A Doll's House

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Love and Marriage Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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Money and Work Theme Icon
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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.
Love and Marriage Theme Icon

As a play focused around the marriage between Nora and Torvald, A Doll's House can be seen as an exploration of love and marriage, or even, more profoundly, on whether there can be love in marriage. At the beginning of the play, Nora and Torvald appear to be very happily married, even to themselves. Nora talks joyfully about her love for Torvald, and Torvald refers to Nora using affectionate pet names. Their loving marriage stands in stark contrast with the lives of the other characters: the marriages of Krogstad and Mrs. Linde were based on necessity rather than love, and were unhappy. While Dr. Rank was never married, and, it is revealed, has silently loved Nora for years. Yet although Nora and Torvald’s marriage is based on love (as opposed to necessity, as was the case with Krogstad and Mrs. Linde), it is nonetheless still governed by the strict rules of society that dictated the roles of husband and wife. It is clear that Nora is expected to obey Torvald and allow him to make decisions for her; meanwhile, it is important for Torvald’s career that he is able to show off a successful marriage to a dutiful woman.

At first it seems that Nora and Torvald both enjoy playing the roles of husband and wife in a way that is considered respectable by society. However, Nora soon reveals to Mrs. Linde that she went behind Torvald’s back by borrowing the money from Krogstad, and therefore has already broken both the law and the rules of marriage at the time. This creates a dilemma: Nora broke the rules of marriage, yet did so in order to save her husband’s life—a true act of love. Yet this is an act of love that society condemns, thereby placing the rules of marriage above love. In the final moments of the play, it's revealed that Nora's fear of the secret getting out is not a fear that she will end up shamed and punished, but rather is based on her certainty that Torvald will protect her by taking the blame, and in so doing will ruin himself.

Nora is certain that beneath the role Torvald is playing, that he loves her just as deeply as she loved him when she secretly broke the rules of society. Of course, Torvald's reaction reveals that he's not in fact "playing a role" at all—he really does put his reputation first, and he would never sacrifice it to protect Nora. What Nora thought was role-playing was in fact the entire reality. This cements Nora’s disillusionment with her marriage, and with marriage in general—she comes to the conclusion that not only does Torvald not love her, but that the institution of marriage, as it is conceived and practiced in her society, may make love impossible. While Krogstad and Mrs. Linde's joyous choice to marry may suggest that the play does not entirely share Nora's view, it is important to note that their marriage does not at all conform to the norms of society. Mrs. Linde yearns for the purpose she would get by truly caring form someone she loves, while Krogstad sees Mrs. Linde not as some ornament to augment his reputation but as the source of the salvation of his integrity.

Love and Marriage ThemeTracker

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

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

Nora! Just like a woman. Seriously though, Nora, you know what I think about these things. No debts! Never borrow! There’s always something inhibited, something unpleasant, about a home built on credit and borrowed money.

Related Characters: Torvald Helmer (speaker), Nora Helmer
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Torvald has just recently received a promotion that means he will earn a larger salary, here he chastises Nora for spending too much on Christmas presents, particularly considering he won't be paid for a few more months. Torvald and Nora's differing opinions reveal their contrasting attitudes toward the issue of money and debt. While Torvald is cautious about overspending and sees borrowing as irresponsible and even immoral, as something that destroys one's self-sufficiency, Nora believes there is nothing wrong with spending and borrowing now that Torvald's job gives them financial security. Further, by saying that Nora is acting "just like a woman," Torvald shows that he considers women irrational and untrustworthy when it comes to money (and in general).

The irony of Torvald's condemnation of borrowing is that Nora has already borrowed money; though Torvald doesn't know it, his own home is "built on credit." This shows that Torvald has less control over his wife than he believes. It also suggests that there is not necessarily always something "unpleasant" about a home built on debt, as Torvald does not consider his own home unpleasant. At the same time, this statement seems to foreshadow the unpleasantness and eventual disintegration of Torvald and Nora's home later in the play.


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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.

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. 

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

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.

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. 

Helmer must know everything. This unhappy secret must come out. Those two must have the whole thing out between them. All this secrecy and deception, it just can’t go on.

Related Characters: Kristine Linde (speaker), Torvald Helmer
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In a brief moment alone, Mrs. Linde reassures Nora that she has spoken to Krogstad and that he no longer plans to blackmail her, but insists that Nora must still tell Torvald the truth. This shift in stakes emphasizes the theme that deception is unsustainable and that it will inevitably lead to disaster. Also Mrs. Linde, having previously behaved as a rather passive source of support for Nora, now enacts a pivotal moment of agency, greatly affecting the fates of the other characters. This scene could also be interpreted as a moment in which Mrs. Linde forsakes her allegiance to Nora specifically and instead allies herself with the institution of marriage, and the principle of honesty between husband and wife. 

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 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.