Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and morality

In A Doll’s House (1879), Ibsen takes aim at an outmoded sense of morality. In the following excerpt, Torvald Helmer is lecturing his wife on morality, which for him is strongly gendered. The wife is primarily responsible for the generational transmission of morality

Helmer. My dear, I have often seen it in the course of my life as a lawyer. Almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.

Nora. Why do you only say–mother?

Helmer. It seems most commonly to be the mother’s influence, though naturally a bad father’s would have the same result. Every lawyer is familiar with the fact. This Krogstad, now, has been persistently poisoning his own children with lies and dissimulation; that is why I say he has lost all moral character. [Holds out his hands to her.] That is why my sweet little Nora must promise me not to plead his cause. Give me your hand on it. Come, come, what is this? Give me your hand. There now, that’s settled. I assure you it would be quite impossible for me to work with him; I literally feel physically ill when I am in the company of such people.

It’s significant that Helmer is a lawyer because the play deals with the distinction between law and justice.

Years earlier, Nora had forged her father’s signature on a loan application because she wanted the money to take her husband to Italy for his health, or to save his life, as she says. When Helmer learns of the forgery, he explodes.

Helmer. No tragic airs, please. [Locks the hall door.] Here you shall stay and give me an explanation. Do you understand what you have done? Answer me! Do you understand what you have done?

Nora [looks steadily at him and says with a growing look of coldness in her face]. Yes, now I am beginning to understand thoroughly.

Helmer [walking about the room]. What a horrible awakening! All these eight years–she who was my joy and pride–a hypocrite, a liar–worse, worse–a criminal! The unutterable ugliness of it all!–For shame! For shame! [NORA is silent and looks steadily at him. He stops in front of her.] I ought to have suspected that something of the sort would happen. I ought to have foreseen it. All your father’s want of principle–be silent!–all your father’s want of principle has come out in you. No religion, no morality, no sense of duty–. How I am punished for having winked at what he did! I did it for your sake, and this is how you repay me.

When she sees her husband’s true, selfish, ignorant nature, Nora questions what she learned of religion and the law. She also realizes that the law and justice are not the same thing. Ultimately, Nora must figure out morality for herself; she must make her own distinctions between right and wrong—not depend on notions handed down through cultural traditions.

Nora. I am afraid, Torvald, I do not exactly know what religion is.

Helmer. What are you saying?

Nora. I know nothing but what the clergyman said, when I went to be confirmed. He told us that religion was this, and that, and the other. When I am away from all this, and am alone, I will look into that matter too. I will see if what the clergyman said is true, or at all events if it is true for me.

Helmer. This is unheard of in a girl of your age! But if religion cannot lead you aright, let me try and awaken your conscience. I suppose you have some moral sense? Or–answer me–am I to think you have none?

Nora. I assure you, Torvald, that is not an easy question to answer. I really don’t know. The thing perplexes me altogether. I only know that you and I look at it in quite a different light. I am learning, too, that the law is quite another thing from what I supposed; but I find it impossible to convince myself that the law is right. According to it a woman has no right to spare her old dying father, or to save her husband’s life. I can’t believe that.

For Helmer–and for most of Ibsen’s audience at the time–religion, morality, law, and duty were closely tied together. Thus, the play was shocking. But the point, from a social systems theory perspective, is that the morality and the traditional codes of duty that arose in a stratified society cannot survive under conditions of functional differentiation. The individual is no longer locked into the family, women cannot be (legally) controlled by their husbands, and duties are not imposed by God. Moreover, the law is just one of several function systems. The law does not derive from God or nature; it is contingent and could always be other than it is. So where previously the concepts of morality, duty, law, religion were tightly bound together, these things have been scattered in all directions.

Helmer focuses entirely on morality because it can’t grasp the complexity of the social changes happening around him. He simplifies everything by focusing on morality. For him, Nora is an isolated agent making decisions that have nothing to do with a changing society.

Morality and justice are closely related; they are both two-sided forms, which may be represented as just/unjust and moral/immoral. The function systems, of which the legal system is just one, can operate without these forms. There is no reason the law has to be linked to morality or justice. Nor must morality be associated with religion. Religion can be completely amoral (e.g., mysticism, antinomianism) or actually immoral–as we see any many cults, religious wars, etc. Luhmann argued that traditional morality (and we can add justice) poses no obstacle for the operations of any of the function systems:

The separation frees up the combinatrics, enabling an immoral application of law, or an illegal acquisition of property, or an unwelcome (“welcome/unwelcome”!) transfer of property into power. . . . [The old] form of integration has to be relinquished along with the enormous relevance of morality. Typically system codes are thus distinguished from moral coding, avoiding any congruence of positive/negative values with those of morality. Property and law, truth, and even political power have to be available for immoral applications.

A Systems Theory of Religion, 48

We see in thinkers like John Stuart Mill, who died six years before the premiere of A Doll’s House, that morality and religion are only loosely coupled. For Mill, and his father, Christianity actually undermined morality.

In modernity, the universal validity of the law comes into question. The law is no longer simply God’s law or the monarch’s law or a reflection of Nature; the law is contingent, and it is not the same thing as justice. The law, like religion, is also only one function system among several. Justice is an idea, concept, aspiration, or topic of conversation, but the law is what society actually uses to stabilize normative expectations. Ibsen and Chekhov shared an interest in the question of morality–specifically, how a morality based on social hierarchy, or stratification, cannot survive in a functionally differentiated society. Dostoyevsky also explores the link between morality and religion, and the threat of nihilism. Another great Russian novelist of the time, Turgenev, also dealt with the question of nihilism. This can all be traced back to antinomianism, or the delinking of religion and morality.

Many Christians—those who have looked more deeply into the issue—will tell you that the Christian gospel has nothing to do with reforming or improving behavior; it’s not a program for moral improvement or character rehabilitation—and it certainly isn’t about prosperity or personal achievement! According to a correct reading of the New Testament, no human being can ever be good; only God is good. Jesus, by his own admission, wasn’t even good. See Mark 10:18: “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good. No one is good except God alone.’” The Christian gospel is about being loved by God (and loving one another) despite human immorality or sin. This is how the New Testament broke from the Old Testament, which is all about morality and punishment for transgressions.


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