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A Doll's House | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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A Doll's House | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Act 1, Section 1 of A Doll's House, what do the stage directions describing the physical interactions between Nora and Torvald suggest about their relationship?

The first time Torvald touches Nora in the play, he "takes her playfully by the ear." Later, when he scolds her, he wags his finger at her, suggesting that he is fatherly toward her. But he also follows her around while he talks and gets up close to her to argue his points, suggesting physical domination. Nora plays with Torvald's coat buttons without looking him in the eye when she asks him for money, perhaps flirting with her husband but also suggesting manipulative or childlike behavior. Maybe Torvald's domineering manner makes Nora feel as though she has to be childlike so she can get what she needs and wants from him. If their relationship were more equal, with both of them sharing control, then they would likely not demonstrate any of these behaviors.

How do the presents Nora buys in Act 1, Section 1 relate to themes in A Doll's House?

Nora gives her son Ivar a new suit and sword, her other son Bob a horse and trumpet, and Emmy is given a doll and a bed for it. The children's gifts hint at the children's ages and exemplify stereotypical gender distinctions between boy and girl, relating to the theme of sexism in the play. The gift of a doll matches the role of women as dolls, and when Nora mentions that Emmy will rip the bed "to pieces," she foreshadows what she will do to her marriage by the end of the play. The nurse and the maids each receive handkerchiefs and enough material to make a dress. Nora comments that the nurse "ought really to have something better," as if she suddenly realizes that her gifts to Anne aren't fun but practical and related to work. Nora also declares that the gifts are "cheap," as a way to please Torvald, emphasizing money as a symbol. The gifts collectively represent how urgently Nora wants to please her husband and children at this point in the play.

What is the significance of the macaroons in Act 1, Section 1 of A Doll's House?

The macaroons are a device Ibsen uses to highlight the power struggle between Nora and Torvald. Ibsen also uses the macaroons to point out one of the sexist ideals their relationship is based upon: Nora's physical beauty, which Torvald feels could be threatened if she eats too many sweets. The conversation Nora and Torvald have about the macaroons illustrates that Torvald is overbearing and controlling, so much so that he thinks it is his right to decide what his wife eats. Torvald's words embody Ibsen's talent for adding multiple meanings to ordinary dialogue, such as when Torvald says, "Hasn't Miss Sweet Tooth been breaking rules in town today?" It sounds like both a question and a statement; Torvald is simultaneously accusing, questioning, and suggesting she's guilty, as the audience actually knows she's guilty. The particular word choice in "breaking rules" reveals how uptight Torvald is, as does the fact that Nora feels she must lie about so many things—from a tiny act like indulging in sweets to the huge lie she hides from him.

How is the conversation in Act 1, Section 1 about the previous Christmas related to themes in A Doll's House?

Nora reveals in this conversation that she did not mind being away from Torvald and the children during the three weeks she prepared for the previous Christmas. This fact hints at her unhappiness in her roles and is the opposite of how Torvald felt about her absence. Their mutual surprise at how each other felt shows their lack of awareness about each other. Particularly perceptible to the audience is the idea that there is more to Nora and what she understands about herself. When Torvald misses the strength Nora shows here and tries to tease her by calling her hard work "precious little result," as though her failure after intense effort is cute or charming, the gulf between them widens. Then, Nora reveals to the audience that she did not fail, but the cat tore "everything to pieces." This is the second time Nora uses that particular phrase, which foreshadows what she will do to her marriage by the end of the play. Torvald's stereotypical view of her, his treatment of her as his doll, will ultimately cause her to leave.

How do Nora and Torvald's physical interactions change toward each other throughout the course of A Doll's House?

Nora and Torvald's physical interactions remain steady until they fight over Krogstad's dismissal in Act 2. After that point, their interactions incrementally diminish until the final section of the play, during which they do not touch each other but sit at opposite sides of a table. The couple's physical gestures align with their needs and desires throughout the play. Torvald kisses Nora on the forehead when he perceives she is frightened and regularly draws her to him by the waist. When he is angry or condescending toward her, he typically holds or shuffles paperwork. Nora consistently touches Torvald—playing with his hair or coat buttons when she asks for favors or money. At the final moment of Act 2, she runs off the stage toward him with "arms outstretched," aligning with her hope that their marriage will withstand the letter Krogstad has left in Torvald's mailbox. Ultimately, it is Nora who breaks the physical interaction between them after Torvald says, "My darling wife, I don't feel as if I could hold you tight enough." She "disengages" herself from his grasp and says, "Now you must read your letters." This is the last time they touch, foreshadowing their impending separation.

What complex feelings does Nora's decision to borrow money in A Doll's House produce in her as she hides the act and struggles to pay the money back?

Nora borrowed the money in a highly emotional state, in order to save Torvald's life. So the act itself is surrounded by intense feelings: fear, love, and perhaps dismay at Torvald's inability to provide for the family. The fear of being discovered is an intense feeling that stays with her throughout the play. However, other feelings also emerge. The fact that Nora is the one who finds a solution gives her some sense of pride and a glimpse into the untruths around social mores saying women are neither able nor fit to handle money affairs. Her ability to solve the problem also gives her confidence to continue coming up with solutions. With single-minded focus and pride, she scrimps and saves and does whatever odd jobs she can to earn the money she must pay back. With regard to work, she tells Christine that "It was a tremendous pleasure ... It was like being a man." She also "toss[es] her head" when Christine says a wife cannot borrow without her husband's permission and replies that a "wife who has any head for business— ... who has the wit to be a little clever—" can. This feeling of self-empowerment ultimately becomes strong enough to take her away from what has become an unsatisfactory life, from a situation in which it seems impossible for anyone to see her as more than a child (Christine) or a doll (Torvald).

What is the role of fathers as portrayed in A Doll's House?

The fathers in A Doll's House either play the stereotypical role of the time period of the play or are disparaged for their failure to do so. The role is partly exemplified by Nora's father and Torvald. Both men take it upon themselves to treat Nora like a doll that they own, controlling her as completely as possible. As father and husband, they expect her to do exactly as bidden and feel that is only fair given the financial support provided. By the end of the play, Nora clearly sees that Torvald treats her like a child—just like her father treated her. When it comes to fathering, the men have little to do with their children beyond expecting their good behavior and charming looks. However, in the areas in which Nora's father is viewed as a failure, the moralizing Torvald is quick to point out how Nora has been ruined: "No religion, no morality, no sense of duty." So, while preferring a hands-off role with children, fathers are expected to instill only the best in the children. Fathers that do not fulfill their roles are viewed as extremely damaging to individuals and society. For example, Krogstad is viewed as likely to pass his own immorality on to his children. Women are also victims when their fathers, husbands, or the fathers of their children do not live up to expectations. Christine lost her father; as a result, she had to take on the role of providing for the family, even to the point of marrying a man she did not love. Nursemaid Anne-Marie is forced to leave her own children to care for Nora's, because she does not have a man. However, Dr. Rank also bears the scars of poor fathering; his immoral father literally has left him diseased.

Why does Nora tell Christine about her secret loan in Act 1, Section 2 of A Doll's House?

Nora tells Christine about her secret loan after taking offense that Christine called Nora "imprudent" and childish. Nora is angry when she replies to Christine, "You are just like the others. They all think I am incapable of anything serious." Christine responds by belittling Nora, saying she has heard all of Nora's troubles, as if Christine is unimpressed by their gravity. Nora wants Christine to feel not only sorry for her but also as though Nora's life has been as difficult, or almost as difficult, as Christine's. In trying to impress her friend and win respect, Nora accidentally reveals her secret.

How does Nora make Christine angry in Act 1 of A Doll's House?

When Nora talks about how wonderful it will be to finally have a lot of money, Christine responds flatly, with no dreaminess or excitement, "Yes, anyhow I think it would be delightful to have what one needs." Christine is scolding Nora subtly because in this moment, Nora is rubbing in her good fortune at the expense of her poverty-stricken friend's feelings. A little while later when Nora tells Christine she looks too tired to handle working, again Christine responds negatively: "I have no father to give me money for a journey, Nora," revealing perhaps a dash of jealousy.

What is the significance of Nora's fantasy in Act 1, Section 2 of A Doll's House about a rich man dying?

Ibsen allows significant insight into Nora's interior life by supplying the audience with her admission of a fantasy in which an older man dies and leaves her money. Nora has just lied to Christine, saying she inherited money for Italy from her papa. Nora's fantasy and lie combined suggest she feels disappointment that her father did not leave her money. Nora's fantasy also suggests a secret wish Dr. Rank will leave her money, despite the fact that the audience will not yet know Nora is referring to Dr. Rank. Ibsen leaves a clue about Nora's true feelings for Dr. Rank via Nora's fantasy. When Christine misunderstands and believes Nora is speaking about a real man, Nora says, "the tiresome old person can stay where he is." At this point in the play, Nora believes she does not need money because Torvald has been promoted—and Krogstad hasn't arrived on the scene. The confusion between Nora and Christine about there not being a real wealthy man when it turns out there is one suggests Nora is thinking of Dr. Rank in her fantasy, and what she says about the man in her fantasy proves she doesn't have genuine romantic feelings for Dr. Rank.

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