A Doll's House

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Themes and Colors
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Money and Work Theme Icon
Deceit Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
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Gender Theme Icon

A Doll’s House exposes the restricted role of women during the time of its writing and the problems that arise from a drastic imbalance of power between men and women. Throughout the play, Nora is treated like a child by the other characters. Torvald calls her his “pet” and his “property,” and implies that she is not smart or responsible enough to be trusted with money. Neither Krogstad nor Dr. Rank take her seriously, and even Mrs. Linde calls her a “child.” While this treatment does seem to mildly frustrate Nora, she plays along with it, calling herself “little Nora” and promising that she would never dream of disobeying her husband. However, there are clues that she is not entirely happy with the limited position she has as a woman. When revealing the secret of how she borrowed money to finance the trip to Italy, she refers to it as her “pride” and says it was fun to be in control of money, explaining that it was “almost like being a man.” Although she comes to regret her decision to borrow money, Nora’s dissatisfaction with her status as a woman intensifies over the course of the play. In the final scene she tells Torvald that she is not being treated as an independent person with a mind of her own. Her radical solution to this issue is to leave domestic life behind, despite Torvald's declaration that he will change. Nora's decision suggests that she, and the play, see the issue as only partially with Torvald. The more fundamental issue is with domestic life as it was conceived and lived at the time, in the way it legally and culturally infantilized women and made it impossible for them to be recognized or treated as full individuals.

Meanwhile, the men of the play are also expected to fill a certain role. Both Torvald and Krogstad are very ambitious, driven not only by the need to provide for their families but also by a desire to achieve higher status. Respectability is of great concern to both of them; when Nora’s borrowing is revealed, Torvald’s first thoughts are for his reputation. Meanwhile, Krogstad is fixated on achieving success now that he has “gone straight,” and intends to one day take over Torvald’s job and run the bank.

Gender ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Gender appears in each act of A Doll's House. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Gender Quotes in A Doll's House

Below you will find the important quotes in A Doll's House related to the theme of Gender.
Act One Quotes

I would never dream of doing anything you didn’t want me to.

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker), Torvald Helmer
Related Symbols: Macaroons
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Nora plays the part of the perfect wife, promising absolute obedience to Torvald—in this case specifically related to the fact that he has forbidden her to eat macaroons. On one level this quote seems to convey Nora's love for her husband and her acceptance of gender roles, suggesting she adores Torvald so much that she is willing to give up her own agency in order to make him happy. However, in reality she is lying. She has already disobeyed him, both in the minor act of eating macaroons just a few minutes earlier, and in the major transgression of borrowing money much earlier in their marriage.

Nora has thus deceived Torvald on two levels: first by disobeying him, and then by lying about it. The exaggerated nature of the phrase – that she would "never dream" of disobeying him – adds further tension to the lie and suggests that the role Nora is trying to play is unrealistic and impossible, and therefore hints at her eventual refusal to play it.

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Oh, sometimes I was so tired, so tired. But it was tremendous fun all the same, sitting there working and earning money like that. Almost like being a man.

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Nora explains to Mrs. Linde that she has been secretly paying back the money she borrowed to fund the trip to Italy by avoiding spending money on herself and even taking on copying work, which she had to complete at night so that Torvald would not notice. This quote reveals a more selfless and mature side to Nora, who has previously been treated - and behaved - like a vain and spoiled child. The fact that she has been prepared to sacrifice so much for Torvald shows that she really does love her husband, despite the fact that she deceives him.

Ibsen suggests that Nora's deception might be necessary because Torvald does not trust her to make sensible decisions on her own (and on a wider level, in this society men in general don't trust or respect women in general). Torvald believes Nora only wants to engage in frivolous pursuits, when in fact she shows here that she enjoys the responsibility of earning money to help her family. This passage contains the first hint that Nora might be dissatisfied with the traditional role she is expected to perform as a wife and mother. Indeed, it foreshadows the decision she makes at the end of the play to sacrifice her comfortable lifestyle in order to become autonomous and independent. 


Oh, I think I can say that some of us have a little influence now and again. Just because one happens to be a woman, doesn’t mean… People in subordinate positions, ought to take care they don’t offend anybody… who… hm…

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Having told Krogstad that Mrs Linde is to have a position at the bank, Nora shows off by implying that it is thanks to her that Mrs Linde was given the job. Again, Nora wishes to prove that she is an autonomous and influential person in spite of her gender, and seems to want to be more involved with the world of work. On the other hand, she probably thinks it is safe to express these feelings to Krogstad, who does not have high social status. It is unlikely she would make the same statement if Torvald were in the room. 

The fact that Nora's mention of "people in subordinate positions" follows her claim about being a woman suggests she is talking about her own subordination due to her gender. However, it then becomes clear that she is referring to Krogstad's subordinate role at the bank. This connection highlights the parallel situation of Nora and Krogstad: their attempts to act freely are thwarted by the power that Torvald has over them. It also shows that Nora enjoys feeling superior to Krogstad, rather than empathizing with him due to their shared lower social status. 

Act Two Quotes

When a poor girl’s been in trouble she must make the best of things.

Related Characters: The nursemaid (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Nora has asked the nursemaid how she could bear to give up her child, and the nursemaid responds by explaining that it was out of necessity, as the child's father would not support her. This quote highlights how little freedom and power women had at the time; without a man to depend on, the nursemaid would have been unable to raise the child herself.

The nursemaid's predicament connects to Mrs. Linde's revelation that she married a man she didn't love due to financial need, as well as Nora's decision to forge her father's signature in order to secure the loan. Each woman was forced to act in a way they otherwise have never chosen due to the restrictive legal, economic, and social position of women in their society. Significantly, all three women choose to act in a way that is both selfless and pragmatic; Ibsen thus exposes the inaccuracy of the belief that women are foolish and incapable of making rational decisions.

You see Torvald is so terribly in love with me that he says he wants me all to himself. When we first married, it even used to make him sort of jealous if I only as much as mentioned any of my old friends back home. So of course I stopped doing it.

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker), Torvald Helmer
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Linde has expressed confusion at the fact that Torvald did not know who she was, and Nora responds by explaining that Torvald would become jealous if she ever mentioned her old friends, leading Nora to cease mentioning them at all. Though Nora justifies this by claiming it is because Torvald loves her, the phrase "wants me all to himself" suggests that Torvald views her as a possession - again foreshadowing Nora's later claim that he treats her like a doll. At this point Nora seems to genuinely believe that there is nothing wrong with Torvald's possessive behavior, and she sees it as natural that she should stop mentioning her old friends around him. This quote reveals her strong desire to conform to gender roles and be a perfect wife, even if it comes at the expense of her own happiness. 

A man’s better at coping with these things than a woman…

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Nora, desperate to find a solution to the fact that Krogstad is blackmailing her, considers asking Dr. Rank for help, on the basis that he has money and is a man. On one level, her reasoning for going to Dr. Rank is valid; he is in a considerably more powerful position than Nora, with financial means and legal rights that she does not have. On the other hand, this quote suggests that she has internalized the sexist idea that women are unsuited to handle serious matters. Despite the hard work and skillful negotiation she exhibited in borrowing and paying back the money in the first place, Nora is still convinced that she needs a man's help in order to find a solution to her current predicament.

If it ever got around that the new manager had been talked over by his wife… As long as the little woman gets her own stubborn way…! Do you want me to make myself a laughing stock in the office? Give people the idea that I am susceptible to any kind of outside pressure? You can imagine how soon I’d feel the consequences of that!

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker), Nora Helmer
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Nora has tried once again to persuade Torvald not to fire Krogstad, and in response Torvald becomes irritated, claiming that it would damage his reputation if people were to think his wife influenced his decisions. This passage shows how cruel Torvald can be to Nora, and suggests he has little respect for her. The phrase "little woman" again brings to mind the symbol of the doll's house and Torvald's treatment of Nora as a doll. 

At the same time, Torvald's words also reveal that he as an individual is not entirely to blame for his sexist attitude. His dismissal of Nora seems motivated by a fear that, if he were to take her opinion seriously, he would be ridiculed by other men at the bank and that his career could even suffer as a result. Here Ibsen emphasizes the pressure on all the characters in the play to maintain appearances and conform to the norms of society.

Now Dr. Rank, cheer up. You’ll see tomorrow how nicely I can dance. And you can pretend I’m doing it just for you—and for Torvald as well, of course.

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker), Torvald Helmer, Dr. Rank
Related Symbols: The Tarantella
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Dr. Rank has told Nora that he is dying and that she and Torvald will soon forget him, but Nora brushes him off and attempts to distract him by mentioning the Tarantella. Her behavior in this passage is rather childlike, as she is dismissive of Dr. Rank's melancholic feelings and seems unwilling to discuss the sober matter of his death. Her flirtatious behavior would similarly have been seen as immature and irresponsible, far from the ideal of a modest married woman. 

This passage also serves as another example of Nora's use of the Tarantella to appease men; she often brings it up to distract from conflict with Torvald, and here she uses a similar strategy with Dr. Rank. Her suggestion that Dr. Rank imagines she is dancing "just for him" highlights the pervasive notion that men wanted exclusive ownership of women.

You can’t frighten me! A precious little pampered thing like you…

Related Characters: Nils Krogstad (speaker), Nora Helmer
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

In response to Krogstad's plan to reveal her deceit to Torvald, Nora vaguely threatens to kill him, but he does not take her seriously. Krogstad's attitude here echoes the way that Torvald belittles Nora; by calling her a "little... thing," Krogstad, too, treats Nora like a doll, implying she does not have any agency or power. At the same time, Krogstad's use of the word "pampered" reflects Mrs. Linde and the nursemaid's (more gentle) allusions to the fact that Nora has been spared the harsh realities of life on account of her husband's wealth. In other words, the rest of the characters do not think Nora is capable of making choices for herself both because she is a woman and thus has not been allowed to, and because she is rich and has thus not been forced to. Of course, this underestimation turns out to be mistaken, as revealed by Nora's drastic actions in the Third Act of the play.

Tell me what to do, keep me right—as you always do.

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker), Torvald Helmer
Related Symbols: The Tarantella
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Torvald has come perilously close to opening the letterbox and finding Krogstad's letter, and in order to distract him Nora pretends to be nervous about the Tarantella, insisting that she needs to rehearse and that she requires Torvald's help. On one level, this behavior is purely manipulative, as Nora knows the Tarantella is guaranteed to catch Torvald's attention. Her claim to need his help can similarly be seen as a way of appeasing him by playing the role of the obedient, submissive wife. 

At the same time, Nora does still love Torvald, and this quote can also be interpreted as a genuine desire on her part for Torvald to take care of her. As Nora grows increasingly frantic about Krogstad's threat, she remains unable to seek guidance from her husband, and thus is left isolated and in turmoil. This quote thus also serves as a reminder that Nora and Torvald's marriage isn't all bad, and that Nora truly does crave and appreciate the support of her husband.

But my dear darling Nora, you are dancing as though your life depended on it.

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker), Nora Helmer
Related Symbols: The Tarantella
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Having managed to persuade Torvald not to open the letterbox with the promise of rehearsing the Tarantella, Nora beings to dance in a wild, desperate way, not listening to the instructions Torvald gives. Torvald's statement conveys that Nora's inner turmoil has reached a level of crisis. She can no longer play the part of the carefree, childlike doll-wife, and has even considered committing suicide. Indeed, following this statement Nora replies that her life does depend on the dance; this prefigures her later statement to Torvald that she performed for him - "doing tricks" - in order to survive. 

At the same time, Nora's wild dancing style can also be seen as representative of her longing to break away from the strict codes of behavior for Victorian women. The fact that she ignores Torvald's instructions as she dances foreshadows her eventual decision to leave her husband and children in order to pursue a life of freedom.

Act Three Quotes

What else is there to understand, apart from the old, old story? A heartless woman throws a man over the moment something more profitable offers itself.

Related Characters: Nils Krogstad (speaker), Kristine Linde
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Linde has invited Krogstad to speak with her at the Helmers' house while they are out, but Krogstad seems reluctant, saying that they have nothing to say to each other. At this moment it is revealed that Mrs. Linde and Krogstad once planned to marry, but that Mrs. Linde ended up marrying another man. Krogstad's comments show that he is still embittered all these years later, and that he thinks Mrs. Linde chose to marry someone else out of greed. 

Krogstad's harsh judgement of Mrs. Linde's actions reflect the stereotype of women as frivolous and materialistic, in the same way as Nora is thought to be a "spendthrift" obsessed with luxurious possessions. Krogstad refers to "the old, old story" of women choosing to marry rich men, implying that this was a common understanding of women's behavior at the time. This stands in stark contrast to the point made by Ibsen throughout the play that women are left vulnerable by their low economic and financial status, forcing them to make decisions they would not otherwise choose. 

Indeed, it is revealed that Mrs. Linde married another man because she had to take care of her mother and two brothers. Once again, what appears to be greed is in fact a selfless, strategic choice, directly echoing Nora's decision to borrow money for the trip to Italy.

Without work I couldn’t live. All my life I have worked, for as long as I can remember; that has always been my one great joy. But now I’m completely alone in the world, and feeling horribly empty and forlorn. There’s no pleasure in working only for yourself. Nils, give me somebody and something to work for.

Related Characters: Kristine Linde (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Linde has suggested that she and Krogstad marry, and tries to convince Krogstad by explaining that her life feels meaningless without anyone to work for and take care of. Here Mrs. Linde embodies a traditional idea of womanhood, which poses that women mostly find meaning in life through selfless acts and caring for others. Unlike Nora, who feels ambivalent about a life totally dedicated to her husband and children, Mrs. Linde is fully committed to this path. This is evidenced not only in her speech to Krogstad but also in her original choice to marry a wealthier man in order to financially provide for her mother and brothers, as well as her continued support for Nora throughout the play. 

By including Nora and Mrs. Linde's differing attitudes toward this model of selfless womanhood, Ibsen shows that women do not have one single relationship to femininity and traditional values. The message of the play is not that all women should live independent, individualistic lives as Nora eventually decides to, but rather that women should be able to choose based on their own preferences. 

I wouldn’t be a proper man if I didn’t find a woman doubly attractive for being so obviously helpless.

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker)
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

Upon discovering the second letter from Krogstad in which he revokes his original threat of blackmail, Torvald immediately forgives Nora, rejoicing in the fact that his reputation is no longer in jeopardy. While this total reversal makes sense considering the fact that Torvald only truly cares about societal approval, it is important to note the shift in the way Torvald treats Nora before and after reading Krogstad's second letter. 

While Torvald still believes that Krogstad will blackmail him, he blames the entire situation on Nora, calling her a hypocrite, liar, criminal, and a "miserable... feather-brained woman." However, as soon as he knows his reputation is safe, Torvald shows mercy toward Nora, calling her "helpless" and saying that she made an error without his guidance, but that she is not at fault. This stark contrast exposes the superficiality of Torvald's love for Nora, and emphasizes the extent to which he loves her only as long as she is remains in a passive, child-like role. His statement about loving her for her helplessness shows how normal it was in Victorian society for men to treat their wives like children.

For a man, there is something indescribably moving and very satisfying in knowing that he has forgiven his wife—forgiven her, completely and genuinely, from the depths of his heart. It’s as though it made her his property in a double sense: he has, as it were, given her a new life, and she becomes in a way both his wife and at the same time his child.

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker), Nora Helmer
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

Nora has tried to leave the room, but Torvald stops her, continuing to speak joyously about how wonderful it is that he has forgiven her. The speech takes a perverse turn when he explains that Nora is now "his property in a double sense," because by forgiving her he has given her a new life. Torvald's use of this metaphor takes patriarchal logic to the extreme, suggesting that Torvald sees himself in a god-like role.

Even more disturbingly, Torvald then remarks that this double-ownership means that Nora is simultaneously his wife and also his child. Even if we put aside the paedophilic overtones of this statement, it is clear that Torvald never wished his relationship with Nora to be equal and mutually respectful. Indeed, his joy seems to stem from the fact that - due to his discovery of her secret debt - he believes he will henceforth always enjoy an unquestioned moral superiority and authority over his wife. While Torvald expresses a desire to control Nora throughout the play, it is only at this moment that he fully voices his alarmingly infantilizing feelings about her.

I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Daddy’s doll child. And the children in turn have been my dolls. I thought it was fun when you came and played with me, just as they thought it was fun when I went to play with them. That’s been our marriage, Torvald.

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker), Torvald Helmer
Related Symbols: The Doll’s House
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Nora accuses both Torvald and her father of treating her like a doll, and compares her life to a doll's house. At this point the full meaning of the play's title becomes clear. Nora acknowledges that she has found pleasure in her doll life, enjoying the moments when Torvald chooses to "play" with her and when she chooses to play with the children. Ibsen has shown evidence of this, particularly at the beginning of the play when Nora delighted in performing for Torvald and playing the role of the perfect, obedient wife. 

However, at this moment it is clear that Nora has undergone a transformation, leading her to view her life from a different, much more critical perspective. Intriguingly, although Torvald has behaved in a cruel and disdainful way toward her, Nora does not cite this behaviour as the main problem with their marriage. Rather, she implies that their interactions are doomed to be superficial and meaningless because of the fact that Torvald does not see her as an autonomous person, but rather as a possession which he can control. Nora appears to have realized that Torvald values her only because of the control he has over her and because of how their marriage appears to society.

I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as much as you are—or at least I’m going to try to be. I know most people agree with you, Torvald, and that’s also what it says in books. But I’m not content anymore with what most people say, or what it says in books. I have to think things for myself, and get things clear.

Related Characters: Nora Helmer (speaker), Torvald Helmer
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

Shocked by Nora's objections to their life together and by her decision to leave, Torvald has insisted that she stay, arguing that she is "first and foremost a wife and mother." Nora rejects this by saying that she is an individual before she is anything else. (This statement would have been highly scandalous at the time.) Significantly, Nora does acknowledge that most people remain committed to societal norms about gender and the family (aside from Torvald, this is also particularly true of Mrs. Linde). The fact that Nora mentions this shows how central the approval of society remains within the play, even at the moment when Nora decides to radically subvert societal expectations.

It is important to note that Nora rejects three major sources of knowledge about how she should choose to conduct her life: the opinion of her husband, the opinion of society as a whole, and the knowledge to be found in books. The last of these is especially significant, because it emphasizes the fact that Nora believes that the truth about how she should live can only be found within herself. Furthermore, she thinks she will only be able to gain access to this truth through living independently and figuring it out on her own. Though a fairly common notion in today's world, this was a highly unusual position to take in the 19th century, especially for a woman. Nora's speech thus confirms the extent to which "A Doll's House" was ahead of its time, foreshadowing debates about gender and autonomy that would not emerge until many decades later.