A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, demonstrates the powerful independence of the constrained and confined wife figure, Nora. The symbolism of the macaroons, the lamp, costumes, the Christmas tree, the lark and Nora’s departure demonstrate the characterization of Nora as an individual who is at first treated like an object, but later fights as a woman who wants to live for her own merit. Her husband Torvald sets the typical standard of a man who controls and manipulates his wife like a doll, Nora’s break from the oppressors in her life are unheard of at the time the play was written; Nora thus being an exceptional individual who was ready to emancipate herself from a male driven household.
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Early in the play, Nora subconsciously seeks her own freedom. She craves macaroons which her husband explicitly forbids her to eat. Despite this, she often sneaks them anyways for her own pleasure. “Hasn’t Miss Sweet Tooth been breaking rules in town today? Taken a bite at a macaroon or two?” (Ibsen 1091) The macaroons and Dr. Rank’s love for her are symbolic for an escape from Torvald’s dominant nature. Nora acknowledges that Dr. Rank loves her and is thoroughly aware of it; however, she refuses to tell her husband and keeps it secret from him, just like the macaroons. Though Nora does not turn on Torvald and leave with Dr. Rank, she acknowledges him as a friend, which effectively brings forth camaraderie between the two that is separate from Torvald’s grasp.
Nora’s persona is brought forth as a doll to be dressed up according to her masters’ whims. Nora’s father would consistently be unhappy and disgruntled with her if her opinions differed from his own, and she was later haunted by forging her father’s signature as well as Krogstad’s loan, even if it was just to help her husband. Perhaps she is afraid to tell Torvald because it would demean him as a man to know he owed anything to his wife. Nora states, “How painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything!” (Ibsen 1128) Her husband also further established the idea of Nora as a doll of his own. He dressed her up in costumes for their masquerade. This dress up is also seen in the Christmas tree that Nora and Torvald decorate. Like their marriage, the beauty and light of the Christmas tree is a façade.
Torvald often enjoyed calling Nora his little “lark”, “Miss. Obstinate”, “my little squirrel”, “my little songbird”. This terminology reaffirms that though he felt she was endearing and cute, her desires ultimately were subordinate to his own. This is especially true in the symbolism of the lark. Torvald questions Nora, “Is that my little lark twittering out there?” (Ibsen 1137). Birds are typically a symbol of flight and freedom, for him to compare her to a bird becomes ironic due to the lack of freedom he gives her in their home environment. She lives by and for her husband, in his house, with her wings clipped.
Towards the end of the play, Nora has an epiphany and brings forth the claim that thought she has been oppressed her whole life, she no longer will be. “Our home has been nothing but a play-room. I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child” (Ibsen 1146). For Nora, this realization is vital to her development as a free woman. The two primary men in her life, her father and Torvald, have been treating her not as equal persons, but as a plaything. Torvald states, “I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t find you twice as attractive because of your womanly helplessness” (Ibsen 1143). The ugliness and falsities of their love have also come forth when Torvald reveals how it’s Nora’s job to be solely, helplessly rely on her husband. This is brought forth especially in the symbolism of the Christmas tree. Like their marriage, it was thought to be beautiful and ornate, but is now ugly and desolate after the truth is revealed. Though Torvald descents and says that Nora has an equally important duty as a mother and wife, this does not sway Nora’s resolve. She proclaims, “I have another duty equally sacred” (Ibsen 1147). The duty Nora speaks of is the duty of self-actualization. She wants to be recognized as her own person, not just as a wife or a mother. This ideology was very much considered blasphemy at the time the play was written; however, now one can look at it as one of the first steps toward the feminist movement.
Nora’s ending scenes demonstrate the validity and reality of her break from her oppressors. She goes so far as to say she cannot spend another night in a stranger’s household, showing that her husband never really knew her. Torvald feels Nora’s deceit would poison the children, stating, “I shall not allow you to bring up the children; I dare not trust them to you” (Ibsen 1142). This is Torvald’s way of stripping Nora of her motherhood. Nora, however, realizes that it was not her debt that would poison the children, but rather the treatment of the children that would poison them. If it continued, they would become dolls like her. Along with the Christmas tree being stripped and dismantled, Nora also changes out of her tarantella costume. The costume that Torvold adored and made him feel so in love with her. She leaves the disguise of her costume and exposes her true self. This is symbolic of Nora’s departure from a man who enjoyed making her dress up for his amusement. “I pretend you are my secret love, my young, secret bride-to-be, and nobody has the slightest suspicion that there is anything between us” (Ibsen 1137). Torvald’s fantasies of Nora in some sort of peril, almost a different person, show the illusion and façade behind their marriage.
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Torvald believes in his honor as a man; he does not consider the validity and moral backing behind Nora’s loan until it’s too late. He reprimands Nora until he realizes she won’t be charged. Only when his reputation is not at stake is he willing to make amends. This is characteristic of a man who loves his wife when it best suites him, instead of a man who loves his wife through turmoil. Torvald exclaims, “What a horrible awakening! All these eight years–she who was my joy and pride–a hypocrite, a liar–worse, worse–a criminal!” (Ibsen 1142) Nora sacrifices incredibly for Torvald, but he is not willing to repay the favor because of his honor, even willing to disgrace her. Torvald also says, “Nora, I would gladly work for your sake. But no man can be expected to sacrifice his honor, even for the person he loves” (Ibsen 1111). Nora’s rebuttal shows that his hypocrisy is sex based, and that women give for their husbands all their life. “Millions of women have done it” (Ibsen 1149). This shows that Nora recognizes that she and many women of her time sacrifice for their husband to the point of it being excessive and unfair.
By the end of the play, Nora has entirely realized that she can no longer survive as a doll to be toyed and paraded around. She slams the door behind her after announcing to Torvald that she wants nothing to do with him anymore. By shutting the door on Torvald and her family, Nora opens a new door to a life where she can live how she wants. She could never love Torvald unless he treated her like an equal, not a doll. Nora left a man who looked at her like a commodity or a pet, his little lark. She did what most women even in the modern era do not have the courage to do; she broke free.
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