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Themes in A Doll's House

One of the most central themes of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is the concept of women as possessions in marriage and society as a whole. The play’s title alludes to this theme—Nora is Torvald’s “doll,” not his equal. The play is concerned with how all of its characters, but especially women, are forced to keep up appearances in order to fit into society’s roles.

Not only must Nora be a doll, she must live in a doll-home, successfully convincing Torvald and their social world that both her marriage and household are perfectly happy and problem-free. Naturally, the unyielding expectations of society necessitate deceit as characters struggle to force their outward appearances into these unrealistic repressive standards. Just as social norms require deception on the part of all characters, non-inclusive and unjust laws elicit deception for the marginalized, forcing arguably “honorable” people to commit crimes or to keep secrets.

Themes Examples in A Doll's House:

Act I

🔒 14

"Just think how a guilty man like that has to lie and play the hypocrite with every one, how he has to wear a mask in the presence of those near and dear to him, even before his own wife and children. And about the children—that is the most terrible part of it all, Nora...."   (Act I)

Nora is characterized as a loving mother who has a good relationship with her children. Up until this point, her forgery has been a point of pride and proof of her intelligence and bravery. However, Torvald has disrupted her personal narrative by emphasizing the dishonesty of her actions. The confidence with which she confronted Krogstad is gone. The thought of poisoning her children with deceit is genuinely upsetting to Nora and she begins to question her own actions.

"Aha! so my obstinate little woman is obliged to get someone to come to her rescue?..."   (Act I)

Not only does Torvald demean Nora, he also seems to enjoy the idea of her being a damsel in distress who needs saving. Nora plays into this idea by pretending to need his help. However, it is ultimately Nora who saves Torvald by getting the money to go to Italy. This action disrupts the false narrative that Torvald and Nora both perform, hinting that Torvald’s reaction to being “saved” will be less positive than Nora hopes.

"Does my little Nora acknowledge that at last? ..."   (Act I)

This line encapsulates Nora and Torvald’s relationship and showcases the idealized way they view each other. While Nora thinks of herself as capable and intelligent, Torvald sees her as “silly and insignificant.” Meanwhile, Nora views Torvald as a gallant gentleman who would do anything for her. She maintains her “little squirrel” persona around him in order to feed his desire to be her hero. This line showcases that their perceptions of each other are built on fantasies.

"I don't believe it. Is a daughter not to be allowed to spare her dying father anxiety and care? Is a wife not to be allowed to save her husband's life?..."   (Act I)

In keeping with the more straightforward social commentary that characterizes realism, Nora openly questions the value of laws that restrict women from being able to engage with the financial and political realms. From a moral standpoint, Nora has the high ground. It is not her fault that she wasn’t allowed to take out a loan because she is a woman. However, “the law cares nothing about motives.” By contrasting the moral high ground with the legal precedent, Ibsen is critiquing the discriminatory laws.

"My sons are growing up; for their sake I must try and win back as much respect as I can in the town...."   (Act I)

In contrast to the sense of personal pride and respect that Mrs. Linde and Nora feel, Krogstad’s pride is a much more public affair. Women and children took on the reputations of their husbands and fathers, so Krogstad cannot afford to let his pride depend on personal sacrifices made behind the scenes. Instead, he needs public recognition and respect in order for his sons to be able to live good lives. That Krogstad is a widower with obligations to his children sets him in contrast to Mrs. Linde, who dislikes not having anyone to take care of.

"[hiding the packet]. Hush! Hush! Hush! [HELMER comes out of his room, with his coat over his arm and his hat in his hand.]..."   (Act I)

Nora’s personality changes depending on the people she is around. Around Torvald, she plays the part of the sweet, spoiled wife who always behaves well and follows his instructions. However, around Doctor Rank and Mrs. Linde, she swears, eats forbidden pastries, and exchanges witty banter. Doctor Rank seems to understand this and indicates that even if Nora cannot say certain things around Torvald, she can say them around her friends. Doctor Rank accepts Nora for who she is, whereas Torvald loves her for the part she plays.

"to know that he owed me anything! It would upset our mutual relations altogether; our beautiful happy home would no longer be what it is now...."   (Act I)

Nora correctly predicts the outcome of Torvald discovering her actions, but she fails to foresee the cause for the upsetting of their “mutual relations.” In Nora’s mind, Torvald will be so grateful that he will feel indebted to her. This will result in him respecting her more and the gender dynamic of their marriage shifting. Nora is proud of her actions and believes that Torvald will be proud of her too. Mrs. Linde offers the first hint that Nora’s assumptions are incorrect.

"You are proud..."   (Act I)

Pride is an important concept in A Doll’s House, existing in varying degrees in all of the primary characters. Of particular note, however, is the difference between masculine pride and feminine pride. Mrs. Linde’s sacrifices for her mother and brothers are a source of pride, just as Nora’s sacrifices for her husband are. Despite being looked down on by men and society, both Nora and Mrs. Linde are proud of their hard work. By contrast, Torvald’s pride and Krogstad’s pride are based on public reputation and respectability.

"For myself? Oh, I am sure I don't want anything...."   (Act I)

This line emphasizes Nora’s intelligence and her ability to manipulate her husband. She knows that if she seems reluctant to ask for something, Torvald will push her and she will come across as modest rather than overeager. It also emphasizes the way she idealizes her marriage, willingly playing the role of the spoiled wife who wants for nothing.

"I locked myself up..."   (Act I)

Earlier, Torvald chided Nora for locking herself up in a room to make Christmas ornaments the previous year, which were then conveniently "torn to pieces" by the cat. It's more likely that Nora lied to Torvald and spent that time copying in order to make money.

"You ought not to be so superior...."   (Act I)

Notice how Nora balks when Mrs. Linde calls her a child, despite not protesting when Torvald similarly condescends to her. Her reaction suggests that Nora does find such remarks demeaning, but that she puts up with them from Torvald. When Torvald calls Nora a child, he acts the way a husband in 19th century Europe is expected to, emphasizing and upholding gender roles. However, when Mrs. Linde calls Nora a child, Nora is offended because Mrs. Linde is another woman claiming superiority over Nora.

"becomes selfish..."   (Act I)

This idea of being or becoming selfish pervades much of the play. It's most closely aligned with money, rather than the character trait, and functions in this way as a sort of financial independence that women weren't allowed in this day. To be "selfish" means to provide only for one's self, which is, from a modern perspective, not very selfish at all.

"Hide the Christmas Tree carefully, Helen..."   (Act I)

Notice that "hide" is the first line spoken in the play. This establishes the theme of deceit, which becomes prevalent later in this act as readers learn about Nora's money troubles and the sacrifices she's made for her husband.

"nice little dolly children..."   (Act I)

Dolls are toys, meant to be played with. They do not have any agency or will of their own. In many cases, they are purely decorative. By calling her kids “dolly children,” Nora is indicating that they are fun to play with but also subject to the whims of their parents, the people “playing” with them. All Nora has to do is hand them off to the nurse and they are no longer her problem. Torvald’s behavior reinforces this, showing no desire to play with his kids and describing their entrance as the start of a scene only “bearable” by a mother.

"HELMER: My dear darling Nora, you are dancing as if your life depended on it. NORA: So it does...."   (Act II)

To Doctor Rank and Torvald, this line reads as hyperbole. However, for Nora and readers, it takes on a more literal meaning. Nora is dancing in order to prevent Krogstad’s letter from disrupting her idealized life. This line takes on a literal meaning when read in the context of Nora’s earlier conversation with Krogstad, wherein she threatened suicide. The gulf between the perceptions of Doctor Rank and Torvald and the hidden truth of Nora’s words produces dramatic irony; readers know that Nora plans to commit suicide rather than let Torvald take the fall, but Doctor Rank and Torvald remain ignorant.

"And in every single family, in one way or another, some such inexorable retribution is being exacted—..."   (Act II)

Doctor Rank laments his inherited condition, stating that it is unfair that he must suffer ill health because of his father’s choices. Nora reacts to this line about inheritance for different reasons, recalling Torvald’s comments about how dishonest parents pollute their children.

"Because it is such a narrow-minded way of looking at things...."   (Act II)

Nora’s image of her husband as a selfless protector is shaken when he tells her about his petty reasons for firing Krogstad. She accuses him of being “narrow-minded” for firing someone over a personal issue. This is the first time that Nora has spoken negatively about Torvald, highlighting how shocked she is by his admission. Nora generally plays the “little squirrel” in order to uphold the idealized fantasy of their marriage, so seeing a selfish side of her husband forces Nora to recognize that neither of them is who they pretend to be.

"You are still very like a child in many things..."   (Act II)

Mrs. Linde is suspicious of Nora’s relationship with Doctor Rank and believes that he is the “rich admirer” who lent Nora the money. While readers know this is false, Mrs. Linde still raises valid concerns about the relationship between Nora and the doctor. For Nora, as a married woman, to be so open and casual with a wealthy, single man would have been considered highly inappropriate, even if the man is a family friend.

"Tarantella..."   (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.

"Neapolitan fisher-girl..."   (Act II)

Torvald wants Nora to wear this Italian “fancy-dress” for the ball. It is essentially a costume, one that allows Nora to “keep up the character,” as Mrs. Linde states. The “character” is the “wilder” person that Nora becomes when she dances. The “costume” represents yet another role that Nora is forced into by Torvald. By agreeing to wear this dress, Nora places her husband’s desires above her own.

"had no other mother but me. ..."   (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 that the complete absence of fathers in this conversation might be a commentary on the caretaking role that society forces women into.

"HELMER: I would gladly work night and day for you, Nora—bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves. NORA: It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done...."   (Act III)

This exchange highlights the difference between masculine pride and feminine pride. Torvald balks at the idea of sacrificing his public reputation while Nora asserts that women do so all the time. For Torvald, his career prospects and standing in society are determined by public perception. For his “honor” to be undermined would reduce him to Krogstad’s status: ineligible for promotion and socially ridiculed. However, women were subject to the reputations of their husbands. Feminine pride was meant to be found in domestic service and sacrifice: keeping a fine house and having children. Women were meant to suppress their personal interests and instead devote themselves to serving their husbands and children.

"but I find it impossible to convince myself that the law is right. ..."   (Act III)

Nora’s conversation with Krogstad in act I marks the start of her transition into an independent thinker. Both Krogstad and Torvald are content with the laws, but Nora tells both of them that she believes they are unfair. Notice that Nora phrases this line less as a declaration of certainty than an admission that she has tried, and ultimately failed, to convince herself that the law is correct. Not only did Krogstad’s blackmail reveal Torvald’s true nature, but it also revealed the unfair nature of the laws.

"I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are—or, at all events, that I must try and become one...."   (Act III)

In chapter 23 of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre, Rochester compares Jane to a “wild, frantic bird” hurting itself in its attempt to escape benevolent confines. Jane responds by saying: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.” Similarly, Nora asserts that rather than being defined by her status as a wife and mother, she is a “reasonable human being” above all else. Both situations give rise to radical declarations of female agency. In Nora’s case, she admits that there are gaps in her knowledge, but she is no longer content to sacrifice her happiness in order to uphold her societally imposed duties as a wife and mother.

"Alas, Torvald, you are not the man to educate me into being a proper wife for you. ..."   (Act III)

Rather than acknowledge that the problems in the Helmers’ marriage stem from inequity and mutual idealization, Torvald suggests he can fix things by “educating” Nora. This reaction indicates that Torvald continues to view himself as Nora’s intellectual and moral superior and that he believes she is the only one who needs to change. In response, Nora rejects this notion, positing that Torvald will not be the one to educate her. Nora strove to be everything Torvald wanted, acting like his “little squirrel” and playing ignorant. Now, she admits that she has a lot to learn and that she wants to educate herself about the world. Torvald, despite his claims, is too ignorant about what a “proper” marriage looks like to teach Nora anything.

"You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me...."   (Act III)

Nora’s concept of love undergoes a transformation when she realizes that neither she nor Torvald truly know the other. Torvald never bothered to understand Nora, as showcased by his unwillingness to listen to her talk about her friends and family. His love for her was performative, based on expected gender roles rather than trust or respect. Similarly, Nora allowed herself to be Torvald’s “little squirrel” because she believed that he was the strong, selfless protector he pretended to be. By realizing that they have been performing fantasies, Nora also realizes that they have only been performing love.

"we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject...."   (Act III)

Torvald and Nora have both idealized their relationship and have used each other to act out their fantasies. In many ways, they do not know one another, and they have never had a serious discussion about what they wanted out of their relationship. Rather than talking about anything seriously, Nora lies about things, like the macaroons from act I. The fact that the Helmers have never talked about anything like equal adults accounts for much of the deceit that permeates their relationship.

"and she has in a way become both wife and child to him. So you shall be for me after this, my little scared, helpless darling. ..."   (Act III)

Torvald attempts to put Nora back into her usual role in their marriage and thus treats her like someone who is “helpless.” He views her actions as a moral failing and plans to instruct her and become her “will and conscience.” Rather than respecting her actions, or even talking to her like a rational adult who has made a mistake, Torvald instead positions himself as both a father and husband to Nora, once again linking filial devotion and marital love.

"Taking off my fancy dress...."   (Act III)

Just as Torvald took of his “domino” earlier, Nora now takes off her fancy dress—the costume Torvald bought for her to dance the Tarantella in. Now both of their fantasies are broken. Torvald has revealed his true nature to Nora; now Nora will reveal her true self to Torvald.

"You will still remain in my house, that is a matter of course...."   (Act III)

Torvald never asks Nora why she did what she did. He does not ask her any clarifying questions. Instead he jumps straight into accusations and damage control. Even after the revelation, Torvald does not address Nora as an equal or an adult, but rather as a disobedient child whom he must punish. Instead of taking her toys away, he takes away her access to the children.

"Then it must have been the children—..."   (Act III)

Nora uses her children as an excuse for why the lock has been tampered with, recalling the metaphor of the “dolly-children” who only exist to serve their parents’ purposes. Torvald in turn tells Nora to correct their behavior rather than attempting to do so himself, thus placing the care of the “dolly-children” on his “dolly-wife.”

"Do you know, you ought to embroider...."   (Act III)

Torvald gives unsolicited advice to Mrs. Linde, saying that she should embroider rather than knit since embroidery is “more becoming.” Not only is this line indicative of Torvald’s preoccupation with appearances, but it also reveals his view of women. Knitting is meant to create new items that are functional and useful, such as blankets, socks, or scarves. Embroidery is purely decorative, meant to add colorful designs or monograms to existing items. Rather than valuing Mrs. Linde’s ability to create something useful, Torvald insists that she should focus on making things look nicer. Combined with his disparaging remarks about Nora’s homemade ornaments and gifts, this exchange suggests that Torvald views women themselves as decorative rather than functional or capable.

"a black domino..."   (Act III)

A “black domino,” in the context of clothing, refers to either a set of hooded robes most often worn at masquerades or a simple black mask that covers the eyes. Both items are associated with the concealment of identity. Torvald, who is concerned with appearances, must wear a costume in order to maintain his image. Notice that he eventually takes the domino off and throws it onto a chair. Symbolically speaking, removing costumes and masks is associated with honesty and authenticity, foreshadowing the exposure of Torvald’s true self.

"our home has been nothing but a playroom..."   (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.

"The most wonderful thing of all—?..."   (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.

"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..."   (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!..."   (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.”

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