Through its staging, ‘A Doll’s House’ gives powerful physical expression to the Victorian concept of ‘separate spheres’ for men and women and to the relative power of each gender. The Helmers inhabit different social domains and the degree of control each exercises within their respective territories differs markedly.
Nora’s province is exclusively domestic. Though she does not rule her home, she is shown residing almost entirely within it. She acts out her life onstage within the confines of the Helmer living room, described in the opening set directions as a comfortable space, but also, it seems an oppressively crowded one. A piano, a round table, a side table, a small sofa, easy chairs, two arm chairs, a rocking chair, a stove, a china cabinet and a small bookcase congest its limited confines. The setting is symbolic of the narrow dimensions within which Nora lives and the jostling constraints that press upon her with increasing force as the play progresses.
Torvald, on the other hand, has a significant life off-stage. This is suggested by his study and its multiple functions, indicating the extent to which Torvald’s life is different to his wife’s. Torvald’s study is a place of retreat. It is a private sanctuary to which he can withdraw at will and from which he has to be drawn forth by the enticements of his wife. It seems likely that Nora deliberately inveigles the parsimonious Torvald out with her apparently casual reference to all the Christmas gifts she has ‘bought’ so cheaply. Torvald has the power to decide when he will make himself available to Nora, an option she does not exercise so easily. Torvald is prone to remind her of her wifely obligations to him, including that of making herself intimately available to him. It is so inconceivable to him that Nora might deny his sexual demands that, when in Act 3 she appears to do so, his response is incredulous. ‘Ah, I see you’re teasing me, little Nora! Won’t — won’t! Am I not your husband?’ Similarly, he recalls with petulant irritation the period the year before when she had supposedly ‘shut [her]self up every evening till long past midnight to make flowers for the Christmas-tree’.
Torvald’s study is also connected to his function in the outside world. He makes arrangements regarding staffing at the bank from within this study. Krogstad visits him in his study (which appears to have at least one other entrance) and his friend, Dr Rank, is regularly invited into this private sanctum. It is a territory which is entirely Torvald’s, in the sense that he has absolute discretion as to whom he will grant access to it. His wife and children are never shown entering it. It seems to be an exclusively male preserve - a small...