversial ideas about social reform in his Victorian age play “A Doll’s House.” However, this question of the legitimacy of patriarchal social norms was not uncommon in Ibsen’s time. I would surmise that the playwright was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s essay, “The Subjection of Women,” which had been translated into Danish in 1869—just a few years before the publication of “A Doll’s House.” “Here, Mill claims that women under the Victorian regime are socialized into artificiality. ‘What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced expressions in some directions, unnatural simulation in others.’” (Langas 151) Ibsen’s allusion to Mill’s claim that women were made to assume an artificial identity is demonstrated in his comparison of Nora to a doll living in a doll’s house. It is clear through the writing of both Mill and Ibsen that the limitations of gender roles in society were a widely discussed topic of interest in the second half of the nineteenth-century.

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But Nora’s struggle against gendered legal rules are just one of the problems which she faces in the play.  Nora demonstrates her displeasure with a life of little accomplishment in her closing statement to her husband, Torvald, claiming, “It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life” (3.1.2218). Nora, like many women of her time, found the role as mother and housekeeper to be limiting to one’s self-development and happiness. If one looks past the doll-like and twittering façade that Nora has created to please her husband, one can certainly see that Nora is an intelligent women. Nora must have felt stifled and bored by a societally assigned identity which prevented her from pursuing an education, a career and engaging in “serious” conversation. The Cult of Domesticity valued submissiveness to husbands, and selflessness towards nurturing children. This prescription for “True Womanhood” was certainly draining to women, and left little room for her to pursue her own interests or take care of herself. “The canon of domesticity, as Cott argues, ‘prescribed women’s appropriate attitude to be selflessness.’ The conventional cliché ‘that women were to live for others was substantially correct, wrote the author of The Women’s Mission, for only by giving up all self-interest did women achieve the purity of motive that enabled them to establish moral reference points in the home….” (Cutter 384)

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 Aside from a woman’s marital obligation of selflessness towards her children, it was a woman’s job to keep her husband happy, above all other responsibilities. This is where the revered virtue of submissiveness came in handy to nineteenth century women; she would forfeit her own inclinations and passions for that of her husband and household. Books, magazines and mothers of the time instilled in a young girl’s mind the importance of accommodating and obedient behavior. “The Young Lady’s Book summarized the necessity of the passive virtues in its reader’s lives: “It is, however, certain, that in whatever situation of life a woman is placed from her cradle to her grave, a spirit of obedience and submission, pliability of temper, and humility of mind, are required from her” (Welter 118). However, an existence of subservience contradicts the natural impulse of human nature: to exercise free will and preserve one’s self. From the very beginning of the play, Nora is exercising the use of her own free will and is finding resistance from the socially conventional around her. For Nora, being submissive is not natural, and so she must assume the character of a doll to survive her experience as a wife and daughter. However, pretending to be something that she is not becomes problematic for Nora as her most authentic self is struggling to rip through the confines of gendered convention.

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The way in which Nora views her actions of obedience and submissiveness to her husband differs from Torvald’s perspective. While Nora finds following her husband’s instructions to be a great sacrifice and gift, on her part, Torvald simply views it as a part of Nora’s job as his wife. The contrast between Nora and Torvald’s understanding of female submissiveness can be found in the following exchange of dialogue between the two characters:

Nora: No, it was Christine; She’s helping me mend my costume. I’m going to look rather splendid in that.

Torvald: Yes, that was quite a bright idea of mine, wasn’t it?

Nora.: Wonderful! But wasn’t it nice of me to give into you?

Torvald: Nice— to give in to your husband? All right, you little silly, I know you didn’t mean it in that way. (2.1.1094-1099).

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Here, Nora indicates that her decision to do as Torvald wishes was a sacrifice of her own free will. Unfortunately, Torvald looks at Nora’s obedience and submission to him as a part of her wifely duty. This notion that it was a woman’s role to deny herself and submit to the prerogative of men was just one of the many aspects of patriarchal convention which was tearing at Nora’s conscience. Because nineteenth-century women’s identity was bound up with self-abnegation, women found little opportunity to replenish their body, mind and spirit—a social position which caused many women to suffer from depression and nervous conditions. Signs of Nora’s own emotional deterioration can be seen throughout the play, as her role as a domestic doll start to wear on her. There are several instances throughout the play in which Nora is torn between her private inner–world of turmoil and her dizzy role as a doll-wife. In the moments before she has to adjust her behavior to play-acting as Nora the doll-wife, one can see Nora’s troubled state. For example, when Nora realizes that Torvald has dismissed Krogstad, and that she is now in danger of Krodstad revealing the truth about her forgery, Nora falls apart into a state of distress:

Nora: (Desperate with anxiety, stands as though transfixed and whispers): He said he’d do it. He will do it. He will do it. He will do it and nothing will stop him. No, never that! Never, never! I’d rather anything. There must be some escape—some way out–! (The doorbell rings.) Doctor Rank! Anything rather than that—anything, I don’t care! (She passes her hand across her face, composes herself, walks across and opens the door to the hall…) (2.1.1212-1216).

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 It is clear that staying in character—as the vacuous housewife who is only concerned with material items—is becoming more and more difficult for Nora to maintain. Nora is a woman of thought and strong free-will, and these characteristics are constantly at odds with her dim-witted alter ego, the doll-wife. The only thing which seems to be keeping Nora together as the doll-wife is her love for her husband and her misconception of her husband’s character. Nora has subscribed to her husband’s illusionary portrait of his brave and supportive character, as she is reminded of his noble traits throughout the play. In act II, Torvald assures Nora, “My dear Nora, I can forgive the anxiety you are in, although it is an insult to me. It is, indeed. Isn’t it an insult to think that I should be afraid of a starving quill driver’s vengeance? But I forgive you nevertheless, because it is such an eloquent witness to your great love for me. And that is as it should be, my own darling Nora. Come what will, you may be sure I will have both courage and strength if they be needed. You will see I am man enough to take everything upon myself….That’s right. Well, we will share it, Nora, as man and wife should. That is how it shall be.” (2.1.1192-1204)

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However, that is certainly not how it would be. By the end of Act III, Torvald has revealed himself as a shallow and cowardly man who is incapable of standing by his wife through troubling times; Torvald even goes so far as to call Nora a hypocrite, a liar and a criminal. It is at this point in the play which Nora’s false perceptions of her husband are shattered, and she realizes that there is nothing keeping her in her truly artificial marriage. The last thread which had held her character together as Nora the doll and Nora the wife and mother had been severed in two by Torvald’s sharp and cutting comments towards Nora’s personality, and his incapability of substantiating his claims to possessing a courageous and selfless character. Finding the depths of her marriage to be completely shallow, Nora decides that there is nothing holding her to the Cult of Domesticity. Furthermore, Nora has been transformed by her experience of anxiety and grief, and understands that in her existence as a wife and mother, she has forgotten about her own desires and needs; she has outgrown her role as a doll-wife, and can no longer accept a life of complete self-denial and submission to her husband. Dissatisfied by the position which patriarchal convention has assigned her, Nora rejects her gender-limited role in society, and informs Torvald that she is leaving him and the children. Not fully understanding that Nora is no longer subscribing to the Cult of Domesticity, Torvald tries to appeal to her logic with social strictures that no longer apply Nora:

Helmer: But this is monstrous! Can you neglect your most sacred duties?

Nora: What do you call my most sacred duties?

Helmer: Do I have to tell you? Your duties toward your husband and your children?

Nora: I have another duty which is equally sacred.

Helmer: You have not. What on earth could that be?

Nora: My duty towards myself. (3.1.2263-2269)

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By calling attention to her own desires and needs, Nora is renouncing her position as a “True Woman” and embracing her role as the “New Woman.” Her departure from the domestic sphere and all of its trappings is a dramatic one, indeed, but necessary in making a statement about the damaging and unnatural design of patriarchy and the Cult of Domesticity. Although women had a long way to go in the struggle for women’s rights during the Victorian Era, works like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” helped to pave the way for a new way of looking at gender roles in society. Nora’s exit from the confines of patriarchal convention may have been a fictionalized one, but through the power of art and literature, Nora’s character created a template for women to follow wherever the play could be read or performed. In the case of Ibsen’s play, real life would eventually emulate his art, and fiction would become fact.

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Cited Works

 

 

 

Cutter, Martha J. “Beyond Stereotypes: Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Radical Critique of Nineteenth-Century Cults of Femininity.” Women’s Studies. Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, S.A. Printed in the United Kingdom, Sept. 1, 1992. 383-395. Web. 2001.

 

Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” Literature and Ourselves, 6th Ed. Henderson, Gloria Mason, Anna Dunlap Higgins, Bill Day, Sandra Stevenson Waller, eds. New York: Pearson Education, 2009. 367-423. Print.

 

Langas, Unni. “What Did Nora Do? Thinking Gender with ‘A Doll’s House.’” Ibsen Studies: December, 1 2005. 145-166. Print.

 

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” Major Problems in American Women’s History, 2nd Ed. Norton, Mary Beth and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996. 115-122. Print.

 

“Women and the Law.” Women, Enterprise and Society. Harvard Business School Online. President and Fellows of Harvard College: 2010.  

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