Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
In A Doll’s House, Ibsen paints a bleak picture of the sacrificial role held by women of all economic classes in his society. In general, the play’s female characters exemplify Nora’s assertion (spoken to Torvald in Act Three) that even though men refuse to sacrifice their integrity, “hundreds of thousands of women have.” In order to support her mother and two brothers, Mrs. Linde found it necessary to abandon Krogstad, her true—but penniless—love, and marry a richer man. The nanny had to abandon her own child to support herself by working as Nora’s (and then as Nora’s children’s) caretaker. As she tells Nora, the nanny considers herself lucky to have found the job, since she was “a poor girl who’d been led astray.”
Though Nora is economically advantaged in comparison to the play’s other female characters, she nevertheless leads a difficult life because society dictates that Torvald be the marriage’s dominant partner. Torvald issues decrees and condescends to Nora, and Nora must hide her loan from him because she knows Torvald could never accept the idea that his wife (or any other woman) had helped save his life. Furthermore, she must work in secret to pay off her loan because it is illegal for a woman to obtain a loan without her husband’s permission. By motivating Nora’s deception, the attitudes of Torvald—and society—leave Nora vulnerable to Krogstad’s blackmail.
Nora’s abandonment of her children can also be interpreted as an act of self- sacrifice. Despite Nora’s great love for her children—manifested by her interaction with them and her great fear of corrupting them—she chooses to leave them. Nora truly believes that the nanny will be a better mother and that leaving her children is in their best interest.
Nora, Torvald, and Dr. Rank each express the belief that a parent is obligated to be honest and upstanding, because a parent’s immorality is passed on to his or her children like a disease. In fact, Dr. Rank does have a disease that is the result of his father’s depravity. Dr. Rank implies that his father’s immorality—his many affairs with women—led him to contract a venereal disease that he passed on to his son, causing Dr. Rank to suffer for his father’s misdeeds. Torvald voices the idea that one’s parents determine one’s moral character when he tells Nora, “Nearly all young criminals had lying -mothers.” He also refuses to allow Nora to interact with their children after he learns of her deceit, for fear that she will corrupt them.
Yet, the play suggests that children too are obligated to protect their parents. Nora recognized this obligation, but she ignored it, choosing to be with—and sacrifice herself for—her sick husband instead of her sick father. Mrs. Linde, on the other hand, abandoned her hopes of being with Krogstad and undertook years of labor in order to tend to her sick mother. Ibsen does not pass judgment on either woman’s decision, but he does use the idea of a child’s debt to her parent to demonstrate the complexity and reciprocal nature of familial obligations.
Over the course of A Doll’s House, appearances prove to be misleading veneers that mask the reality of the play’s characters and -situations. Our first impressions of Nora, Torvald, and Krogstad are all eventually undercut. Nora initially seems a silly, childish woman, but as the play progresses, we see that she is intelligent, motivated, and, by the play’s conclusion, a strong-willed, independent thinker. Torvald, though he plays the part of the strong, benevolent husband, reveals himself to be cowardly, petty, and selfish when he fears that Krogstad may expose him to scandal. Krogstad too reveals himself to be a much more sympathetic and merciful character than he first appears to be. The play’s climax is largely a matter of resolving identity confusion—we see Krogstad as an earnest lover, Nora as an intelligent, brave woman, and Torvald as a simpering, sad man.