In A Doll's House, describe the relationship between Torvald and Nora.

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Initially, all seems well in the Helmer household. Nora and Torvald's marriage appears to be a conventional one, entirely consistent with prevailing middle-class standards of respectability. Torvald is the undisputed head of the house, the paterfamilias and sole breadwinner whose overriding purpose in life is to protect and provide for his family.

Nora's role within the marriage is also highly conventional. At first, she's a rather meek, submissive figure. Torvald seems to love her, but also treats her like a child, calling her things like "scatterbrain" and "my little squirrel." Torvald also doesn't think much of Nora's intellectual capabilities, bestowing patronizing and demeaning pet names upon her such as "feather-brain" and "my lost squirrel." Whatever else it might be, this is not a relationship of equals, but then nor is it intended to be. Torvald rules the roost and that's precisely what society expects of him.

As their relationship is largely conventional, with no real depth to it, it's not surprising that Torvald doesn't consult with Nora concerning the household finances. As far as he's concerned, Nora's too naive, too inexperienced to be bothered with such details. As head of the house, he holds the purse-strings and, as such, is the only one needing to be aware of the state of the family finances.

Yet, it is ultimately Torvald who proves to be the more childlike of the two. As Dr. Rand points out, it is Torvald who needs to be protected from the harshness of this world; he simply cannot face up to anything ugly. Torvald is not just childlike, but childish, as we see in the petty, vindictive way he fires Krogstad. And it is Torvald's arrested development that ultimately destroys his marriage, allowing Nora to assert herself at long last.

As the play develops, the tables are turned in suitably dramatic fashion. Nora emerges from the constraints of her previously doll-like existence to become a woman in her own right. Unlike Torvald, she has the courage and the maturity to face up to the harsh realities of life, especially in relation to business. It was she who confronted head-on the unpleasant details of Torvald's illness, for the treatment of which she got into considerable debt. Once again we see how the outward respectability of Nora and Torvald's marriage merely papers over the cracks of secrets, lies, and countless deceptions. Yes, Nora lied—and also broke the law—in obtaining the loan to pay for Torvald's health care, but it wouldn't have been necessary for her to have done this had Torvald treated her as an equal and been able to face up to the grim reality of his illness.

One measure of the way in which the relationship's dynamic has changed lies in how Nora starts to manipulate Torvald and also Dr. Rank, playing on their low estimation of her intellectual abilities. If she cannot openly express herself, then Nora will act the part of coquette to get what she wants. Yet an act is all it is, for Nora is becoming more self-aware of who she is and of her growing influence within the marriage.

But there are still limits to her influence, even towards the end of the play. Torvald is still head of the house, still nominally in control, still treating Nora as his little poppet, as his own private property. Though not for long. Torvald's selfish reaction to Krogstad's letter finally allows Nora to see a way out of this sham relationship. Torvald has proved himself utterly indifferent to his wife's sacrifice on his behalf. She made a huge personal sacrifice for the good of his health, and yet what thanks does she get? None whatsoever. All Torvald cares about is keeping up appearances. All these years he's prevented Nora from growing and developing as an adult woman. Yet, all the while, he has been the one who hasn't changed, his whole identity as a husband and as a man constructed for him by society's double standards.

By the close of the play, Nora and Torvald's marriage lies in tatters. Despite the revelation of all the dark, tawdry secrets between them, both husband and wife remain childlike, but with one crucial difference. Nora has shown that she has the capacity to grow and develop, to engage with the outside world without illusions. Torvald, however, is incapable of doing any such thing. He remains trapped by a rigid social structure, shackled to certain expectations of what a man should do and be; expectations that he lacks the strength and the maturity to fulfil.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Of course, your question relates to the theme of the story and Ibsen's original intention in writing this excellent play. In A Doll's House, the position of females in Ibsen's time is examined and he presents his hope for feminism and equality through the character of Nora and her realisation of her situation and her choice to embark on a search for her own identity.

At the beginning of the play, the relationship of Nora and Torvald is examined. It is clear that their relationship has more in common with a father and daughter relationship than with a husband and wife, and we discover that Nora relates to her husband and is treated exactly the same way that she related and was treated by her father. In response to her husband's insulting comments and patronising remarks, Nora cajoles, begs and acts like a child (or even a "doll"). Torvald even says: "Has my little sweet tooth been indulging herself in town today by any chance?" Nora responds using childish phrases: "Oh. Pooh!" It is clear that Torvald possesses Nora and regards her as nothing more than a belonging to make him look good.

Nora, too, at the beginning of the play, is caught up in this "Doll's House", as we can see in her definition of freedom which she gives to Mrs. Linde: "Free. To free, absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it." She is unable to perceive her situation as being caged inside her "Doll's House" and plays a part of the perfect wife according to her husband's wishes.

Of course, the action of the play, and in particular the realisation of Torvald that Nora has deceived him and his response, triggers the epiphany that Nora needs to realise the truth of her situation and give her the desire to escape this "Doll's House". In his response to this realisation, Torvald shows himself to Nora for who he really is: a self-centred, petty man who is concerned only about keeping up the facade of marriage: "From now on, forget happiness. Now it is just about saving the remains, the wreckage, the appearance." It is this unmasking that gives Nora self-understanding of her situation. She says to Torvald, "I've been performing tricks for you Torvald. That's how I've survived. You wanted it like that. You and Papa have done me a great wrong. It's because of you I've made nothing of my life." By the end of the play then, she becomes a stronger, tougher more independent individual, determined to make her own life free from the constricting gender roles that have been imposed upon her. We see a woman who is making a bold action against gender inequality and the position society and culture has given her.

durquijo | Student

The relationship between Nora and Torvald is one similar to a parent and a child. Torvald controls every aspect of Nora's life, just like a parent does.