Modernism in A doll’s house


A doll’s house is a thought provoking and insightful play because it boldly endorses modernist philosophies even at a time when romanticism was still rife in theatre. Ibsen sets the precedent for other dramatists because he is realist, backs Marxism and uses melo-drama to write this play.

Analysis of modernist thoughts and theories in the play

Modernism was a way of thinking that started in the last half of the nineteenth century and continued on into the twentieth century. It was considered as a term that embraced the non conventional. In other words, this is a break from the traditional way of interpreting and creating; it is not limited to one discipline. At the time when modernism was at its peak, concerned advocates felt that there had been too much emphasis on order or chronology so theirs was to break away from these traditions.

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On another level, modernism was seen as an alternative to the use of bureaucracies / the elite as a source of inspiration for works of art, literature and the like. Modernists questioned this focus and therefore chose to progressively alter this (McFarlane, 8). Their major aim was to defy norms. This phenomenon was also motivated by the goings on in the western world. At the time, the world had just gone through the First World War and was subsequently facing its repercussions through the depression. Europeans therefore questioned the relevance of the romantic era. They now felt that the focus on virtues and evil/ good just could not apply to their prevailing circumstances. Consequently, one can say that the political and social environment was an important determinant of this movement.

It injected a new wave of creativity in the arts and paved the way for many unconventional pieces. In “A doll’s house”, one of the outstanding depictions of this way of thinking was seen at the end of the play; in other words, the overall plot of the story has been used to propagate the modernist agenda. Through this ending, Ibsen is essentially questioning societal rules or the status quo. The main character was willing to take her own life so that she could save her husband’s reputation but soon finds out that he was nothing more than a selfish and narcissistic individual.

He underplayed her great sacrifices and even told her that she was like a child in his eyes. Nora therefore gains insight into his true persona and decides that it is worthless to continue living with him. Nora was bold enough to question her community’s norms and even took it to the point of leaving her spouse (Ibsen, 58).

This unexpected twist at the end of the play makes it very modern because it looked at the institution of marriage, gender roles and family duties in a whole new light. It should be noted that in the previous era of romanticism, such a play would have ended in reconciliation between Nora and Torvald, but Ibsen was a realist and a modernist. He wanted to have an unpredictable plot that would leave audiences uncertain but hopeful about the future of the main character. No heroes were brought in to save the day and this definitely broke from usual theatre endings. The aspect of modernism that comes out in this case is melo drama. Another way in which Ibsen utilizes plot in order to propagate modernist thought is through the structure of the play.

In his time, most versions of well made plays started with an account about the characters in the play. This would normally be seen in the first and maybe the second act. In the second part, authors would often present a dilemma faced by the main character. Thereafter, the play would end by a reaction to the dilemma and hence teach audiences a moral lesson or two. However, through a Doll’s house, Ibsen created a different structure.

In his play, he has a description then a dilemma but lacks a resolution. He ends the play with a discussion on what will go on and therefore leaves audiences curious about what will happen to the main characters even as time proceeds. The author also uses theme to advance the modernist agenda. At his time, women had no voice; this was seen by the fact that most of them had to get the signature of a male family member or acquaintance in order to carry out any financial transactions. However, Ibsen makes these women the centerpiece of his play.

He shows how they make up for men’s inadequacies (such as pride, impulsiveness and selfishness) through their tenderness, self sacrifice and their loyalty. Nora is everything that Torvald is not and this definitely represented a new element in modern drama. Not only was Ibsen bold enough to portray women very responsibly, but he did this in a tactful manner that makes Nora appear real. At first, she seems like a dependent and weak individual but as one learns about her life and her decisions, one soon realizes that she is a strong and selfless woman. Given that this was such a new stance, it is no wonder theatre enthusiasts called Ibsen a revolutionary author (Fisher and Silber, 40). Another way in which theme advances modernism in the play is through the concept of self duty.

During Ibsen’s time, individuals were expected to stay loyal to their leaders and to their society in general. Many held others’ opinions about themselves more importantly than their own personal perspectives. However, Ibsen was a realist and wanted to show how this approach was unfair. Nora, the main character, had been putting the needs and opinions of others before herself.

The overall result of this was that she led an unfulfilled life. Furthermore, men kept using that selflessness to their advantage and this only led to her unhappiness. By exonerating her needs over and above everyone else’s. Nora was able to discover a new path for herself through this decision. Ibsen was therefore able to portray realist and hence modernist thought through this theme of self enhancement. Character is an important stylistic device used to illustrate modernist thought. At the time when a Doll’s house was written, many other plays would portray the central character as this dominant male figure that appeared to have all the solutions to the problems in the play.

However, Ibsen breaks from this tradition and portrays what should have been an older and socially responsible man –Dr. Rank – as someone who lacks moral sense. He openly lets the wife of a close friend know that he has feelings for her. Furthermore, he is ailing from a disease that is often associated with promiscuity, although he got it from his father (Tornqvist, 193). This author does not portray his characters in a typical manner. In fact, one would be mistaken to dismiss Nora off as nothing more than a dependent and shallow person but as one continues reading through, one soon realizes that she is actually a very deep person. Torvald was also another complex character in the play.

At some point he seems caring because he chooses to stay at home and teach Nora how to dance but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he was self centered as well. There are a vast range of emotions portrayed through the characters thus illustrating that they were indeed real. No human being lacks faults and the problem with romantic writings was that a vast number of them tried to pretend that humans are faultless. Trying to do this was simply unrealistic and unfair. Ibsen did not want to glorify any one of them; an aspect that was typical of the realist school of thought.

Marxism as a form of modernism can also be seen in the play through the main character of the play. Prior to this production, aristocrats often carried the day. They controlled wealth and were entitled to several privileges.

This usually meant that the middle and lower classes would pay the price for these privileges. In other words, capitalism favored the rich and oppressed the poor. The latter’s stories were rarely heard especially in literature. However, Ibsen is able to throw in a new perspective here when he decides not to tell the story of yet another elite.

He reveals the struggles of a middle class woman – Nora and also talks about the struggles of another female Mrs Linde. Linde came from a poor family that lacked the basics of life. She chose to marry someone she did not love just so that she could overcome the problems of her class. Ibsen succeeded in initiating a discussion concerning the evils of capitalism. This peculiar hero – Nora goes through several problems that stem from her economic background. As such, one can assert that the play questions the manner in which society is run (Krutch, 21).

It exposes the evils of capitalism and therefore propagates classic Marxist thought or modernism in its real colors.


Ibsen’s use of theme is quite outstanding in exposing class struggles and the problems of romanticism. To this end, he is initiating a discussion on Marxism. He uses plot to advance realist thought through the ambiguous ending of the story. Character also plays an important role because he defies traditional depictions of males and females in his story. His choice of a female as a central character testifies to this modernist aspect. Also, his depiction of complex individuals makes his work realistic. In the end, Ibsen set the stage for a new and revolutionary way of writing plays and looking at life in society.

Works Cited

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s house. Translated by William Archer. London: Fisher Unwin, 1889 Krutch, Joseph.

Modernism in drama. Ithaca: Cornell university, 1953 Fisher, Jerilyn & Silber, Ellen. Women in literature. Westport: Greenwood, 2002 McFarlane, James. Cambridge companion to Ibsen.

Cambridge: CUP, 1994 Tornqvist, Egil. Ibsen, a doll’s house. Cambridge: CUP, 1995


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