Our interpretation of Henrik Ibsen's drama A Doll's House (1879) begins with a detailed examination of Nora's development. In the course of the plot, the main character Nora undergoes a transformation from her husband’s doll to a self-determined woman. She thus demonstrates inner strength and courage, but her behavior has serious consequences. Even though Ibsen deliberately omits them, we need only remember the contemporary circumstances and the convictions of the society of the time to know that Nora’s reputation will suffer.
The second theme is hope. The seemingly naive and childlike Nora longs for a strong man who will stand up for her and who will understand her actions - even if they do not conform to the laws of the time. Nora's hope, her dream world, her disappointment, and finally her estrangement are described here. A section dealing with "Christine’s hope can also be found here.
The next sections explore the themes of "Equality and emancipation" and "Identity". Nora realizes that she is considered a doll child and a doll wife, and that she herself treats her own children like dolls.
A central theme of the work is the critical portrayal of women's image and role. The period at that time is still far from being able to openly discuss and implement emancipation and equal rights for women. Nevertheless, social forces already existed at this time, especially in Norway, where changes were strongly approved. Ibsen is familiar with this discussion and incorporates elements of it into his work.
Also central to the plot is Nora and Torvald's very different view of law and morality. These contrasts are not only found in the Helmer couple, but also in several other characters in the drama, which will be examined in more details.
- Nora's development
- "The most wonderful thing"
- Equality and emancipation
- Laws and morality
- Gender roles
- Contrasting views
The happy and carefree life
At the beginning of the play, Nora, although she is the mother of three children behaves like a small child herself, and also lets her husband treat her like one. She buys and eats macaroons in secret, although Torvald has forbidden her to do so, and lies to him when he asks .
Nora cannot handle money and already wants to spend at Christmas the salary that her husband will not receive for another quarter of a year. Unlike Torvald, for whom debt represents "no freedom or beauty about a home life" (Act 1, 6%), Nora has no problem acquiring debt. She also knows exactly how to manipulate Torvald, so he gives her money. When she begins to sulk, he immediately hands her two pounds (forty crowns).
This shows how Torvald and Nora's conventional and typical marriage of the time is largely based on material things and is mainly economically oriented. In this construct, the woman is subordinate to her husband and must support her husband in his social advancement by taking care of the household and family. Nora is in a very privileged position in this respect, as the family employs a nurse and a maid. She hardly has to do any household chores and therefore has never done any real physical work.
Nora is rather happy about the fact that, because of her husband's good income, she will live "free from care" (Act 1, 47%) from next year on. She is completely oriented to her husband's wishes and receives material goods in return: (Act 1, 47%).
Nora's sudden and drastic decision
Nora’s character undergoes a fundamental change within the short period of a little more than two days. Some critics considered this sudden change unrealistic.
The trigger for Nora's change is the couple's conversation after Torvald learns about the illegal loan his wife took out to save him. Torvald is upset and this starts a serious domestic argument, in which Torvald denies Nora any right of self-determination and also forbids her from involving herself from then on in the upbringing of the children. He also denies her any ability to think for herself.
In this situation, Nora realizes that since she left her father's house inexperienced to go into marriage with Torvald, she has not been given the opportunity to live and think for herself: "And when I came to live with you— [...] I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours." (Act 3, 76%). She therefore cannot form her own opinions and decide on her own what is best for herself.
Instead, Nora must be completely guided by what her father or Torvald think is good: "You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you—or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which—I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other." (Act 3, 76%).
Nora is completely dependent on her husband from a material point of view, and at the end of the play she realizes that she has been kept like an animal that is rewarded for performing tricks:
When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman—just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. (Act 1, 76%).
When Nora realizes this, she takes an extremely radical action by leaving her family. She now wants to educate herself and develop her own moral code of values. She declares that she can only do this alone and therefore leaves her husband and children.
"The most wonderful thing"
Through a forged signature on a promissory note, Nora made it possible for her husband Torvald, to live in Italy for a year and like this fully recover from a serious illness. However, Nora keeps the origin of the money a secret from Torvald, because he strictly rejects any debts, which is why she explains to Torvald that is the money comes from her inheritance.
When Krogstad, from whom Nora borrowed the money at the time, realizes that his position at the joint-stock bank is at risk, he uses the forged signature to blackmail Nora. She is supposed to make a case to Torvald for Krogstad to keep his job and improve his social position. As Nora fails to change her husband's mind and Krogstad receives his resignation, he tells Torvald the truth about the loan in a letter.
Nora believes that Torvald will take her side in this difficult situation and protectively place himself in front of her. She relies on his love and affection, which she is completely sure of and which Torvald also assured her of at an earlier time:
Isn’t it an insult to think that I should be afraid of a starving quill-driver’s vengeance? But I forgive you nevertheless, because it is such eloquent witness to your great love for me. [...] Come what will, you may be sure I shall have both courage and strength if they be needed. You will see I am man enough to take everything upon myself. (Act 2, 33%).
Nora wants to commit suicide and believes that her husband would take the blame in order to keep her name clear. Christine, however, warns that this might not be true. ). Still, Nora hopes that her husband, out of love for her, will protect her and take responsibility for the illegal loan.
Christine’s hope Nora's hopes for a wonderful future are fulfilled in Christine and Krogstad's renewed love affair. When Christine opens up to her former lover that she wants to live with him and take care of his children, Krogstad reminds her of his poor social reputation: "Tell me—do you know all about my past life? [...] Christine, are you saying this deliberately? Yes, I am sure you are. I see it in your face. Have you really the courage, then—?" (Act 3, 14%).
Christine still loves Krogstad so much that, from a social perspective, she sacrifices her "honor" for his sake without hesitation. She believes that Krogstad can become a good person. This is what Nora also hopes for as far as Torvald is concerned and that can only happen between two people who sincerely love each other.
Krogstad changes then: "Thanks, thanks, Christine! Now I shall find a way to clear myself in the eyes of the world. [...] I have never had such an amazing piece of good fortune in my life!" (Act 3, 14-16%). He therefore sends a letter to Nora in which he apologizes for his cruel behavior and returns the promissory note to her.
Nora's dream world
Nora lives partly in a dream world...