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The Effects Of Symbolism Usage In A Doll’s House

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Ibsen's life and inspirations, along with the context of his writing during the 1800s was summarised during the Interactive Oral. Initially, I was only aware of the unequal treatment of women in terms of occupation restrictions. However, through learning about the domineering position by men over women in a traditional marriage during the 1800s, I now understand why the public outcry for A Doll's House and its push for censorship was so significant.

When I learned about the inferior role of women in a marriage in Ibsen’s contemporary Norway, I felt that the expectations of women were beyond unfair. While I have now considered that many people were afraid that society would become unsustainable if the power status between men and women changed, it still concerns me that there was a lack of freedom for women. I was surprised to learn that in a traditional marriage, wives were not allowed to be aggressive or own property but had to be pure and quiet instead. This led me to consider the similar situation of women’s second-class treatment today, where pay wages are still unequal for women. Upon reflection, I now understand why Ibsen exposed and criticised the traditional marriage as it is undeniably important to uphold moral rights and values for justice and fairness for women.

Besides learning that Ibsen was a father of modern drama, I learned that his inspiration for A Doll's House was based on a woman he knew, Laura Kieler, whose life resembled Nora’s. This deepened my understanding of how realistic this play was in the 1800s; the middle-class homes gave a successful impression of a stable society. Ibsen challenged the censorship system by dramatising hidden social conflicts and revealing the truth behind beautiful façades, such as confinement, betrayal and fraud. The Victorian values were supposed to construct a civilised society; however, it was being criticised instead. I have now gained a better insight into why the controversy initiated by A Doll's House was intensified with outraged public outcries to push for censorship in 1891, the 'Ibsen Year'.

I would like to further investigate the techniques utilised to portray the interactions of the characters within the household in the play. It is evident that the level of symbolism in the dialogue of the play reflects Nora's shift in independence, which was controversial during the 1800s, and I am interested to know how the playwright achieves this.

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Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, documents on the conflicts between the central couple in a household which epitomises the issues of power and inequality within the playwright’s contemporary Norway. Through the use of symbols in dialogue, Ibsen demonstrates the shifting dynamics in the relationship between Nora and Torvald, reflecting Nora’s growing independence. In the three-act play, Nora’s transition from dependence to independence is established through her changing responses to the dehumanising and infantilising language used by Torvald. The value of money is also significant in exploring Nora’s developing autonomy, as well as her act of rebellion when she eats the forbidden macaroons, showing a clear progression of this character’s evolving sovereignty throughout the play.

Ibsen uses the symbol of birds in Torvald's dialogue to dehumanise Nora and enforce the unequal power between them. Following the dynamics of the 19th century Norwegian society, Torvald visualises Nora as an inferior being. Hence, he degrades Nora by chastising her that, “A songbird must have a clean beak to chirp with – no false notes!” (25) By using the symbol of the songbird to scold Nora, Torvald humiliates her; as a songbird's main ability is to sing beautifully to attract mates, it is suggested that Torvald considers pleasing him to be Nora’s only purpose in the household. This similarly relates to the image of a caged bird and the metaphor of the doll’s house, making Nora a pet or a toy being held captive in a small, claustrophobic environment where their owner uses them for their own pleasure. This suggests that Nora is restricted by the expectations within both her marriage and in society. The moralistic diction of “clean” is highly connotative of religious purity, linking to how Nora is forbidden be “false” and reinforcing Nora’s inferior position within the household. This is evident when Torvald asks if his 'little lark' is 'twittering out there', with Nora replying that 'it is' (1). The onomatopoeia of the lark “twittering” relates to the “chirping” of the songbird; by calling herself “it” paired with the alliteration of his infantilising language, Ibsen suggests that Nora has internalised this perspective and adopted it herself. However, in depicting Nora’s agreement with her husband’s name-calling, Ibsen is suggesting that she acknowledges her lower power status. When Nora tries to bargain with Torvald, she calls herself a “skylark” that “would chirp about in every room” (34). Nora employs the symbol of a bird to dehumanise herself to fulfil Torvald’s sense of superiority. Only by doing so is Nora able to achieve what she wants, emphasising her dependence on Torvald, while alluding to how women had to defer to men in order to survive. It also introduces Nora’s willingness to manipulate that marks the beginning of her growing independence, foreshadowing her developing authority as the play progresses. As she begins to reject these associations to birds, Torvald attempts to reassert his control by telling his “frightened little singing-bird” to “calm down” (64). Torvald tries to continue belittling her by suggesting she is afraid and therefore needs protection; the use of “little” reinforces her inferiority. The inclusion of bird-related imagery is therefore linked to Torvald’s attempts to degrade his wife; Nora’s growth from dependence to freedom directly corresponds with her attitudes towards these pet names. Ibsen therefore uses this infantalising language and her character’s responses to map her developing autonomy and rejection of societal expectations.

Money is utilised by Ibsen as a symbol for Nora’s attempts to acquire power over her husband and gain independence. Conflict arises between Nora and Torvald through the topic of borrowing money and whether she should care if she “owed money or not” (2), leading to the use of a simile by Torvald to state that it “is like a woman” to be unaware of financial matters, demeaning Nora’s judgement and intellectual abilities. The comparison of a debt to a woman suggests that women are shallow; in reality, women were not expected to take charge of financial matters and did not have the education to do more than look after the house. Hence, the portrayal of Torvald’s anger makes it clear that he believes himself superior to Nora due to his gender and the knowledge given to him by a patriarchal society to ensure female dependence on men. Subsequently, Nora becomes upset by Torvald’s aggression, leading to him feeling the need to placate her by giving her “money” (2). In using money as a symbol of power and happiness, Ibsen suggests that Torvald has control over Nora’s emotions due to his ownership of their finances. However, there is also the implication that Nora can emotionally manipulate her husband into giving into her wishes. When Torvald asks Nora what Christmas present she bought herself, she admits that she did not get anything and suggests that “he might give [her] money” instead so that she “will buy something with it” (3). Nora’s request symbolises her yearning to make decisions herself, reinforcing her developing independence. In addition, Nora also considers money as a present due to its symbolic representation of power and independence, something that she receives rarely; her first taste of this is when she “saved Torvald’s life” (10), by procuring a sum of “two hundred and fifty pounds” (11) without his knowledge. Money here symbolises Nora’s developing power status in the household as she discretely helps her husband financially. Furthermore, the act of procuring money without her husband’s knowledge propels not only her independence, but also her ability to make her husband dependent on her. The monetary value of their relationship is summarised in the fact that in their “eight years” (66) of marriage, they never as “husband and wife, have had a serious conversation” (66). The couple only have conversations about money usage within the safety of the traditional gendered dynamic of the time; it is only once Nora develops autonomy that the two can speak as equals. Through the symbol of money, Ibsen shows his protagonist’s attempts to gain independence financially, as a woman, wife, and parent, as well as detailing the changing relationship between the husband and wife once Torvald can no longer treat Nora as inferior.

Ibsen utilises macaroons as a final symbol for Nora’s defiance against Torvald’s jurisdiction. Behind the perfect façade of Torvald and Nora’s relationship, he is very controlling towards his wife as he believes that she is not capable of making good decisions. Torvald bans Nora from eating macaroons as “he is afraid they will spoil [her] teeth” (16). This symbolism reveals Torvald controlling his wife’s body for fear of her appearing unattractive. Despite the overwhelming power Torvald has over Nora, in deciding to disobey him she takes a step to gaining freedom. The image of Nora as she “puts the bag of macaroons into her pocket and wipes her mouth” (2), symbolises her rebellion against Torvald from the very beginning. Similarly, the repetitive imperative onomatopoeia of “Hush! Hush! Hush!” (16), when Nora silences Dr Rank and Mrs Linde as Torvald is about to enter the room, reveals Nora’s elevation of independence through her deceit. Her demanding tone while ordering someone to do something, highlights her shift in power dynamics. This is similarly depicted when Nora offers Dr Rank “a macaroon” despite him questioning if they are “forbidden here” (16). The repeated symbol of macaroons reflects Torvald’s power over Nora to the extent that outsiders are aware of his superiority in his household. However, Nora continues to eat the macaroon and lies that Mrs Linde had given them to her, emphasising another step towards independence for her character. The use of “forbidden” reflects Torvald’s control, and considering Dr Rank’s romantic interest in Nora, her increasing independence is recapitulated by in her interactions with another man. As the play progresses, Nora is unable to convince Torvald of Krogstad’s cause, leading to Nora’s request for “a few macaroons” (49); her distracted mentality culminates in an act of disobedience in front of Torvald, emphasising his growing lack of power over his wife as she ignores his desires to not “be so wild and nervous” (49). The connotations of “wild” imply that Nora is something to be tamed, reflecting his perceived superiority over her; it also relates to animals, reiterating that she is inferior in his eyes by dehumanising Nora once again. This turning point in the play portrays Torvald’s attempt to reassert power but fails due to Nora’s increased rebellion in search for independence. Therefore, through Ibsen’s implementation of macaroons as a symbol, he evidences the shift in power dynamics between Nora and Torvald, and her developing autonomy.

Ibsen incorporates references to birds, money and macaroons throughout the dialogue of the play in order to represent Nora’s power and independence, which signals the fluctuating power dynamics between the couple. A clear development in Nora’s characterisation can be seen through her interactions with these symbols; while initially she is accepting of the patriarchal power that they represent, by the conclusion of the play they come to reflect her independence from her husband and household.

Works Cited

  1. Ibsen, H. A Doll's House. Translated by Anonymous, New York: Dover, 1992.
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