Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Nora’s Definition of Freedom
Nora’s understanding of the meaning of freedom evolves over the course of the play. In the first act, she believes that she will be totally “free” as soon as she has repaid her debt, because she will have the opportunity to devote herself fully to her domestic responsibilities. After Krogstad blackmails her, however, she reconsiders her conception of freedom and questions whether she is happy in Torvald’s house, subjected to his orders and edicts. By the end of the play, Nora seeks a new kind of freedom. She wishes to be relieved of her familial obligations in order to pursue her own ambitions, beliefs, and identity.
Many of the plot’s twists and turns depend upon the writing and reading of letters, which function within the play as the subtext that reveals the true, unpleasant nature of situations obscured by Torvald and Nora’s efforts at beautification. Krogstad writes two letters: the first reveals Nora’s crime of forgery to Torvald; the second retracts his blackmail threat and returns Nora’s promissory note. The first letter, which Krogstad places in Torvald’s letterbox near the end of Act Two, represents the truth about Nora’s past and initiates the inevitable dissolution of her marriage—as Nora says immediately after Krogstad leaves it, “We are lost.” Nora’s attempts to stall Torvald from reading the letter represent her continued denial of the true nature of her marriage.
The second letter releases Nora from her obligation to Krogstad and represents her release from her obligation to Torvald. Upon reading it, Torvald attempts to return to his and Nora’s previous denial of reality, but Nora recognizes that the letters have done more than expose her actions to Torvald; they have exposed the truth about Torvald’s selfishness, and she can no longer participate in the illusion of a happy marriage. Dr. Rank’s method of communicating his imminent death is to leave his calling card marked with a black cross in Torvald’s letterbox. In an earlier conversation with Nora, Dr. Rank reveals his understanding of Torvald’s unwillingness to accept reality when he proclaims, “Torvald is so fastidious, he cannot face up to -anything ugly.” By leaving his calling card as a death notice, Dr. Rank politely attempts to keep Torvald from the “ugly” truth. Other letters include Mrs. Linde’s note to Krogstad, which initiates her -life-changing meeting with him, and Torvald’s letter of dismissal to Krogstad.
Torvald’s Pet Names for Nora
Torvald rarely addresses Nora by name, preferring instead to give her a host of pet names. Most frequently, he calls her “skylark” or a variety of other bird-related terms. He also addresses her by descriptions of her behavior, usually behavior he does not approve of, in a condescending sense of endearment. More often than not, Torvald also tacks the word “little” in front of whatever name he uses.
This behavior is Torvald’s way of showing affection for and ownership over his wife, and he takes every opportunity to indulge it. Nora initially sees this attention as kind and loving. However, most of Torvald’s praise is directed either at Nora’s appearance or his possession of her. He delivers admonishments playfully but plentifully, cloaking his criticisms with pet names. This repetition of affectionate belittlement of Nora reminds the audience of the difference in power within the Helmer household. Torvald truly believes he cares for Nora, but his words reveal his care is based on her position as his property.