A Doll's House

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Individual vs. Society Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Money and Work Theme Icon
Deceit Theme Icon
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Doll's House, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Individual vs. Society Theme Icon

Nora, a dutiful mother and wife, spends most of the play putting others before herself. She thinks little of how her act of forgery and debt to Krogstad affect her personally, opting instead to worry about how they might impact the lives of her husband and children. Even when she plans to kill herself near the end of the play, it is not to hide her shame but rather because she thinks that if she is alive then Torvald will ruin himself in trying to protect her. In a similar vein, Mrs. Linde admits that, without a husband or any family members to care for, she feels that her life is pointless. Therefore both women find a sense of meaning in their lives through serving others and performing the caring, obedient role that society requires of them. During the play, however, Nora learns that prioritizing her duty as a wife and mother cannot lead to real happiness. She realizes, when it becomes clear that Torvald would never have sacrificed his reputation to protect her, that while she thought she was sacrificing herself to protect her love, in fact no such love existed, and indeed the structure of society makes the love she had imagined to be real an impossibility. She therefore decides to leave him in order to develop a sense of her own identity. The play ends with Nora choosing to put herself as an individual before society’s expectations of her.

Throughout most of the play it seems that Krogstad cares more about his reputation than anything else. Punished by society for his act of forgery, he is desperate to reclaim respectability in the eyes of others. However, his conversation with Mrs. Linde in the third act shows him that he will only achieve happiness through truly reforming himself and regaining the personal integrity that he lost rather than the outward respectability. In a similar way to Nora, Krogstad learns that society’s view of him is meaningless if he doesn’t respect himself as an individual.

Individual vs. Society ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in A Doll's House related to the theme of Individual vs. Society.
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, what a glorious feeling it is, knowing you’ve got a nice, safe job, and a good fat income.

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Having just scolded Nora for spending too much, Torvald now decides to give her extra money anyway and then reflects on how pleased he is to have been given a promotion and raise. This indicates that Torvald takes pleasure in the power that comes with having a high-paying job, perhaps more than he cares about having money to spend. His statement highlights the importance of income and status within the world of the play.

This passage also once again reveals Torvald's naïveté, as later in the play his "safe" job will be threatened. It also will later expose his cruelty; despite the importance he himself places on having a secure position, he is merciless when it comes to firing Krogstad. 

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. 

I am not so heartless that I would necessarily want to condemn a man for a single mistake like that.

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker), Nils Krogstad
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Torvald explains to Nora that Krogstad committed forgery, and when she suggests that he might have done so out of necessity, Torvald replies that Krogstad was probably just careless - but that even so, Torvald would have forgiven him for that mistake alone. Here Torvald presents himself as a fair and reasonable source of moral authority with the individual power to bestow forgiveness on others. This quote also confirms that Torvald despises deceit above anything else; although forgery is illegal, it is Krogstad's dishonesty that Torvald finds inexcusable. 

Torvald and Nora are discussing Krogstad here, but Torvald's words also carry implications for how he might react to discovering Nora's "crimes"; after all, Nora is guilty not only of forgery and deception, but also of borrowing money, an act Torvald vehemently condemns. However, as this could be seen as only "one mistake," Ibsen leads us to expect that Torvald might forgive Nora. But at the play's climax, Torvald does not behave in the way he describes in this statement; instead he shows Nora no mercy, behaving in a manner that is truly heartless.

Just think how a man with a thing like that on his conscience will always be having to lie and cheat and dissemble; he can never drop the mask, not even with his own wife and children. And the children—that’s the most terrible part of it, Nora… A fog of lies like that in a household, and it spreads disease and infection to every part of it. Every breath the children take in that kind of house is reeking evil germs.

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker), Nora Helmer, Nils Krogstad
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Torvald describes the consequences of Krogstad's deception, insisting that it will have devastating consequences on his household. Torvald's melodramatic language highlights the fierce contempt he feels for Krogstad, and emphasizes that Torvald sees dishonesty as a kind of poison that corrupts the purity of domestic life. Again, this passage has a double meaning; just like Krogstad, Nora has also committed a crime and must keep it a secret from her family. Once more, Torvald unwittingly reveals his own ignorance, as he does not think there is a "fog of lies" in his own household or that his children are breathing "evil germs."

At the same time, Torvald's comment that Krogstad "can never drop the mask" rings true for Nora. Ibsen has already shown that Nora pretends to be obedient, while in reality she disobeys and lies to Torvald. The pressure of this double life comes to take a major toll on Nora as the play progresses. However, Ibsen suggests that, deception aside, the pressure to perform the role of the perfect wife is itself a kind of "mask," as Torvald has unrealistic expectations of Nora and does not allow her to act freely as an individual. The "mask" in this passage thus connects to the symbol of the doll's house, foreshadowing Nora's claim at the end of the play that Torvald has treated her like a doll.

Act Two Quotes

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.

I want to get on my feet again, Mrs. Helmer; I want to get to the top… For the last eighteen months I’ve gone straight; all that time it’s been hard going; I was content to work my way up, step by step. Now I’m being kicked out, and I won’t stand for being taken back again as an act of charity. I’m going to get to the top, I tell you… It’ll be Nils Krogstad, not Torvald Helmer, who’ll be running the bank.

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

Krogstad has shown Nora the letter he has written to Torvald, confirming that he intends to blackmail her; however, in this passage it becomes clear that he doesn't want the money Nora owes him, but rather the respectability and social status of a senior position at the bank. Although money is highly important in the play, Krogstad's speech confirms that the opinion of society is even more valuable than wealth. At the same time, it also highlights the limitations of behaving according to society's rules. Krogstad has been honest and worked "step by step," only to find himself fired; in order to regain dignity, he feels compelled to return to tactics of scheming and deceit.

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. 

His suffering and his loneliness seemed almost to provide a background of dark cloud to the sunshine of our lives.

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker), Dr. Rank
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Having learned from Nora that Dr. Rank is about to die and thus that they will never see him again, Torvald does not feel pity for his friend, but only regretful that Dr. Rank will not be around to make his and Nora's life seem even happier. The fact that Torvald responds this way to the death of his best friend highlights his cold-heartedness, foreshadowing his cruel reaction to the revelation of Nora's secret. At this point the antagonist of the play is no longer Krogstad, who has been redeemed by the promise of his marriage to Mrs. Linde, but rather Torvald. 

This quote also makes clear how much Torvald's idea of a happy and meaningful life is dependent on outside appearances. He appreciated Dr. Rank's presence because of how much happier he made Tora and Norvald seem, not because of the the actual pleasure of his company. Again, this prefigures his insistence upon learning Nora's secret that they stay married and keep up appearances for society's sake, even though they will be miserable. 

The thing must be hushed up at all costs. And as far as you and I are concerned, things must appear to go on exactly as before. But only in the eyes of the world, of course… From now on, their can be no question of happiness. All we can do is save the bits and pieces from the wreck, preserve appearances…

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Having discovered the letter from Krogstad exposing Nora's secret debt, Torvald flies into a rage, insulting Nora and her father. Immediately afterward, however, Torvald insists that they stay married and that everything must appear to go on as before. The fact that Torvald clearly despises Nora, admits that they will never be happy, and yet maintains that they must "preserve appearances" shows the extent to which he values societal approval above everything else. 

In many ways, this is worse than any of the possible outcomes Ibsen has led the audience to anticipate. Torvald vows never to forgive Nora, insisting that their relationship is destroyed forever; at the same time, he traps her in their marriage, effectively forbidding her even from committing suicide or escaping to start a new life. This reaction demonstrates the absolute power Torvald wishes to have over Nora, and which he believes is his right as her husband. 

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.