In the first act of A Doll’s House, when the audience meets Torvald Helmer, he addresses his wife Nora as “little lark” and “little squirrel.” He continues with several other terms modified by “little.” This seems to be his customary form of address, and he apparently intends these to be terms of endearment. Nora does not employ similar terms in addressing him.
The combination of diminutives and animal terms shows that Torvald simultaneously treats his wife with condescension and dehumanizes her. As an adult might conceivably apply such terms to a child, for one adult to address another adult this way also indicates that they see the other person as childish. Torvald not only demonstrates this sense of superiority by applying terms such as “small” to his wife; with animal terms, he renders her as other than human. Torvald first calls Nora a “creature” near the play’s end.
Torvald’s use of these terms occurs in combination with his criticism of Nora’s behavior. He chastises her for being an “extravagant little person” and a “little spendthrift” who adds to the family’s expenses. These specific criticisms are combined with his overall assessment that she is “an odd little soul.”
Torvald’s condescension and his misunderstanding of Nora’s character are closely connected with the play’s title and Nora’s later assertion of the small, imitation life she lives. When Torvald learns of her illegal financial dealings, he angrily calls her “miserable creature.” Later, he praises himself for offering to forgive her and claims that his “little scared, helpless darling” will now “become both wife and child to him.” Nora emphatically rejects this relationship.