Discussion Topic

Ibsen's portrayal of Nora and Torvald's unequal relationship in A Doll's House


Ibsen portrays Nora and Torvald's relationship in A Doll's House as fundamentally unequal. Torvald treats Nora more like a child or possession rather than an equal partner, calling her pet names and controlling her actions. Nora, initially submissive, eventually recognizes the disparity and decides to leave Torvald to seek independence and self-identity, highlighting the gender dynamics and societal expectations of the time.

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How is Nora and Torvald’s relationship portrayed in act 1 of A Doll’s House?

In act 1 of A Doll's House, the dynamic of Nora and Torvald's relationship reflects overbearing patriarchal power.

The pet names which Torvald uses for his wife reflect his lack of respect towards her: "Little lark," "my squirrel," "little featherhead," and "Miss Sweet Tooth." He has established "rules" which Nora must follow, which includes forbidding her from eating sweets. When confronted about her snacking habits that day, Nora repeatedly lies to Torvald about the macaroons she has eaten. While this is a seemingly trivial detail of their day, the fact that Nora refuses to admit the truth demonstrates her need to avoid conflict with Torvald.

It also becomes clear that Nora relies on secrecy to maintain their marriage. She shares with Mrs. Linde that she has broken the law via forgery in order to obtain money which Torvald needed for medical treatment. She has managed to hide this truth from her husband, using part of the allowance he gives her to steadily repay the secret loan.

Regardless of the deceit, Nora and Helmer live a seemingly content married life in act 1. They are busily preparing for Christmas, and Nora seems content to play the role of a dutiful wife. She lovingly takes Torvald's arm, claps her hands in excitement regarding his plans, and graciously accepts the rather belittling pet names he uses for her. In short, Torvald expects that Nora will obey him and represent him well in society, and Nora is content to do so.

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How does Ibsen portray the unequal relationship between Nora and Torvald in A Doll's House?

In keeping with the prevailing standards of the time, Torvald is the undisputed head of the household. He is the sole breadwinner for his family and has complete control over the household finances. The respective roles of husband and wife in this relationship are completely conventional, just what would be expected in a respectable, middle-class marriage. While he goes out to work each day at the bank, his wife, Nora, is expected to stay at home and look after the children.

Ibsen skillfully uses language to heighten this enormous disparity in power between Torvald and Nora. Torvald infantilizes his wife by giving her childish, patronizing nicknames, such as "my little skylark" and "my squirrel." Torvald is only able to get away with using such condescending language because he is the undisputed head of the house.

His position of power gives him the authority to define who Nora is, and Torvald has chosen to use his authority as husband to define Nora as little more than a child. Language plays a very important part in this process. Describing Nora in such infantilized terms allows Torvald to keep her in a state of subjection; his own children may one day grow up, but Torvald is determined that Nora never will. Torvald may think he's protecting Nora by treating her this way, but in actual fact, he's stunting her moral and intellectual growth, with potentially damaging consequences.

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