A Doll's House Questions and Answers
by Henrik Ibsen

A Doll's House book cover
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In A Doll's House, what is Nora's secret, and why was it so important, considering the values of the time, for her not reveal it to her husband? Why was the play controversial when it was staged in 1879?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Nora once forged her father's signature on a loan application so that she could obtain money for her husband Torvald to have a rest cure abroad. This in itself would be shocking to a nineteenth century audience. Respectable middle-class women were not supposed to be criminals. They were expected to be demure and submissive, confined to the home while their husbands went out into the world to earn a living. The very idea of a middle-class woman like Nora committing fraud would've been anathema to the kind of people who normally patronized the theater.

The significance of Nora's criminal actions lies in the fact that it shows a certain cunning worldliness on her part. Again, this would've been considered positively scandalous at the time. Like many women of her era, Nora has been infantilized by the men in her life; first her father, then her husband. She's spent the whole of her life being treated like a child—as someone who lacks the necessary agency to make her own decisions in life. And yet here she is, venturing into the exclusively male world of finance, and acting (for good or ill) like the adult she's never been allowed to be.

One gets the impression that Nora's taking her own initiative in making the loan application would actually have been more shocking to a contemporary audience than her forging of her father's signature. In other words, transgressing society's expectations of what a woman should or shouldn't do would've been considered more dangerous than the committing of a crime.

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Eloisa Bogisich eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the play A Doll's House, Nora is married to Torvald. During the first act of the play, we learn that Nora forged her father's name on a loan in order to take her husband to Italy to improve his health. This was her secret. At the time the play was written, women were not allowed to handle transactions at the bank without a man's permission, which is why she forged her father's name on the loan. At the end of the play, Nora leaves her husband and family to find herself, which was extremely controversial. In Germany, Ibsen was forced to give the play an alternate ending that did not show her departure. At the time, divorce was uncommon, but a woman leaving her husband and family was inconceivable. Another controversy was the way the play questioned a woman's place in society. Nora was perceived by her husband as a doll or child (hence the play's title). He took care of her but did not treat her as an adult, and the play highlighted this fact. Also, when he discovered her secret, he lashed out at her angrily, not taking into consideration that she had done the deed for him.