It’s been a long time since I read A Doll House – probably my first year of college, when I was exposed to it in a literature course. Even then, I was surprised by how modern the play felt – despite being over a century old when I read it, the language felt fresher and more accessible than I expected, and the themes surprisingly relevant and timely. Over the years, though, my memories of the play faded, and all I remembered were broad impressions: accessible, interesting, surprisingly feminist for its time…and that’s probably about it. So, as I reread A Doll House in preparation to start teaching it, I went in looking for a subtle critique of women’s place in society…and found myself completely floored by how NOT subtle the play became.
A Doll House is, as a realist drama, a fairly simple piece of storytelling. A young wife named Nora has taken out a loan without her husband’s knowledge in order to save his life; now, another man is threatening to expose her misdeeds in an effort to keep his job. That’s about the whole story, from a plot level; everything else from that point on is about the emotional reactions to this crisis, and how the characters evolve based off of what’s happened. And that’s where the true impact of the story really comes from – and, as much as that, the way that Ibsen slowly undermines your assumptions before blowing everything up in front of you.
The first act of A Doll House sets up Nora as an immature, slightly naive young woman, one who loves her doting husband unconditionally, and one who’s never really had to struggle in her life. But as the play goes on, Ibsen keeps picking at our assumptions, making us realize that, for instance, what we thought was loving behavior might have been controlling tendencies, or that what we assumed was a naive innocence might be a performance to make people happier. It’s a beautifully handled transition, as we start questioning what we’ve seen and understood, and nicely sets up the play to question the social mores of the time in a subtle, understated way.
And then, just when you think you’ve got a handle on that, everything explodes. It’s hard to imagine how the third act of A Doll House was received upon the play’s debut; suffice to say, it makes it easy to understand why the play was so reviled by so many, and why so many people seemed offended at its mere existence. It’s a sharp turn, and a vicious one, in which Ibsen lashes out at the assumptions of society and forces us into a whole new way of looking at things. More than that, it’s a turn that feels shockingly modern and timeless, and one that keeps this 100+ year old play as relevant today as it ever was – and maybe even more so. It’s a simple piece of reading, but a masterful one, and a reminder that not every piece of literature is couched in metaphors and complex language – sometimes, it comes out plain and brutal.