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Henrik Ibsen, a prominent Norwegian play writer of the late 19th century, is considered to be a renowned writer on money and marriage. His views of both these necessities are made clear in his plays, "Money may be the husk of many things, but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not faithfulness; days of joy, but not peace and happiness."Â¹ In a "Doll's House", Ibsen employs symbolism to change our notion of gender through the protagonist, Nora Helmer.
The title itself, "A Doll's House", symbolizes the way the characters in the play all have certain roles to play, and maintain them, just like a doll without free will.
This is especially true of Nora. In the opening scene, she is introduced as a helpless creature, as Torvald's "squirrel"Â² and "little skylark"Â³, completely under his control. She is expected to live as a mindless puppet within the walls of her house, with no responsibilities aside from those expected of a wife. Nora demonstrates flippant attitude towards money, a lack of education on financing and her "tiny wee bit"â´ childish behavior towards Torvald, who constantly patronises her. His constant referral to Nora as an "extravagant little person"âµ, highlight her fragility and is also symbolic of the fact that he does not see her as his equal, and asserts his superiority. She describes a similar relationship with her father as well, and so it is gradually understood that Nora is the "doll." To the men in her life, she has been nothing but a "delicate" showpiece, a thing of beauty to be admired but with no real purpose, with no thoughts or opinions of her own.
Nora describes to Mrs. Linde the circumstances under which she would consider telling Torvald about the secret loan she took in order to save his life, "many years from now, when I've lost my looks a little. Don't laugh. I mean, of course, a time will come when Torvald is not as devoted to me, not quite so happy when I dance for him, and dress for him, and play with him". She recognizes that Torvald's affection is based largely on her appearance, and she knows that when her looks fade, it is likely that Torvald's interest in her will fade as well. Her suggestion that in the future she may need something to hold over Torvald in order to retain his faithfulness and devotion to her reveals that Nora is not as naÃ¯ve as she pretends to be; she has an insightful, intelligent, and manipulative side that acknowledges, if only in a small way, the troubling reality of her existence, in which she wants to be, "â€¦absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it." Nora claims that she will be "free" after the New Year, when she has paid off her debt to Krogstad. While describing her anticipated freedom, Nora highlights the very factors that constrain her; she claims that freedom will give her time to be a mother and a traditional wife who maintains a beautiful home, as her husband likes it. However, the message of the play is that Nora cannot find true freedom in this traditional domestic realm. As the play continues, Nora becomes increasingly aware that she must change her life to find true freedom, and her understanding of the word "free" evolves accordingly.
Towards the end of the play she realizes this, telling Torvald about how her father " used to call me his doll-child, and he played with me the way I played with my dolls," and "he told me all his opinions, so I had the same ones too." She then says that with Torvald it has been no different, and the title of the play becomes a metaphor for Nora as the house in which she has been a doll, a puppet, a plaything for the controlling men in her world, and her finally taking ownership and possession, and breaking out of her constraints to take hold of her own life; she sees that freedom entails independence from social constraints and the ability to explore her own personality, goals, and beliefs. Moreover, she recognizes that Torvald has been nothing more than a "strange man" and that in a marriage there must be "freedom on both sides". Ibsen paints a bleak picture of the sacrificial role held by women of all economic class as women of that era have no honor in society and "no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves". However, Nora stands above these conventions, acknowledging that "hundreds of thousands of women have done"; she symbolizes all the women in that feminist society and in a way, is their strength, as she takes her first steps towards her true freedom and identity, with "the sound of the door shutting" on her past.
Money symbolizes material goodness and society's perfection. Society judges success and happiness with material wealth and not how good one truly feels or how happy they really are. There is a problem with money because it binds people to each other, just like Nora and Krogstad, where true happiness is unbound and has no ties. The competition for money in the world also symbolizes Nora's struggle for independence and self-fulfillment. Torvald, being the only one who sustains his family has the upper hand, and therefore the power to control Nora, his "little spendthrift". When she bought presents for their children she was accused of wasting money when, in reality, she keeps barely anything for herself, all in an effort to pay back the loan that saved her husband's life, "Bought, did you say? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?"
Another symbol that is used to define Nora's character is the "Tarantella". The dance symbolizes Nora's change from an innocent, "songbird" to more of a devious character. It shows the transformation into her true self, which is not a transformation that her husband enjoys. She becomes more independent in thoughts and actions at this point and is attempting to conceal the fact that she went behind her husband's back in order to get a loan. She is spinning a "web of lies". It is ironic that the name of the dance "Tarantella" was derived from tarantula. The bite of this spider was thought to cause dance-like convulsions. Nora is ultimately performing the dance of death, expressing her thoughts of suicide and the fact that, as one of the "lying mothers"â· that Torvald has been condemning, she is poisoning her own children with "lies and deceit"â¸. When she responds to Torvald's conventional phrase, "my dear darling Nora, you are dancing as if your life is depended on it"â¹ with "so it does", she is speaking the truth as she sees it. The wildness of Nora's dancing has been seen as a portrayal or as melodrama. Ibsen's direction that Nora's hair should fall "over her shoulders" symbolizes her true feelings.
The Tarantella dress that Nora is made to wear is perhaps one of the most powerful symbols of her relationship with Torvald. "Torvald wants me to be a Neapolitan peasant girl and dance the Tarantella that I learned in Capri." This again shows Torvald's assumed control over her on the grounds that she is his wife and therefore is his possession. By choosing her dress and asking her to dance the Tarantella he controls her sexuality. He wishes to show Nora off, as if she is a doll, to all the guests at the party they attend with the knowledge that afterwards, she will be his. "All this evening I've longed for nothing but you' my blood was pounding till I couldn't stand it, that's why I brought you down so early." Ironically, only Nora knows, with the knowledge that she is going to commit suicide after the dance, that this dance and this night is her final chance to be a doll for Torvald. The way that she dances conveys this to the reader who knows the truth, but not to Torvald, who is completely unaware of Nora's secret plan. However, he does notice that her dancing is somewhat over exuberant, "the performance may have been a bit to naturalistic- I mean it rather overstepped the proprieties of art." Furthermore, it is Nora's Tarantella costume that makes her a possession of Torvald, and makes her his "doll wife". When Nora decides that she must leave Torvald and "stand completely alone" and "educate" herself and the "world out there" she changes out of her Tarantella costume and puts on her regular clothes to leave the house where she has been imprisoned by Torvald for such a long time.
Ibsen uses symbolism in "A Doll's House" to change our notion of gender, because Nora despite Torvald's and Society's hold on her discovered that she had a greater purpose she needed to look out for fist; herself.