A Doll's House is the play that made Henrik Ibsen world famous; though it got substantial acclaim, much initial attention came from controversy - and some from outrage. However, time has sided with it, proving Ibsen's points and burying naysayers under a pile of narrow-minded hypocrisy; the play remains Ibsen's most popular and one of his most acclaimed, taking its high place in the world literary canon.
Often called the first feminist play, A Doll's is a savage critique of Victorian - I use the term loosely, Ibsen being Norwegian - society's treatment of women. It gives a vivid idea of just how repressed they were in everything from speech to employment; their very thoughts were persecuted as far as possible. We also see what form this took in the domestic sphere; patriarchy is lambasted and exposed as hollow, and male-female relations generally are thoroughly critiqued. The marriage institution is not spared Ibsen's unflinching eye, while motherhood and other related issues are also taken into account. Victorian society had very settled ideas about such issues and did not take kindly to Ibsen's rankling, but the play was a much-needed wake-up call, provoking extensive debate and perhaps being one of the liberalizing forces eventually leading to reform. That such a work was written nearly a century and a half ago by a man is truly incredible. It says much that many of those who decried it most loudly were women; a prominent actress even refused to play the lead without an altered ending. Ibsen was clearly one of those rare artists who truly has a finger on the cultural pulse; he knew just what buttons to push and hit with a sledgehammer.
The play would of course be of only historical interest if it merely dealt with long-vanished injustice, but this is far from so. For one thing, sexism is sadly still very prevalent, even in the Western world, despite great advances. Some of the issues are thus still relevant even in this strict sense, showing just how far ahead of his time Ibsen was. More fundamentally, many core concerns - e.g., how to balance self-respect and ambition with marriage and children - are as old as civilization. The play will continue speaking to us profoundly as long as they remain unsolved, which shows no sign of being anytime soon. The best aspect in this regard is that it is not heavy-handed. Ibsen wrote many of what he called "problem plays" dealing with contemporary social problems without the didacticism that so often plagues such works and is nearly always fatal. He raises important questions but knows better than to give answers; that is for us to do. Like all his major work, A Doll's is highly thought-provoking. We may not agree with Nora, but she certainly makes us rethink long-held and oft-unquestioned assumptions - perhaps rethinking but at least surveying critically -, which may be art's true function and is certainly the highest praise sociopolitically aware art can receive.
But the play would be very enjoyable and laudable even if we noticed none of this, and there may indeed be more immediate reasons for its greatness and continuing relevance. The character of Nora is an undeniably big factor. Sympathetic almost immediately, she engages both heart and mind; we have empathy for her thoughts and feelings because of her undeniable humanity. She has much that is admirable, even noble, but also has undeniable weaknesses; perhaps more than the former, the latter make her seem all the more human and relatable. It is a tribute to Ibsen's artistry that he makes even the most conservative onlookers quickly like her, which makes the powerful conclusion all the more forceful. Other characters of course pale beside her not only in importance but in goodness yet are not without relevance. Much of the ending's power indeed comes from the realization that Torvald is not really bad. He is certainly condescending, self-absorbed, sexist, and narrow-minded, but these are faults of the age; he is no worse than the average Victorian man - perhaps even better in that he truly cares for Nora in his patronizing way. What happens to him could have happened to any Victorian husband - which is exactly the point. Krogstad is also important in this way; we are ostensibly supposed to hate him, but his actions are after all understandable and all too human. We may criticize but should not condemn. All this drives in Ibsen's point that the problems were symptoms of a culture, not a few backward individuals.
The tightly plotted and deftly executed story is another strength. The ending is of course deservedly famous, pulled off perhaps more effectively than any other in drama; it is led up to with truly artistic precision, the timing is impeccable, and the final door slam is the most brilliantly perfect yet subtle use of sound ever written into a play. Also, as George Bernard Shaw noted and others have come to appreciate ever more, the ending skillfully inverts the "well-made play" formula then considered obligatory. Ibsen tricked audiences into thinking the climax was the conclusion, which made the ending all the more stunning; we may miss the irony, but the essential effect is hardly dimmed. However, we must not let the ending blind us to overall quality. The play is highly emotional and supremely engrossing throughout despite having very little of what we now call action - an Ibsen trademark and a key ingredient in his greatness. He was a master of irony, foreshadowing, and other dramatic techniques, using them to full effect here; the satire making up much of the play is also immaculately done.
A Doll's is simply incredible in every aspect, essential for anyone even remotely interested in drama, women's issues, the Victorian era - or great literature itself.