"I must stand on my own two feet if I am to find out the truth about myself and about life," To what extent is Nora a tragic heroine? -1497 words (excluding title)
A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen is a modern tragedy that is centred around the life of a typical Norwegian household in the Victorian era, focusing on the trials and tribulations that face Nora Helmer in this patriarchal society. A Doll's House explores not only the status of women, but how they are victims of social forces to the extent that they are left with the role of a "dollwife". During the course of this essay, I intend to study the character of Nora and to what extent she qualifies as a tragic heroine.
As the curtain opens to the first act, we are introduced to Nora as an "extravagant little person", a "sweet little spendthrift"; giving the audience the impression that she will be yet another undeveloped female character as seen in previous traditional tragedies. Ibsen uses patronizing language to portray Torvald's view of his wife, how to him she was just a "sweet little skylark", the word "little" emphasizing Torvald's misogynistic ego, and how he uses typically 'loving' terms but makes them seem condescending and demeaning.
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Aristotle's description of a tragic hero as outlined in his book Poetics, is where he discusses the aspects of one's character which qualify one to be a tragic hero, ideas which have been accepted and expanded for several centuries, and often used as a 'mould' for tragic heroes. In order to reach my conclusion and decide to what degree Nora is a tragic heroine, I will compare Nora's character to some of the ideas Aristotle discussed in his book.
According to Aristotle, 'the tragic hero is a man who is a mixture of good characteristics and bad characteristics'. Regardless of the 'requirement' of being male, Nora fits this aspect of his definition perfectly as she can be seen as both the epitome of good and evil within the play, depending on one's perspective. Ibsen establishes Nora's character as not purely vapid (as we perhaps thought based on our first impression of her) but a woman who gave up the "necess[ities] of life" and went to extreme lengths to "save [her] husband's life", even though it was considered "imprudent" in Victorian society, where a woman was "transferred" from being, firstly a good daughter, secondly a good wife and finally a good mother. Consequently, Nora's character can also be seen as having 'bad characteristics' (one of Aristotle's prerequisites of being a tragic hero) as she undoubtedly "commit[ted] a fraud" and as Krogstad says, "the law cares nothing about motives", even if Nora "did it for love's sake". Ibsen stated that 'a woman cannot be herself in modern society. It is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men' with no regard to female emotions.
Torvald "shakes his finger" at Nora and says that "a songbird must have a clean beak to chirp with". Ibsen's use of stage direction clearly shows Torvald's condescending behaviour towards his wife. It also shows that even after eight years of marriage, Torvald Helmer underestimates his wife's character or capabilities to the extent that it is questionable whether he knows her at all. Ibsen suggests that even though the plot unfolds in a male dominated society, those same men could be easily deceived by their wives, as shown by Torvald and Nora's relationship. Even though Ibsen has followed Aristotle's idea, he has left it open to interpretation as Nora's actions can be interpreted as 'good' or 'bad'.
Ibsen portrays Nora as being coquettish, using her beauty and charisma to her advantage as she "play(s) with [Torvald's] coat buttons without raising her eyes to his", mere domestic, flirtatious behaviour. However, it adds complexity to Nora's character, as she is manipulating her husband into giving her what she desires. Alternatively, Ibsen could be portraying that women were now breaking away from the restraints of the social norm, where "before all else, [they] are a wife and a mother". As it is revealed to us that Nora "saved Torvald's life", we know that she is not just a "dollwife", but a woman of intellectual complexity. Ibsen adds psychological depth to Nora's character, depth that was previously uncommon within female characters in drama, a prime example being Shakespeare's Ophelia.
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The play follows Aristotle's rule -'the tragic hero has a tragic flaw, or hamartia, that is the cause of his downfall'-, establishing Nora as a tragic heroine. Nora Helmer's tragic flaw is undoubtedly her naiveté. As Aristotle stated, 'the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw' and it can be said that it is Nora's innocence that inevitably leads her to her tragic fall. As I have previously discussed, Torvald consistently displays condescending and demeaning behaviour towards Nora, calling her a "little featherhead" and an "obstinate little person", and Nora seems to perceive his abusive and controlling behaviour as a sign that "Torvald is so absurdly fond of [her]". Nora regards her husband as having no "moral failings", and "man enough to take everything upon [him]self" to the extent that "he would never for a moment hesitate to give his life for [her]". Torvald's 'morality' is what makes his actions so shocking when he refuses to save her and accuses her of having "no religion, no morality, no sense of duty", when in fact the reason behind her immorality was Torvald himself. Nora's understanding of her hamartia permits her to reach catharsis which is 'a secular moment of self realisation', allowing her to therefore rectify her 'problem' and complete her journey to be a tragic heroine. During Act II, Nora starts to realize her flaw, she starts to realize that she is not Torvald's "dollwife" living in his "play room". This is made evident in the play as Nora disagrees with Torvald and says he has a "narrow-minded way of looking at things". Even though this 'realization' is nowhere as dramatic as it would have been in classical tragedy, Nora's actions have the same effect on the audience as she voices her opinion, taking on the dominant role in their relationship.
Aristotle also states that 'the tragic hero is someone people can relate to'. Ibsen has made this possible by setting his play within a typical affluent Victorian household, and uses Nora to depict the oppression of women, and how they have been dehumanized to mere objects of entertainment, particularly in the middle-class society. George Bernard Shaw agrees that the play's domestic setting makes 'the characters recognizable people' as their 'problems were familiar to the audience'. Ibsen illustrates the Helmer's broken marriage through Nora "taking off [her] fancy dress", her changing into regular clothing symbolises the shedding of all illusions about their marriage. He uses the metaphor of a cold, wintry night to depict the frosty atmosphere of the Helmer household. Ibsen shows how Nora has "existed merely to perform tricks for [Torvald]" through the tarantella, a folk dance that was traditionally performed to purge oneself of poison, showing the intensity of the control Torvald has over her.
Finally, Aristotle argues that 'the tragic hero always falls in the end, and that is why he is called a tragic hero. His tragic flaw always ends up in tragedy for himself and for those around him.' The plays climaxes when Nora leaves her husband and children, which can be regarded as her 'fall'. This can be regarded as either an assertion of her humanity or as a negligence of her "most sacred duties", as she "forsake(s) [her] husband and children". However, In my opinion, Nora is not abandoning any duties as even though she had "borne [Torvald] three children", it was their maid Anne-Marie that catered to all the children's needs, whereas "it was great fun when [Nora] played with [the children]", "the children have been [her] doll's". Subsequently, it can be seen as liberation for Nora as her whole life, she was "simply transferred from Papa's hands to [Torvald's]", allowing her to "make nothing of [her] life". It is here when our "little skylark" finally flies away from her cage, attaining freedom. Aristotle agrees that 'the fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge', as Nora slams the door shut on her marriage. It can be said that Ibsen uses his final stage direction to symbolise the possible decline of patriarchy, 'the closing of 19th century beliefs and the birth of Modernism'.
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Throughout the play, Nora takes on many different roles, making her character difficult to 'compartmentalise', but as a critic says, 'the greatest dramatic characters have the freedom of incongruity'. In A Doll's House, Ibsen presents us with a character that at first glance appears to be a "featherhead", but follows the Aristotelian journey of a tragic hero, from hamartia to catharsis to her tragic fall. Aristotle says that 'the tragic hero is a character of noble stature and has greatness', and even though Nora is just an ordinary Victorian housewife, it is undeniable that she does in fact possess 'greatness', making Nora a modern tragic heroine.