HELMER: Is that my little lark twittering out there?
NORA: Yes, it is!
HELMER. Is it my little squirrel bustling about?
NORA. Yes! . . .
HELMER. Nora! [Goes up to her and takes her playfully by the ear] The same little featherhead! . . . But now tell me, you extravagant little person, what would you like for yourself? . . . You can't deny it, my dear little Nora. [Puts his arm round her waist.] It's a sweet little spendthrift, but she uses up a deal of money. One would hardly believe how expensive such little persons are! . . . You are an odd little soul. (A Doll's House, Act 1)
In the opening scene of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Helmer uses the word "little" sixteen times to describe his wife, Nora. She's his "little lark," his "little squirrel," his "little person," his "little featherhead." She's his little doll. He uses similar endearments to describe her throughout the play. At no time during the play does Helmer treat Nora as a real, living person.
Although Nora's attitude toward Helmer and their relationship changes significantly through the play, Helmer's attitude toward Nora never changes. She's as much his "wife and child" and his "little darling" at the end of the play as she was at the beginning.
HELMER: There is something so indescribably sweet and satisfying, to a man, in the knowledge that he has forgiven his wife—forgiven her freely, and with all his heart. It seems as if that had made her, as it were, doubly his own; he has given her a new life, so to speak; and she has in a way become both wife and child to him. So you shall be for me after this, my little scared, helpless darling. (A Doll's House, Act 3)
Nora rebels at this.
NORA: . . . But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa's doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald. (A Doll's House, Act 3)
Even when Nora is pouring out her heart to Helmer, trying to explain what's caused her to want so desperately to leave him, he still treats her like a child.
HELMER: You talk like a child. You don't understand the conditions of the world in which you live. . . . Oh, you think and talk like a heedless child.
NORA. Maybe. But you neither think nor talk like the man I could bind myself to. . . . Exactly as before, I was your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile. . . .
HELMER: I have it in me to become a different man.
NORA: Perhaps—if your doll is taken away from you. (A Doll's House, Act 3)
There is a very interesting exchange between Helmer and Nora in the opening scene of the play which foreshadow Nora's change in attitude toward Helmer.
HELMER: Do you remember last Christmas? For a full three weeks beforehand you shut yourself up every evening until long after midnight, making ornaments for the Christmas Tree, and all the other fine things that were to be a surprise to us. It was the dullest three weeks I ever spent!
NORA. I didn't find it dull. (A Doll's House, Act 1)
Helmer doesn't want Nora to be her own person, to have her own activities, or to have her own life. Helmer finds it dull that Nora would want to exist for her own sake. "I didn't find it dull," Nora responds. This is a remarkable line that sums up what will come to represent her change of heart and mind in her relationship with Helmer.
When examining the relationship between Nora and Torvald Helmer, it is important to consider the social era it represents. The play was written in 1879, and at that time, women were overall treated with slightly more consideration than children. They couldn't vote, couldn't be trusted to handle their own finances, and couldn't borrow money in their own name. Much of this is reflected in the plot and in the Helmers' relationship.
Torvald Helmer treats Nora much like a child, calling her pet names that are sometimes disturbing and that most modern women would not tolerate—"skylark" and "squirrel," for starters. He also calls her his "little Nora" and refers to her "childish anxiety."
For most of the story, Torvald is in charge. Nora is expected to do as told, and for the most part, she does. In Act 1, she tells Mrs. Linde, "I only mean when Torvald loves me less than now, when he stops enjoying my dancing and dressing up and reciting for him . . ." Nora has a part to play, and she seems to understand this and dutifully carries out her obligations (as determined by Torvald).
However, she knows that her husband desperately needs medical treatment in Italy and that he will never pay for it. So she devises her own plan to take out a loan herself and tells him that the money has come from her father, in order to save his life. This takes a bit of ingenuity on her part, but she accomplishes her goal, and Torvald's life is saved. He (for a long time) is none the wiser about her deceit in paying for it all. Sadly, she knows that she cannot even be open with her husband about either their finances or her resourcefulness in obtaining the much-needed medical treatment that he required.
Do they love each other? Perhaps—as long as Nora remains in her designated roles. When she decides to step out at the end, things change quickly. Torvald refers to her "feminine helplessness" and that she's "wrecked all [his] happiness." And Nora decides that this relationship is not healthy and walks away from it all.
The relationship between Torvald and Nora Helmer is more like one between a parent and child and less like one between partners. Torvald routinely calls Nora diminutive nicknames like "little squirrel" and "little lark" that emphasize her total lack of power within her own life and their relationship. He talks down to her, and she permits and even encourages it. He has told her to stop eating sweets, and rather than stop, she just keeps on eating them but hides them so he does not see: very much like a parent and child. Nora even plays with her children in a manner that makes her seem like their peer rather than their mother.
However, by the end of the play, Nora has realized that both her father and her husband have seemed to expect her to behave as a "doll"—a beautiful nothing who is obedient and submissive—and she rebels against this role. She even does something quite unusual and, perhaps, unexpected; she leaves her family, abandoning her husband and children, so that she can find out who she really is without the weight of others' standards and expectations for her.