In Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer is the embodiment of the historical classification of successful womanhood as being married and giving birth to children while taking care of a husband and supporting his professional ambitions. While Nora tells Christine early in the play about the knitting and similar work she performed for pay during lean times, it is clear that her’s has been a sheltered life dominated by the men in her life, first her father and then her husband, Torvald. That Nora’s history was characteristic of the times becomes evident during her conversation with Christine regarding the latter’s marriage prior to her husband’s death:
Nora: Tell me, is it really true that you did not love your husband? Why did you marry him?
Christine: My mother was alive then, and was bedridden and helpless, and I had to provide for my two younger brothers; so I did not think I was justified in refusing his offer.
Nora: No, perhaps you were quite right.
This exchange between the two friends reveals how little control women had over their own lives. Societal expectations were firmly rooted in the notion that women were subordinate to men and were their intellectual inferior. Specific to Nora’s past are references to her upbringing and the enormous role her late-father played in her life. During an early conversation with Torvald regarding finances Torvald repeatedly chides her for her recent spending:
“You are an odd little soul. Very like your father. You always find some new way of wheedling money out of me, and, as soon as you have got it, it seems to melt in your hands. . .Still, one must take you as you are. It is in the blood; for indeed it is true that you can inherit these things, Nora.”
Nora has never known independence; she had no need. Her father provided for her welfare and then Torvald filled that role. Torvald’s repeatedly condescending remarks, however, are constant reminders that she serves at the pleasure of the men in her life, and that she is entirely dependent upon their goodwill and fortune. A Doll’s House was revelatory in its time and remains a much-produced play because Nora ultimately asserts her independence, having discovered the superficiality of her husband’s feelings towards her, and abandons Torvald and her children. In the context of the time in which Ibsen wrote his play, such actions simply did not occur. Nora’s dismay at Torvald’s reaction to the revelation that she secretly borrowed the money used to finance their year in Italy is the development that causes her to completely reevaluate her life. As she says to her husband during their conversation late in the play:
“That is just it; you have never understood me. I have been greatly wronged, Torvald—first by papa and then by you. . . When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls.”
That is what we know of Nora’s past.