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I have read Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House. What mostly moved me is its ending!

Though it was not something possible in that period and led to debates and controversies, I feel like there was no way to save the happiness of the marriage or Nora. As emotional health is the most important matter to function soundly for a women in marriage it wasn't possible for Nora to strive for the love she wanted after discovering the truth. Torvald's love created the fake conjugal happiness -- symbolically the doll's house.

But after finishing the play I'm continuously thinking couldn't it be possible to fix it? A few male friends of mine sided with Torvald and argued that Nora was the person who did wrong and Torvald was just a victim. Is there really anything on the play to back them up? I'm more astonished how men and women view things differently still now!

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  • 1
    This question does not need to be closed as opinion-based. It ought to be possible to make arguments for or against the morality of the ending using evidence from the play, as the question suggests. Jan 15 at 16:13
  • But isn't all the evidence supports Nora only?
    – Dia
    Jan 16 at 8:49

1 Answer 1

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tl;dr

Yes.

Deets: 1. Introduction

You're actually asking two different questions about A Doll's House:

  • Is the ending satisfactory?
  • Is the ending moral?

The two are not the same. A play might have a satisfactory ending without its being moral, and vice-versa. Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, for example, ends with Lovewit benefiting from the malefactions of his servant, Jeremy. Jeremy has been running a series of confidence tricks from Lovewit's house and is about to be exposed. Returning home unexpectedly after a long absence, Lovewit rapidly realizes what is going on. Very amused by the situation, he shields Jeremy in exchange for the proceeds Jeremy has obtained from his victims. A moral ending would have had Jeremy punished, but dramatically, Jonson's ending is as close to perfect as might be wished. Conversely, the ending of Nahum Tate's rewrite of King Lear with Cordelia marrying Edgar and Lear regaining his throne, might be more moral than Shakespeare's own, but is generally considered unsatisfactory because it dilutes the tragic force of the original.

In the case of A Doll's House, however, these two questions have been conflated since the play was first performed. Audiences who regarded Nora's leaving her doll's house as moral are likely to find the ending effective, and those who condemn her departure on moral grounds likewise condemn the ending as unsatisfactory. Based at least on the reaction of a "few male friends" of yours, this continues to be the case. However, critical and popular opinion agrees with your stance that "it wasn't possible for Nora to strive for the love she wanted after discovering the truth."

George Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism, first published in 1905 and expanded in 1913, tackled both the morality and the satisfactoriness of the ending of this play. Like you, Shaw argued that Nora's leaving Torvald was the only possible ending for the play both morally and dramatically. The rest of this answer largely summarizes Shaw's arguments in defense of Ibsen in general and A Doll's House in particular.

2. Is the ending moral?

Shaw opens his monograph by distinguishing between two kinds of pioneers:

The second, whose eyes are in the back of his head, is the man who declares that it is wrong to do something that no one has hitherto seen any harm in.

The first, whose eyes are very longsighted and in the usual place, is the man who declares that it is right to do something hitherto regarded as infamous.

The second is treated with great respect by the army. They give him testimonials; name him the Good Man; and hate him like the devil.

The first is stoned and shrieked at by the whole army. They call him all manner of opprobrious names; grudge him his bare bread and water; and secretly adore him as their savior from utter despair.

Shaw, p. 107

Shaw sees Ibsen as the first kind of pioneer, who declares that something ordinarily seen as immoral is in actuality moral. The example he gives is Ghosts. He cites Clement Scott, drama critic of the Daily Telegraph, who characterized the play as "bestial, cynical, disgusting, poisonous, sickly, delirious, indecent, loathsome, fetid, literary carrion, crapulous stuff" (p. 109). Shaw says to explain why this judgment is wrong, it is necessary to recognize that Scott understood the play correctly:

Clement Scott's judgment did not mislead him in the least as to Ibsen's meaning. Ibsen means all that most revolted his critic. For example, in Ghosts, the play in question, a clergyman and a married woman fall in love with one another. The woman proposes to abandon her husband and live with the clergyman. He recalls her to her duty, and makes her behave as a virtuous woman. She afterwards tells him that this was a crime on his part. Ibsen agrees with her, and has written the play to bring you round to his opinion. Clement Scott did not agree with her, and believed that you are brought round to her opinion you have been morally corrupted. By this conviction he was impelled to denounce Ibsen as he did, Ibsen being equally impelled to propagate the convictions which provoked the attack. Which of the two is right cannot be decided until it is ascertained whether a society of persons holding Ibsen's opinions would be higher or lower than a society holding Clement Scott's.

ibid., p. 110

Conventional morality would recoil from a wife's leaving her husband, as Helene Alving contemplates doing in Ghosts and Nora actually does in A Doll's House. Shaw, however, says that overturning traditional ideas is the role of a pioneer, and is necessary for social progress. The charge of immorality directed at Ibsen shows him to be no less a pioneer than Martin Luther or Mary Wollstonecraft, who faced similar calumny in their times but are now regarded as great reformers:

The point to seize is that social progress takes effect through the replacement of old institutions by new ones: and since every institution involves the recognition of the duty of conforming to it, progress must involve the repudiation of an established duty at every step. If the Englishman had not repudiated the duty of absolute obedience to his king, his political progress would have been impossible. If women had not repudiated the duty of absolute submission to their husbands, and defied public opinion as to the limits set by modesty to their education, they would never have gained the protection of the Married Women's Property Act, the municipal vote, or the power to qualify themselves as medical practitioners. If Luther had not trampled on his duty to the head of his Church and on his vow of chastity, our clergy would still have to choose between celibacy and profligacy. There is nothing new, then, in the defiance of duty by the reformer: every step of progress means a duty repudiated, and a scripture torn up. And every reformer is denounced accordingly: Luther as an apostate, Cromwell as a traitor, Mary Wollstencraft as an unwomanly virago, Shelley as a libertine, and Ibsen as all the things enumerated in The Daily Telegraph.

ibid., p. 110–111

A Doll's House exemplifies this overturning of conventional morality in service of greater values. Shaw says that over the course of the play, Nora is stripped of "all her illusions about herself" (p. 152). She had thought of herself as a good wife and mother, devoted to her husband and children, and loved by them in turn. But Krogstad threatens to expose her as a criminal; Torvald says that criminals become so because they are raised by unfit mothers; and he reacts with accusatory rage rather than sympathy when Nora reveals her crime to him. These actions cause Nora to re-evaluate her entire self:

she sees that their whole family life has been a fiction: their home a mere doll's house in which they have been playing at ideal husband and father, wife and mother. So she leaves him then and there and goes out into the real world to find out its reality for herself, and to gain some position not fundamentally false, refusing to see her children again until she is fit to be in charge of them, or to live with them until she and he become capable of a more honorable relation to one another.

ibid.

Shaw argues that for Nora to stay with Torvald and the children would be dishonorable. In order for them to lead a life of integrity, it is necessary for each to come to terms with what has happened, and to achieve a measure of self-understanding. But as long as Nora continues to occupy the traditional role of a wife and mother, such self-understanding is impossible for either of them. The only available moral step is the one Nora takes: to break away from Torvald and her children in an attempt to achieve "some position not fundamentally false." This is of course a radical break from conventional understandings of the duty of a wife and mother, but for Shaw (and Ibsen), that is the point.

3. Is the ending satisfactory?

The ending of A Doll's House is therefore moral, not in the conventional sense, but in a prophetic one. Ibsen sees past social norms to posit a new way of being. How about its æsthetic impact? Is the ending satisfactory? As noted in the answer to an earlier question, Shaw pointed out that when the play was first performed in England, it was given a more conventional ending. Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman's Breaking a Butterfly (1884) had Humphrey (the Torvald character) reacting as Flossie (the Nora character) expects: taking the blame for the forgery himself, and then saved by an absurd contrivance, so that the play ends conventionally happily:

HUM. (going to his writing-table, where the candle is still burning, and holding the [forged promissory] note over the flame): Nothing has happened, except that Flossie was a child yesterday: today she is a woman.

Jones and Herman, p. 76

As Shaw notes, this adaptation sank without a trace:

Up to a certain point in the last act, A Doll's House is a play that might be turned into a very ordinary French drama by the excision of a few lines, and the substitution of a sentimental happy ending for the famous last scene: indeed the very first thing the theatrical wiseacres did with it was to effect exactly this transformation, with the result that the play thus pithed had no success and attracted no notice worth mentioning.

Shaw, pp. 212–213

A similarly conventional ending was tacked on to the initial German performances of the play as well, wherein Nora and Torvald are not reconciled, but she chooses to remain home for the sake of her children (Carbone, p. 113). Yet this alternative ending proved equally unsatisfactory and is no longer performed except as a historical curiosity. Ibsen's original ending, with Nora leaving Torvald and their children, has had the most enduring power.

4. Conclusion

As both Shaw's analysis and the performance history of the play demonstrate, the ending of A Doll's House can be regarded as both moral and satisfactory. If your male friends disagree, it suggests that they are still living by rather antiquated views of the relationship between men and women, and of a woman's role in society. If they are adamant that the entire blame for the failure of the relationship is Nora's, perhaps you might want to consider finding other friends?

References

  • Carbone, Elettra. “Nora: The Life and Afterlife of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.” Introduction to Nordic Cultures, edited by Annika Lindskog and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen. London: UCL Press, 2020, pp. 102–16. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv13xprms.13. Accessed 20 January 2024.
  • Jones, Henry A., and Henry Herman. Breaking a Butterfly: A Play in Three Acts. Printed for private use only, 1884. Accessed at the Hathi Trust 20 January 2024.
  • Shaw, George Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 1891, rev. 1913, 1922. Shaw and Ibsen: Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism and Related Writings. Ed. and intro. J. L. Wisenthal. Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1979, pp. 97–237. Accessed on archive.org 20 January 2024

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