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Vocabulary in A Doll's House

Throughout the play, Ibsen has Torvald use gendered, childlike, and diminishing nicknames for Nora to illustrate the oppressive power imbalance in their marriage. Nora is forced into stereotypical gender roles that perceive the figure of the woman as helpless and dependent. However, Nora is neither helpless nor dependent, and Torvald’s nicknames for her illustrate just how little he knows his wife.

Vocabulary Examples in A Doll's House:

Act I

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"I ought to tell you that we had it from papa...."   (Act I)

The verb “to owe” means to have a duty or responsibility to do something. The way Nora phrases this line allows it to be read two different ways. By the first reading, Nora “ought” to tell Mrs. Linde that she and Torvald could not afford the vacation on their own and had to borrow from Nora’s father. However, it can also be read in terms of Nora’s obligation to keep her own secret, whereby she “ought” to tell Mrs. Linde that the money came from Nora’s father rather than tell the truth and expose herself.

"that was plucky of you...."   (Act I)

The adjective “plucky” refers to someone who is courageous in the face of difficulties. For Christine to be traveling in winter without a husband or escort emphasizes the direness of her circumstances. This line also highlights the difference in situation between Nora and Christine. For Nora, the thought of a woman traveling by herself represents bravery; for Christine, it represents necessity.

"backwater..."   (Act I)

The word "backwater" refers to 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.

"such little persons..."   (Act I)

Ibsen's use of adjectives like "little" and nouns like "spendthrift," "skylark," and "squirrel" diminish Nora, making her not just smaller but younger, like a cartoon character flitting about their little house.

"There is a shilling. No, keep the change...."   (Act I)

Since the play was translated from Norwegian into English, the translator used the English equivalents (shillings and pence) for the Norwegian coinage. The Porter asks for sixpence, but Nora gives him a shilling, which is twice what he's asked. In other words, Nora is giving the Porter a 100% tip.

"nurse..."   (Act I)

"Nurse" here does not refer to a nurse in medicine, but to a "nursemaid," a position commonly available to those of the lower class who service those of the upper class.

"constituting your father a surety..."   (Act I)

In banking terms, a "surety" involves a promise by one party to be responsible for the debt owed by a borrower should that borrower default. This means that Nora's father would be responsible for repaying the cash borrowed, assuming the obligation to fulfill the terms of the loan are met.

"construction..."   (Act I)

In this case, "construction" refers to Krogstad's understanding based on what he believes Nora has said. In such contexts, "construction" refers to how someone construes, interprets, or explains something.

"beating about the bush..."   (Act I)

Also sometimes described as "beating around the bush," this expression refers to someone who is trying to avoid confrontation.

"steamer..."   (Act I)

"Steamers" or steamboats were, in the 19th century, the quickest and most popular form of long-distance transportation in Europe and the Americas. They regularly shipped both passengers and goods. It would've been fairly easy and common for a woman of Christine's age to buy a ticket for a steamer, but less so for her to move from one city to another without a husband.

"incubus..."   (Act II)

In this context, the noun “incubus” refers to a source of anxiety or difficulty. Torvald reveals that his reasons for firing Krogstad do not stem from Krogstad’s moral shortcomings, but rather from Torvald’s own embarrassment regarding their past friendship. Since Torvald and Krogstad were once close friends, Krogstad continues to address Torvald familiarly despite their difference in rank at the bank, which Torvald finds disrespectful. Torvald puts a lot of emphasis on appearances, underscoring his petty and superficial nature.

"Nice?—because you do as your husband wishes? Well, well, you little rogue, I am sure you did not mean it in that way...."   (Act II)

Torvald seems amused by the idea that Nora would go against his wishes, affectionately calling her a “rogue.” The noun “rogue” refers to a person who behaves in an unpredictable or objectionable manner but still appears charming or attractive. However, note that A Doll’s House is translated to English from its original Danish, meaning that attempts to analyze vocabulary are contingent. The suggestion that Nora deserves credit for doing what he asks is met with mockery, indicating that Torvald doesn’t view Nora, or women in general, as capable of independent thought or action.

"quill-driver's..."   (Act II)

A “quill-driver” was a term that was used to refer to a writer or clerk. Torvald uses the term in a derogatory way in order to imply that Krogstad’s occupation is expendable and lowly in comparison to Torvald’s. Torvald suggests that Krogstad’s “vengeance” is not a real concern to him because Torvald holds a higher station than Krogstad.

"prevaricate..."   (Act II)

To “prevaricate” means to “speak or act in an evasive way.” Here, Mrs. Linde suggests that Nora is intentionally feigning naivety in order to eliminate Mrs. Linde’s suspicions that Dr. Rank lent Nora money as an “admirer.”

"all sorts of excesses..."   (Act II)

Nora insinuates that Dr. Rank’s father’s tendency to “commit all sorts of excesses,” or in other words, to have many lovers, was the cause of Dr. Rank’s tuberculosis. As Tuberculosis is spread through the air via a person with the infection, Nora is suggesting that Dr. Rank’s father contracted the disease from one of his mistresses and infected his son.

"consumption of the spine..."   (Act II)

Whereas today we refer to what Dr. Rank suffers from as “tuberculosis,” a disease that affects the lungs and sometimes other areas of the body, tuberculosis historically has been known as “consumption.” The term “consumption” was used to describe the disease because of the weight loss it causes. “Consumption of the spine” is another way of saying that Dr. Rank has a type of tuberculosis that affects the tissues of the spine rather than the lungs.

"You are a riddle to me...."   (Act II)

A riddle is a complex problem which is usually difficult in its simplicity. Nora is all of these things—simple, complex and sometimes difficult to understand.

"the horrors of dissolution..."   (Act II)

The phrase "the horrors of dissolution" refer to one's final days or hours. In other words, Dr. Rank will be able to estimate when he will die.

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