The whole play takes place in one room. Until the last act, Nora is in every scene; she never seems to leave the room. The action of the play all comes to her. She is literally trapped in domestic comfort. She is given her “housekeeping” money by Helmer as though she is a doll in a doll's house. The play suggests that this treatment is condescending and not an appropriate way to treat one’s wife.
This play focuses on the ways that women are perceived in their various roles, especially in marriage and motherhood. Torvald, in particular, has a very clear but narrow definition of women's roles. He believes that it is the sacred duty of a woman to be a good wife and mother. Moreover, he tells Nora that women are responsible for the morality of their children. In essence, he sees women as childlike, helpless creatures detached from reality on the one hand, but on the other hand as influential moral forces responsible for the purity of the world through their influence in the home.
Ideas of 'manliness' are present in more subtle ways. Nora's description of Torvald suggests that she is partially aware of the inconsistent pressures on male roles as much as the inconsistent pressures on female roles in their society. Torvald's own conception of manliness is based on the value of total independence. He abhors the idea of financial or moral dependence on anyone. His strong desire for independence may put him out of touch with the reality of human interdependence.
Frequent references to Nora's father often equate her with him because of her actions and her disposition. Although people think he gave Nora and Torvald the money for their trip to Italy, it was actually Nora. She has more agency and decision-making skills than she is given credit for. Nora seems to wish to enjoy the privileges and power enjoyed by males in her society. She seems to understand the confinement she faces simply by virtue of her sex.
Torvald in particular focuses on money and material goods rather than people. His sense of manhood depends on his financial independence. He was an unsuccessful barrister because he refused to take "unsavory cases." As a result, he switched jobs to the bank, where he primarily deals with money. For him, money and materialism may be a way to avoid the complications of personal contact.
Nora is called a number of diminutive, childlike names by Torvald throughout the play. These include "little songbird," "squirrel," "lark," "little featherhead," "little skylark," "little person," and "little woman." Torvald commonly uses the modifier "little" before the names he calls Nora. These are all usually followed by the possessive "my," signaling Torvald's belief that Nora is his. This pattern seems like more than just a collection of pet names. Overall, he sees Nora as a child of his.
The Helmer children themselves are only a borderline presence in the play, never given any dialogue to speak, and then only briefly playing hide-and-seek (perhaps a nod toward the theme of deception). Ibsen's alternate ending had Nora persuaded not to leave by the presence of the children. But the play as we have it does not really emphasize their importance. The story focuses on the parents.
Light is used to illustrate Nora's personal journey. After the turning point of Torvald's claim to want to take everything upon himself and while Nora is talking to Dr. Rank, the light begins to grow dark just as Nora sinks to new levels of manipulation. When Dr. Rank reveals his affection, Nora is jolted out of this fantasy world into reality and insists on bringing a lamp into the room, telling the doctor that he must feel silly saying such things with the light on. Light, enlightenment, and shedding light on something all function as metaphors or idioms for understanding.
Dress and Costume
Nora's fancy dress for the party symbolizes the character she plays in her marriage to Torvald. Take note of when Nora is supposed to be wearing it and for whom. Note too that when she leaves Torvald in the last act, she first changes into different clothes, which suggests the new woman she is to become.
The play takes place around Christmas. The first act occurs on Christmas Eve, the second on Christmas Day, and the third on Boxing Day. Although there is a great deal of talk about morality throughout the play, Christmas is never presented as a religious holiday. Moreover, religion is directly questioned later by Nora in the third act. In fact, religion is discussed primarily as a material experience. Once again, what normally are important values for people and their relationships—children, personal contact, and, here, religion—are subordinate to materialism and selfish motives.
Dr. Rank has inherited his tuberculosis from his father, who lived a morally questionable life, and in much the same way Nora worries that her morally reprehensible actions (fraudulently signing her father's name) will infect her children. Corruption, the play suggests, is hereditary. As he does in other plays, such as The Wild Duck, Ibsen explores the tension between real life and moral ideals.
Are you really alive, if, like Nora, you are living in a delusional world? This question resounds throughout Ibsen's canon, particularly in The Wild Duck, and the question is important in judging how to respond to the play. Is the end of the play, for instance, the glorious triumph of individualism, the moment at which Nora really becomes herself, or is it a foolish, idealistic decision which is the beginning of the end of Nora's happiness?
A Doll’s House Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Doll’s House is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.