A Doll's Religion
Livia Fontana, Bergen Community College
Abstract: There is no doubt Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House unmasked society’s hypocrisy and gendered morality in 19th century Norway. However, until today many critics fail to recognize religion’s crucial role in the breakdown of the Helmer household and Victorian society. Because the institution of the church and Christianity is portrayed as hollow and misleading, the audience overlooks the fact that the people who practice this dogmatic religion only do so in order to maintain appearances. Through the use of symbols such as Torvald’s study door, the Christmas tree, and the lamp, Ibsen illustrates society’s hypocrisy and flawed morality. Moreover, the characters Nora, Torvald, and Dr. Rank depict several Christ-like comparisons throughout the play. By analyzing these false-hearted values, society’s patriarchal standards and decaying morality are now exposed. This paper highlights how Ibsen in A Doll's House masterfully explores the role of religion in society and challenges us to continuously strive for sincerity in our faith and actions.
Since its first performance in 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll's House successfully exposed the constricting societal norms, materialism, and classism present in society. Audiences began to question their own reality with a much more discerning view. Through the character Nora Helmer, Ibsen skillfully unmasked society's oppressive mindset and revolutionized the notion of women's rights. However, the overwhelming amount of literary criticism on morality and gender norms in Ibsen's work overshadows the fact that religion was the main culprit in the breakdown of the Helmer household and Victorian society as a whole. The role of their distorted faith is too often overlooked by critics. Therefore, this analysis is meant to fill that void and provide further insight on the literary techniques Ibsen used in A Doll’s House.
The Helmer family was the epitome of Victorian values in Norwegian society. However, the audience soon discovers Nora’s secret loan and the forgery she committed in a desperate endeavor to save her husband and spare her dying father. Nora’s attempt to conceal this debt reveals the complex and unequal relationship between her and her husband Torvald. But after further analysis, it is evident that pressure from a rigid society and a distorted faith are the principal causes of the breakdown of their household. In fact, it was “the publication of A Doll's House in 1879 in which first aroused the theological critics” (Kaasa 357). In this drama Henrik Ibsen sets out to portray the “sharp difference between the ideal and the real world” (377). The ideal world being that of the 19th century Christian church, and the real world being it’s truthful representation many playwrights had at the time. Ibsen was set on exposing the decaying morality in society, as he “was a critic of the church who felt compelled to attack this dogmatic institution” (378). The picture Henrik Ibsen paints of the church in Victorian society is definitely not a good one. However what he failed to recognize is that the people who practice this dogmatic religion only do so halfheartedly, practicing this ‘faith’ in order to maintain appearances. This hypocritical nature warped the view on the Christian institution and its believers. Henrik Ibsen in A Doll's House portrays the Christian religion as a hollow institution and generalizes Chrisitanity as the enemy of the people. However by doing so, the audience fails to realize that the true culprit is actually a lofty and flawed society.
Ibsen depicts the conventional 19th century Christian religion as an empty and hollow institution through the setting of the play and the use of symbols. As A Doll’s House is set around Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, an emphasis on religion is expected. However, it is ironic how the main plot involves blackmail, suicide, selfishness, and materialism. In fact, religion is hardly mentioned at all by the characters! In Act I, Nora is elated about Torvald's promotion to Bank Manager now that he will “be earning lots and lots of money” (Ibsen 110). Nora then goes on to show all the gifts she bought, and when asked about what she would like for Christmas, Nora simply answers: “you could give me money” (112). Later in a conversation with her long-lost ‘best-friend’ Kristine, Nora starts boasting about having a “proper amount of money” and not “worrying over things” anymore (117). By intentionally setting A Doll's House around Christmas time while scarcely mentioning the religious aspects of this holiday, Ibsen reveals how ridiculous and irrelevant the Christian faith is to society at the time. Not only does this show Christianity’s emptiness in the 19th century, but it also illustrates how the focus on materialism and one's self overshadows religious beliefs, therefore demonstrating no transformative effect that the Gospel claims to have: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (New International Version, 2 Cor. 5:17). Christianity as the background of A Doll's House ultimately exposes society's empty claims that religion is an important aspect of daily life. Ultimately, Christianity is portrayed as meaningless because the people who exemplify this religion demonstrate how shallow and empty their belief in it actually is.
In addition, Ibsen's use of symbols such as the Christmas tree and Torvalds' study door depicts Christianity as a misleading moral construct. The deterioration of the Christmas tree is not only symbolic of their doomed marriage, but also of Victorian Christian beliefs. At first, the fresh tree is beautifully lit with candles and flowers, but as time evolves the tree loses its radiance and becomes “stripped, dishevelled and with its candles burned down to the stubs” (Ibsen 141). This shows how over time, one's true nature is revealed: what might seem alluring and beautiful at first becomes unattractive and undesirable. Similarly, the appearance of 19th century Christianity was deceptive. Initially, society came off as pure and good. However with time, as the play illustrates, the true depth of their faith is revealed. The characters in A Doll's House do not even give reverence to the birth of their Savior or celebrate the cornerstone of their faith. Nora instead “cultivates her devotion to the one she believes will be her savior, Torvald” (Urban 2). Nora's idolatry is contrary to the core of Christian faith and the Ten Commandments, which state “You shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Deut. 5.7-8). By Nora revering Torvald as her savior from Krogstad’s villainous plan, “Ibsen implies an analogy between Christ and Torvald” (Lavender 120). The second symbol Ibsen uses to expose Victorian Christianity is Torvalds' study door in order to reveal the hypocrisy of Christian believers: they claim to be righteous and faultless but behind closed doors, they display their fallen nature. Because of this door, Nora can conceal her ‘sins’ from Torvald so that she appears ‘pure’ and ‘faultless’. In Victorian society, people concealed their bad actions yet proclaimed to all how virtuous they were. For example, Nora “cautiously [goes] over to listen at her husband's door” when eating the forbidden macaroons (Ibsen 110). She can only commit this crime when Torvalds' door is sealed. Furthermore, “only with Torvald’s door closed could Nora ever conduct her sexually provocative scene with Dr. Rank in Act II” (Lavender 121). Nora welcomes Dr. Rank into the room saying, “For you, I always have a moment to spare” (Ibsen 150). Then Nora “clutches his arm”, puts “both hands on his shoulders” and shows Dr. Rank her “silk stockings” (152). This is analogous to how Victorian society hid their immorality so that others could not see the truth. Finally in Act II, Nora “bolts Helmers door” (156) to make sure that her husband is safe from her conversation with Krogstad regarding her debt. Nora does not want to expose herself as a sinful criminal. This also relates to Christian believers in 19th century Norway because of their focus on appearances. Society constructed the perfect Christian illusion to deceive others of their immorality. Henrik Ibsen in A Doll’s House exposes these believers as hypocritical. Moreover, the Bible states “No one is good - except God alone” (Mark 10.18). Therefore proving that nobody is capable of reaching a divine standard.
Yet in reality these frail Christian values were the pillars of Victorian society. It determined their sense of gendered morality while enabling their patriarchy. “When Ibsen set out to demolish Nora's doll house”, not only did he obliterate and expose this religious fallacy but “he also demolished the law, society, home and marriage” (Kaasa 360). The patriarchal society in Norway was built on the basis of these hollow Christian expectations. Before analyzing these key differences, it is important to first define morality and its application in the 19th century. Morality is formally defined as “the measure of good or evil concrete human acts” (Centrella 2). However, Victorian society warped religion and twisted morality to enable and strengthen their patriarchy. Victorianism infected Christianity and changed what once was supposed to be an orthodox belief, meaning the acceptance of a belief as true, into an orthopraxic religion, which is the emphasis on the correct actions and conduct. This has contributed to an increase in religiosity rather than spirituality. Yet who is to determine whether these “concrete human acts” are righteous or not? Ibsen “felt a divine vocation to awaken people and teach them to enlarge their thinking” (Kaasa 378) so they could reason freely. Torvald Helmer embodies this Victorian society; he accurately reflects the loose Christian values that shaped the gendered morality in Norwegian society, unveiling its pious and narcissistic nature. This is evident in Torvald's belief that religion is more of a societal obligation rather than an act of love. Ibsen illustrates how Christianity in the 19th century was just a misleading societal construct since it was used to judge good from bad morality. At the same time, Torvald never questions his own moral and religious hypocrisy. He labels others as “morally destitute” and blames “mothers who were liars” for children “who are corrupt from an early age” (Ibsen 139) yet fails to acknowledge his own faults or sins. Thus Torvald's “true concern is not for moral righteousness but the appearance of it” (Lavender 123). For instance, when Torvald explains to Nora why he must fire Krogstad, he admits that it is possible to overlook his questionable moral character. However, Torvald continues to explain:
We’re on first name terms. And this tactless individual does nothing to hide it in the presence of others. Quite the contrary- he thinks it entitles him to take a familiar tone with me; so he constantly gets one over me with his ‘Torvald this’ and ‘Torvald that’. I assure you, it is highly embarrassing. He’d make my position at the Bank intolerable. (Ibsen 148)
Nora notes what a “petty concern” this is and how that is no excuse to terminate one's livelihood, especially if Krogstad is “pretty good at his job”. Torvald is essentially dismissing Krogstad just because he is not addressed as Mr. Helmer, like his status as Bank Manager requires. Torvald does not want to appear inferior or belittled. Furthermore, Nora's continuous requests to keep Krogstad at the Bank does not change Torvald’s mind; instead Torvald argues that he will appear “ridiculous in front of the entire staff or give people the idea that [he is] subject to all kinds of external influence” if Krogstad is not dismissed (148). Likewise, the Christian institution has these dogmatic rules and patriarchal hierarchy that must be adhered to. Ibsen points out how rigid society is: how their hyperfocus on rules, closed mindedness, and patriarchy will soon erode at their structure until it collapses and fails. Torvald’s narcissism is especially apparent when he admits that maintaining appearances and integrity is more important than anything: “nobody would sacrifice their honour for the one they love” (186). Lastly, Torvald asks if Nora “thought for what people will say” (184) regarding her leave, “showing himself once again a morally shallow person more concerned with appearance than substance” (Lavender 126).
While Torvald embodies Victorian society's rigidity and religiosity, Nora represents the freedom from these religious institutions and constraints. Nora begins to question these societal norms for the first time at the end of Act 1 after Torvald’s statements about “bad mothers” corrupting their children: “corrupt my little children -! Poison our home? [brief pause; she lifts her head high] It isn't true. It can't ever possibly be true” (Ibsen 140). At this pivotal moment in the play, Nora begins her journey of self-discovery. In the earlier stages of A Doll’s House, Nora lived and breathed for her husband. She showed Christ-like self-sacrificing love when signing the loan with Krogstad knowing all that it would cost her; Nora’s “own necessities took the brunt of it” and she worked copying “every evening, long into the night” (123). Knowing the consequences of signing the loan, Nora did it anyway for Torvald’s sake. Nora's morally blameless crime however, is not seen as righteous in society's eyes. Similarly, Nora’s failed seduction of Dr. Rank shows her morally upright character. Nora's desperate attempt to save her husband from the truth is foiled by Dr. Rank’s secret love confession. Nora then realizes how immoral it is of a married woman to seduce her dying friend for money. In this scene “Nora demonstrates actual nobility when, after flirting with Dr. Rank in a last-ditch attempt to get the money she needs to pay off Krogstad, she rejects his amorous advances toward her” (Lavender 123). That is why in Act III Nora questions society and its measure of good and bad morality, for she cannot wrap her head around the idea that saving her husband's life and sparing her dying father are wicked. In Nora’s perspective these actions are morally upright, hence her independence from society’s measure of good or bad morality. That is the predicament Nora faces in the final act of A Doll's House.
But before Nora's epiphany in Act III, she believes that Torvald “wouldn't hesitate for a moment to give his life for [her] sake” (Ibsen 154). Nora is “unshakably certain that [Torvald] would step forward and take everything upon [himself] and say: I am the guilty one” once the truth about her debt is revealed (186). Nora's conviction that Torvald is her savior is primarily due to Torvald’s own insistence on protecting and sheltering her from the outside world. He “wished that some impending danger might threaten [Nora], so [he] could risk [his] life and limb and everything, everything for [her] sake” (176). In reality, Nora is betrayed by her husband because she “expected that Torvald would return the favor if he found out, taking all responsibility for what she did upon himself, out of love for her” (Mahaffey 62). However, when the letter is revealed and her secret is exposed, Torvald’s loathsome reaction is eye-opening to Nora, as she can finally see what a hypocrite and a liar her husband is. Nora is subject “to a wrathful, implacable deity who can only see the evidence of sin, not the substance of virtue” and it is “in that instant [when] Nora realizes Torvald’s moral superficiality, his inadequacy as her god” (Lavender 124). Additionally, her Christian beliefs clearly communicate how “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5.25-28). These unwavering truths she learned from Revered Hansen were not accurately executed in society, for their faith was superficial and ossified. Nora has been playing all her life: believing she understood religion and what society taught about Christianity. So when “the miraculous thing didn't happen” (Ibsen 186), Nora saw that Torvald wasn't the man she imagined and her “religious convictions … have collapsed completely” (Lavender 126). While society had certainly warped and tainted the Christian faith, a large part of “Nora's religious confusion” is on account of “Torvald’s own lethargy toward Christian practice” and how his “essentially imperceptible Christian piety is dwarfed throughout the play by his devotion to himself—a habitual self-focus, quite opposed to Christianity” (Urban 1). Nora's legitimate decision to leave her marriage and start anew closely resembles the teachings of Jesus Christ to his twelve disciples: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” (Matt. 10.14). Since Torvald did not show compassion or love towards Nora during their marriage or time of need, since he did not listen to her concerns and act like a true Christian husband should, Nora had every right to leave her home and explore for herself what the true meaning of Christ’s teachings were. Nora’s leave to explore herself was in fact justifiable.
The ‘inferiority’ of women and their sole role as mothers and wives were also justified by the Christian faith and its cornerstone, the Bible, in the 19th century. Ibsen's purpose in A Doll's House is to reject this misconception and prove that women are “first and foremost [human beings]” (Ibsen 184). The Scriptures were taken out of context and used as prooftext to further oppression in patriarchal society. Husbands viewed wives as mere commodities and to be provided for in a material sense rather than to demonstrate mutual unselfish service. But now that Nora is free from society’s hypocritical influence, she can search for the truth and the light, represented by the lamp throughout the play. The lamp essentially sheds light onto society's hypocritical institutions and hollow religion as its main influence. This symbol of light in the midst of darkness in a religious sense indicates that goodness and truth overpowers deceit and lies. After further analysis, author Vicki Mahaffey notes that “there is something Christlike about Rank’s suffering ‘for another man’s sins’” (Mahaffey 60). The lamplight portrays Dr. Rank as a Christ-like figure in A Doll’s House by appearing to expel the darkness. This argument is supported by the Bible which illustrates, “Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light” (Micah 7.8). Dr. Rank’s role in the play is essentially to expose society’s sins and hypocrisy by shedding light on their immorality. Furthermore:
The implicit identification of Rank’s suffering with that of Jesus on the cross signals that there is another, self-sacrificial model of forgiveness at work in the play, one linked with Christianity as it is most often understood, the one that Nora has been using as her guide” (Mahaffey 61).
In Act III when Nora lights Dr. Rank’s cigar, this gesture reflects the hope and redemption that will come with death. The lamplight in A Doll’s House represents Nora’s discovery of the truth about the society she lives in. Henrik Ibsen’s “purpose was not to destroy but to cleanse Christianity. His was an individualistic religion, involving personal participation in the eternal ideal of love, in the crucified and risen Christ, and in the spirit of truth and freedom” (Kaasa 378). The overlooked role of religion in A Doll’s House ultimately points out how true Christian faith is about personal conscience, not to ensure social conformity.
The emptiness of Christianity portrayed in A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen masks the fact that a lofty and specious 19th century society is actually at the root of their patriarchal standards and gendered sense of morality. While these unsubstantiated Victorian principles laid the foundation of their society, Nora Helmer rightfully finds herself questioning their validity. Therefore Nora's endeavor to “find out who is right” is justifiable. Between Torvald’s self-righteous religious piety and society’s conflicting standards, it is fathomable that Nora finds herself “not even sure … what this religion is” (Ibsen 185). Hence the irony lies in her real interpretation of the Gospel and its teachings: Nora demonstrated Christ-like love when sacrificing herself to save her husband, and she demonstrated a lot more faith than the rest of society. It is therefore easy to say that “The role of religion in A Doll’s House is understated and yet omnipresent” (Branson). Religion was intertwined with everything, from society's warped principles to Nora’s tough decisions. In the end, Nora finds herself truly free from the dogmatic oppression of the hollow religious institution in 19th century Norway.
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Lavender, Joshua. “Seeking the Greatest Miracle: Psychological Mythology in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.” The Corinthian, 2008, kb.gcsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1056&context=thecorinthian/.
Mahaffey, Vicki. "Portal to Forgiveness: A Tribute to Ibsen's Nora." South Central Review, vol. 27, no. 3, 2010, pp. 54-73,176. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.bergen.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.bergen.edu/scholarly-journals/portal-forgiveness-tribute-ibsens-nora/docview/859874444/se-2?accountid=8580.
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