Analyzing A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Play: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Setting: Norway 1879

Themes: Familial roles, women’s rights/feminism, patriarchal societies.

Narrative Structure: (conflict, crisis, and resolution)

Conflict: Act One: Conflict 1: Nora owes money but her husband does not know about it. Conflict 2: Nora arranges to get Mrs. Linde a position at her husband’s bank, but it creates a crisis with Krogstad as he will then lose his position.  Krogstad threatens to blackmail Nora that he will tell Helmer about the loan if she does not use her influence to help him keep his job.  Conflict 3: The husband tells Nora that lies in a family poisons the children which frightens her of him finding out the truth.

Crisis: Act II:  The loan is revealed to Mrs. Linde.  Helmer is about to check his mail where the letter sits from Krogstad, but Nora convinces him to help her practice the Tarantella. She stops him from reading it which creates tension for the audience.

Resolution: Act III: Helmer finds out about the loan which leads Nora to realize she wants her freedom from Torvald because he does not love her but loves the perfect family she represents for him in the community.

Dramatic Structure: Freytag’s pyramid

Ibsen’s writing style shows he used the dramatic structure of the Freytag Pyramid. While Freytag’s system used five acts, Ibsen used three acts each having three scenes that he used the five methods throughout the scenes.  Act I revealed a perfect family, Act II revealed the deception, and Act III revealed a controversial resolution that not many in 1879 could have imagined.  Not only did he follow the structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, he used each scene to develop a controversial ideology that women should leave their husbands if they found themselves in Nora’s position.  Bisson and Paiva writes,“In 1863, Freytag defined the Freytag Pyramid and stated that drama (based on what he had studied) in general followed the same pattern of development along a variable that he called tension (Bisson and Paiva).  Ibsen divides these five elements over three Acts to which the crisis, conflict, and resolution can be found. By analyzing the Freytag Pyramid, one can follow the structured storyline of Ibsen to show his use of the five methods he used to create his conflict, crisis, and resolution.


The exposition is defined in Are we Telling the Same Story? as, “…the information about the environment, the characters, and their relations” (Bisson and Paiva 11).  As an example, Ibsen has taken great care to list the characters not as they appear in the play but how society would define their importance in the home.  Torvald (who is mostly referred to in the play as Helmer even though Nora is referred to by first name indicates a lack of respect for her), is listed first even though Nora is the main character and protagonist. The audience will hear the narrator say, “The action takes place in Helmer’s home” (Ibsen).  It seems to be a strategy by Ibsen to plant the seed for the audience to question Nora’s role in the marriage as well as the family.  It helps to foreshadow at the very least the themes of patriarchal family roles.  It might be of interest to note that while the themes of sexism and feminism are present to today’s audience, neither were terms known to the Norwegian society in 1879. But, protests for women’s rights began well before Ibsen’s play as evidence documents, “Even earlier laws were those of Norway in the 1840s and 50s which equalised inheritance and gave women the freedom to go into business (1864)” (Helsinki University Library). At the very least, the audience will see how Nora is treated in the dialogue as a representation of the familial roles they practiced as a society. The narrator also sets the scene before the opening of Act 1 with “A room furnished comfortably and tastefully, but not extravagantly” (Ibsen).  The narrative voice goes on to speak of the layout of the home (stage), says that it is winter, and he brings attention to the porter and maid (all caps in the script) (Ibsen). The direction by the narrator to the maid and porter also foreshadows that finances will be a theme since Ibsen has taken great care to bring attention to the scene set mainly in the home, the mood between Nora and Helmer, and the ability to afford servants.  Just within the opening of Act 1, the narrator has given considerable descriptive information that incorporates the use of exposition in Ibsen’s play.  It is the beginning of the dialogue in Act I that provides the best examples of character development found in the play. To understand the coming conflict, one must first understand the dynamics between husband and wife which Ibsen masters with the use of literary conventions and well-thought-out word choice.

Nora enters the stage with the porter carrying her purchases, and when he tells her the price for his services, she not only pays him but tips him generously (Act I).  She also tells her maid to hide the Christmas tree the porter brought until it is dressed so the children do not see it bare (Act I).  These are examples of literary devices used by Ibsen to foreshadow that Nora is much like the tree in that she is hiding a secret, too. Also, Ibsen uses the macaroons to foreshadow Nora’s hidden independence as she hides them from her husband as he does not approve of her eating them. It is also within the first act that Ibsen defines the marital roles between Helmer and Nora.  Her husband says, “Is that my little lark twittering out there?” (Ibsen Act1). He also refers to her as his ‘little squirrel’ and ‘spend thrift’ that seems to characterize her as a weak woman who role is to serve him and his home. But, when he speaks of dying, she puts her hand over his mouth as if to say she could not live without him.  It is also where Ibsen characterizes Helmer as a man who is tight with his money and thinks Nora is too dumb to understand the value of it.  He says to Nora, “The same little featherhead!” (Ibsen Act 1). He also gives her a few dollars which seems to suggest to the audience that he feels he controls her with his money.  Nora’s character seems to define society’s vision for women’s roles when she says, “Look, here is a new suit for Ivar, and a sword; and a horse and trumpet for Bob; and a doll and dolly;s bedstead for Emmy” (Ibsen Act I). The boys receive manly gifts, butt Emmy gets a doll suggesting she is being conditioned by her own mother to become a wife and mother as well. The use of the literary conventions to foreshadow, and the use of character development both help to set the stage for rising action that leads to the conflict between the husband and wife.

Ibsen breaks from Freytag’s theory just a bit in that he puts the rising action also in Act one. The rising action is defined as, “the reaction to some negative events that are preventing the protagonist from reaching his or her goals” (Bisson and Paiva 11).  The rising action seems to start when Nora has a conversation with Mrs Linde as she speaks of their financial situations in less happier times.  Nora says of being asked about having to work, “Yes; odds and ends, needlework, crochet-work, embroidery, and that kind of thing” (Ibsen Act 1). It is during this part of the Act one that the mood shifts from happy to gloomy as the audience sees a woman different than what has been portrayed as she speaks of Torvald’s illness that affected his ability to work early on in their marriage.  The audience can also feel a sense of what it was like for women like Mrs. Linde whose husbands died and left wives with nothing (as per the law to property and business rights discussed on page three). Mrs. Linde says to Nora, “No, a wife cannot borrow without her husband’s consent” (Ibsen Act 1). This supports the idea of a rising action taking place between Nora and Mrs. Linde about the loan is leading the audience to a negative realization. Mrs. Linde, who seems to have followed societies rules about wives (with some judgement toward Nora not following them, said, “And since then have you never told your secret to your husband” (Ibsen Act 1).  Ibsen then uses the dialogue between Nora and Mrs. Linde to tell how she deceived her husband by getting the loan; but it also shows how she used hard work and sacrifice to pay back the loan over the years.  However, the rising action continues when Krogstad enters as the narrator informs the audience that Nora trembles in fear of him.  As they speak in dialogue, he says to her, “Hmm!—suppose I were to tell him?” (Ibsen Act 1).  This threat frightens Nora into trying to help him.  However, Act I closes with Helmer saying, “Because such an atmosphere of lies infects and poisons the whole life of a home.  Each breath the children take in such a house is full of the germs of evil” (Ibsen). The act closes with Nora thinking about the impending conflict if her husband finds them out.

Act two begins with the narrator once again setting the scene and mood for the audience by describing, “The Christmas Tree is in the corner by the piano, stripped of its ornaments and with burnt-down candle-ends on its disheveled branches” (Ibsen). Not only does the narrator show that time has passed, the mention of stripped ornaments and burnt-down-candle-ends show a sense of the upcoming crisis looming as if to say the Christmas tree is no longer pretty, and Nora’s secret will be revealed. It also foreshadows the mood will be dark as opposed to the narrative given in the exposition before Act One. Nora’s language also shows she is fearful of the blackmail attempt, and she knows that her husband believes that regardless of what happened, she will shoulder the blame for it all and lose her children.  Act II also brings about the crisis and climax which reveals to Mrs. Linde that Krogstad is the person who loaned Nora the money. This is also where Ibsen creates tension as Helmer is heading to check the mail, but she feigns the need of his services which brings about a moment if his treating her in another condescending way where he must teach her everything if she is to do anything right in his eyes.  He says to Nora, “You have forgotten everything I have taught you” (Ibsen Act II). She then takes advantage of the moment by replying, “Yes, you see how much I need it. You must coach me up to the last minute.  Promise me Torvald!” (Ibsen Act II).  This interaction shows he has no respect for her, and he believes she can do no right without his intervention.  But, it also shows she is using her womanly charm to convince him that she needs him which keeps him away from the mailbox.  The scene seems to be a the culmination of the first two acts to fully inform the audience of the letter, the loan, the law about wives needing permission (which she did not have), and Helmer’s beliefs about weak women that has led to Nora’s last attempt to keep the loan a secret. The tension-building-technique Ibsen has used seems to fall right in line with the conflict reaching a pivotal point. The moment the conflict is revealed is when Helmer receives the letter about the loan. The climax is defined as, “…a turning point, usually leading to a positive solution” (Bisson and Paiva 11).  When Helmer reads the letter, he says to Nora, ”Miserable creature-what have you done? What a horrible awakening! All these eight years-she who was my joy and pride-a hypocrite, a liar-worse-a criminal” (Ibsen Act III). But, it is the change in Nora that represents the falling action. The falling action, “brings everything back to normal” (Bisson and Paiva 11).  The narrator adds descriptive language like [coldly and quietly] to show her mood change from desperate to cool and detached as she realizes that he did not love her but the idea of a perfect her there to serve him.  He says, “The matter must be hushed up at any cost. You will still remain in my house, that is a matter of course.  But, I will not allow you to bring up the children” (Ibsen Act III). After Nora receives a letter from Krogstad with her bond, Helmer has an immediate change of heart as he believes he will no longer be affected.  He can keep his play-toy, and no one will know about the loan which he sees as an issue only to himself. Never does he take into consideration the reason she did it or how it helped their family.  She just brought him shame he notes, but it seems by Ibsen’s characterization of him that he might also feel that he was no longer in control of his wife.  This leads to the final part of Freytag’s theory in that the denoument will bring an end to the story. The denouement is defined as, “…the conclusion of the story” (Bisson and Paiva 11).  Nora speaks to him of her desire for independence to which he can not understand until she leaves and he says, “Empty.  She is gone. The most wonderful thing of all” (Ibsen Act III).  This should lead the audience to appreciate things/people while they are there before you lose them.  However, in 1879, I imagine men and women in the audience would have felt a sense of outrage that a man dared to suggest a woman leave her husband and children as it was just not done during that period.



Works Cited

Brisson, António, and Ana Paiva. “Are we Telling the Same Story?.” group 11 (2007): 12.

Helsinki University Library, Women’s Politics: The Feminist Movement, (n.d.). retrieved on Feb 11, 2017, from http://www.helsinki.fi/science/xantippa/wee/weetext/wee214.html

Ibsen, Henrik, A Doll’s House, The Project Gutenberg, ebook, 2008, retrieved on Feb 10, 2016, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2542/2542-h/2542-h.htm


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