Nora’s Secession in A Doll’s House: The Transformation Graph

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This paper studies Henrik Ibsen’s three-act play “A Doll’s House” – a commentary of sorts on the position of women in the late 19th century. The paper focuses on the female protagonist, Nora Helmer, dissects Nora’s relationship to her husband, and proceeds to understand when and why the final moment of truth dawned on the lady in question. The paper does not seek to merely explore the feminist undertones of the play, but attempts to provide the audience with an insightful perspective on one woman’s epiphany.

Nora, the play’s leading lady, when Act I of the play begins, appears to be the prototypical, pampered wife. Her position in the marriage is that of a doll, her house a “Doll’s House”, and indeed her husband Torvald refers to her incessantly as his little “skylark” and as his “squirrel.” She is not even permitted a key to the mailbox, and as Ibsen (Wikisource[R1] , 2007) noted, “A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.”

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The story unfolds with revelations of improper act of forgery that she committed in order to save her husband’s life. Reacting in horror and disgust to her confessions, her husband Torvald Helmer, displays concern only for his own reputation, despite the love for him that prompts her to do it.  Even as the blackmailer (Nils Krogstad) recants, for Nora, however, the illusions of faith and love are destroyed. A livid Nora decides to depart from her marital home and admits her desires to seek herself and understand the woman she has been. As Ibsen described it (Archer[R2] , 2007):

“Oppressed and bewildered by belief in authority, she loses her faith in her own moral right and ability to bring up her children. Bitterness. A mother in the society of to-day, like certain insects, (ought to) go away and die when she has done her duty towards the continuance of the species.”

Nora Helmer – A Character Profile
Nora at the opening act appears a juvenile, selfish, and indulged woman – Torvald’s “doll-wife” as Nora admits herself. Nevertheless, we are soon made to appreciate her inner strengths and depths, having saved Torvald’s life by negotiating and nearly paying off a loan from Krogstad. The deal demands a misdemeanor on her part, which she promptly withholds from Torvald in an effort to salvage his pride. Nora is shown as a woman with utmost faith and reverence for her husband as can be inferred from her frequent requests of Krogstad to afford Torvald a degree of respect; “Kindly show some respect for my husband Mr. Krogstad,” she says (Ibsen, 2007, p.197)

Torvald Helmer: A Character Profile
Torvald, Nora’s husband, a banker and lawyer treats his wife as one would a disobedient child, plaything and erotic fantasy-figure, as is revealed by his choice of endearments “little songbird,” “little skylark,” and so on. In the early part of the play he engages and draws on the audience’s compassion by his generous devotion to Nora. Torvald claims that he would take all her burdens upon himself and fantasizes about rescuing her from mortal dangers. Yet at a crucial moment of need, his concern is limited to his perceived reputation. As the play draws to a close Torvard is revealed to be a shallow, vain man.

Metaphor Analysis in A Doll’s House
Nora – a fanciful persona yet a caged bird as evidenced by Torvald’s pet names fore her, which quickly emphasize that he looks at his wife as a source of amusement, meant only to delight him. That be as it may, it may be suggested that squirrels, songbirds, and skylarks are all birds and animals that do well not to be shut in a cage, any more than Nora can tolerate living in the stifling atmosphere of Torvald’s house.

Nora as an Imprudent Woman
Torvald often is seen to consider Nora of far less aptitude and faculty; he often indulgently and playfully ignores any display of intellect on Nora’s part. For instance, this conversation with Dr Rank affirms the observation (Wikisource, 2007):

“Nora: Doctor Rank, you must have been occupied with some scientific investigation today.

Rank: Exactly.

Helmer: Just listen! Little Nora talking about scientific investigations!”

Nora as a Plaything
Torvald chooses for Nora’s fancy dress costume a Neapolitan fisher-girl’s dress, and the sight of her dancing in it throws him into a state of erotic fascination. This reinforces the idea that it is Nora’s superficial and transient qualities, such as her beauty, that Torvald most appreciates. It is also significant that when the Nurse first brings out the dress in Act 2, Nora noticing that it is torn is tempted to rip it to shreds; this is symbolic of the state of her marriage.

When the Tarantella is done, Torvard gives Mrs Linde a picture of Nora’s performance with all the respect one would of a child, in an openly mocking manner, and also admits to having forced her exit from the hall without paying heed to her wishes (Wikisource, 2007).

“Listen to her, Mrs Linde! She had danced her Tarantella, and it had been a tremendous success, as it deserved—although possibly the performance was a trifle too realistic—a little more so, I mean, than was strictly compatible with the limitations of art. But never mind about that! The chief thing is, she had made a success—she had made a tremendous success. Do you think I was going to let her remain there after that, and spoil the effect? No, indeed! I took my charming little Capri maiden—my capricious little Capri maiden, I should say—on my arm; took one quick turn round the room; a curtsey on either side, and, as they say in novels, the beautiful apparition disappeared. An exit ought always to be effective, Mrs Linde; but that is what I cannot make Nora understand.”

Nora as a Wife
Often Helmer would expect to be appreciated for the little things he would allow of his wife as can be seen by the times Nora compliments his actions to be “nice” or “wonderful”. Apparently, Helmer assumes it is but the wife’s duty to please the husband and not also the husband’s. When Nora appreciates Helmer’s idea of the dress, he readily demands to be appreciated (Wikisource, 2007):

“Helmer: Wasn’t that a happy thought of mine, now?

Nora: Splendid! But don’t you think it is nice of me, too, to do as you wish?

Helmer: Nice? Because you do as your husband wishes? Well, well, you little rogue, I am sure you did not mean it in that way. But I am not going to disturb you; you will want to be trying on your dress, I expect.”

Nora’s Realization – The Psychology of Nora’s Call
One soon begins to comprehend that Nora is not quite the empty-headed spendthrift she appears; her need of money is apparently a result of her debt to Nils Krogstad. She fears for the loss of her creditor’s position in the bank when Torvald assumes presidency of the bank, and as may be expected is blackmailed on that account (Menander, 2002).

His ultimate rejection of her pleas to forgive her guilt causes Nora to recognize that her marriage to Torvald was never a relationship of equals. She has lived with a stranger as a mere plaything – a doll in this doll’s house. The first “serious conversation” between adults, as she admits, happens only in the final act of the play (Wikisource, 2007):

“Nora: We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?

Helmer: What do you mean by serious?

Nora: In all these eight years—longer than that—from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.

Helmer: Was it likely that I would be continually and forever telling you about worries that you could not help me to bear?

Nora: I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything.”

Further Nora finally gathers the courage to explore the two men in her life and the manner in which she has been played as someone to be taught and protected and not capable of mature behavior.

“Nora: It is perfectly true, Torvald. When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you …You and papa have committed a great sin against me It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life … I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.”

The question in “A Doll’s House” is not even about whether a woman should forsake her husband and children when she happens to feel like it, but whether a particular woman, Nora, living under special conditions with a certain kind of husband, Torvald, really did deem herself justified in leaving her doll’s home, perhaps forever (Hamilton[R3] , 1910). In addition, we see an admission of guilt by Helmer when he acknowledges that there is a “bit of truth” in Nora’s analysis of her role as a doll, and professes to feel adequately shamed too.

The Author’s Impact
Ibsen’s use of the retrospective to reveal important incidents from the past has to also be taken into consideration to analyze whether revisiting the past contributed significantly to Nora’s seemingly impulsive and unexpected decision (Matthews, 1912). Nora’s constant worrying exclamations “It’s not true. It can’t possibly be true,” have in effect created a sense that Nora’s constant deliberation on her past contributes significantly to her decision.

The ethics of any play may be determined only within the limits of the play itself. And yet modern social dramatists are persistently misjudged. We hear talk of the moral teaching of Ibsen – as if, instead of being a maker of plays, he had been a maker of golden rules. But Mr. Shaw came nearer to the truth with his famous paradox that the only golden rule in Ibsen’s dramas is that there is no golden rule (Hamilton, 1910).

The greatest works of Ibsen can be appreciated only by the cultured individual and not by the uncultured crowd; more so reason why the breadth of his appeal may never equal that of Shakespeare. In spite of his unfathomable intellect and his perfect mastery of the technique of his art, only his more commonplace plays – A Doll’s House, for example – have attained a wide success (Hamilton, 1910). Ibsen’s supremacy may be challenged and his plays denounced and derided; but it was difficult to deny his strange power or his fecundating influence on the drama of every modern language – Ibsen was proving anew that there was no reason why a playwright should not do his own thinking (Matthews[R4] , 1912).

“A Doll’s House.” E. Haldeman-Julius (Ed). Wikisource: The Free Library. 18 April 2007 <>.

“A Doll’s House: An Introduction.” Archer, William. 18 April 2007

Hamilton, Clayton. The Theory of the Theatre: And Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910.

Ibsen, Henrik. Doll’s House and Other Plays.  Trans. Peter Watts. Viking Press: 1965.

Jacobus, Lee A. The Bedford Introduction to Drama (5th Ed). Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005. ISBN 0312414412.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Modernism” in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1953.

Matthews, Brander. The Development of the Drama. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912.

Menander. Plays and Fragments. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. ISBN 0192839837.

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Nora’s Secession in A Doll’s House: The Transformation Graph. (2017, Apr 17). Retrieved from

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