Women have been oppressed in many ways since the beginning of civilization. Men have argued that, biologically, women are inferior to men whose only purposes are to produce offspring, given their smaller brains and wider hips. Women are oppressed in the work force, where they are forced to do a majority of the manual labor for little to no pay. Even at home, women are expected to stay and both clean the house and take care of the children. In Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, the oppression of women is explored in detail through the main character Nora Helmer, who is heavily oppressed by the men in her life.
Nora is a definitive example of the role any common female was expected to play, that of the loyal daughter or the doting and obedient wife, during the Victorian era. Acting as a foil, however, is Nora’s friend Kristine Linde, who has been forced to fend for herself and find herself as a self aware and resourceful woman. By comparing the two, Ibsen successfully displays how counterintuitive oppression can be to any woman, in this case Nora under both her husband Torvald and her father, against how liberating freedom is and what a women is entitled to be, strong willed, independent, and, most importantly, equal, shown through Kristine Linde.
Given their different situations, Nora and Kristine foil each other and display to the audience two different types of women at the time. When the play begins, Nora is the doting wife to Torvald, who bosses her around and berates her by referring to her as “his little singing bird”. Although the nickname may seem meaningless to Nora, it is actually empowering to Torvald. By enabling Torvald to call her that, Nora once again perpetuates the gender roles society has placed on the two of them: Torvald is the dominant male whereas Nora is the subservient female.
This specific example is also a metaphor. Although Nora thinks it is a cutesy nickname, it actually refers to her being Torvald’s caged bird, a bird he owns that serves the purpose to entertain him. Although their marriage is loveless, Nora naively stays with Torvald out of a twisted and ultimately false perception that the two of them are in love while it is clear that the marriage is loveless. It is obvious that Torvald dominates Nora in every sense of the word, while Nora stands idly by and does nothing about it. Kristine, on the other hand, is a completely different woman.
She was married to a man who was able to provide for her, but he ends up dying. When he dies, however, he leaves Kristine with very little money. Societal standards dictate that she should fine another man to help provide for her, while she helps take care of him, his house, and possibly any children. Instead, she decides to fend for herself. The harsh reality Kristine is forced to live enables her to become a hardened and self sufficient woman, which starkly contrasts to Nora’s childlike, self-centered, and insensitive character.
This contrasts against Kristine’s newfound independent nature, which conveys how oppressed women of the time truly are. Nora and Kristine’s behavior and how they are treated are dissimilar as well, which leads to the development of their personalities. Nora’s whole life she has been treated as a doll, a plaything for the men in her life, something that is easily manipulated and bent to their will. Nora is not aware of the harsh realities that exist for women in society, which is clearly evident in her first conversation with Kristine.
As Kristine describes how hard life has been, Nora naively comments on how she seems to have declined over the years and appears to be poor, not aware of how hard it is for a woman in their society to find a stable job to provide for themselves. Nora’s sheltered life also makes her self-centered. Although Nora purports to be interested in Kristine’s problems, she clearly shows detachment and disinterest in them. On top of that, Nora selfishly turns the conversation back to her and Torvald, and complains to Kristine, despite the fact that she has had a much better life than Kristine has.
Due to society’s constraints on her, Nora is disabled from learning about anything that does not serve the purpose to serve and or entertain her husband or her children. She is so wound up in her own world that she realizes that she never wrote to Kristine, her old friend, when her husband died three years prior. It is only now, three years after the fact, that Nora expresses her sympathy; up to this point, she has made no effort to think beyond herself, and the fact that she does so now seems only a matter of polite reflex.
Like an impetuous child, Nora does not filter her thoughts, expressing what comes to mind without regard for what is and what is not appropriate, as when she tactlessly comments that Kristine’s looks have declined over the years. Her childlike naivety is also displayed when Kristine talks about how little money she was left. Instead of consoling her friend, or perhaps even generously offering her money to help her old friend, Nora instead brags about how she and her husband have money, and will have “pots and pots of money”.
Kristine, on the other hand, is all too aware of reality. As someone who has experienced an existence that is anything but doll-like, Mrs. Linde seems poised to provide for herself and any family she has. Mrs. Linde recounts hardship after hardship and sacrifice after sacrifice, a far cry from the pampering that Nora receives from Torvald. The different circumstances the two women have been placed in has shaped them into two different people kinds of women: the subservient housewife and the independent single woman.
Ibsen successfully creates two different women in Nora and Kristine. Through oppression, Nora is naive, childlike, and self-centered, all somewhat undesirable traits. Free to do as she pleases, Kristine is honest, hardworking, independent, and admittedly selfish, but she is able to provide for herself, something that cannot be said about Nora. Ibsen displays that oppressing women does in fact have adverse effects on their psych. He obviously believes that men and women are equal, but women must be given the opportunity to display this.