Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, was one of the playwright's realism plays, set during the later part of the 19th Century when women (in Norway, as well as most other parts of the world) had few rights in the male-dominated society in which they lived.
Women were more often than not treated as possessions, entitled to little control with regard to their physical person at home and in society at large. Helmer's control over Nora is seen in Act One in how he addresses her—like a father rather than a man with his wife.
…Is that my little lark twittering out there?
Helmer directs Nora about household finances as if she has the intelligence of a 10-year old.
...seriously, Nora...No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt.
Torvald controls the money in the household, thereby also controlling his wife.
In 1879, a wife was not legally permitted to borrow money without her husband's consent...
When Torvald becomes seriously ill (prior to the play's beginning), Nora is forced to borrow money so that she can take him to a healthier climate in order to save his life. He is unaware of her actions, which are clearly illegal. Torvald's sense of all that is good and valuable in the world is found in his belief that debt is unacceptable for any reason, a woman is to do what her husband expects and demands, and a man's reputation means more than his life.
This becomes appallingly apparent when Torvald learns that Nora borrowed money by forging her dead father's signature on a loan from the at-one-time desperate Krogstad. And if borrowing the money was not bad enough, the snobbish Torvald greatly resents the fact that Krogstad (who he pettily despises for Krogstad's "familiar" manner with him, as well as past mistakes) is in control of the I.O.U. He cares not at all that Nora tried to save his life, and he immediately removes her from a position of control over their children.
...Is this true, that I read here? ...it is impossible that it can be true.
It is true. I have loved you above everything else in the world.
Oh, don't let us have any silly excuses...Miserable creature—what have you done?
The matter must be hushed up at any cost...You will still remain in my house...But I shall not allow you to bring up the children; I dare not trust them to you.
I must try and appease him some way or another.
Ibsen always denied that he believed in women's rights, stating instead that he believed in human rights.
Regardless of Ibsen's intent, the play took on a life of its own; it soon became a call-to-arms for women who believed it was about time that they were recognized as individuals on equal footing with men...that a woman's value consisted of more than a wife and mother, but as an equal in the home—and community (as seen with Mrs. Linde)—that women had much to offer.