'A Doll's House': Themes and Symbols

The main themes of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House revolve around the values and the issues of late 19th-century bourgeoisie, namely what looks appropriate, the value of money, and the way women navigate a landscape that leaves them little room to assert themselves as actual human beings.

Money and Power

Thanks to the onset of industrialization, the 19th-century economy moved from the fields to urban centers, and those who had the most power over money were no longer land-owning aristocrats, but lawyers and bankers, such as Torvald. Their power over money extended to other people’s lives, and this is why Torvald is such a self-righteous person in regards to characters such as Krogstad (an underling of his) and even Nora, whom he treats like a pet or a doll rewarded with a heftier allowance if she behaves a certain way.

Nora’s inability to handle money also reflects her position of powerlessness in society. The loan she acquires in order to get Torvald the treatment he needs in Italy comes back to haunt her when Krogstad blackmails her, should she not put a good word for him with her husband.

Appearances and Morals

Bourgeois society rests on a façade of decorum and is governed by stern morals meant to conceal either superficial or repressed behavior. In the case of Nora, she seemed to be the late 19th-century equivalent of a woman who had it all: a devoted husband, children, and a solid middle-class life, with the ability to afford pretty things. Her value rested in maintaining a façade of being a devoted mother and a respectful wife.

On his end, Torvald has a high-paying job that allows him to afford a comfortable lifestyle. He is deeply observant of the importance of appearances; in fact, he fires Krogstad not because of his criminal past—he had reformed since then—but because he addressed him by his given name. And when he reads the letter from Krogstad incriminating Nora, the feeling he is overcome with is shame, as Nora has, in his opinion, been outed as a woman with “no religion, no morals, no sense of duty.” What’s more, what he fears is that people will believe he did it.

Torvald's inability to favor a respectful divorce over a sham union shows how he is enslaved by morality and the struggle that comes with keeping up with appearances. “And as far as you and I are concerned,” he concludes, “it must look as though everything were the same as before between us. But obviously only in the eyes of the world.” Then, when Krogstad sends another letter retracting his accusations, Torvald immediately backtracks, exclaiming “I am saved, Nora! I am saved!”

In the end, appearances are what cause the undoing of the marriage. Nora is no longer willing to keep up with the superficiality of her husband’s values. Torvald’s feelings towards her are rooted in appearances, an inherent limit of his character.

A Woman’s Worth

During Ibsen’s time, women were not allowed to conduct business or handle their own money. A man, whether a father or a husband, needed to give them their approval before they could conduct any transaction. This fault in the system is what forces Nora to commit fraud by forging her dead father’s signature on a loan in order to help her husband, and despite the good-hearted nature of her action, she is treated like a criminal because what she did was, by all means, illegal.

Ibsen believed in women’s rights to develop their own individuality, but late 19th-century society did not necessarily agree with this point of view. As we see in the Helmer household, Nora is completely subordinated to her husband. He gives her pet names such as little lark or squirrel, and the reason he does not want to keep Krogstad’s job is that he does not want to have his employees think that his wife had influenced him.

By contrast, Kristine Linde had a greater degree of freedom than Nora. A widow, she had the right to the money she earned, and could work to support herself, despite the fact that jobs open to women mostly consisted of clerical work. “I have to work if I’m to endure this life,” she tells Krogstad when they reunite. “Every waking day, as far back as I can remember, I’ve worked, and it’s been my greatest and only joy. But now I am entirely alone in the world, so dreadfully empty and abandoned.”

All female characters have to endure some sort of sacrifice during the play for what is perceived to be the greater good. Nora sacrifices her own humanity during the marriage and has to sacrifice her attachment to her children when she leaves Torvald. Kristine Linde sacrificed her love for Krogstad in order to marry someone with a job stable enough to allow her to help her brothers and ailing mother. Anne Marie, the nurse, had to give up her own child in order to take care of Nora when she was a baby herself.

Symbols

The Neapolitan Costume and the Tarantella

The Neapolitan dress that Nora is made to wear at her costume party was bought by Torvald in Capri; he chooses this costume for her that night, reinforcing the fact that he sees her as a doll. The tarantella, the dance she performs while wearing it, was originally created as a cure for a tarantula’s bite, but symbolically, it represents hysteria stemming from repression.

In addition, when Nora begs Torvald to coach her through the dance routine before the party, in an attempt to distract Torvald from Krogstad’s letter sitting in the letterbox, she dances so wildly that her hair comes loose. Torvald, in turn, goes into a state of both erotic fascination and repressed righteousness, telling her “I’d never have believed this. You really have forgotten everything I taught you.”

Doll and Other Pet Names

During the final confrontation with her husband, Nora claims that both he and her father treated her like a “doll child.” Both he and Torvald wanted her pretty but compliant. “I had the same opinions; and if I had others, I hid them; because he wouldn’t have liked it,” she tells her husband. Torvald had the same disposition as her father, which we can clearly see given the way he reacts when Nora was outed as having committed an illegal action. The pet names he chooses for her, such as squirrel, skylark, and songbird, show that he wants her to amuse and delight him like a cute, little animal.

During the climax of the play, in fact, Nora notes how neither Torvald nor her father actually loved her, but that it was “amusing” to them to be in love with her, the way someone could be endeared by something lesser than a human, such as a doll or a cute pet.