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If we look to the marriage in the context of the era in which Ibsen wrote it (near the end of the 19th Century), the Helmer's marriage was quite typical. This is, in fact, Torvald's biggest problem when he discovers what Nora as done: rather than being grateful for saving his life, he condemns her for ruining (he believes) his reputation within the provincial society in which they live.
It is noted that A Doll's House was...
...among the last plays included in Ibsen's realism period.
The play strips away the façade of respectability behind which many people lived: a marriage that was often one-sided—the husband in charge of every aspect of his wife's life.
At the beginning of the play, we see Torvald as the man of the house. Nora comes in from Christmas shopping and while they are expecting that he will be promoted soon in his banking position, Torvald warns his wife not to spend money that they have yet to receive. This is traditional in that the husband would make decisions with regard to how the money was spent: while the wife would run the household, it was only with the approval and financial support of the husband.
…Bought, did you say? All these things? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?
Yes but, Torvald, this year we really can let ourselves go a little. This is the first Christmas that we have not needed to economise.
Still, you know, we can't spend money recklessly.
Because a genteel woman of the period could not work or borrow money, she depended solely on her husband for her clothes, food and shelter. While we may not know at the start for what specific purpose Nora needs money, it might well be typical of a woman of that era (without personal resources) to wheedle cash out of Torvald—when she pouts like a child—and show complete delight in such a gift.
…[Taking out his purse.] Nora, what do you think I have got here?
[turning round quickly]. Money!
There you are. [Gives her some money.] Do you think I don't know what a lot is wanted for housekeeping at Christmas-time?
When Torvald discovers someone has been picking at the mailbox lock, Nora blames the children, and Torvald instructs her to handle the situation—for it is the woman who sees to the children and all things domestic in the household.
Then you must get them out of those ways.
When Nora and Torvald return from the party, he explains to his wife that he has left the party early so they can be alone, so they can have sex. Nora is much too preoccupied with the impending exposure of what she has done, and she refuses. It is typical in a marriage of that time that the wife obeyed her husband in all things, never keeping herself from him. Torvald's response to his wife infers the social norm regarding the marriage bed:
Go away, Torvald! You must let me go. I won't—
What's that? You're joking, my little Nora! You won't—you won't? Am I not your husband—? [A knock is heard at the outer door.]
It was not unusual that a wife would be seen as a possession. Torvald does not speak of his love for her, but what he has enjoyed in having her as a wife:
All these eight years—she who was my joy and pride...
Also typical of a marriage at that time, the first thing Torvald does when he discovers how Nora has broken the law, he removes from her the right to see or raise her own children—for after all, the man was considered the highest authority in his home.
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