Torvald Helmer’s character is that of a typical 19th century middle class male. He offers his family financial support and is a respectable member of society. Unfortunately, it is this and his inability to see past himself and society which makes Helmer a tragic character in ‘A Doll’s House.’
Helmer is a tragic character because of his inability to understand the true concept of love and marriage. Throughout the play different types of love are shown through all of the characters; however it is clear that Nora and Torvald Helmer’s love isn’t the type of love that ‘real’ marriages are based on; their love is illusive. Nora herself comments that “being with Torvald is a little like being with papa,” suggesting that the relationship is more child-wife rather than wife, the equal. However, in Act Three where Nora finally realises the truth about her marriage, it is Helmer who becomes the child as he doesn’t fully realise that his marriage was never real and neither was his love for Nora, as Nora points out “you just thought it was fun to be in love with me.” It is also tragic that upon hearing and forgiving Nora of her ‘crime’, Helmer doesn’t realise that he isn’t being the ideal husband when he claims that “she has become his property in a double sense…not only his wife but also his child.”
Ibsen implies that Helmer is incapable of understanding love and marriage based on equality. Helmer is also unable to see past society’s views. Although Ibsen has set the play in the Helmer’s living room, the idea of “what will society think” is constant throughout the play, especially where Helmer is concerned. Helmer is perceived as a tragic character because he is obsessed with reputation and fear of unfavourable public opinion, so much so that the marriage being a ‘sham’ becomes apparent to Nora. Helmer says “I am condemned to humiliation and ruin, simply for the weakness of a woman,” and “you have destroyed my happiness.” Helmer’s “self-contained, self-obsessed perception of the world” makes him highly tragic. In effect, Helmer has ruined his own marriage, and, of more concern to him, reputation because of his obsession.
‘A Doll’s House’ doesn’t just focus on women being trapped by traditional gender roles. Helmer’s character is made more tragic by the fact that he himself is imprisoned in a traditional male role, more so because of his obsession with reputation and his inability to understand the concept of an ‘equal marriage’. Helmer, in fairness, has played his part as ‘the male’ perfectly, as he says to Nora “you whom I have carried on my hands through all the year of our marriage. Helmer has been the perfect financial provider except for when Nora had to borrow money.
However, instead of taking Nora’s act as one of love, he sees it as a crime and only cares about the effect it will have on his life. Helmer is trapped by his gender role and his reputation, as Nora says to Mrs Linde “how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with all his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything.” Helmer, upon forgiving Nora, says “I would not be a true man if your feminine helplessness did not make you doubly attractive.” Helmer is quick to pretend to try and “be a true man” because that is what society expects of him, but in reality Helmer is a selfish coward and Helmer’s character is seen as doubly tragic, because deep down Nora knows it too, even if he himself doesn’t.
However, the most tragic suggestion around Helmer’s character is that Ibsen implies that there is no hope for him to change; he is completely caged by society. Ibsen starts to end Act three with “a hope strikes him,” implying that Helmer could change. Nora’s conversation with Helmer in Act Three suggested that because they were married they were unable to realise who they were as individuals, so couldn’t treat each other as equals, and that with Nora leaving the two could learn to be first and foremost individuals and then equals. However, finality is given with “the street door is slammed shut downstairs,” suggesting that though Nora has left and Helmer could change, he won’t; he is too trapped by social convention, gender roles and reputation.
In conclusion, Helmer is tragic as a character firstly because of his inability to understand true love and marriage and to see past society to himself. Without realising these ideas, Helmer can’t change so he is trapped by social convention and his gender role. Finally, his tragedy is made definite with the street door closing. Helmer’s home should be his shelter, but for him, it ends up being a prison.