Character Analysis in A Doll's House
Ibsen uses actions and stage directions rather than lengthy descriptions to illustrate the disastrous effects that strict, confining societal expectations have on his characters. The actions of the characters emphasize the disconnect between the complex internal desires and motivations of the characters and the powerful pressures of society to fit into a rigid set of socially acceptable norms. Nora feels that she must be the perfect “doll-like” housewife and mother, but this requires that she “play pretend” to be less intelligent and capable than she is. Torvald must assert his authority by perceiving Nora as a helpless “little lark,” even though he is attracted to her independent, bold side when she dances. The highly self-sufficient, widowed Mrs. Linde seeks contentment via a new husband, as she feels lost in society without playing the role of wife or mother. Generally, the characters’ actions are continually governed by their social setting, but ever at odds with their personal needs and aspirations. It is only by breaking down these social constraints, Ibsen suggests, that the individuals can truly understand themselves.
Character Analysis Examples in A Doll's House:
"to have something in reserve..." See in text (Act I)
Though readers should feel sympathy for Nora's predicament, it's important to point out that Nora's holding something "in reserve" is in itself a benign form of manipulation. If she's waiting to tell him until he's tired of her, then she intends to leverage her sacrifice against him as emotional blackmail. As in, "You can't leave me. I saved your life."
"no credit..." See in text (Act I)
For someone originally characterized as having little regard for money, Nora uses a great deal of financial terms, like "credit," in casual conversation. In this sentence, credit means both a credit in an account and a credit to her character, in the sense that she claims or "gets" credit for saving her husband's life.
"something to be proud and glad of..." See in text (Act I)
Nora refers to this as both an "important" thing and a cause of trouble, suggesting that her gladness and pride have come at a considerable cost. This seems like a particularly important revelation for her and marks the beginning of a shift from believing that she's happy to realizing that there might be problems in her marriage.
"You ought not to be so superior..." See in text (Act I)
Notice how Nora balks when Christine calls her a child. That wasn't the case a few minutes earlier, when Torvald said it, which suggests that Nora does find this description demeaning. It further suggests that there are gendered lines to what someone can and cannot say, and that men can make claims women can't in this society.
"backwater..." See in text (Act I)
That is, a small and not very well-known place that isn't connected to the bigger metropolitan areas. This kind of setting would've made it very difficult for Mrs. Linde, a widow, to find reasonable work or make meaningful social connections. Hence, her visit to Nora, with whom she hasn't been close in nine years.
"pretty little hands..." See in text (Act I)
In the 19th century, when this play was written, women of Nora's social station weren't allowed to "work" in the proper sense. Nora wouldn't have done much of her own cooking and cleaning, thus sparing her "pretty little hands." Their softness is a source of pride to Torvald and a symbol of her inability to manage her own affairs.
"as a matter of course..." See in text (Act I)
Torvald's stiffness is here manifested in his speech, which seems old-fashioned and more than a little presumptuous. It simply never occurs to him that Doctor Rank would have a life outside of their social circle, which says as much about the Doctor as it does about Torvald.
"little persons..." See in text (Act I)
Ibsen's use of adjectives like "little" and nouns like "spendthrift" and "skylark" or "squirrel" diminish Nora, making her not just smaller but younger, like a cartoon character flitting about their little house. Torvald might as well have called her a child.
"borrowed fifty pounds to-day..." See in text (Act I)
Though there have already been many mentions of money in the play, this line marks the first mention of borrowing or debt. That Torvald can only think of this as a hypothetical rather than as a reality separates him from Nora ideologically, because she's all too comfortable with the idea of borrowing under the right circumstances.
"bag of macaroons..." See in text (Act I)
In this first scene, Ibsen characterizes Nora as self-indulgent and financially irresponsible, as symbolized by the bag of macaroons. All of the items on stage (the Christmas tree, the packages, the sweets) can be seen as foils for Nora's character, each one of them reflecting her desire (and her inability) to live well.
"but not extravagantly..." See in text (Act I)
This early description of the house sets the tone for the rest of the play. Ibsen uses it to foreshadow Nora's obsession with money and her anxieties about not having enough of it. As you read, keep an eye out for words like "extravagant" and "spendthrift" and how they're used to characterize Nora.
"naturally Torvald has never been willing to do that..." See in text (Act I)
Taken in the context of Torvald's profession as a barrister (lawyer), the "unsavoury cases" referred to in this line are cases in which the innocence of the defendant is questionable or shady dealings are involved. Ibsen's use of this line to characterize Torvald foreshadows his later inability to abide being associated with people of weak morals.
"Is that my little lark twittering out there..." See in text (Act I)
This phrase typifies the interactions between Nora and her husband Torvald, who treats her like a child incapable of understanding the import of money. These interactions are typical of marriages in the 19th Century, in which women were considered subservient. Ibsen appears to be playing this up for great dramatic effect.
"You can do nothing for me now. ..." See in text (Act II)
Nora was going to ask Dr. Rank for a favor, which we can infer was probably to lend her the money to pay Krogstad back. However, her plans are interrupted when Dr. Rank professes his love for her. Nora no longer feels comfortable asking Rank for the money after this confession. We might reason that this could be because it would make the loan feel inappropriate—she would no longer be asking a good friend for money, but a professed admirer.
"changed his mind at his wife's bidding—..." See in text (Act II)
Torvald suggests that part of his unwillingness to change his mind about firing Krogstad is because it will reflect badly on his reputation. At this time in history, a man who could be swayed by his wife’s (or any woman’s) opinions in business would have been considered weak. Torvald feels obligated to his decision, at least in part, because he is worried that his coworkers would view him as weak or less “manly.”
"But I often talk about such things with Doctor Rank, because he likes hearing about them...." See in text (Act II)
Torvald does not like to hear about Nora’s past in the same way that Dr. Rank does because Torvald becomes very jealous of other people in Nora’s life. Dr. Rank offers Nora the freedom to express herself—to reflect on her past in a way that Torvald never does. This is another instance of Torvald’s tendency (whether intentional or not) to confine Nora.
"Tarantella..." See in text (Act II)
The “Tarantella” is a lively and incredibly fast-paced Italian dance. Torvald is deeply attracted to Nora when she dances the Tarantella as it requires that Nora allow herself to be more free and spirited than in the home. Torvald keeps her under strict confines in the home, but he is captivated by her uninhibited side, a contradictory quality that might speak to the role of women in marriage at the time. Women were “supposed” to be refined child rearers, but also alluring when their husband wanted them to be.
"had no other mother but me..." See in text (Act II)
This line reveals that Nora was raised by the same nurse who now helps raise Nora’s own children. though we are not given any information detailing why Nora’s birth mother was not around. Consider that Nora expresses concern that the nurse is no longer in contact with her own daughter, whom we can infer the nurse gave up for adoption in order to raise Nora. Note the complete absence of fathers in this conversation might be a commentary on the caretaking role that society forces women into.
"if she went away altogether?..." See in text (Act II)
Consider why Nora might ask the nurse this question. Since Krogstad has blackmailed Nora to persuade Torvald to let Krogstad keep his job at the bank, and Torvald has refused, Nora is planning for the worst. When Nora asks what might happen to her children if she “went away altogether,” she might be contemplating fleeing or even suicide, judging by the nurse’s startled reaction to this question.
"Someone is coming now!..." See in text (Act II)
Nora interrupts her own dancing and “drops the cloak” when she fears that someone is approaching the door. Nora’s action suggests that she believes the “someone” is Krogstad and that he has arrived to reveal Nora’s secret to Torvald. Nora is understandably worried about this.
"I can correct her better then...." See in text (Act II)
Nora is constantly constrained by the social norms of her time. However when she dances, she is able to “let her hair down,” so to speak. Here, Nora is impervious to Torvald’s demands and “instructions” in a way that she cannot be when she is not dancing.
"our home has been nothing but a playroom..." See in text (Act III)
Nora compares her relationship with Torvald to her relationship with her late father. Nora states that her father saw her as his “doll-child” and Nora tells Torvald that she has been his “doll-wife.” The connection between Nora’s father and Torvald is integral here because it suggests that this is an issue that extends beyond both of these men to society as a whole. Ibsen uses Torvald and Nora’s father to illustrate the pervasiveness of the objectification of women—and Nora points out what a great “sin” this is.
"What do you suppose brought me to town?..." See in text (Act III)
Mrs. Linde tells Krogstad that he was her reason for coming to town in the first place. Recall that in Act I, Mrs. Linde told Nora that she felt like her work was done after her husband died and that it made her uneasy. Mrs. Linde suggested the same to Krogstad when she stated previously that she had “no one to mourn for, no one to care for.” We can look at Mrs. Linde and Krogstad’s relationship as a foil for Nora and Torvald’s. Mrs. Linde wants to care for someone as she grows older—in other words, she wants to be in exactly the same position that Nora is struggling to get out. Mrs. Linde is an independent and capable woman, but she does not know how she fits into her society if she is not a caretaker or someone’s wife. However, Krogstad acknowledges Mrs. Linde’s intelligence and capableness in a way that Torvald does not for Nora.
"The most wonderful thing of all—?..." See in text (Act III)
The last line of the play alludes to Nora’s reply to Torvald’s question asking if he could ever be “anything more than a stranger” to Nora. She replies that “the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.” Nora suggests that Torvald does not really know her at all; he only knows her as the doll that he has made her out to be. “The most wonderful thing” then, would be for Torvald to be able to see Nora as she really is—as a human being that is smart and capable. Nora suggests that this is nearly impossible, that Torvald cannot change. Ibsen leaves that up to the audience, as this last line implies that Torvald might be willing to change. We are left wondering though, if Torvald would be able to.
"[coldly and quietly]. Yes. ..." See in text (Act III)
Nora’s short, dispassionate replies to Torvald’s numerous angry insults and accusations illustrates that she has begun to detach herself from the situation and from her marriage. She accepts his insults coldly and without feeling, and because of this we get the sense that she does is somewhat impervious to them.
"I have often wished that you might be threatened by some great danger, so that I might risk my life's blood, and everything, for your sake..." See in text (Act III)
Here, Ibsen calls attention to Torvald’s desire to save the “damsel in distress,” so to speak. Torvald wants to be a hero, and we can see this reflected in his actions towards Nora throughout the play. Consider his tendency to imagine her to be helpless—he views her as childish. For example in Torvald’s eyes, Nora is incapable of managing finances, but we know that she is actually quite capable of doing so. By highlighting this character flaw, Ibsen makes a larger commentary on how society, at this time, perceived women as being helpless and men as being the ones to save them.
"little Nora talking about scientific investigations!..." See in text (Act III)
We have no reason to believe that Torvald knows any more about medicine than Nora does, but he views Nora’s comment as silly. Ibsen illustrates Torvald’s blindness to his wife’s intelligence. Torvald sees his “little Nora” as his “doll” and dolls do not have the capacity to contemplate “scientific investigations.”
"The chief thing is, she had made a success—she had made a tremendous success...." See in text (Act III)
Torvald says that Nora’s dance was “a trifle too realistic” and not “strictly compatible with the limitations of art.” However he then states that it doesn’t matter after all because Nora’s performance was such a “success.” We often gauge a performance’s successfulness by the audience’s reception. Torvald cares not that Nora genuinely enjoyed herself, but rather that the audience liked her performance. He is concerned with her appearance to others above all.
"This unhappy secret must be disclosed..." See in text (Act III)
Krogstad voices his concern that Mrs. Linde has been compelled to rekindle their relationship as a favor to Nora. Mrs. Linde admits that this was originally the case, but she has since changed her mind. Krogstad wants to go take the letter back before Torvald reads it, but Mrs. Linde is the one who stops him because there is too much “concealment and falsehood going on” in Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage.
"I am a shipwrecked man clinging to a bit of wreckage...." See in text (Act III)
Krogstad uses this metaphor (a comparison without using the terms ‘like’ or ‘as’) to describe how he felt when Mrs. Linde chose to marry her late husband instead of him. Mrs. Linde replies that she had her mother and younger brothers to look out for and she needed financial stability, which Krogstad could not offer her. When Krogstad says that he is “clinging to a bit of wreckage” he might be suggesting that he is still in love with Mrs. Linde.