Looking Closer: A Doll House

Analysis of Nora in A Doll House Through Stage Direction

What is the correlation between traditional gender roles and the prevention of developing a sense of self in a restrictive household environment? Henrik Ibsen’s short play A Doll House is a modern tragedy in the sense that it outlines the negative aspects of a traditional household dynamic that places unyielding men at the head of the household. Readers or audience members are forced to question gender roles, family relationships, and the development of self identity. Nora’s husband, Torvald, is misogynistic and emotionally abusive towards her, which, alongside her desire to become an independent woman, is the driving force that leads her to progressive character development. In the beginning of the play, the stage directions show Nora hiding information from Torvald to ensure that he feels she is blindly abiding by his household law. She fears his judgment and wants to prevent social backlash from other members of her community. Later on, the stage directions reflect Nora’s newfound confidence, as she ultimately decides to live a life as a free woman, regardless of gender and societal expectations. The shift in Nora’s demeanor and outlook from timid housewife to freedom-seeking, self actualizing woman outlines her character development which is portrayed just as strongly through stage directions as through dialogue.

Nora is the protagonist due to the focus on her character and her development throughout the entirety of the play. Although Nora wishes to make decisions for herself, at first she does not voice her feelings to Torvald. In the beginning of the story, she lacks a sense of self due to her sheltered childhood and then marriage. Her father provided for her financially until she married. She has always relied on men to take care of all of her needs and has not had a chance to develop the skills necessary to take care of herself or her children. The maid and nurse, staffed by Torvald, also take care of the household and Nora’s children. Clearly, she relies heavily on her husband, Torvald, who can be seen as the antagonist as he is constantly calling her demeaning names. The stage directions outline the unequal marital dynamic that Torvald and Nora share. The body language of Nora is timid as she hides the macaroons in her pocket and wipes her mouth before Torvald can see her. Although she is very distracted by materialistic items, she always remembers to hide certain things for herself from her husband such as the macaroons. Additionally, she cannot bring herself always to look him in the face when asking him for a favor. It already bothers her, such as in the stage directions “NORA (playing with his coat buttons, and without raising her eyes to his): If you really want to give me something, you might– you might–” (1.829). Therefore, she cannot identify the emotional abuse that is happening:

TORVALD. (calls out from his room), “Is that my little lark twittering out there?”

NORA. (busy opening some of the parcels) “Yes it is!”

TORVALD. “When did my squirrel come home?

NORA. “Just now, (Puts the bag of macaroons into her pocket and wipes her mouth.) Come in here, Torvald and see what I have bought.

TORVALD. “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? (1.828)

The fact that Torvald calls Nora a “little lark twittering” and “squirrel” suggests that he feels like she does not have a brain of her own.

Nora is seemingly very child-like. Although, we as readers, come to understand that she is acting in the way that is expected of her. She knows that her husband does not respect her as an intellectual or independent woman, but she does not know how to break free from the cycle of abuse.  She is far too fearful at the beginning of the play, as shown in stage directions such as “NORA (…without raising her eyes)” (1.829) and “NORA (smiling quietly and happily)” (1.830).

Nora attempts to live a perfect life that fits within the societal standards that have been set forth for her to view as an example. The setting of A Doll House is in a Norwegian town of circa 1879 and for the most part, women were very obedient to their husbands during that time period. The men made all of the household decisions and were the sole provider for their families. Nora tries to fill the perfect mold to fit seamlessly into society. She also wants to live up to Torvald’s standards and attempts to act as a submissive wife in order to have a successful marriage.

Nora is the complete opposite of several other female characters in the play. She is a dependent woman that is stuck in a “dollhouse” which symbolizes her picturesque and sheltered life. Unlike Nora, the Helmers’ nurse, Anne Marie, does not question the society she lives in. She put her own life on hold to work as Nora’s family nurse. Anne Marie put her own daughter up for adoption in order to help Nora when she was in need and blindly accepts her role as a subservient woman in society.

Anne Marie and Nora appear to be contrastingly different, although both women share some similarities. Nora does not understand how Anne Marie could leave her child. Although, eventually Nora comes to the realization that Anne Marie left her child because she blindly followed society’s whims and pressures. Nora, herself, blindly followed society by having children and staying at home without thinking about what she truly wanted out of life. The conversation between Nora and Anne Marie highlights the mutual understanding between the two women as she is considering her now varied options:

NORA: Do they ask much for me?

NURSE: You see, they are so accustomed to have their mamma with them.

NORA:Yes, but, nurse, I shall not be able to be so much with them now as I was before.

NURSE:Oh well, young children easily get accustomed to anything.

NORA: Do you think so? Do you think they would forget their mother if she went away altogether? (2. 852)

Nora eventually breaks with Torvald and with her old self, recognizing both that she has been a doll, a plaything to the men in her life, and that she deserves better treatment.  This is only after her constant development throughout the play, crystalizing in “NORA (shaking her head):  You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.” (3.883) and “NORA (undisturbed): I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours.” (3.883). What a difference between hiding cookies and being unable to meet her husband’s eyes and calmly and defiantly broaching the very delicate topic of her own feelings, especially since they run contrary to her husband’s and are absolutely going to create a tense situation:

HELMER: (sadly) I see, I see. An abyss has opened between us-there is no denying it. But, Nora, would it not be possible to fill it up?

NORA:As I am now, I am no wife for you.

HELMER: I have it in me to become a different man.

NORA: Perhaps–if your doll is taken away from you.

HELMER: But to part!–to part from you! No, no, Nora, I can’t understand that idea.

NORA: (going out to the right):That makes it all the more certain that it must be done. (She comes back with her cloak and hat and a small bag which she puts on a chair by the table.)

HELMER:Nora, Nora, not now! Wait until to-morrow.

NORA:(putting on her cloak) I cannot spend the night in a strange man’s room. (3. 887)

Nora has found herself transferred between the ownership of men throughout her whole life. From a sheltered child to a kept wife, she previously had never learned how to express that she had her own desires and opinions. She eventually learns that she can defy her male counterparts and the larger, surrounding society and its norms. Thus, over the course of the play, we see Nora progress from the timid and submissive wife, known to the reader as “NORA (…without raising her eyes)” (1.829) and “NORA (smiling quietly and happily)” (1.830) to the empowered female that she is beginning to discover through stage directions such as “NORA (shaking her head)” (3.883) and especially NORA (undisturbed)” (3.883).

Work cited:

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll House. Literature, edited by Janet E. Gardner, Beverly Lawn, Jack Ridl, Peter Schakel, Joanne Diaz, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 827-888.

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