How do the meanings of A Doll House and A Doll's House differ?

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The difference between the implications of "A Doll House" and "A Doll's House" are stark. "A doll house" refers to an object that one plays with dolls inside of, controlling their movements and often even speaking for them. Perhaps this is accurate to how Torvald pictured his life with Nora; Torvald's rage at the end of the play appears to stem from his loss of this illusion.

"A doll's house" instead implies that the doll is the literal keeper of the house, perhaps reminiscent of a toy that comes alive in the night. In this more sinister imagining, the doll, like Nora, has agency, but only insofar as it can make that agency invisible to any observers. Nora makes decorating decisions and chooses clothes for herself and the children, but these choices must allow her to believably play her roll as the doll. When Nora's acts of autonomy are discovered, her "doll's house" collapses under the weight of Torvald's "doll house".

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Interestingly, there are two translations, and interpretations, of the play's title of the Norweigan playwright, Henrik Ibsen: A Doll's House and A Doll House. 

  • A Doll's House

With the use of the possessive case, the denotations of this title are that the house belongs to a doll, or that the house is only meant for the habitation of a doll, and is, therefore, not real. Thus, the emphasis is upon the word house; it is a make-believe house and is not a real home. This lack of reality to the home of Nora Helmer is certainly evinced in the clandestine behavior of Nora in sneaking macaroons as well as in her other activities of having secured a loan by forging her father's name so that she could take her husband to a warm climate where he could recover his health as well as her collusion with Mrs. Linde.  In the meantime, her husband perceives her as a toy, not a person to be taken seriously when, in actuality, she is. In Act I, Nora speaks with her friend Mrs. Linde, demonstrating her independent thinking,

MRS LINDE  A wife can't borrow money without her husband's consent.

NORA (with a toss of her head) Oh, I don't know--take a wife with a little bit of a head for business--a wife who knows how to manage things.

In the end, Nora asserts herself and becomes a real woman; therefore, she must leave the house that is meant only for a doll. 

  • A Doll House

With the word doll used as an adjective. the denotation changes to that of a toy. A doll house is a miniature house in which one side is open and the child places furniture and has little figures--dolls--that he/she moves from room to room, manipulating these figures. The emphasis, then, is upon the manipulation of the occupant of this make-believe home.

In his criticism, "Ibsen's Social Dramas," Edmund Gosse writes,

The heroine of A Doll's House, the puppet in that establishment... is Nora Helmer, the wife of a Christiania barrister. The character is drawn upon childish lines, which often may remind the English reader of Dora in David Copperfield.

As long as Torvald has control of his wife and children, and as long as his reputation is intact, he believes that all is well. However, when he learns that Nora has acted independently and will bring disgrace upon his good name, Torvald accuses her of being an "irresponsible woman." Selfishly, he berates her, "Now, do you understand what you've done to me!" No longer able to control the movements in his house, Torvald is distraught; however, Nora is disillusioned when he tells her he will forgive her. Knowing that to remain in this doll house will restrict her to being manipulated, Nora decides to leave.

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