Nora Helmer in ‘A Doll’s House,’ Act One: Puppet or Puppeteer?

In Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ the main female protagonist Nora displays many traits. Her role within the play and the dramatic action she takes at the end rest on how much control she has within the house, leading the reader to question whether she is the puppet or the puppeteer. Nora is able to manipulate her husband, making her seem like the puppeteer as she uses her sexuality to gain money from him. Similarly, when her forgery is unveiled she again appears as the puppet master, as it is she who has secretly saved the life of her husband using her own intelligence and cunning. However, it is clear that Nora is also the puppet in certain circumstances. Helmer treats his pretty little wife as a dolly, and as the dutiful wife that she is; she is automatically under his control by traditional social convention. Krogstad also wields power over Nora due to his knowledge of the forgery, and he attempts to use her to retain his station and position at the bank.

Initially, the audience pick up on Nora’s status as the wife of Helmer, and this could make one see her as a puppet. She appears to run around doing Helmer’s bidding, and takes it upon herself to prepare the house for Christmas, as can be seen when she sorts out the delivery of the Christmas tree. Helmer has affection for Nora, and teases her like his plaything by calling her ‘squirrel’ and ‘squanderbird.’ At this point, one could argue that the relationship between Helmer and Nora is a paternalistic one, and that he treats her like a child. In this context a child could mean a puppet, as he plays with Nora as a father does his child. Also, like a child, Nora is excitable about Christmas day and the incoming money from Helmer’s new job. Nora does Helmer’s bidding, and does ‘promise’ that she could never disobey him. Helmer obsesses over her ‘pretty eyes and your delicate little hands,’ emphasising the idea that she is Helmer’s doll, and that she is in fact his puppet to play with. Helmer even refers to Nora as his ‘creature,’ making her seem like a being that exists purely to do his bidding. It does not reflect well on the character of Helmer, and it is this attitude of his at the end of the play that pushes Nora to leave him. Due to the role that she has within the home as Helmer’s wife, and the way that he treats her, it is conceivable to see Nora as Helmer’s puppet, as she is there to do his bidding, to be played with and to be admired like a pretty ornament.

Nora can also seem like a puppet during her heated conversation with Krogstad about her forgery. His sudden entrance into the house shatters the happiness Nora is sharing with her children, and his presence immediately makes Nora uncomfortable, as Krogstad is from the outside, and with him brings the harshness of the world outside Nora’s comfortable, warm home. As the door was ‘ajar’ he assumes that he can enter, which increases his threat and hold over Nora, as she is not safe even in her own home. It is this initial scare that makes Nora vulnerable and allows her to be played by Krogstad, as he already has her attention. Nora appears completely helpless here, as she fails to understand that Krogstad also has ‘influence,’ and is a significant threat to her. Although Krogstad is calm towards Nora, the information he has distresses her, leaving her ‘almost in tears.’ It is the information about her forgery that he holds over her, and allows him to play her as a puppet. By exercising his influence over Nora, he plans to use her to exercise her influence over Helmer, in order to retain his position at the bank. In this scenario, Nora is powerless to defend herself from Krogstad, as he has information that could send her to jail. Her childish reaction, to burst into tears, displays her desperation, emphasising how much she needs Krogstad to keep her indiscretion a secret. This could imply that, throughout the rest of the play, Krogstad will use Nora to do his bidding, as he has knowledge, which will destroy her. As he has significant information against Nora, and doesn’t appear afraid to use it, Nora is put in a position of weakness, as Krogstad is the puppet master. The situation is made clear by Nora herself, almost making Krogstad look like a villain, as he is threatening to expose her ‘pride and joy.’ As the secret is important to Nora, it places her in an even more precarious position, which emphasises her vulnerability, and current state as a puppet, as she is being controlled by Krogstad.

However, it is Nora’s ‘little business sense’ that allows her to be seen as the puppeteer, as it was she who organised the loan that ‘saved Torvald’s life.’ It is important to note that this was illegal for women in the late 18th century, which further emphasises Nora’s resourcefulness. Nora is proud that she has a ‘secret’ to unveil to Mrs Linde, and in revealing this secret Nora becomes the puppeteer, as she has been secretly working to turn events to her advantage in the light of Helmer’s illness. She appears secretive and cunning, as it is this private knowledge that makes her feel ‘proud and happy.’ Nora also seems to be planning for the future, and will deploy this information when she sees fit. The fact that she is going to keep the secret of the loan ‘up her sleeve’ for when she is ‘no longer pretty,’ displays Nora as conniving, and makes it seem like she is pulling the strings to her own advantage again. It is almost as if she is ensuring that she has something to fall back on, as she fears, that in her old age, Helmer will fall out of love with her. In order to keep hold of Helmer, Nora plans to unveil this secret at the right time, making her seem like the puppeteer, as she is certain that he will feel that he owes her, and will not cast her aside as a result. Nora enjoys exercising the ‘influence’ that she has, and recognises that if Helmer were to find out about the loan, he would find it ‘painful and humiliating.’ As the puppeteer, Nora appears to be cunning and resourceful, as it was her who acquired the loan, and her who is keeping it secret from her husband. Nora’s secret dealings with Krogstad make her look like the puppeteer behind the doll’s house as without the loan, it is possible that Torvald would’ve died. It is this added responsibility that makes her realise that without her aid, the family would not have survived. It is this added sense of self-importance that Nora relishes, making it clear that she is the puppeteer, and that she enjoys being in this position of control, which pushes her on to abandon Helmer at the end of the play.

It is also clear that Nora has control over her husband, and uses her sexuality to acquire it. Helmer can be seen as a slave to Nora in this sense, as when she flirts with him he gives in and lets her have what she wants, which is usually ‘money!’ These encounters usually take place near the ‘stove,’ the area that Nora moves to if she feels threatened or vulnerable. Here is a place of heat and love, which serves as a comfort to her and her husband, and sets the scene for her flirtations with him. Initially, Nora asks Helmer for money, and when he refuses, she retreats to the stove and begins to ‘play with his coat buttons.’ It is this flirtatious nature that allows her to obtain the money from Helmer, making him seem like the puppet, and her the puppeteer. It also makes him look shallow, as, he lets go of his financial worries when she begins to flirt with him, and prioritises her advances over the stable environment which he values. This allows Nora to ‘indulge’ herself, which ironically Helmer discourages. This emphasises the control that she has over her husband, as although he discourages overspending, stating that a home built on debts can ‘never be a place of freedom and beauty.’ Although he acknowledges that she is a little ‘spendthrift,’ he still gives in to her sexual advances, compromising his own morals and values. This makes Nora seem effective and skilful as the puppeteer. These encounters with Helmer demonstrate Nora’s role in the play, and the influence she has over her husband.

Within act one, Nora shows both sides of being the puppet and the puppeteer. She is able to use her sexuality in order to extricate money from her husband, and has even plotted behind his back to acquire a loan from Krogstad. Both of these examples display Nora as the puppeteer, and show how she is an integral part of the play as without her influence and resourcefulness, the Helmer’s may not have a roof over their head. However, it is this decision that haunts her, and also makes her appear as the puppet, as Krogstad uses details of the forgery to gain control over her, and push her to use her influence over Helmer. When deciding which persona Nora adopts the most, considering the details of the loan and the security that it gave to the family, it is fair to see her predominantly as the puppet master.[1]

Thanks for reading!


[1] All quotes from:

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House, ed. by Nick Worral (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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