A Doll's House Themes

The main themes in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House are the inauthenticity of gender roles, the gendered nature of pride, and the conflict between appearances and reality. 

  • The inauthenticity of gender roles: The play criticizes gender roles by exposing the ways in which their respective performances of Victorian masculinity and femininity have impacted the Helmers.
  • The gendered nature of pride: For men, pride is a public affair and their masculinity and place in society depends upon their reputations. By contrast, women take pride in more private, domestic tasks, highlighting their disparate social roles. 
  • Appearance vs. reality: Nora's deception of Torvald—and her misunderstanding of his character—represent the conflict between how people present themselves to others and their true selves.  

Themes

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Last Updated on September 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 995

Gender Inequality in Victorian Europe

Gender roles—and the dissatisfaction they produce—play a prominent role in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The dynamics of Nora and Torvald’s relationship reflect the Victorian belief that men should be the dominant partners in marriage. Torvald controls the money for the household, and he constantly condescends to Nora. He believes that he is her superior. Torvald’s paternalistic behavior reflects that of Nora’s father, who also treated Nora as an intellectual inferior. Though Nora is at first content to be a spoiled, submissive housewife, by the end of the play she asserts her independence and leaves her husband. Furthermore, Nora insists that the laws surrounding a woman’s ability to take out a loan are wrong. Through Nora’s opinions and actions, Ibsen criticizes the inequitable Victorian society that restricts women from obtaining true independence from the men in their lives.

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Mrs. Linde’s story moves in the opposite direction of Nora’s. Rather than seeking out independence, Mrs. Linde prepares to marry again, because she wants to care for someone again. Mrs. Linde’s willingly conforms to the gender roles that Nora hopes to escape. At first glance, this works against the thematic message of the play. However, Mrs. Linde’s circumstances and experiences differ from Nora’s. Mrs. Linde already knows what it is like to be independent. She had to work hard after her husband’s death just to care for herself. Additionally, she has already seen Krogstad at his worst. Her marriage to Krogstad will have no illusions or “playtime.” Instead, Mrs. Linde is making an informed, pragmatic choice to marry a man whom she respects and who respects her in turn.

When A Doll’s House first premiered, it was accused of being “anti-marriage.” Mrs. Linde’s story suggests otherwise. The ending of the play suggests that a “true wedlock” can only exist between equals who see one another clearly and equitably. While Nora and Torvald realize that their marriage is based on illusions, Krogstad and Mrs. Linde enter into a mutually beneficial and desirable partnership. Ultimately, Ibsen seems to suggest that women ought to be encouraged to think and live independently. If women were able to support themselves without the aid of men, the institution of marriage would cease to be an instrument of oppression. Thus, marriage would reflect a genuine partnership, as it does for Mrs. Linde and Krogstad.

The Gendered Nature of Pride

While pride is important to all of the primary characters in A Doll’s House, the nature of pride differs based on gender. For the male characters, pride is a public affair, because a man’s reputation impacts his socioeconomic opportunities.

  • Krogstad’s reputation was severely damaged by his forgery. As a result, he has limited employment opportunities and is forced to employ underhanded means to provide for his family.
  • By contrast, Torvald’s reputation is flawless, and he has recently been rewarded with a promotion at the bank.

During their confrontation in act III, Torvald tells Nora that “no man” would sacrifice his reputation for his wife. From Torvald’s perspective, his argument is valid, because his reputation is his means of providing for his family. However, Nora suggests that Torvald’s insistence on maintaining appearances is cowardly.

In contrast to the public nature of masculine pride, Ibsen suggests that feminine pride is found through personal sacrifice. Both Mrs. Linde and Nora pride themselves on the hard work they do on behalf of their families.

  • Mrs. Linde selflessly married a man whom she did not love in order to provide for her mother and brothers.
  • Nora prides herself on having saved Torvald’s life by taking out the loan. In her mind, forging the signature was better than disturbing her dying father or distressing Torvald while he was ill.
  • Nora’s nursemaid, Anne-Marie, gave up her daughter in order to make a living raising Nora.

Though all three women suffer hardships as a result of their decisions, they also take pride in knowing that they have helped their families. Whereas masculine pride is focused on the careful cultivation of outward appearances, feminine pride is built on true accomplishment and sacrifice.

Appearance vs. Reality

The first word spoken in A Doll’s House is “hide.” This word sets the tone for the rest of the play. Nora soon realizes that the happy appearance of her marriage is hiding the reality that she and Torvald barely know one another.

  • Nora plays the part of Torvald’s silly “little squirrel,” all the while hiding her intelligence and indulging in small acts of rebellion behind Torvald’s back.
  • In turn, Torvald pretends to be a chivalrous and heroic man who wants nothing more than to protect and nurture his wife.

Ultimately, both Nora and Torvald are complicit in the maintenance of their shared delusion and the dysfunction of their marriage.

In order to emphasize the thematic tensions between appearances and reality, Ibsen intentionally misleads audiences about his characters. Over the course of the play, Ibsen reveals details about Nora, Torvald, and Krogstad that complicate their initial characterizations.

  • At the start of the play, Nora is portrayed as a silly spendthrift who is coddled by those around her. However, she is later revealed to be an intelligent and capable person who has been stifled by the social expectations placed on women in Norwegian society.
  • Torvald begins the play as a kind, upstanding, and confident man. Though he behaves condescendingly towards Nora, he appears to truly love her. However, he reveals himself to be a shallow, childish person who has never tried to understand his wife.
  • Krogstad, who begins the play as a villain, becomes a sympathetic character and reveals himself as a man who has made the best of a hard situation.

These reversals emphasize the complexity of Ibsen’s characters and remind readers that first impressions are not always accurate. The truth lies beneath the sheen of appearances.

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