Ibsen's play A Doll's House is set in the late 1800s. It is not a time when women were encouraged to be independent in thought, action or self-expression. While many people viewed the play as a "call to arms" for the feminist movement, the author insists that such was never his intention. However, as with most forms of art, once a creation leaves the creator's hands, it takes on a new life of its own, based upon individual perceptions.
Nora is a woman who was coddled in her home growing up by her father, and then directed and controlled as Torvald's wife. Nora is relatively naive, as seen in her fraudulent act of forging her father's signature on a loan (while her father was dying)—justifying her actions because she had to save Torvald's life. Because he was desperately ill, she had no concern for the law...family was more important.
Torvald controls Nora almost completely, but Nora is clever enough to know that if she plays the child, she can get whatever she needs. Torvald is so full of himself that he does not credit his wife with much intelligence at all, and cares only for himself his status and success. Of Nora's behavior...
It is true that [Nora] does behave like a child sometimes in her relations with her husband. She pouts, wheedles, and chatters because Torvald expects these things; he would not love his wife without them.
In that Torvald bases his relationship with his wife not on love but on acceptable behavior, the reader is able to see more deeply into his character, aware that he has little or no respect for her as a person. The name of the play reflects Torvald's practice and desire to manipulate his wife as a child would a toy figure in a dollhouse.
Torvald has no forward-thinking attitudes about women's rights. In his mind, women are there for their husband and children. It is their "sacred duty." He is not alone: society as a whole felt the same way. Women did not make decisions. They could not own property and they were not allowed to take loans. They were not even permitted to obtain a university education. And only poor women were allowed to work; a respectable woman's profession was wife, housekeeper and mother. As such, women were seen as possessions. This is obvious in Torvald's comment about Nora the night of the party they attend upstairs:
Nora: Torvald, don't look at me like that!
Torvald: Can't I look at my richest treasure? At all that beauty that's mine, mine alone—completely and utterly.
That Nora's father and husband have treated her similarly indicates the norm within society to oversee women and control them: whether daughter or wife.
Nora does not deserve Torvald's disrespect or insulting attitudes. She is naive, but relatively smart. Years before the doctors told them that in order to recover from a serious illness, Torvald needed to travel to a better climate: Italy. In order to replay Krogstad for the money she borrowed (of which Torvald is totally unaware), she rations the allowance her husband gives her for housekeeping and clothing. Some secretly goes to Krogstad. She also takes on work without her husband's knowledge to repay the debt.
The acceptable mindset of this male-dominated society explains Torvald's ease in behaving as he does. When he discovers her illegal actions, he cares not at all that she saved his life. His focus is on what people will think. He berates her.
Oh, what an awful awakening...she who was my pride and joy—a hypocrite, a liar—worse, worse—a criminal! How infinitely disgusting it all is! The shame! [...] Now you've wrecked all my happiness—ruined my whole future...I'll be swept down miserably into the depths on account of a featherbrained woman.
Then he announces, "...you can't be allowed to bring up the children." Nora quietly takes in all he has to say.
When the threat of exposure has passed, Torvald can only see how he has been saved. While he has been ranting, Nora has had an awakening of her own. Her marriage is built not on love, but upon Torvald's control of every aspect of her existence. With a frozen look on her face, Torvald says he understands that she cannot grasp the idea that he has forgiven her! Able to be honest for the first time, she sarcastically thanks him for his forgiveness.
When Nora calls her husband to task for treating her like a toy doll, she observes:
Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa's doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.
As Nora leaves the room to change her costume, it is as if she is removing "dress up" clothes. The woman she has been for all these years, repressed and controlled, has now surfaced to freedom for the first time in her life.
When Torvald notes that he does not understand her or her new demeanor, she replies that he has never understood her; but neither has she truly understood him. As much as she has played the role of a doll, he has acted out the societal norms of society. At that time, society made little place for a woman that did not fit into the realm of service and subservience. Nora's change demonstrates her transformation, striking out against the control men have long exercised over women.
Torvald is a product of his breeding and training. His focus is on himself and his place of power and respect in the world of his peers—all men of his status. A follower rather than a visionary, Torvald is perfectly happy to allow the status quo to prevail. Seeing his wife (or any woman) on equal footing does not even occur to him. With the knowledge that Torvald does not have the capacity at that time to be anything other than he is, Nora packs her bags and leaves.