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A Doll’s House. I: Historical and Social Context. II: Life of Ibsen. III: A Doll’s House. By Henrik Ibsen. Historical and Social Context. A Doll’s House was published in Norway on December 4 th , 1879. The first stage production was in Copenhagen on December 21 st , 1879.

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a doll s house

A Doll’s House

I: Historical and Social Context

II: Life of Ibsen

III: A Doll’s House

By Henrik Ibsen

historical and social context
Historical and Social Context
  • A Doll’s House was published in Norway on December 4th, 1879.
  • The first stage production was in Copenhagen on December 21st, 1879.
  • The play caused an immediate sensation, sparked debate and controversy, and brought Ibsen international fame.
  • Performing the play was considered a revolutionary action, a daring defiance of cultural norms of Victorian Europe (1837-1901).
historical and social context3
Historical and Social Context
  • “Bourgeois Respectability”

Picture: Woman in formal gown, c. 1879 – Grands Magasins Pygmalion, Summer Catalog 1879

Ideals: Financial Success, upward social mobility, freedom from financial debt and moral guilt, and a stable, secure family organized along traditional patriarchal lines.

historical and social context4
Historical and Social Context

Patriarchal ideals were supported and reinforced by a social structure in which women had little overt political or economic power. They were economically, socially, and psychologically dependent upon men and especially dependent upon the institutions of marriage and motherhood.

Picture: Mother and Two Children by Mary Cassatt

historical and social context5
Historical and Social Context

Social Responsibility

Motherhood within marriage was considered a woman’s highest possible achievement. It was a social responsibility, a duty to the state, and thus, a full-time job. Mothering was no longer something that came naturally, but was something that had to be learned. High infant mortality rates, particularly in urban areas, were unilaterally blamed on mothers. Working class mothers were labeled neglectful, when in truth they struggled with both child care and feeding a family.

A Victorian mother, pushing a pram

historical and social context6
Historical and Social Context

The Ideal Woman

  • Patience
  • Piety
  • Frugality
  • Industry

'... her ardent and unceasing flow of spirits, extreme activity and diligence, her punctuality, uprightness and remarkable frugality, combined with a firm reliance on God ... carried her through the severest times of pressure, both with credit and respectability ...' (The General Baptist Repository and Missionary Observer, 1840).

Victorian husband and wife

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Historical and Social Context

At Home

  • The home was considered a haven from the outside world.
  • The middle class home contained concrete expressions of domesticity in the form of servants, homely décor, comfortable furnishings, home entertainment, and clothing.
  • Women’s fashion reflected their homes’ interior furnishing, further cementing them in their role as wife, mother, and domestic manager.
historical and social context8
Historical and Social Context

Household Management

Numerous publications were written to instruct women on how to be good wives and household managers.

'She [the housewife] is the architect of home, and it depends on her skill, her foresight, her soft arranging touches whether it shall be the "lodestar to all hearts", or whether it shall be a house from which husband and children are glad to escape either to the street, the theatre, or the tavern.' (The Christian Miscellany and Family Visitor, 1890).

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), remained a bestseller for over 50 years.

historical and social context9
Historical and Social Context

Household Management

  • Middle class households could generally afford only one servant. Servants were a status symbol and not intended to relieve the stress of house management.
  • Many household chores still fell to the lady of the house.
  • Household duties included fetching and boiling water, washing and ironing clothes, scrubbing floors, and sewing and mending clothes and linens.
historical and social context10
Historical and Social Context


  • It was illegal to marry a deceased wife's sister.
  • Marriage was encouraged to be with someone of the same class.
  • A man had to prove that he could give his future wife a life in the manner to which she was accustomed.
  • A woman had to have a dowry.
  • A family could set up a trust to protect a woman's inheritance.
  • Marriage was considered a business deal.

Victorian bride and groom, 1895

historical and social context11
Historical and Social Context


  • An unmarried woman could inherit money and property after age 21, but upon marriage control of her money went to her husband.
  • A woman could not have a will for her personal possessions.
  • A man could will his wife's possessions to his illegitimate children.

Victorian Wedding Party (date unknown).

  • Few marriages started with love.
historical and social context12
Historical and Social Context

Widowhood and Mourning

“A heartless wife who, instead of being grieved at the death of her husband, is rejoiced at it, should be taught that society will not respect her unless she pays to the memory of the man whose name she bears that "homage which vice pays to virtue," a commendable respect to the usages of society in the matter of mourning and of retirement from the world,” (Harper’s Bazaar, April 17, 1886).

“As for periods of mourning, we are told that a widow's mourning should last eighteen months, although in England it is somewhat lightened in twelve,” (Harper’s Bazaar, April 17, 1886).

Typical mourning dress (Harper’s Bazaar, April 17, 1886).

life of ibsen
Life of Ibsen

Henrik Johan Ibsen


  • Born May 20, 1828 in Skien, Norway
  • Died May 23, 1906 of complications resulting from a series of strokes
  • Poet, playwright, and essayist.
  • Sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme.
  • Considered the pioneer of modern drama because he broke away from the romantic tradition of 19th Century Theatre with realistic portrayals of individuals.
life of ibsen14
Life of Ibsen
  • Changed theatrical tradition from exaggerated suspense and mistaken identity to a scenario that closely resembles everyday life.
  • Used realistic dialogue, commonplace events, and symbolism to explore the elusiveness of self-knowledge and the restrictive nature of traditional morality.
  • His characters are strong individuals who come in conflict with the oppressive social mores of 19th century Norwegian society.

“I prefer to ask; ‘tis not my task to answer.”

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Life of Ibsen

Three Phases of Ibsen’s Work

  • Phase One: Early dramas written in verse and modeled after romantic historical tragedy and Norse sagas.
  • Phase Two: Prose dramas concerned with social realism. A Doll’s House was written during this phase.
  • Phase Three: Dealt with the conflict between art and life, where he shifted his focus from the individual in society to the individual alone and isolated.
a doll s house16
A Doll’s House
  • Et Dukkehjem (A Doll’s House, 1879) is considered a masterpiece of realist theatre.
  • The plot concerns the collapse of a middle class marriage.
  • Sparked debates about women’s rights and divorce.
  • Considered innovative and daring because of its focus on psychological tension instead of external action.

Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen where the play was first performed in December of 1879.

  • Created a new acting style that required emotion be conveyed through small, controlled gestures, shifts in action, and pauses.
  • Groundbreaking in that it caused drama to be viewed as social commentary and not merely entertainment.
a doll s house17
A Doll’s House

Critics and Ibsen

  • Critics considered him to be amoral and accused him of encouraging amoral behavior and portraying unwomanly women.
  • Was accused of being iconoclastic in that they thought that he sought to overthrow traditional ideas and institutions.
  • Widely criticized for the character of Nora for her decision to abandon her children. Critics felt that no real woman would ever make that choice.
  • Critics and viewers alike hated the fact that Ibsen offers no real solution to Nora’s dilemma.
a doll s house18
A Doll’s House

Cast of Characters

Betty Hemmings as Nora Helmer

Emil Poulsen as Torvald Helmer

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A Doll’s House

Cast of Characters

Agnes N. Dehn as Mrs. Linde

Sophus Peterson as Nils Krogstad

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A Doll’s House

Cast of Characters

Louise Phister as Anne Marie with children (uncredited)

Peter W. Jerndoff as Dr. Rank

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A Doll’s House


  • Appearances vs. Reality
  • Identity and Search for Self
  • Betrayal
  • Pride
  • Sexism
  • Deception
  • Honor
  • Growth and Identity