A Doll's House
by Henrik Ibsen
Where It All Goes Down
The Helmers' Living Room, Victorian Era, Norway
Another super-famous playwright, George Bernard Shaw, said that A Doll's House is set in "every suburb in Europe." You could probably tack "America" and "a good portion of the rest of the world" onto that statement as well.
Though the play is set in Ibsen's native Norway, the characters don't spend a lot of time talking about things that are specifically Norwegian. The Helmers' living room is typical of any "respectable" middle-class room you might've seen at the time. The choice of making the setting a bit generic is no accident—it allowed audiences everywhere to immediately superimpose their own lives onto the lives of the Helmers. Because of this, there was no place to hide from Ibsen's message of a necessary spiritual awakening.
But, luckily, we can't identify with the setting of A Doll's House quite as much these days. That's because it's very much of its time: the hyper-repressed Victorian Era.
And when we say hyper-repressed, we mean hyper-repressed. Back in ye olde Victorian Era, talk of sex and even babies was distasteful. Gender roles were more confining than a corset. Women were expected to be submissive to their husbands; husbands were expected to dominate. Women raised the children; men brought home the bacon. Case closed.
Anyone who challenged these deeply entrenched values faced some serious consequences. This charged atmosphere of gender division was the reason that the play became such a phenomenon. There's a good chance that, without the controversy, we'd have never even heard of A Doll's House. Needless to say, the pressure of strict Victorian values is the spark that ignites the play's central conflicts.