When Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, the institution of marriage was sacrosanct; women did not leave their husbands, and marital roles were sharply defined. The play, which questions these traditional attitudes, was highly controversial and elicited sharp criticism. The character of Nora Helmer, a favorite with actresses seeking a role of strength and complexity, has dominated the play from its inception. She is the one who gains audience empathy, who grows through the course of the play. Some early critics viewed Nora as a prime example of the “new woman,” a breed seeking independence and self-definition, and the play as a polemic advocating women’s rights. Some insisted that although a woman might leave her husband, she would never leave her children. Later critics faulted Nora’s sudden conversion from a sheltered child stroking her husband’s ego to a mature woman seeking independence. Yet, others maintained that Ibsen skillfully foreshadows Nora’s departure in her behavior throughout the play in her gaiety, generosity, and unselfishness. Further, Ibsen himself declared that he was not writing solely about women but instead about issues of his society and about the need for individuals, both men and women, to be true to themselves.
Thus A Doll’s House can be viewed thematically not only as a picture of an innocent nineteenth century woman struggling to achieve self-definition but also as a devastating indictment of a routine marriage between two ordinary people who lack awareness of themselves and who have differing views of right and wrong. Torvald unquestioningly accepts society’s dicta of the husband as the breadwinner and moral authority, but Nora’s attempt to conform as the submissive wife forces her into lies and deception. Both care about what people think; neither consciously considers opposing society’s mores.
The need for communication contributes to the thematic pattern of the play. Nora and Torvald communicate only on the most superficial level; he speaks from the conventions of society but neither sees nor hears her, while she can only play out the role that he has constructed for her. This inability or unwillingness to express themselves verbally leads to unhappiness and pain.
The theme is echoed in the subplot of Kristine and Krogstad, both of whom have struggled with the cruelties of society. Kristine endured a loveless marriage in order to support her elderly mother and young brothers; Krogstad was forced into crime in order to care for his ill wife and children. Although within the plot their union seems somewhat contrived, Ibsen characterizes them as aware of themselves and honest with each other.
One of Ibsen’s masterful touches is the use of concealment as a motif; it permeates the play in several manifestations and reinforces the major theme of the need for openness in marriage. Nora’s first word, “hide,” initiates the motif. Thereafter, she hides the Christmas presents, lies about eating macaroons, continues to deceive Torvald into believing that she is a spendthrift and flighty female, and invents distractions to prevent him from opening the mailbox. Torvald too participates in concealment. Fearing exposure in the third act, he starts and orders “Hide, Nora! Say you’re sick” when the doorbell rings.
The primary agent of empowerment in A Doll’s House is money. Private and public rewards result from its presence. It enabled Nora and Torvald to travel to Italy for his health. Money from Torvald’s new salary at the bank will provide prestige for the Helmers and allow Nora, in particular, to breathe more easily. Yet, all the major figures—Torvald, Nora, Kristine, and Krogstad—have been affected adversely by its absence: from the deception in the marriage of Torvald and Nora to the prior unhappy marriage of Kristine and the criminal acts of Krogstad.
In the complex pattern that Ibsen has created, lack of self-knowledge, inability to communicate, and unthinking conformity to convention affect the institution of marriage most adversely.