In Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ Torvald Helmer’s treatment of his wife Nora appears to be in line with 19th century societal expectations of men. As the man of the house, Helmer brings in the money, but also chastises Nora, controls her and is at times cruel to her. When discussing what has changed in the 21st century, it can be argued that the actions of Nora symbolise the developing and changing role of women.
In the opening stage direction, it is noted that the Helmer’s live ‘comfortably and tastefully.’ What Ibsen describes is a classic bourgeois family, judging by his description of the house and the role of Nora. Ibsen even wrote the play for the middle class urban audience, writing it in ‘riksmal,’ the official language of the church and state. Although Nora is in charge of the house, it is still decorated in the way that ‘Torvald likes,’ emphasising the control that he exercises over the whole household. This plays to the ideology of the ‘separate sphere,’ which describes the ‘natural habitats’ of a man and woman. The fact that women had such great influence in the home was even used as an argument against giving them the vote in Britain. Nora, as the wife, plays an important domestic role, whereas Helmer fulfils his financial duties. Although it appears that the roles of men and women were distinct, Helmer still influences the decisions that Nora makes when furnishing the household. The fact that one can gather so much from the stage directions is also a trait of the ‘Well Made Play,’ which depicted the normalities of life populated with identifiable characters. Nora and Helmer are identifiable in this way, as they represent the classic middle class roles of men and women in the 19th century, and Helmer in particular is concerned with social values and image, bringing the character in line with societal expectations.
Helmer is developed in line with societal expectations purely because he is the man of the house, and brings in all family income. The survival of the family rests on Helmer, as the man of the house, which further emphasises the importance of the loan, as Nora effectively ‘saved Torvald’s life,’ and by extension, that of her family. This is in line with the idea of a patriarchal society. Helmer works hard, and values that his house is not founded on debts, as if it were, it could never be a ‘place of freedom and beauty.’ Helmer’s romanticizing of his financial situation emphasises its importance to him, in contrast to Nora’s spending. Helmer is seen frequently carrying ‘papers’ and exiting to go to the ‘office,’ further emphasising and defining the role of the traditional 19th century man, who, during this time commuted to his place of work. It is fitting that Nora’s attempts at ‘being a man’ stretched to ‘copying,’ as she does not fully understand how hard Helmer works, and acts as a foil to this.
Helmer can also be seen as spiteful and disrespectful towards his wife, and although this may not define all Victorian men, it is worth noting that he enjoys controlling Nora. He calls her a ‘squanderbird’ and wags ‘his finger’ at her when she spends money. As a squanderbird would not survive in the winter, Nora depends on Helmer, as Helmer depends on being in control of her. His security depends upon him feeling superior, as proved by the games they play, and Nora’s cooing that she will do ‘lots of pretty tricks for him.’ This is paternalistic, as Nora adopts the role of surrogate daughter, and delights in rebelling against Helmer when buying ‘macaroons.’ This show the first signs of changes that develop through the 21st century, and also foreshadows Nora’s act of rebellion against societal expectations at the end of the play. Helmer however, maintains his focus on typical values, mocking Nora and calling her ‘little Miss Independent.’ This demonstrates his delight in being in control, and also how he mocks her, and her gender. By declaring that the ‘germs of evil’ are ‘always spread by the mother,’ Helmer develops his own philosophy and view of societal roles, and continues to chastise Nora in her role as the mother.
Helmer also controls Nora sexually. When asking which character runs the doll’s house, and who is playing with the dolls, one could see Nora as Helmer’s sexual plaything. He even notes her ‘pretty eyes’ and ‘delicate little hands,’ describing her like a china doll. Nora also plays up to this idea, and uses her sexuality to gain money from him. Notably, she does this by the ‘stove’ which represents a place of warmth and love, where Helmer, who has just come in from the cold, is pliable to her demands and sexuality. It is obvious that in the play, Nora’s behaviour allows Helmer to control her, as while she begs him for money, she plays ‘with his coat buttons,’ leaving him in a superior position, which she has placed him in. One could argue that she is in control, as she gets what she wants also. He enjoys this, as well as her use of her sexuality, and delights in indulging his wife. Nora’s declaration that she could never go against Helmer’s ‘wishes’ emphasises her significance, as she too shapes Helmer and brings him in line with societal expectations, as the man was the dominant figure in the home. In contrast, the ideal wife was painted in Coventry Patmore’s poem ‘The Angel in the House,’ and was described as charming and graceful. In this instance, Nora is both of these things. Helmer’s decision to have Nora ‘dance the tarantella’ supports this idea, as he will enjoy seeing her dressed as a ‘fisher girl.’ This dance will also tire her out, and make it easier for Helmer to seduce her afterwards.
It is worth mentioning that Nora may not be seen as the conventional 19th century woman when discussing sexuality, as when she brandishes her ‘flesh’ coloured stockings in front of Doctor Rank. This is the 19th century flirting. The sexual appetite of a woman was discouraged, and emphasis was placed on the pursuit to become a mother, not sexual fulfilment. When relating Nora to the changes of the 21st century, one could argue that she embodies this change, and acts outside of the societal norms, by parading her intimate clothing in front of Doctor Rank. If one were to read the play in a feminist light, it would be perceived that Nora walking out at the end exemplified the breaking of societal norms, and the freeing of the bird from the cage. With this same reading, one could argue that Nora’s seductive actions toward Rank, whether she is aware that they are or not, signal her beginning to break societal norms, and move towards the more accepting attitudes of the sexuality of women in the 21st century.
When examining Helmer, one can see that he fits into societal norms with his arrogance. Helmer’s attitude towards Nora and her father exemplify this. Helmer insults her father, declaring that he did not have an ‘unassailable reputation,’ but that he does. This is an example of dramatic irony, as Helmer doesn’t realise how much he truly owes to his wife, and how the loan could destroy his own reputation. Helmer’s declaration brings him in line with societal norms further, as it reiterates the point that he cares greatly about social standing and image. It is this realisation that, at the end of the play, pushes Nora to leave him. Nora also acts as the catalyst for the dismissal of Krogstad, which stems from his ‘petty’ hatred of Krogstad calling him by his Christian name, claiming it to be improper. In the 19th century, this would establish the two as equals, and as Helmer is concerned with maintaining his authority, for him, this was a grave error. This develops the character of Helmer in line with societal roles, as he conforms to ideas about class, and what respect constituted. In response to the character of Helmer, Michael Meyer, in 1965, declared that what was needed was a ‘revolution of the spirit of man.’ It is Helmer’s attitude that pushes Nora to leave at the end of the play, allowing her to embody the changes of the 21st century.
When discussing what has changed within the 21st century, it is fair to argue that women have a greater, and more equal role, in society. Nora frequently appears to be breaking the traditional role of the submissive and meek wife. Her role in the story is not only defined by Helmer, as it is he who instructs her how to furnish the house, but is also defined by the loan. Such an act was illegal in the 19th century, unlike now. Nora, although it may not be seen as strenuous, also took little jobs to pay off the loan, and one should not look at her so ‘patronisingly,’ as she did save Helmer from ruin. Kate Millett, in 1971 noted that ‘Nora confronted every convention and the chivalrous masculine prejudice that caged her.’ Nora’s restlessness, especially at the beginning of act two, likens her to a bird who is trapped in a cage, waiting to break free from the societal bonds and stereotypes that entrap her. In this respect, Nora embodies what has changed within the 21st century, in contrast to Helmer’s portrayal as the classic 19th century man.
 All quotes from:
Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House, ed. by Nick Worral (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).