Happiness as a vain illusion in Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ and Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale’

‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and ‘A Dolls’s House’ both examine the idea of marriage, and what a truthful marriage really is. In Chaucer’s fabliau, and satire of courtly love, Januarie’s incorrect and over optimistic view of marriage appears as a vain illusion, especially when the audience is introduced to May’s clandestine affair with Damyan. Despite this, at the end of the poem, one could argue that in the end the happiness of the pair does seem apparent, as both Januarie and May appear to satisfy each other’s’ needs. In Ibsen’s play, this dynamic is in reverse, with the happiness of the Helmer’s marriage coming first, until later on in the play, when Nora realises that her happiness has been an illusion and decides to leave her life behind and begin anew. Critic August Stringberg notes that it was ‘A Doll’s House’ revealed that marriage was no “divine institution,” and strengthened the idea that happiness is indeed an illusion, especially for Nora and Helmer.

The moment at which the illusion is realised for Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ is somewhat difficult to pinpoint. The audience certainly realise the severity of her actions and the realism of it with the slamming of the door. It is Nora’s own belief in “miracles” that makes her realise the illusion that is her marriage, and makes her see that Helmer is not her knight in shining armour, but in fact vain. His vanity in this scenario makes her realise the true extent of her situation. After his masculine claim that he will not be “lacking in strength or courage” when the real crisis comes, Nora intently waits for the “miracle to happen,” and for him to save her from the scandal of the loan. For Helmer, being able to save his wife is what feeds his ego and superiority, as he needs her to be dependent on him so that he can retain his control over her. Helmer’s tirade, when finding out about the letter, is what shatters the illusion of her marriage, as Helmer’s lack of appreciation hurts her, as she has previously proclaimed that she had saved his “life.” Helmer is much more distressed that she has taken her role as wife too far, and broken societal norms as laid down by Coventry Patmore’s poem ‘The Angel in the House,’ which described the typical role of  a Victorian woman. The patriarchal society in which the characters live dictates that it is the man who should deal with finances, adding to the idea that men and women have different ‘spheres,’ the one of the woman being totally domestic. It is Nora’s actions that have “ruined” his “whole future,” even though it was she who gave him a future. His declaration that he has “forgiven” her is also insulting, as he lays the blame on her and glorifies his own actions, as the man who forgave, and allowed her back into his life. It is in this moment that Nora realises that she is undervalued and underappreciated, building to the realisation that her happiness in her marriage was an illusion, partly due to the vanity of Helmer, and the lack of appreciation he shows his wife. In this respect, Raymond Williams notes that the play is “anti-romantic,” as there appears to be no warmth between Nora and Helmer.

When building on the lack of miracles within their marriage, for Nora and Helmer, it is clear that the statement ‘happiness is a vain illusion’ could not be more fitting. Nora, in her greatest moment of strength exchanges her colourful clothes, tears away the façade of her marriage and discovers her true identity. She then declares that she has “changed,” and the audience is aware of this not just in the literal sense. Nora lays down the law to Helmer, declaring that she has just “had fun,” and that instead of being his equal, Nora has been his pretty “doll-wife.” His obsession with image, and her “pretty little eyes” and “delicate little hands” support the idea, that Nora is his trophy wife. After being let down by the non existent miracle Nora realises that her happiness has been fake, as has Helmer’s love for her in her view, as he cares only for his social position and image. One pinpoints the disappointment of the miracle as being the reason that pushes Nora to understand that a “great wrong” has been done against her, and that societal bonds have entrapped her within a loveless and worthless marriage. In order to combat this, she breaks free of societal shackles, and fulfils the “need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is, and to strive to become that person” as Michael Meyer notes. This need is more important to Nora than maintaining the image of her happy marriage, as she wants to search for something real, in the real “world.” For Nora, happiness is a total illusion, and she denounces the validity of her entire marriage as soon as she claims that Helmer never loved her. In this respect, the marriage can be seen as a vain illusion, as all efforts to keep up the façade of a happy marriage have failed for Nora and Helmer.

When arguing against this illusion, it is fair to point out that the two had been happily married for “eight years.” This happiness is channelled by Nora herself, as she enjoyed making Torvald happy, and being responsible for saving his “life,” and also adding to his vanity. This gave her great “pride and joy,” and it may be difficult for the audience to understand why this was an illusion, when to Nora it was clearly not. Nora herself delights in furnishing the house with “nice things just the way Torvald likes,” and thrives on making Torvald happy, and the attention he gives her for it. This is demonstrated in the dancing of the “tarantella,” as Nora notes that it is Torvald that “wants” her to go dressed as a “fisher girl.” It is obvious that in this form, she arouses Torvald, and she is more than happy to oblige. He also wishes to fuel his own vanity, by parading her in front of the party in an attempt to make people jealous of him, as Nora is his. However, in the case of the tarantella, Nora’s excitement and happiness are an illusion, as the moral implications of the letter are weighing on her mind. The tarantella was usually performed following a bite from the wolf spider, and it was thought that the dance would prevent a dangerous fit of hysteria, which would result in death. This emphasises the meaning of the tarantella to Nora, and it is not one of pleasure. One could also argue that the pair still find each other physically attractive, as they have had three children. However, this could lead one to argue that sexual attraction does not constitute a happy marriage. Even after Helmer finds out about the loan, Nora still declares to him that she loved him “more than anything else in the world.” As the miracle has already failed her, one questions whether happiness is truly an illusion for Nora, as this profession of love does seem genuine despite the underlying melodramatic tone.

Januarie’s perception of marriage does appear to be a vain illusion throughout the poem, as he is made to be a “cokewold.” Januarie justifies his new desire to marry saying that there is is “so parfit felicitee,” and that within marriage, the couple will experience “hevene in erthe here.” Januarie also wants a wife so that he can get himself an heir, and he also wants to be able to “pleye,” which within the context of marriage is perfectly permissible. Januarie’s true intentions are revealed in his declaration that his new wife “shal natte pass twenty” years old. Januarie hopes that marriage will provide him with sexual fulfilment, as well as an air. It is also permissible to speculate that having a young wife will make other men jealous, fuelling his own vanity, much like Helmer and Nora. Critic Aisling Murray notes that his objectification of women is commonplace, and he expects to be able to do what he likes. It is this mindset that makes Januarie think that marriage will be full of bliss and happiness, as it will allow him to do what he likes without being judged negatively by society. However, for Januarie this happiness is an illusion, and this is realised by the audience when “fresshe” May begins her clandestine affair with “this Damyan.” The use of the word “fresshe” highlights the irony surrounding May, as she is in no way pure or chaste. Januarie’s metaphorical and moral blindness continues until his “sighte” is restored, in which he realises that his happiness has been an illusion, and that his wife has been having an affair. Although May provides him with a “suffisant answere” to persuade him otherwise, it is at this moment that Januarie realises his happiness with May has been an illusion, and his own perceptions and views of marriage have been changed, with the restoring of his sight as he realises that his happiness has been an illusion, as the wife that he has adored has been having an affair with his “owene man.”

Although this encounter dispels the myths about happiness and truth within marriage one could still argue that Januarie’s discovery of the truth strengthens the bond between himself and his wife. Prior to this, Januarie, upon becoming “blind” appears humble, and notes that he can at times be “jalous.” He understands that her “beauty” may not belong with the “unlikely elde” of him and ultimately that he would be at a loss without her “compaignye.” Januarie appears to mature, and realises his need for human companionship, rather than sexual pleasure. This appears to be the first point in the poem in which he shows genuine affection for May. After she convinces him of her innocence, he “hire wombe he stroketh hire ful softe.” When discussing happiness, it could be argued that both Janurie and May are at their happiest here, and their struggle towards happiness has not been in vain. Januarie has believed May’s innocence, and as Proserpina has gifted her with the answers that she needs, she is free to continue her clandestine affair with Damyan. Perhaps this is permitted as Januarie realises that he is not worthy of the beauty of May, and that he doesn’t want to lose her. For May, as well as this permission, she has financial security and an increased status through marriage, and appears to have everything that women in the 13th century sought to obtain through an advantageous marriage. The focus on the “wombe” could imply that May is pregnant, although we don’t know the paternity of the child. By his stroking of the womb, one can expect that Januarie will raise the child as his own heir, meaning that the needs of the husband and wife are well satisfied by the conclusion of the poem. The happiness lies in the compromise that has occurred between the two, which allows them to forgive and forget their past mistakes and go forth stronger and happier.

A similar scenario occurs in ‘A Doll’s House’ between Linde and Krogstad. The set up of the ‘Well Made Play’ consists of a simple plot and set up of characters, and in keeping with this theme, the story of Linde and Krogstad form one of the two plot strands, and contrast the relationship of Helmer and Nora. Linde acts a foil to the character of Nora, as she displays great maturity, which she has acquired though her experience of “poverty.” Linde notes that she couldn’t marry Krogstad due to his lack of “money,” which caused considerable anguish for him. Their relationship appears to be one of great emotional depth as Linde claims that Krogstad would have once done “anything” for her. In their last conversation of the play, Linde asks to be reunited with Krogstad, as she needs someone to “work for,” and wishes to be a “mother” to his children. Her declaration that her and Krogstad “need each other” carries great emotional resonance, as each of them have changed since their last meeting, but have both wanted to be with each other since. In a way this conversation makes it appear that happiness is no vain illusion, and that there is genuine hope within the world of the play for an honest, loving relationship to emerge. Perhaps it is the separation and time that allowed Linde and Krogstad to grow and reflect on their previous encounter, and maybe something like this would be beneficial to Nora and Helmer.

In the world of ‘The Merchants Tale’ and ‘A Doll’s House’ happiness could be seen as a vain illusion because of the setting. The “gardyn” is used to fuel Januarie’s sexual appetite, and bolster his vanity, as he feels that in the garden he will perform better sexually. The images of the “welle” and phallic trees emphasise the object of the garden, to expand Januarie’s sexual fantasies. However, this image of vanity is too an illusion, with the entrance of the “lechour in the tree,” who is sitting “under a bussh anon.” The entrance of Damyan destroys Januarie’s dreams about the garden, and effectively steals the attention from Januarie, through May, as Damyan becomes her only concern within the garden. The garden is also used to demonstrate Januarie’s paradise, leading to a satire of Genesis. It is Damyan who, like Satan, destroys the perfection of the garden and shatters the present illusion.[1]

For Nora and Helmer, their apartment also represents this vanity, although it is “comfortable and tastefully” furnished, it is not “expensively” furnished. In creating the Helmer’s Ibsen formed a classic bourgeois family, which would have been greatly relatable in the 17th century. The audience would’ve felt that they were looking into their own apartment, the difference being the dramatic events that occurred within. The “stove” in the play appears to represent the warmth within the apartment and gives the impression of the harmony within the family home. Nora uses the stove to extort money from Helmer, whilst playing with his “coat buttons.” The entrance of outside forces into the apartment represents great danger for Nora, and shatters the illusion of security, represented by the stove. Even by leaving the door “ajar,” Krogstad is able to enter from the cold, outside world, and disrupt Nora’s “games” with her children. It is from this point that the illusion of happiness within the house begins to falter, as Krogstad begins to exert his influence over Nora, using the “I.O.U” as leverage.[2]

Although both couples realise that happiness is a vain illusion at different times, both marriages suffer for it. Januarie suffers towards the end of the poem upon finding out about May’s affair, but seemingly forgives her in the hope that she will produce him an heir, and in the hope that she will continue to be his companion. In contrast to this somewhat happy ending, for Nora and Helmer, the realisation of the illusion comes at a crucial point for Nora, who comes to terms with the fact that she needs to discover the world herself, and no longer be caged within the apartment by Helmer. In discovering this, she realises that her marriage has been nothing but a vain illusion.


[1] All quotes from:

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Merchants Prologue and Tale, ed. Sheila Innes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[2] All quotes from:

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House, ed. by Nick Worral (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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