Women made many sacrifices in the late 1800s. Some sacrifices were expected and some went unrecognized. Nora spares her dying father from knowledge that would surely distress him and breaks the law in the process. Nora makes a risky financial agreement with Krogstad which saves Torvald’s life, yet she must hide her ingenuity. Mrs Linde sacrifices her true love in order to marry well and support her relations. Whether expected or unrecognized, sacrifice of some description was part and parcel of being a woman during this period.
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Women couldn’t conduct business or control their own money. This is illustrated in the first scene when Torvald establishes himself as the controller of the family’s money, and Nora as the “spendthrift” (10). Nora is given an allowance for housekeeping from Torvald, whilst Mrs Linde must marry well in order to support her relatives financially. Whilst women received an education, they were not educated for responsibility as seen by Nora’s involvement in forging her father’s signature on the loan bond. Nora’s shortsightedness in regards to financial concerns is also illustrated by her dismissive attitude towards responsibility to lenders.
NORA. They? Who would bother about them? I should not know who they were.
HELMER. That is like a woman. (1.22)
Women only had limited scope with which to control money and that usually only within the realms of household expenses.
One of the most important roles in a woman’s life was to make a good marriage. Once safely married, there were many advantages – at least on the outside. Because men were the bread-earners, women didn’t have to worry about procuring money to feed the family. All they had to do was ensure that the money they were given by their husbands stretched as far as it needed to cover all household expenses. Nora is excited and so thankful when Torvald gives her extra money for the Christmas housekeeping. Nora says, “Ten shillings—a pound—2 pounds! Thank you, thank you, Torvald; that will keep me going for a long time” (1.27). It was society’s expectation that all women aspired to be married and once married, there was no getting a divorce. No matter the nature of the internal relationships between husband and wife, an illusion of domestic felicity must be upheld at all times. This is illustrated by Torvald’s terror when Nora tells him that she is leaving him. Torvald says, “To desert your home, your husband and your children! And you don’t consider what people will say!” (3.307). Torvald is not as concerned with Nora as he is with outward appearances. Marriage would have been a suffocating environment for women who aspired to achieve any measure of independence.
As much as the married state was aspired to, being single was frowned upon especially for women at marrying ages. It was acceptable that women were single only long enough to procure a good marriage. To remain single for too long indicated some defect of nature and thus the societal stigma attached would remain making life fraught with difficulty. On first being reunited with her school friend Christine Linde, Nora asks a series of questions to qualify exactly how much of nothing, Christine actually has.
NORA. And he left you nothing?
MRS LINDE. No
NORA. And no children?
MRS LINDE. No
NORA. Nothing at all, then.
MRS LINDE. Not even any sorrow or grief to live upon. (1.108)
Women left widowed like Mrs Linde would have to scrape by on whatever jobs they could find. Similarly, Nurse who had to adopt out her illegitimate child says that she was “obliged to, if I wanted to be little Nora’s nurse” (2.18). Women left in a single state were left in a precarious situation both financially and socially.
One of the most interesting roles of women highlighted in this play, is the consideration of women as chattels or possessions – dolls to be dressed up and twirled around for show. In Act I, Nora encourages this notion by saying to Torvald, “I will do everything I can to please you, Torvald!—I will sing for you, dance for you” (428). It’s almost as if wives and women are not real people with depth. In the final act, Nora admits her part in the doll’s house. She says, “I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child” (3.286). The idea of Nora as an object to be admired and not someone to have a serious conversation with is illustrated by Torvald’s many pet names for her. His first line in Act I is, “Is that my little lark twittering out there?” (1.4). His next line is, “Is it my little squirrel bustling about?” (1.6). In Act I, Torvald calls her more by his many pet names than he does her actual name. Nora’s later frustration with Torvald’s inability to take her seriously is summed up when Nora says, “In all these eight years—longer than that—from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject” (3.269). Women, similar to children, were to be seen but not (seriously) heard.
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