The Nature of Commitment in Doll's House
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It has been stated by critics not once that Henrik Ibsen belongs to those authors who are much ahead of his epoch in understanding the key issues of humans and society. The theme of marriage and commitment in the context of marriage is not an exception. By exploring the relationship between Nora and Torvald as a family, the author gives his own vision of how commitment works for marriage as an institution. Focusing on Nora’s story of interaction with her husband, Ibsen reveals the idea that a woman is a slave of a certain social model that does not let her realize her real self and her potential. In the play, it is clear that both Nora and Torvald suffer because their marriage is conditioned by the stereotypes that imprisons the woman and stands in the way of mutual understanding. In other words, commitment appears to be imposed from outside rather than from sincere affection.
From the very beginning of the play, the model of communication between Torvald and Nora is revealed to the readers. He treats her like a child, talking in a condescending manner to her. “My little skylark”, “my little squirrel” are the words that he addresses her. Traditionally, the wife’s role is confined to being a housewife and a mother of three children, while her husband considers her to be incompetent in all other spheres of life. In this context, the ways of commitment of a man and a woman in a marriage are different depending on social expectations. Thus, a wife is committed to be faithful to her husband, to raise children and maintain a household. It is not in her scope of interests to interfere in her husband’s business, she is just to support his ideas and plans. In contrast, a husband’s commitment is to provide money for the family and try to be as respected in society as possible. "In A Doll's House, men are seemingly in the dominant position, and they manipulate their power to control women in ideological sphere so that their own identity and social status may be retained and be acknowledged by the society." (Yuehua)
When speaking about commitment, it is worth saying that there is a conflict between personal and social commitment between Nora and Torvald. In fact, this conflict is what leads their marriage to crash at the end of the play. Because Nora as a wife has a prescribed way of behavior, she feels imprisoned by the role. She breaks a standard stereotype of commitment by acting out of a more intimate commitment to her husband. For instance, a wife is obliged to tell the truth to her husband, while Nora breaks this rule for the sake of Torvald. When he falls seriously ill, she decides to save him by going to Italy for a year. This journey is quite expensive, and because her father refuses to provide money, she takes a desperate step. She takes a loan by illegally using her father’s signature. For the next few years, she has to pay this debt by cutting her own expenses but does not tell a single word to Torvald.
The question why Nora hides the truth from her husband lies in the scope of commitment and social roles as well. Torvald has uncompromising opinion about how financial issues should be organized in a family. “No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt” (Ibsen). As can be seen from his words, he is being idealistic but superficial about relationships and attempts to meet certain standards. Although Nora violates these moral standards by lying Torvald, her commitment is more real and humane than the one declared by him. The conflict about her behavior is not so much in the lies but in the break of a wife’s role. Torvald is used to patronizing her, and does not think of her as a person who is able to take brave and independent decisions. By taking initiative to help him in such a risky and pain-taking way, she proves to be a person who is capable of free thinking. She is not just a doll as her husband treats her but a person who is morally superior of Torvald. Nora realizes what her surroundings think of her: “They all think that I am incapable of anything really serious--that I have gone through nothing in this world of cares” (Ibsen). Her moral superiority is also reflected in the fact that she does not care much about her reputation, her husband is more important to her than social expectations from her. Thus, conclusion can be drawn that her commitment to her husband is inherent, not imposed from within.
In contrast to his wife, Torvald is highly dependent on public opinion. He has a clichéd idea about commitment because he has to be perfect for society. He is scared when he finds out the truth about Nora’s sacrifice for his sake because she breaks his illusion. He believes that she is helpless and should be cared about, while she acts as a leader in this situation. Torvald is afraid of losing his face because public norms are very important for him. One more aspect about his attitude to his wife is that commitment is closely related to possession. "A strong sense of possession can be regarded as a revelation of Torvald's desire of power over women. To him, his wife is just his property to show off in the public as a satisfaction for his hypocrisy, a plaything and a doll to play with as a pastime." (Yuehua)
The final of the play reveals the major conflict between Nora and Torvald in terms of personal and social commitment. Nora is afraid to reveal the truth to him but at the same time she secretly hopes that he will understand her and will take all the troubles from her to solve the situation with the debt. However, he is more devoted to social stereotypes than to her. As a confirmation of Nora’s disillusionment he says that "no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves" ( Ibsen). Honour is a synonym of commitment for him, while for Nora commitment is analogous to devotion and self-sacrifice. When life opens her eyes to her husband, she undergoes a transformation and stops being a doll. She says: “You and Papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I've made nothing of my life” ( Ibsen). She has her own will now and acts in a free and brave manner: "Nora embodies the individualist alternative. In her, Ibsen depicts the full glory of a woman who finally finds herself in opposition to all social norms. The play ends with the dramatic sound of a door slamming shut." (Schwarez 3)
Overall, the theme of commitment is revealed to be controversial in the play. For Nora, this word means devotion first of all, which she expresses by being a perfect wife and sacrifice for the sake of her husband. On the other hand, commitment is related to social and gender roles that are ascribed to a man and a woman. To a large extent, Torvald is a slave of stereotypes about these roles and his public position, which twists his idea of commitment. In the end, the clash between the two views leads in a collapse of a “doll’s house”.