Last Updated on February 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910
Extended Character Analysis
Nora Helmer is the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She begins the play as a coddled housewife and ends it as an independent woman setting out into the world to educate herself. The catalyst for Nora’s transformation is the loan that she took out years ago after her husband Torvald fell ill. In order to obtain the loan, Nora forged her dying father’s signature, a criminal act. The action of the play begins when Krogstad, the man who lent Nora the money, blackmails her into helping him keep his job at the bank that Torvald manages.
Nora's Loan and Its Consequences
Despite the dubious legality of her actions, the loan is a point of pride for Nora, who feels that she did what was necessary to save her husband. She worked for years in secret to pay it off, sacrificing her time and housekeeping money. However, Nora feels compelled to hide her competence, instead playing the part of the spoiled, silly wife that Torvald expects her to be. When the truth about the loan is revealed to Torvald, Nora expects him to feel indebted to her and to accept the blame for her actions. Instead, he harshly berates her, shattering Nora’s illusions about her allegedly happy marriage.
Nora is a manipulative and deceitful character. Before the secret loan is ever mentioned, Nora is shown eating macaroons, which Torvald has forbidden her from eating. She then denies having bought any macaroons to Torvald’s face. She also attempts to use her good looks and “little squirrel” persona to manipulate Torvald into doing things, such as giving Mrs. Linde a job and refraining from firing Krogstad. However, Nora’s deceitfulness is not intentionally malicious, and her manipulations are a symptom of her lack of power in her marriage. She feels that she must lie in order to protect her marriage. She fears that if Torvald were to view her as competent and intelligent, then he would treat her differently. Prior to Krogstad’s blackmail, Nora tells Mrs. Linde that she plans to tell Torvald about the loan when she has aged and lost some of her beauty. She believes that he will love and respect her for saving his life. For the time being, she is content to be Torvald’s “little squirrel” who dresses up and does “tricks” for him.
For the most of the play, Nora genuinely believes that her marriage is a happy one. Just as she plays the part of the charming, childish wife, so too does Torvald play the part of the chivalrous and indulgent husband. Nora believes that Torvald will face the consequences of her forgery rather than succumb to Krogstad’s demands. When her expectations are not met, Nora realizes that she does not truly know Torvald. In turn, she realizes that she has never allowed him to really know her.
In the final confrontation between Nora and Torvald, Nora claims accountability for her own illusions about Torvald. Her desire to be the perfect wife and to have the perfect husband prevent her from seeing Torvald as he really is. In turn, Nora’s father and Torvald have forced her into a subservient role and underestimated her capabilities. As a woman, Nora has significantly fewer economic opportunities than a man does. Her only prospect for a stable, comfortable life is to marry well. Nora argues that her attempts to conform to society’s concept of the “perfect wife” have left her ignorant and unhappy. She hopes to rectify this by leaving Torvald and her children in pursuit of a more worldly education.
Nora's Agency in Victorian Norway
Nora’s decision to leave her family represents a radical declaration of female agency. Torvald attempts to persuade her to stay by claiming that “before all else, [she is] a wife and a mother.” This was a common belief in Victorian Norway, as women were given minimal socioeconomic agency outside of marriage. When the play was first released, many people found it inconceivable that a woman would prioritize herself over her family. Nora responds by saying that, before all else, she is a rational and complete human being with a duty to pursue her own happiness. Rather than continuing to live in ignorance, Nora is committed to learning more about the world, even if that means leaving her children without a mother. As Nora sees it, she is not fit to raise or educate them anyways, since she is little more than a child herself.
Nora's "Most Wonderful Thing of All"
For most of the play, Nora anticipates “the wonderful” yet “terrible” thing that Torvald will do when he finds out about the forgery. In Nora’s mind, this wonderful yet terrible thing is Torvald’s refusing to give into Krogstad’s demands and accepting the consequences for the forgery on Nora’s behalf. In order to spare Torvald the shame of accepting the blame for her actions, Nora is prepared to take her own life. However, after seeing that Torvald is unwilling to sacrifice himself for her, Nora’s concept of the “the wonderful thing” changes. Just as she goes to shut the door behind herself, she leaves Torvald with a fleeting hope that they might one day become more than strangers again. For Nora, “the most wonderful thing of all” is no longer a one-sided sacrifice but instead a “real wedlock,” founded on mutual respect and honesty.