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Act I of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House introduces us to the seemingly happy abode of Nora and Helmer Torvald, a young, middle class couple that epitomizes conjugal happiness and family bliss to the outsider’s eye. We notice, from the very beginning, that Helmer and Nora have a particular way of communicating. In the process, Nora’s playful, innocent, and happy nature is taken to a different, and somewhat strange, level.
HELMER: [calls out from his room]. Is that my little lark twittering out there?
NORA: [busy opening some of the parcels]. Yes, it is!
HELMER: Is it my little squirrel bustling about?
HELMER: When did my squirrel come home?
The name-calling that Helmer chooses for Nora seems almost comical, but we later realize that this is Helmer’s way to place Nora in a specific role within the relationship, while empowering his own. This means that by belittling Nora using nicknames Helmer also reminds her who is in charge. He does it with charming words and cute name-calling, however, a typically assertive woman would find this practice quite obnoxious. Moreover, we see how, when Helmer criticizes Nora’s behaviors, he chooses to do so in the same, somewhat condescending, manner.
HELMER: Nora! [Goes up to her and takes her playfully by the ear.] The same little featherhead! Suppose, now, that I borrowed fifty pounds to-day, and you spent it all in the Christmas week, and then on New Year's Eve a slate fell on my head and killed me, and—
Just imagine how any woman who has had children, like Nora, would feel when she, herself, is being treated like a child. Helmer’s actions of taking her by the ear, calling her a squirrel, and the criticism of her habits makes us wonder if Helmer has ever viewed Nora as a woman, and not as his possession. For this reason, we can safely argue that Helmer calls Nora names because it is his way of asserting his power over her in a way that looks as if he were actually paying her a compliment.
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