Symbolism in A Doll’s House
Table of Contents
Symbolism is one of the common devices used in drama and in other forms of literature also). The use of symbols may heighten the emotional effect of a situation or a remark; the use of symbols may reveal character: but the use of symbolism always imparts an additional layer of meaning to the writing. While the apparent meaning lies on the surface, the symbolic meaning is often hidden from view because it lies deeper.
Ibsen makes use of symbolism in A Doll’s House chiefly as a means of character-revelation Ibsen always said that he aimed at drawing living creatures, and that any symbolism was purely incidental. However, it is this incidental symbolism (or, visual suggestion) which helps him in his delineation of the characters. The macaroons, the stove in the room and the description of the room itself, the Tarantella, the Christmas tree, the lighted lamp, the black shawl, the disease, the birds- all these have a symbolic significance.
Macaroons Symbolism in A Doll’s House
At the very opening of the play, Nora is described as eating one or two macaroons, taking care at the same to hide the bag of macaroons from being seen by her husband. This action by Nora shows that she is somewhat childish that she stands in fear of her husband, and that she does not mind indulging in a bit of deception. The macaroons appear again at least twice.
On one occasion she offers a macaroon to Doctor Rank, saying that the macaroons have been brought by Mrs. Linde. Here her husband’s new power as the next manager of the bank, or her own sense of power derived from her husband’s new appointment, has considerably diminished her fear of Krogstad and aroused a feeling of self-confidence in her. As a result of this feeling of self-confidence, she revolts against the authority of her husband by eating a macaroon and offering one to Doctor Rank and another to Mrs. Linde.
On the second occasion, after Nora has failed to protect Krogstad from dismissal and when she thinks that suicide would be the only right course of action for her, she tells the maidservant (at the end of Act II) to put plenty of macaroons on the dinner-table. Here the macaroons serve as a means of showing the desperate state of Nora’s mind.
Stove Symbolism in A Doll’s House
The stove is a conventional source of heat but, in Nora’s actions after Krogstad has gone into Helmer‘s study to have a talk with him in Act 1), the significance of the stove is extended to include emotional as well as physical warmth. Nora nods indifferently as she closes the hall-door behind Krogstad. Then she walks across the room and “sees to the stove”. There is no real need for Nora to touch the stove but her action reveals the state of her mind. Krogstad’s visit to Helmer has given rise to a vague fear in her mind, and so she makes up the fire, instinctively seeking a physical remedy for a nervous discomfort. Similarly, after Doctor Rank has declared his love for her, she walks over to the stove saying:
“Oh, dear Doctor Rank, this is really horrid of you !”
Here (in Act II) she seeks mental comfort from the stove in her state of mental disturbance caused by Doctor Rank’s unexpected declaration of his love and the consequent giving up by her of her original plan to ask Doctor Rank for money and pay off the balance to Krogstad. Thus Ibsen makes use of a symbolic device to establish the emotional state of a character.
The Christmas Tree Symbolism in A Doll’s House
Then there is the Christmas tree which we see at the beginning of Act I. then towards the close of Act I, and then again at the beginning of Act II. Christmas is a family festival, mainly devoted to the happiness of children: and the tree is this festival’s symbol representing family happiness and security. At the beginning of Act I, we just see the tree and then it is taken away by the maid who is asked by Nora to hide it. We have just been given a glimpse of it so that we may perceive the feeling of household joy which is associated with Christmas.
The Christmas tree, which we here see only for a moment, establishes both the time of the year and Nora’s involvement in her family’s well-being. Later, when Krogstad has left after giving a threat to Nora, she orders the maid-servant to bring the tree and place it in the middle of the room. Here too the Christmas tree represents family security and happiness as Nora tries to concentrate upon its decoration, wanting also to forget Krogstad’s threat. But when we see the Christmas tree at the beginning of Act II, Nora’s state of mind is conveyed to us by the altered look of the tree. The tree is now described as standing in a corner, stripped of its decorations, and with its candles burnt out. It is clear from the bare look of the Christmas tree that Nora has not been able to allay her fear and anxiety. Thus here too the Christmas tree gives us a peep into the state of mind of Nora.
Tarantella Symbolism in A Doll’s House
The Tarantella too, apart from serving other purposes in the action of the play is used as a symbol. To keep Helmer’s mind off the incriminating letter lying in the letter-box, Nora rehearses a wild dance which Helmer himself had once taught her. We have already been made aware of the increasing torment in Nora’s soul, but the play demands that, at its height, this torment should be concealed from the others in the play though not concealed from us. And so Nora’s frantic struggle against fate is represented through a symbolic action, through the rapid movements of the Tarantella which was traditionally a dance performed by those who had been stung by the tarantula, a poisonous spider. Nora’s dancing at this time heightens the pathos and irony of Nora’s situation.
Light Symbolism in A Doll’s House
When in Act II Nora calls for a lighted lamp, the ensuing light chases away the semi-darkness of the room in which she and Doctor Rank had been conversing and in which Doctor Rank had declared his love for her. In the light of the lamp, she asks Doctor Rank if he is not ashamed of himself for having spoken about his love. Thus Nora here implies that Doctor Rank’s declaration of love was an objectionable proceeding on his part and one which could be acted out only in the darkness. She implies that his declaration of love was a deed of darkness, even though she had been prepared to exploit that darkness for her own purposes. She had been planning to ask Doctor Rank for money, but had been prevented from doing so by his declaration of love.
Thus the lighted lamp serves as a symbol of open dealings which do not require darkness or concealment, while the darkness had served as a kind of cover under which Doctor Rank had felt emboldened to declare his love. There is another kind of light also serving as a symbol. When Doctor Rank obtains a cigar from Helmer, Nora offers to light the cigar. She then strikes a match and holds it close to Doctor Rank who lights his cigar at it. Here the light of the matchstick symbolizes the fact that Nora has been the only light in Doctor Rank’s gloomy existence. There has always been a very close sympathy between Nora and Doctor Rank, and the latter has always found her company to be a source of comfort to him in his miserable life.
Black Crosses Symbolism in A Doll’s House
While going away, Doctor Rank leaves his visiting cards with the black crosses over his printed name. The black crosses here are symbolic of Doctor Rank’s death which is now imminent. Thus Doctor Rank was used the black cross as a symbol, as opposed to the symbol of the light.
Shawls Symbolism in A Doll’s House
When Nora rehearses the Tarantella, she is wearing a long coloured shawl: but for the actual performance of the Tarantella at the party she wears a big black shawl over her fancy-dress. This difference is of crucial significance. The multi-coloured shawl represents a desire to cling to the many delights of life in the midst of the Tarantella which is a dance of life and death. By contrast, the black shawl symbolizes Nora’s death-wish. When afterwards it seems to Nora that Helmer would take upon himself the blame for her guilty action, she picks up the black shawl and gets ready to rush out of the house in order to commit suicide. Later, when she is about to tell Helmer of her decision to leave him, she has removed the fancy-dress and put on her everyday clothes. This kind of visual symbolism certainly deepens the emotional effect of a situation.
Doors Symbolism in A Doll’s House
Even the many references to doors opening and closing in the play ha a symbolic purpose. The play begins with a door opening, and it ends with a door slammed shut. The imagery of the doors throughout relates to themes of caged and free animals. It relates to open possibilities and to closed possibilities; it relates to the possibility of change and the impossibility of change; it relates to a sense of choices made freely and it relates to choices determined by heredity and by social compulsions.
Disease Symbolism in A Doll’s House
Hereditary disease is presented as social and moral afflictions, not just physical ailments. Rank’s illness, tuberculosis of the spine, is used by Ibsen as a symbol of the deteriorating backbone of society. On the night of Rank’s final examination, one can see the symbolic connection between Rank’s death and the “death” of Nora and Torvald’s marriage. Helmer’s corrupt behavior is also a fatal disease which invariably spreads. He speaks Nora about ‘mothers who are constitutional liars’, who infect their children with ‘the germs of evil’, reinforcing the work of heredity.
Birds Symbolism in A Doll’s House
Pet imagery has been used by Ibsen in order to symbolize possessiveness of Torvald Helmer towards Nora. When Nora feels excessive happy, he calls her “skylark” or “songbird”. When she is frightened, she is his “dove.” When he is unhappy, Torvald scolds Nora, referring to her in terms of birds, such as “A songbird must have a clean beak.” Birds represent Torvald’s view of Nora as a creature meant to entertain and delight him, whom he must protect. They also represent Nora’s flight to freedom, as she is like a bird in a cage, singing for her keep in the beginning of the play, but escaping by the end.
At the end the symbolic action of Nora’s slamming the door and stepping out symbolizes the woman emancipation from the chain and revolutionary step emerges as a new woman with individual identity and self-dignity.