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:
"I locked myself up..." See in text (Act I)
Remember that earlier in Act I Torvald chided Nora for locking herself up in a room to make Christmas "ornaments," which were then conveniently "torn to pieces" by the cat. It's more likely that Nora lied to Torvald and spent all that time copying in order to make money. This lie then continues to develop the theme of deceit we've been tracking throughout the play.
"becomes selfish..." See in text (Act I)
This idea of being or becoming selfish pervades throughout 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..." See in text (Act I)
Notice that "hide" is the first line spoken in the play. This establishes the theme of deceit, which will become prevalent later in this act as we hear about Nora's money troubles and the sacrifices she's made for her husband.
"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.
"Neapolitan fisher-girl..." See in text (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..." 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.
"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.
"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.
"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.”