In the play A Doll's House, what is the difference between Torvald's and Nora's definitions of a "human being"?

For Nora, being a "human being" means having the ability to make your own decisions and be held accountable for them. However, this concept is lost on Torvald since he treats her more like a doll than as a human being.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

For Nora , being human involves having agency—the ability to make your own decisions in life and being held accountable for them. Though she has been regarded as a proto-feminist by successive generations of feminist scholars, Nora could more accurately be described as a humanist in that she wants to...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

For Nora, being human involves having agency—the ability to make your own decisions in life and being held accountable for them. Though she has been regarded as a proto-feminist by successive generations of feminist scholars, Nora could more accurately be described as a humanist in that she wants to be treated like a human being (rather than advocating specifically for women's rights).

And given her domestic situation, that's not altogether surprising; her husband Torvald doesn't treat her like a human being at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, he looks upon his wife as nothing more than a plaything—at best, a small child, at worst, a doll.

Truth be told, Torvald is actually petrified at the thought of Nora having agency, a quality normally attributed to men in this rigidly patriarchal society. When the full extent of Nora's fraud is revealed, it's not so much the fact that she broke the law that concerns Torvald but that she acted on her own behalf, entering into a world reserved exclusively for men.

It says a lot about this society and its warped values, values which Torvald wholeheartedly embraces, that a woman can only demonstrate agency by committing a crime.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Nora seems to equate being a human being with having the opportunity to get to know oneself, to know one's likes and dislikes, to make something of one's life and feel that one has a purpose. She takes issue with Torvald, saying,

You arranged everything according to your taste; and I got the same tastes as you; or I pretended to—I don't know which—both ways, perhaps; sometimes one and sometimes the other . . . I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and father have done me a great wrong. It is your fault that my life has come to nothing.

Nora feels that she has never had a chance to develop and learn her own tastes, that she merely mimicked or acquired her father's and then her husband's; she lived to try to impress first one and then the other, performing and behaving not as she would choose on her own but, rather, as they would have her act and think. She thinks that her life has no meaning and no purpose, and so it is clear that she believes human beings should have the opportunity to find this on their own.

Torvald, however, finds her to be "unreasonable and ungrateful," asking her, "Have you not been happy here?" She responds that she may have been "merry," but she was not truly happy (even though she thought, then, that she was). He does not seem to understand or even acknowledge the weight of Nora's claims; to him, it seems, being "happy" is enough, and it should be enough for her. He considers her "holiest duties" to be her "duties to [her] husband and [her] children," while she believes that she has "other duties equally sacred": her duties toward herself. He says that "Before all else [she is] a wife and a mother"; however, she says,

That I no longer believe. I believe that before all else I am a human being, just as much as you are, or at least that I should try to become one . . . I must think things out for myself, and try to get clear about them.

Again, we see that Nora believes each human being deserves a chance to find herself and what she thinks, outside of the influence of others, even that of her husband or father. Torvald, evidently, does not believe that she is entitled to this opportunity; rather, he thinks that she ought to be present for her husband and children and not strive for self-actualization. For female human beings, he implies, such a desire is selfish and unnecessary.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Torvald does treat Nora as a doll.  Ibsen's A Doll's House has often been used as a rallying cry for the feminist movement, especially during the second wave when Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique was a pivotal point in that part of the movement.  While Ibsen has considered himself more of a humanist instead of a feminist, there's no denying that he wanted Nora to be an equal to her husband.

In the final act she says, "But our home's been nothing but a playpen. I've been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa's doll-child. And in turn the children have been my dolls. I thought it fun when you played with me, just as they thought it fun when I played with them. That's been our marriage, Torvald. [. . .]If I'm ever to reach any understanding of myself and the things around me, I must learn to stand alone. That's why I can't stay here with you any longer."

Torvald does not consider his wife his equal, he considers her more like a doll or a child.  Something to play with, feed macaroons, have dance for him, and call his "little squirrel" and other diminutive names.  Most likely, the only others that Torvald considers equal to him are other men of his status as a businessman (or greater) in society.

Nora, as you can probably tell, defines being human as someone who understands herself and someone who is free.  It's not about status or gender to her.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team