Summary: The Role Of Nora Helmer In Asserting The Importance Of Individuality In A Doll’s House By Henrik Ibsen

Categories: Modernism

A Doll’s House is one of Henrik Ibsen’s most famous plays as it was a significant addition to feminist literature. As an individual, Ibsen never clearly declared he was a feminist, but this play proves otherwise, through the development of the main protagonist, Nora Helmer. Ibsen’s portrayal of Nora asserted the importance of individualism by introducing her as the typical feminine standard and proletariat in the first act to the epitome of an exemplary modernist by the final act.

Nora was Ibsen’s main weapon in revealing the concepts of modernism, which later had the bourgeois society realizing the true meaning behind freedom of expression and individuality. In addition, this concept reveals her powerlessness in her marital life until she makes the decision to leave her husband in search of herself, as an individual.

During the Victorian era, both sexes had their assigned roles in the ‘societal sphere’; men were expected to live their lives in the public eye whilst women were largely bound to the walls of the home.

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Due to these expectations, “before everything else, [Nora was] a wife and a mother” which contradicted her individuality as her “most sacred duties” weren’t to herself, but to Torvald and her three children. By utilizing Nora as the modernist, Ibsen’s intention was to challenge the ‘societal sphere’ and the common judgment that a woman’s activity in the male-dominated ‘public sphere’ would ultimately result in her immortality.

When Nora gets a surprise visit from an old school friend, Mrs Linde in Act 1, she described “how lucky [she] was” to have worked, where she “locked [herself] in and sat writing”[footnoteRef:1]; she further expressed it as “tremendous fun.

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..earning money. It was almost like being a man”[footnoteRef:2]. This presents her as a modernist for several reasons: firstly, it was only the working class women that had no choice but to work in service-related jobs such as nursing, but since Nora was a woman of the upper-middle class, she had a choice. Secondly, she was “lucky enough” to do something she had “tremendous fun” doing whilst “earning money”[footnoteRef:3]. Women during the Victorian era were forced into conditions that were considered inhumane to the higher classes of society and even some women amongst the lower classes[footnoteRef:4]. This quotation shows how being a woman of the upper-middle class was a huge advantage during this time as Nora didn’t have to work in such awful conditions. Thirdly, Nora felt what it was like to “almost [be] like a man”[footnoteRef:5] as she was in control of her finances, just as Torvald was in charge of the family’s finances. Because of that, Torvald could exert his power over Nora by dictating how she could spend it so she wouldn’t “waste money”[footnoteRef:6]. As she could earn for herself, this suggests that Nora had the right to dictate how she wanted to exert her newfound power upon Torvald in other ways that didn’t involve using her sexuality towards his “whims and fancies”[footnoteRef:7] by “[dancing] for him, and [dressing] for him, and [playing] with him”[footnoteRef:8] as emphasized by the repetition of “for him”. This demonstrates her individuality as she chose to counteract the status quo: not only did she have a career, but it was something she enjoyed doing rather than following “what was in the books”. [1: Ibsen, H. (2016). A Dolls House and Other Plays, 162.] [2: Ibsen, H. (2016). A Dolls House and Other Plays, 162.

] [3: Ibsen, H. (2016). A Dolls House and Other Plays, 162.] [4: 'Victorian Women and Their Working Roles - Digital Commons at ....' Accessed 11 Aug. 2019.] [5: Ibsen, H. (2016). A Dolls House and Other Plays, 162.] [6: Ibsen, H. (2016). A Dolls House and Other Plays, 148.] [7: Ibsen, H. (2016). A Dolls House and Other Plays, 161.] [8: Ibsen, H. (2016). A Dolls House and Other Plays, 161.


Women having autonomy meant that the whole structure of society would have to be reimagined as the world had always relied on the patriarchal ideology. It terrified the bourgeois society as each move in the direction of female autonomy felt catastrophic because people weren’t accustomed to such circumstances. Despite the catastrophe that would’ve changed the world’s dynamic, Ibsen still wished to challenge the status quo. On one had, he succeeded to prove that women could advance in this society but, on the other hand, it lead to Nora’s immortality as she committed an illegal act.

In Act 2, Nils Krogstad –– “one of [her] husband’s subordinates” –– visits the Helmer’s in regard to his dismissal. Due to Nora’s failed attempt at convincing Torvald to let Krogstad keep his post at the bank, he threatens to expose Nora’s “secret”: she had to “borrow twelve hundred dollars” to pay for Torvald’s treatment in Italy but since her “father was too ill”, with a defiant look, she admitted to forging her father’s signature and falsely dated it “three days after his death”. In those times, it was illegal for a woman to borrow money without her husband or father’s consent yet she did it out of her goodwill to save Torvald’s life and genuine love for him. The use of the adverb: when Nora was “looking [at Krogstad] defiantly” presents her as challenging and confrontational. This would shock the audience as she demonstrates characteristics that oppose expectations that women should be “nice and sympathetic rather than forceful, outspoken or intellectually vigorous”[footnoteRef:9]. Here, the audience starts to notice a shift in Nora’s character - she is no longer afraid to be vocal which shows her individuality as women would’ve never had the courage to exert any power over a man but she may have felt that she had a right to speak because Krogstad was Torvald’s subordinate. Not only did she defend herself when Krogstad threatened her but she went against the law “to protect [her] dying father” and “to save her husband’s life”. Her individuality shines through as she selflessly puts both lives before hers. Although she and some members of the audience thought this deserved great applause, Torvald reacts furiously and rejects Nora out of concern for his “honor”. [9: 'Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory - Google Books.' Accessed 7 Aug. 2019.]

The climax of the play is in Act 3 when Torvald finds out Nora’s secret through Krogstad’s letter. Torvald violently reacts by screaming “Nora!” and “[holds her] back whilst she’s “struggling to free herself”. The stage directions indicate Torvald’s violent nature to the audience and reveal a side to Torvald that Nora nor the audience have seen until this point. These actions symbolize Torvald’s way to utilize his power and show his superiority over Nora. He continues by calling Nora a “liar, a hypocrite...a criminal!”, “wretched” and “shiftless”. Using fault-finding adjectives creates skepticism as to whether Torvald truly loved Nora as no husband who truly loved their wife wouldn’t dare belittle her by calling her such horrid names. The fact that Nora saved his life could be considered as the utmost emasculation because Torvald was completely unaware of Nora’s activities to obtain this money in the first place; this added to his fury and rage because Nora went against his rule to never borrow money. She finally saw that their whole marriage had been about how they appeared in the eyes of society, after all, “it [would’ve] been terribly embarrassing and humiliating for [Torvald] if he thought he owed [Nora anything]”. In this case, Torvald owed Nora his life.

She was willing to take her own life so that she could save his reputation but soon finds out that he was nothing more than a selfish and narcissistic individual. He underplayed her great sacrifices and even told her that she was like a child in his eyes. She therefore gains insight into his true persona and decides that Torvald has “committed a grievous sin against [her]”. A sin alludes to the idea of religion and becoming an individual is about following one’s own path rather than the path of religion. This signifies that she will find out what it means to be self-reliant and the only way she can do that is by leaving Torvald’s doll house where he “arranged everything to suit [his] own tastes”. After the shocking revelation that she’s been his “doll wife”, she realizes that she has “[a] duty to [herself]” and leaves, intent on self discovery leaving the world she knew behind so that she can grow into an independent woman.

This unexpected cliffhanger, and the play itself, makes it very modern because it looked at the aspects of marriage, gender roles and family duties in a new light. In the previous era of romanticism, such a play would’ve ended in reconciliation between Nora and Torvald but Ibsen didn’t intend on creating a ‘happy denouement’. He was interested in those “miracles” - the idea that change in tradition would’ve introduced the idea of individualism and modernism. He was interested in finding a way to assert the importance of individuality by addressing the need for an individual’s need for self-determination and self-knowledge by capturing the meaning behind modernism. He starts the play by introducing a conventional bourgeois household and creates Nora to be the exemplary modernist by going against the status quo. This was Ibsen’s way to make the idea of modernism blossom over a period of time until society realized the ideas of freedom of expression and individuality.


1.Barrett, K. L., 2013. Victorian Women and Their Working Roles, s.l.: s.n.

2.Jack, B., 2016. Theatre and Individualism: Henrik Ibsen, 'A Doll's House', s.l.: s.n.

3.Kowaleski-Wallace, E., 1997. Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory. illustrated, reprint ed. s.l.:Garland.

Updated: Feb 28, 2024
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Summary: The Role Of Nora Helmer In Asserting The Importance Of Individuality In A Doll’s House By Henrik Ibsen. (2024, Feb 28). Retrieved from

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