A Doll's House questions the traditional roles of men and women in 19th-century marriage. To many 19th-century Europeans, this was scandalous. The covenant of marriage was considered holy, and to portray it as Ibsen did was controversial. However, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw found Ibsen's willingness to examine society without prejudice exhilarating.
The Swedish playwright August Strindberg criticised the play in his volume of essays and short stories Getting Married (1884). Strindberg questioned Nora's walking out and leaving her children behind with a man that she herself disapproved of so much that she would not remain with him. Strindberg also considers that Nora's involvement with an illegal financial fraud that involved Nora forging a signature, all done behind her husband's back, and then Nora's lying to her husband regarding Krogstad's blackmail, are serious crimes that should raise questions at the end of the play, when Nora is moralistically judging her husband. And Strindberg points out that Nora's complaint that she and Torvald “have never exchanged one serious word about serious things,” is contradicted by the discussions that occur in act one and two.
The reasons Nora leaves her husband are complex, and various details are hinted at throughout the play. In the last scene, she tells her husband she has been “greatly wronged” by his disparaging and condescending treatment of her, and his attitude towards her in their marriage — as though she were his “doll wife” — and the children in turn have become her “dolls,” leading her to doubt her own qualifications to raise her children. She is troubled by her husband's behavior in regard to the scandal of the loaned money. She does not love her husband, she feels they are strangers, she feels completely confused, and suggests that her issues are shared by many women. George Bernard Shaw suggests that she left to begin “a journey in search of self-respect and apprenticeship to life,” and that her revolt is “the end of a chapter of human history.”
Ibsen was inspired by the belief that "a woman cannot be herself in modern society," since it is "an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint." Its ideas can also be seen as having a wider application: Michael Meyer argued that the play's theme is not women's rights, but rather "the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is and to strive to become that person." In a speech given to the Norwegian Association for Women's Rights in 1898, Ibsen insisted that he "must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women's rights movement," since he wrote "without any conscious thought of making propaganda," his task having been "the description of humanity."
Because of the departure from traditional behavior and theatrical convention involved in Nora's leaving home, her act of slamming the door as she leaves has come to represent the play itself. In Iconoclasts (1905), James Huneker noted "That slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world."