Realism and Naturalism - Ibsen and 'The Doll's House'


Details are also the thing in the sphere of psychology.

God preserve us from generalisations. Best of all, avoid depicting the hero's state of mind; you ought to try to make it clear from the hero's actions. It is not necessary to portray many active figures. The center of gravity should be two persons - he and she.

(Anton Chekhov to his brother Alexander from Ernest Simmons ''Introduction to Russian Realism)


  • The turn of the century saw a move towards selectivity rather than generalisations in the work of modern dramatists
  • The emphasis was on human psychology and the relationships between men and women
  • Realists such as Henrik Ibsen favoured work which reflected social problems whilst Emile Zola, a naturalist writer, advocated scientific observation (hence the rise of naturalism in theatre) where life was revealed indiscriminately in a non-selective, photographic way
  • In short, drama was no longer represented in artificial and contrived ways - melodramatic and romanticised approaches to dramatic form was rejected.
  • Realism fuelled by advances in modern science and rational thinking (deduction and explanation). The work of Charles Darwin (1859) gave impetus to the dramatists with its focus on environment and heredity.


Distinctions between realism and naturalism

Let' s consider the differences between the work of the realists (e.g Ibsen) and those of the naturalists (e.g Chekhov and Zola). We can do this best by considering two speeches from associated plays. (reference: 'Acting in Person and in Style', 1980)

For eight years I've been waiting patiently; I knew, of course, that such things don't happen every day. Then, when this trouble came to me - I thought to myself; Now! Now the wonderful thing will happen! All the time Krogstad's letter was out there in the box, it never occurred to me for a single moment that you'd think of submitting to his conditions. I was absolutely convinced that you'd defy him - that you'd tell him to publish the thing to all the world; and that thenÉ

(Nora to Torvald. 'A Doll's House' by Henrik Ibsen)

Not only in two or three hundred years but in a million years of life will be just the same; it does not change, it remains stationary, following its own laws which we have nothing to do with or which, anyway fly backwards and forwards and whatever ideas, great or small, stray through their minds, they will go on flying just the same without knowing where or why. They fly and will continue to fly, however philosophic they may become; and it doesn't matter how philosophical they are so long as they go on flyingÉ

(Tusenbach 'The Three Sisters' by Anton Chekhov)


Nora's speech (realism)

  • In Nora's speech, the flow of words is orderly and selective, logical in intent
  • The lines are believeable and truthful although a little heightened
  • The character is inwardly motivated - this is a realistic speech


Tusenbach's speech (naturalism)

  • A closer representation to everyday, real life conversation with its uneven flow of cascading thoughts with at times a repetitious quality
  • Truthful and believeable with a use of silences and pause if so desired - this is a naturalistic speech.


The rise of Naturalism

  • Zola proposed the first naturalistic doctrine in 1873 in the introduction to his play Therese Raquin
  • Regarded man forming laws of human conduct through the powers of observation, analysis and classification
  • A rebellion against stereotyped formula of morality of the Romantic movement
  • Prescribed lifelike scenery, costumes and methods of acting 'a slice of life.'
  • Action on stage simplified and lifelike, characters psychologically motivated and physiologically correct in the way that looked and acted on stage

Reference: Crawford, J. (1984). 'Acting in Person and in Style' Wm.C.Brown Pub: IA.


Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) - a brief overview

  • Born into a wealthy family but father faced bankruptcy in 1828
  • Consequence was for Ibsen an early life of poverty with an inferior education
  • Left home in 1844 to become a pharmacist and only returned home once from that point
  • Early life of poverty left Ibsen resentful, stubborn, rebellious and aloof
  • In his adolescence formed a radical club dedicated to Scandinavian unity and freedom - heavy drinking and gambling (and an illegitimate child at 18) became a lifestyle
  • Began to write patriotic verses and by 1850 had written his first play Cataline whilst studying at university
  • His writing caught the attention of Ole Bull, the great Norwegian violinist who helped Ibsen secure a job as theatre poet and stage manager at the Bergen theatre
  • In 1858 married Susannah Thoresen and in 1857 became director of the Norwegian theatre
  • His interests were soon neglected however and he began drinking. This ended in depressive and drunken periods.
  • He left Norway in 1864 for Italy (where he wrote his best works) and did not return until 1981 when he retired


Ibsen's golden years of playwriting:

Romantic Period 1850-1873

Realistic Period 1877-1890

Symbolic Period 1892-1899


  • 1866 - Brand, well received and gave him a pension for the rest of his life (government granted)
  • 1867 - Peer Gynt (versed drama)
  • 1873 - Emperor and Galilean (historical narrative)
  • 1877 - Pillars of Society (realistic phase)
  • 1879 - A Doll's House (causing an uproar)
  • 1881 - Ghosts (another uproar about VD)
  • 1882 - An Enemy of the People (comedy)
  • 1892 - The Master Builder (with many in between)
  • 1894 - Little Eyolf
  • 1896 - John Gabriel Borkman
  • 1899 - When We Dead Awaken (verse drama)

  • Ibsen died in Norway in 1906

Reference: Edward T.Byrnes, Assistant Professor of English, Seton Hall University,


A Doll's House - An overview

  • Written in Rome at a time of revolution in Europe
  • A play in the realist genre, it did challenge the traditional well-made play mode which worked from the exposition, through to the rising action of the situation to the final solution or unravelling of a play's tensions or issues.
  • The last moments of the play where Nora tells Torvald she will leave him turns the tradition upside down for the audience.
  • Characters portrayed in realistic mode as imperfect and dimensional
  • The most obvious underlying theme is that of feminism; Nora's rejection of marriage and motherhood shocked audiences and many German productions of the 1880's altered the ending, which deeply upset Ibsen. (he called this 'a barbaric outrage!')


Focus on thematic, metaphoric and symbolic underpinnings


  • Dramatic action takes place in one room where Nora has been described as being 'trapped in domestic comfort'.

Male and female:

  • The place of women is explored through the institutions of motherhood and marriage (the children are like 'dolls' to Nora)
  • Torvald holds tight to the traditional view of women as homemakers and good mothers, the moral guardians of the children and the home.
  • He regards women rather like children who are helpless who need protection from the harsh realities of life; men are independent and the guardians
  • Nora is called many names throughout the play, 'little songbird.' 'little skylark,' 'little person,' 'squirrel.' 'lark,' 'little featherhead.' 'little woman,' 'little rogue,' 'helpless little mortal,' 'child.' 'charming little darling,' 'my frightened little singing bird,' 'miserable creature,' 'thoughtless woman,' 'blind foolish woman,' 'a heedless child,' - all indicating a lack of equality and respect for Nora's personage.

Materialism versus people

  • A great deal of importance is place on materialism rather than people
  • Money and materialism are viewed as ways of avoiding dealing at a personal and close communicative level with people.

Reference: ClassicNote on 'A Doll's House,'



Notable symbols:

Black hat and black cross - a symbol for death

Fisher girl costume - symbolises Nora's pretence of enjoying life

Italy - the good false image of Nora's life

Norway - reality

Doll house - the tendency of the characters to role-play

Toys - the act of pushing the roles onto Nora's children

Macaroons - Nora's deceit to her husband

Tarantella - Nora's agitation at her struggle with Krogstad and her husband

Christmas tree - the mood of the play

Stockings - Nora's attitude trying to please men and flirting with Rank

Letterbox and letter - stereotypes pressed on woman

Ring - marriage and its demise

Skylark - Torvald treating Nora like a child




© Copyright Dr Tracey Sanders 2006