Theme of Women as Possessions: One of the most central themes of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is the concept of women as possessions in marriage and society as a whole. Highlight how the play’s title alludes to this theme—Nora is Torvald’s “doll” and not his equal. Emphasize how the play is concerned with how all of its characters, but especially women, are forced to keep up appearances in order to fit into society’s roles. Focus on how Torvald refers to Nora with “pet” names, and how his relationship with Nora develops throughout the play.
- For discussion: What language does Torvald use when speaking to and about Nora? What language does Nora use when referring to herself? Does this language change over the course of the play?
- For discussion: Contrast Torvald’s attitude towards Nora with Dr. Rank’s attitude. How are they similar? How are they different?
Theme of Deception: Naturally, the unyielding expectations of society necessitate deception as characters struggle to force their outward appearances into these unrealistic, repressive standards. Not only must Nora be a doll but also she must live in a doll-home, successfully convincing Torvald and their social world that both her marriage and household are perfectly happy and problem-free. Just as social norms require deception on the part of all characters, non-inclusive and unjust laws elicit deception for the marginalized, forcing arguably “honorable” people to commit crimes or to keep secrets.
- For discussion: Is it ever okay to lie to keep other people happy? What does Ibsen teach us about deceit?
- For discussion: Examine the physical setting and objects of the play. What role do doors, locks, and keys have in the play? What about letters, documents, and money? How do these physical objects influence and support the theme of deception?
Theme of Growth and Identity: Nora’s exit at the play’s conclusion has been criticized by some as a perceived abandonment of her children and marriage. However, her exit may also be viewed as an act of immense courage, in that Nora defies social norms to seek out her own identity beyond that of mother and wife. Ask students to trace Nora’s development from the beginning of act 1 to the final moments of act 3, noting the differences in her language choices and intentions.
- For discussion: Do you agree with Nora’s decision to leave at the end of the play? Why or why not?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Examine the letters and other documents present in the play. What roles do these have? How do they support the play’s themes?
- Highlight the centrality of financial matters in the power dynamic between Torvald and Nora. What is the difference between Torvald and Nora’s attitude to money? What do these attitudes reveal about who has the power in the relationship?
- Highlight the way Nora addresses her children. Are there certain similarities with the way Torvald relates to Nora? Consider the implications of these similarities.
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The 19th-Century Feminist Movement Differs from Modern Feminism: While Ibsen was a pioneering voice for women’s rights, his brand of feminism is undoubtedly different from feminism today. A Doll’s House focuses on one main issue—that of the confining roles of women in the institution of marriage. In Ibsen’s time, it was largely unheard of for women to have careers outside the home, just as it was for women to seek identity in the world beyond devoted wife and mother. While students may not find Nora’s exit particularly shocking or revolutionary, it is important to remind them that Nora’s world drastically differed from the one we inhabit today.
- What to do: Before reading, provide students with an overview of the societal roles expected of 19th-century women, emphasizing their lack of freedom beyond the home. Typically, women transitioned between the authority of their father to the domain of their husbands, never having a significant voice in financial...
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