A major theme in Ibsen's A Doll House is sexism. Nora's realizations of the double standards of the time replace her naiveté with a growing knowledge of how little she knows of life and the extent to which she has been controlled first by her father and then by her husband—women are seen as children.
Although Ibsen's play is often regarded as a statement on the rights of women, he insisted he advocated all human rights. His point is evident in how society punishes Nils Krogstad, and how Torvald insists on keeping him in his "place." Only Kristine's devotion enables Nils to make a new start.
Regardless of Ibsen's intent, the play seems to speak to the rights of women. We see gender inequality in that women are not allowed to borrow money. It is this detail that is central to the main conflict and the plot development: Nora Helmer borrows money after forging her father's signature, in order to save Torvald Helmer's life when he becomes ill. Society is truly skewed in that women are treated like chattel, or property—for even when Torvald realizes why Nora did it, he still censors her: threatening to remove her from the company of her children, and worrying about his reputation: neither of which would matter if he had died.
Seeing the letter, Torvald lambasts Nora; she is suddenly aware of how Torvald values her desire to save his life—it means nothing. He calls her a liar, hypocrite and criminal. She was certain he'd sacrifice himself for her, as she would do for him: she was ready to kill herself to save him, but the only thing he cared about was his reputation. When Torvald realizes that Krogstad will not expose Nora, he patronizingly forgives her.
HELMER: …Nora, I swear it; I have forgiven you everything. I know that what you did, you did out of love for me.
That is true.
You have loved me as a wife ought to love her husband. Only you had not sufficient knowledge to judge of the means you used. But do you suppose you are any the less dear to me, because you don't understand how to act on your own responsibility? No, no; only lean on me; I will advise you and direct you.
Torvald believes he should be the center of Nora's universe. Even though she has cleverly managed to borrow and repay the money, he calls her irresponsible and unknowledgeable, and insists that she "lean" on him, as if she is incapable of relying on herself. He refuses to recognize that she is capable of being his equal. Torvald represents society.
Domesticity demands that Nora see to caring for the children, keeping their home comfortable for her husband, and being submissive: even sexually. When they come back from the party, Torvald is lost in a world of fantasy. He says:
And when we are leaving...then I imagine that you are my young bride...and I am bringing you...to be alone...for the first time...my blood was on fire; I could endure it no longer...
Go away, Torvald! You must let me go. I won't—
What's that? You're joking, my little Nora! You won't—you won't? Am I not your husband—?
Nora knows Krogstad's letter is in the mailbox. She doesn't want lovemaking to cloud Torvald's judgment—so he will try to save her when the news comes out. They are interrupted by Dr. Rank's knock, and when he leaves, Torvald again wants Nora, but she demurs. Nora feels it is time for Torvald to read Krogstad's letter.
In the play, a woman is expected to accept her societal role, acquiescing to her husband in all things.