Themes of Control, Patriarchy, & Domination in Henrik Isben’s A Doll House

By Molly K. Lichtner, 2/25/17

A mother’s work is never done.  For Nora Helmer from Henrik Isben’s A Doll House, this is very true.  Because Nora and her husband Torvald Helmer, the newly appointed bank manager, are well off enough to be able to afford a live-in nanny for their three children, Nora’s work is done elsewhere; she is a servant to the patriarchy that her husband rules.  Nora’s ties and debts to her husband contribute to her endless work, forcing her to become permanently entwined Torvald’s never ending biddings.  After the patriarchy crumbles and Nora is freed, she is completely justified in leaving solely because of the way she was treated by her husband.

Many people blame Nora for the problems strewn throughout the play and as Joan Templeton, author of “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen” states: “The most popular way to render Nora inconsequential has been to attack her morality…”  Throughout the text, Nora uses lying in order to get by, from the small fib of blaming her friend Mrs. Linde for bringing Macaroons into the house to the gargantuan lie of forging her father’s signature on a loan document.  It is her husband who does not want her to have cookies because she’ll rot her teeth.  She obtains the loan from Krogstad so she and her family can survive while Torvald is deathly ill, although this is something that he did not know about but would highly disapprove of if he did.  It is also implied through a conversation between Nora and Torvald that Nora was secretly doing extra work on the side to earn more money:

TORVALD.  Do you remember last Christmas?  For three full weeks beforehand you shut yourself up every evening till long after midnight, making ornaments for the Christmas Tree and all the other fine things that were to be a surprise to us.  It was the dullest three weeks I ever spent!

NORA.  I didn’t find it dull.

TORVALD.  [smiling]. But there was precious little result, Nora.

NORA.  Oh, you shouldn’t tease me about that again.  How could I help the cat’s going in and tearing everything to pieces?

TORVALD.  Of course you couldn’t, poor little girl.  You had the best of intentions to please us all, and that’s the main thing.  But it is a good thing that our hard times are over.

Although never implicitly stated by Nora, it can be garnered that she was not working on Christmas gifts and instead was bringing work home in order to earn some more money during the financial hardships Torvald mentions.  Nora does not do these things maliciously; she does them to protect herself from Torvald’s wrath.  She uses lying as a defense mechanism in order to still be seen as Torvald’s “sweet little skylark.”  While living under Torvald’s rule, lying becomes a second nature for Nora, a kind of survival method, which shows that she had to protect herself from Torvald’s fury in multiple aspects of her life.

Besides controlling her day to day life, Torvald talks down to Nora almost as if she were his child and not his wife.  He often calls her by demeaning nicknames, controls her spending, dictates what she is allowed to eat, tells her what to wear, and even at one point refers to her as a child, but most disturbingly he fetishizes her:

TORVALD.  Yes, my own darling Nora.  Do you know, when I am out at a party with you like this, why I speak so little to you, keep away from you, and only send a stolen   glance in your direction now and then? – do you know why I do that?  It is because I make believe to myself that we are secretly in love, and you are my secretly promised bride, and that no one suspects there is anything between us.

NORA.  Yes, yes—I know very well that your thoughts are with me all the time.

TORVALD.  And when we are leaving and I am putting the shawl over your beautiful young shoulders—on your lovely neck—then I imagine that you are my young bride and that we have just come from the wedding, and I am bringing you for the first time into our home—to be alone with you for the first time…

Torvald sees Nora as a plaything—not as his wife, not as his partner, and most certainly not his equal.  For Torvald, Nora exists for one reason only: to please him.  Their marriage is a farce, only in place because Torvald is an insatiable lecher who will not take no for an answer:

            NORA.  Go away Torvald!  You must let me go.  I won’t—

            TORVALD.  What’s that?  You’re joking my little Nora!  You won’t—you won’t?                 Am I not your husband?

Torvald is ready to take Nora against her will because she is his wife.  In his mind she is his property which proves how twisted their relationship is.  Nora is not an object; she is a human being.

Torvald does not care for Nora as a human being.  He is controlling and manipulative toward her and does not allow her to make her own decisions.  Nora is justified in leaving him at the end of A Doll House because he does not treat her with respect.  Nora is his toy and nothing more.  She is a cog in the factory of his patriarchy.  For Torvald, Nora is a supporting character when she should be in a lead role as his wife.  In order to live fully as her own person, Nora needed to free herself from her toxic relationship with Torvald because sometimes, Father doesn’t know best.

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