Themes of A Doll’s House
The Role of Men and Women in Society
This play focuses on the ways that women are perceived in their various roles, especially in marriage and motherhood. Torvald, in particular, has a very clear but narrow definition of women’s roles. He believes that it is the sacred duty of a woman to be a good wife and mother. Moreover, he tells Nora that women are responsible for the morality of their children. In essence, he sees women as childlike, helpless creatures detached from reality on the one hand, but on the other hand as influential moral forces responsible for the purity of the world through their influence in the home.
Ideas of “manliness” are present in more subtle ways. Nora’s description of Torvald suggests that she is partially aware of the inconsistent pressures on male roles as much as the inconsistent pressures on female roles in their society. Torvald’s own conception of manliness is based on the value of total independence. He abhors the idea of financial or moral dependence on anyone. His strong desire for independence may put him out of touch with the reality of human interdependence.
Frequent references to Nora’s father often equate her with him because of her actions and her disposition. Although people think he gave Nora and Torvald the money for their trip to Italy, it was actually Nora. She has more agency and decision-making skills than she is given credit for. Nora seems to wish to enjoy the privileges and power enjoyed by males in her society. She seems to understand the confinement she faces simply by virtue of her sex.
Marriage as an Unequal Partnership
At the heart of A Doll’s House is the marriage between Nora and Torvald—one fairly typical of the era. Is it a good or exemplary marriage? Is it an equitable relationship for the woman?
A close analysis of the dialogue shows a very unequal relationship with Torvald holding all the power. In fact, the interactions between husband and wife serve a specific purpose: they illustrate the banality of the discourse between the two. Torvald does not address his wife regarding any subject of substance. Instead, he bestows her with pet names that often begin with the personal pronoun “my” and often includes the diminutive “little”: “Is that my little lark?” In this respect, Torvald may think he is flattering his wife. However, he is reducing her to a cute, harmless pet—one that is owned. And like a pet, Nora is expected to obey her owner/husband and his petty tyrannical rules: she is forbidden from eating macaroons and must do so on the sly—which she resents. Additionally, when Torvald addresses Nora, he belittles her by constantly bringing up her lack of responsibility with money. Depending on the translation, Nora is “spendthrift,” “prodigal” and “little moneybags.” All of these terms, spoken affectionately, are passively aggressive.
A Doll’s House has few stage directions indicating tone of voice, so there is a great deal of freedom in the manner in which the actor can play the part of Torvald. He can be played like a patriarchal tyrant or a fatuous, passive-aggressive sexist. The second option is, perhaps, the better choice; Torvald’s utter obliviousness to his oppressive behaviour is a driving force in the play. He berates his wife for knowing nothing about worldly matters but, ultimately, is himself unaware of the measures she has taken to save his life. Torvald is so self-centred that he continues to see his wife how he wants her to be or how she fails to be his ideal woman; he never sees the actual woman she is.
Nora, in A Doll’s House Torvald in particular, focuses on money and material goods rather than people. His sense of manhood depends on his financial independence. He was an unsuccessful barrister because he refused to take “unsavoury cases.” As a result, he switched jobs to the bank, where he primarily deals with money. For him, money and materialism may be a way to avoid the complications of personal contact.
Respect and Reputation
The men of A Doll’s House are obsessed with their reputation. Some have good standing in their communities and will do anything to keep it; others have lost their good name and will do anything to get it back. Though the play is set in the living room of a private residence, the public eye is constantly peeking through the curtains.
Higher Moral Values vs. Societal Mores and Laws
As Nora reveals to Mrs Linde, she faced a moral crisis at the beginning of her marriage. Unable to procure, legally, the funds needed to save her husband’s life, she resorts to forging her father’s name as guarantor of the loan. She places her love and concern for her husband’s well-being above the law. Since she diligently works to pay back the loan, the offence does not seem so severe; it is a crime in definition only. In a higher sense, Nora has not acted in an immoral manner. However, those who adhere to societal standards, like her husband, ultimately have different values. Torvald values social respectability and honour above all else, including actions done out of love. Nora values love over social honour. Consequently, a conflict emerges regarding their prioritization of values.