At the beginning of the play it rapidly becomes clear that Nora’s husband Torvald Helmer is very dominant and that he treats Nora like a child. It is interesting that this takes place at Christmas, a time devoted to the pleasing of children and a time of dreams and fantasy, for Nora is essentially trapped within a dream world where everything is safe and things are just how they should be. This is essentially because she relies upon her husband to protect her from the vagaries of the outside world with its harsh realities and risks. To a certain extent it could be said that Nora invites her husband to treat her in such a manner, yet it must also be considered that 19th century society was a dominant, hierarchical and patriarchal society in which women were considered to be the property of their husbands, along with all the wealth and possessions that they brought into the marriage. This is explored in greater length by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their book The Madwoman in the Attic in which they refer to the 19th century woman as the ‘Angel in the house’.
When Nora tries to express her own opinion, she speaks very much as if she is pleading with her husband:
Helmer. Don't disturb me. [A little later, he opens the door and looks into the room, pen in hand.] Bought, did you say? All these things? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?
Nora. Yes but, Torvald, this year we really can let ourselves go a little. This is the first Christmas that we have not needed to economise.
Helmer. Still, you know, we can't spend money recklessly.
Nora. Yes, Torvald, we may be a wee bit more reckless now, mayn't we? Just a tiny wee bit! You are going to have a big salary and earn lots and lots of money.ii
Torvald also tries to induce a fear and guilt within his wife by constructing an imaginary scenario of his death by virtue of a fateful accident:
Helmer: Nora! [Goes up to her and takes her playfully by the ear.] The same little featherhead! Suppose, now, that I borrowed fifty pounds today, and you spent it all in the Christmas week, and then on New Year's Eve a slate fell on my head and killed me, and—
He also refers to her frequently as his ‘sweet little skylark’, words which emphasis his view of his wife as his property and plaything, almost as entertainment and a source of amusement. This mode of address also plays upon a romantic view of nature which relates well to the period of Christmas time within which the play is set, as well as reinforcing the notion that Nora is contained within her own idyllic dream-world of innocence and imagination. David Drake’s essay in The Explicator draws attention to various symbols within the play which appear to support the notion of confinement and a separate mode of existence, particularly the way in which doors are used within the text.iii
When Nora’s friend Christine enters the house it is almost as if the two characters are being presented for comparison. Christine – Mrs Linde – is a widower whose husband left her nothing. She is no stranger to hardship and therefore is much more aware of the realities of the world than is Nora.
Torvald not only treats his wife like a child but it becomes clear within the text that he also relies upon her at times of ill-health, something that is apparent in her concern for husband which led her to try and fund a holiday for him in Italy:
Nora. Yes; odds and ends, needlework, crotchet-work, embroidery, and that kind of thing. [Dropping her voice.] And other things as well. You know Torvald left his office when we were married? There was no prospect of promotion there, and he had to try and earn more than before. But during the first year he over-worked himself dreadfully. You see, he had to make money every way he could, and he worked early and late; but he couldn't stand it, and fell dreadfully ill, and the doctors said it was necessary for him to go south.
This concern for him is the main motivation for her borrowing money from the lawyer Krogstad, an act that also reveals her impestuous nature, driving her to make decisions without necessarily thinking them through beforehand:
Krogstad: I promised to get you that amount, on certain conditions. Your mind was so taken up with your husband's illness, and you were so anxious to get the money for your journey, that you seem to have paid no attention to the conditions of our bargain. Therefore it will not be amiss if I remind you of them. Now, I promised to get the money on the security of a bond which I drew up.
The act of taking out the loan is, however, an important turning point in Nora’s self-development. It involves her taking risks, not only the risk of indebtedness but also that involved with her forgery of her father’s signature, which she needed in order to obtain the loan. In a sense then, Nora begins to act independently and in so doing she begins to exhibit a certain sense of pride with regard to her ability to deal with difficult situations. Her confidence in this respect is such that she brags about the matter with Christina. However, when Krogstad uses the issue of the loan as a point of blackmail in order to try to persuade Nora to influence Torvald into retaining Krogstad, who is employed at his bank, Nora becomes desperate and begins to question her own judgement and morality. She begin’s to doubt her status as a good wife and mother. In this sense alongside other themes presented in the text, the play analyses and questions the entire motif of 19th century marriage and motherhood. More importantly, it also presents a series of challenges which Nora must somehow overcome if she is to become fully self-aware and independent.
The turning point of the play occurs when Nora confesses what she has done to her husband, believing that he will support her and take the blame for the forgery and responsibility for the loan. She is somewhat naive in this respect, but this delusion is soon shattered when Torvald reacts angrily, believing that he has been disgraced and his reputation sullied. Nora finally sees that her marriage to him is just a sham and that she is just a plaything to him. She suddenly becomes brave enough to declare her feelings to her husband in a dramatic monologue for which the play is famous:
It is perfectly true, Torvald. When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you—
I mean that I was simply transferred from papa's hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you--or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which--I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman--just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.
You neither think nor talk like the man I could bind myself to. As soon as your fear was over--and it was not fear for what threatened me, but for what might happen to you--when the whole thing was past, as far as you were concerned it was exactly as if nothing at all had happened. Exactly as before, I was your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile. Torvald--it was then it dawned upon me that for eight years I had been living here with a strange man, and had borne him three children--. Oh! I can't bear to think of it! I could tear myself into little bits!
Shortly after this, she leaves, and the play ends with the dramatic sound of a shutting door as Torvald finally realises what he has lost.