For almost all of A Doll’s House, until the end of act 3, Torvald Helmer is under the impression that he is the dominant member of his family and household. He firmly believes that, as a man and the husband, he is the family patriarch. This status includes making all the important decisions, including financial ones. For him it goes without saying that Nora, as a woman and his wife, would be obligated to follow his directions.
From the first scene, the audience watches Torvald treat his wife like a child and belittle her with nicknames comparing her to little animals, such as a squirrel and a bird. Assuming that she is barely capable of managing their household, he imagines that she is a spendthrift who is unwilling or unable to economize.
Ibsen uses dramatic irony in the play as the audience learns, through Nora’s conversation with her friend Kristine Linde, that Nora is not only making many financial decisions but she is also working to pay off a debt—one that she incurred through the crime of forgery. These facts are kept from Torvald until nearly the end of the play. When he learns that she has deceived him for years, his statement that she manipulated him like a puppet is ironic because he had always treated her like a toy or doll. She tells him that he has been treating her as his “doll-wife.” As the husband, he felt fully justified in controlling his wife’s every action. It is both a huge blow to his pride and a fundamental challenge to his worldview to learn that this was not the case.