From the beginning of Act I of A Doll's House, Torvald calls Nora several pet names. What do these names suggest about Torvald’s perception of his wife and his marriage?
The 19th century ideals that applied to males and females were essentially the same throughout Europe. The "Victorianism" that delineated the traditions of the time extended into an era where most people shared the same views on things whether in England, France, or even Norway, where the play is based.
One of these views type-casted women as "angels" of the household, and their roles were limited essentially to being the nurturing crux of the family unit. The idea of the "angel of the house" was first introduced by poet Coventry Patmore. In 1854 Patmore published the poem Angel in the House as an ode to his wife, Emily,whom he considered to be the epitome of female virtuosity. The poem gained popularity throughout the 19th century, solidifying the social expectations of women, and eventually advising them in favor of adopting specific behaviors that would grant them social acceptance. Just for the record, Virginia Woolf was adamant in that the angel of the house was a fallacy and thus she writes in 1931 that
"Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer."
This domestic ideology also stemmed from the Industrial Revolution, which re-visited the male and female roles in the household based on the improvements in the overall economy. Hence, the role of the woman was at the home, and her job was merely to nurture entertain, and provide satisfaction whenever she is needed to do so.
In A Doll's House, Torvald externalizes and illustrates all of these paradigms, as well as the expectations bestowed upon women at that time, by giving his wife what would be considered in modern day to be condescending names. The monikers "squirrel", "lark", and others are ways for Torvald to exert his superiority over his wife, who is his dependent by all means.
He also adopts a risible paternal role with her, directing her on how to spend money, what to eat, and what not to eat. This all means that Torvald's view of his wife and his marriage is that they are of secondary importance.HELMER: Don't disturb me. [A little later, he opens the door and looks into the room, pen in hand.] Bought, did you say? All these things? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?
Therefore, in a male-dominated society, Torvald would be at the center of attention and care at all times. Nora's job is merely to comply and satisfy the needs of the man of the house. It comes to no surprise, then, that throughout the play we see a one-sided view in the relationship, which will always be Torvald's: his wants, his needs, his job, his friends, and what would benefit him socially.
Torvald's pet names for Nora demonstrate his view of her as a diminutive and powerless figure in the household. In these nicknames, Nora is compared to shy, furtive and fragile creatures. The suggestion here is that Torvald sees Nora as a person in need of protection.
Their relationship parallels that of a daughter and father and, indeed, is exactly like the relationship Nora had with her father.
Torvald's views on marriage are directly and rather fully articulated through the play. His pet names for Nora serve to underscore the idea that his views of the following are erroneous and based merely on stereotypes:
- 1) what an ideal marriage should be and
- 2) the true nature of his own marriage
That Torvald's pet names for Nora compare her to birds and squirrels suggests the weakness that Torvald projects onto Nora. However, the fact that he uses nicknames does not in itself prove that Torvald's views are demeaning or stereotypical.
The nicknames only become demeaning in conjunction with his patronizing attitudes regarding how decisions are made in the household, and who holds the money.