Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Sacrificial Role of Women
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.
Parental and Filial Obligations
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.
The Unreliability of Appearances
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.
Situations too are misinterpreted both by us and by the characters. The seeming hatred between Mrs. Linde and Krogstad turns out to be love. Nora’s creditor turns out to be Krogstad and not, as we and Mrs. Linde suppose, Dr. Rank. Dr. Rank, to Nora’s and our surprise, confesses that he is in love with her. The seemingly villainous Krogstad repents and returns Nora’s contract to her, while the seemingly kindhearted Mrs. Linde ceases to help Nora and forces Torvald’s discovery of Nora’s secret. The instability of appearances within the Helmer household at the play’s end results from Torvald’s devotion to an image at the expense of the creation of true happiness. Because Torvald craves respect from his employees, friends, and wife, status and image are important to him. Any disrespect—when Nora calls him petty and when Krogstad calls him by his first name, for example—angers Torvald greatly. By the end of the play, we see that Torvald’s obsession with controlling his home’s appearance and his repeated suppression and denial of reality have harmed his family and his happiness irreparably.
The Constrictive Nature of Gender Roles
In A Doll’s House, Ibsen portrays a stereotypically gendered household with Torvald and Nora Helmer and then shows how characters—both male and female—suffer because of the roles society expects them to play. The constrictive nature of gender roles is especially apparent for the main female characters in the play, Nora and Mrs. Linde. Women at this time were expected to get married, have children, and stay at home to tend to their children and husband. When a woman actually had a job and earned money, like Nora copying lines in secret, it was “like being a man.” Women had very few opportunities to make money for themselves and had to rely on husbands or fathers to provide for their needs. Without a father or older brothers, Mrs. Linde sought a rich husband, leaving behind the man she truly loved in order to be financially secure—but even this plan was risky, because she had no way of knowing his true financial situation. When Nora asks whether the man Mrs. Linde married was rich at the time, Mrs. Linde can only say that she believed he was. Because of the expectations to stay home, raise children, and obey their husbands, women missed out on many opportunities, often needing legal consent from their husbands to perform simple business matters. By the end of the play, Nora recognizes the destructive nature of these gender roles, telling Torvald that he and her father, by enforcing societal expectations on her, are the reason she has “made nothing of [her] life.”
The men in the play also suffer, albeit more subtly and unknowingly, because of the gender roles they actively uphold. Though Torvald clearly enjoys his role as an enforcer of societal expectations, he doesn't realize that he can't fully love his wife because he doesn’t truly see her as a person. Because of his “manly independence,” he can't receive help from anyone else, especially not a woman, and Nora, therefore, decides that it’s better to lie to her husband than to wound his pride. Most importantly, Torvald’s inability to break free of societal gender roles leads to his failure to recognize that the love of his wife is more valuable than his reputation. As a result, he loses Nora, and will ultimately become the very thing he feared most: the subject of gossip as a failed man.
Throughout A Doll’s House, deceptions are presented as masks that the liar must wear in order to conceal the truth. When Torvald describes why Krogstad has a bad reputation, he explains that Krogstad did not take his punishment head-on but got out of the conundrum by a “cunning trick,” and now, because of his lies, he must “wear a mask in the presence of those near and dear to him, even before his own wife and children.” That ever-present mask is even more clearly worn by Nora. In front of Torvald, she wears the mask of a little girl or innocent woodland creature, willing to play along with his dehumanizing nicknames of “squirrel” and “skylark” in order to get the things she wants. The masked ball provides another instance where a mask is necessary to keep others from the truth. Nora dresses up as a Neapolitan fisher-girl and dances a wild tarantella in order to distract Torvald and keep him from reading Krogstad’s letter, which details the truth of Nora’s loan and forgery. To maintain a deception, a person must be willing to hide their true self underneath a mask, and the more desperate they are to conceal the truth, the more likely it is that their mask becomes permanent.
For both Nora and Dr. Rank, their reputations hinge on the reputations of their parents. Dr. Rank’s father had a reputation as a man who enjoyed physical pleasures to such a damaging extent that he passed on a venereal disease to his son that eventually results in his son’s death. Though Dr. Rank is an upstanding member of society, he is punished for his father’s misdeeds and pays the ultimate price for his father’s ill-repute. Likewise, Torvald says that Nora’s ability to wheedle money out of him is “in the blood,” and, in Torvald’s eyes, she has inherited her father’s reputation as a careless spender. Once Torvald discovers the truth about the loan and forgery, he further declares that Nora’s “want of principle” is all her father’s influence.
Interestingly, at the beginning of the play, Torvald introduces the idea that it is “most commonly” the mother who is a bad influence on children, claiming that “almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.” According to Torvald, a person’s reputation should be inherited through the mother, yet throughout the play, the opposite is shown to be the case. Just as a child in this society receives their father’s last name as their own, they also seem to inherit their father’s reputation, especially when it comes to negative traits. If their father had a bad reputation, it comes back to haunt them, regardless of any goodwill they may build up on their own. In this way, Ibsen subtly points out the poisonous influence of misogyny in this society.
Nora and Torvald represent a completely conventional marriage at the beginning of the play: she stays home and tends to their house and children, and he supports the family financially. In order to keep their conventional marriage afloat, Nora lies to Torvald at every turn; she's not only dishonest about silly things like eating macaroons, but about enormous things as well, like the fact that she secured the loan that saved Torvald’s life. When these lies come to light, Torvald completely breaks down and drives Nora away. Torvald, as a conventional husband, feels that he has the right to control his wife; he’s astonished when Nora says that it’s “nice” of her to do what he wants. This perceived right to control is another reason their marriage falls apart; Torvald must control every aspect of his household, even the keys to the letterbox, but he fails to realize that his control comes at a price. As long as he exerts control over Nora, they can never be equals, and thus cannot be in true union or partnership.
In contrast, the relationship between Krogstad and Mrs. Linde, while unconventional, represents the “real wedlock” that Nora desires by the end of the play. Mrs. Linde’s role as the breadwinner of the family is highly unusual, but it gives her the agency to earn money and the opportunity to live part of her life outside the home. Furthermore, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad can speak frankly to each other (something Nora and Torvald find impossible until their marriage falls apart), meaning that they don’t have to hide behind contrived marital roles. They see each other as equals, “two shipwrecked people” joining forces. Because they actually respect each other as equal human beings, their union allows them to grow, change, and become better people.