A Doll’s House Gender Roles
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was a realistic prose drama written in 1879 that portrayed the social constraints women of the 19th century experienced in their daily lives. The controversial social themes in this work embodied the struggle of women to conform to humiliating societal expectations. In the play, the dynamic character Nora, who is first characterized as a trophy wife, begins to recognize the web of lies and deception prevalent in her household. Through the symbol of the tarantella in A Doll’s House, Ibsen depicts Nora’s inner turmoil to conform with societal expectations while longing for independence, suggesting that gender roles in late-19th century Norway suppressed the expression of individual identity and freedom for women.
The tarantella is a Neapolitan dance that Torvald wishes for Nora to perform at a ball. Rooted in a medieval Italian ritual, the tarantella was a dance originally performed by victims of a lethal tarantula bite. It is a frenzied, swift, and almost hysterical attempt by victims of the sting to cure themselves of the poison. Given this, the entire progression of the play, from Nora’s culminating despair and fear about Torvald discovering her crimes to her final disillusionment, can be contextualized within the stages of the tarantella dance.
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At the beginning of Act I, Nora is presented as a frivolous, twittering character, preoccupied solely with pleasing her husband and maintaining appearances. She is constantly flitting and restless, attending to the Christmas gifts around the house and behaving like a “little squirrel” or “little skylark,” fitting perfectly within the role that Torvald has constructed for her. The poison of the sting has already been ingrained deeply within Nora, and she cherishes this poison, unaware of its suppression of her own intellect and identity. This poison represents Nora’s strict conformity to societal norms, which detracts from the depth of her character and instead depicts her as a typical materialistic and inconsequential woman in a 19th century middle-class family.
As Act I progresses, Nora reveals an enormous secret that she has been keeping from Torvald. She confides to Mrs. Linde that “It was I who saved Torvald’s life” and “It was I who procured the money” for their trip to Italy. However, in 19th century European society, ‘a wife cannot borrow without her husband’s consent.’ Thus, this revelation seemingly contradicts Nora’s previously established lighthearted character as her actions constitute a violation of the bourgeois ideology that she strongly adheres to. Yet, the exposure of Nora’s dreadful secret is the first sign that she exhibits a sense of reality. Krogstad’s threats to reveal her crime to Torvald precipitates Nora’s realization of the poison in her veins. However, she believes that this poison, which threatens to destroy her ‘beautiful happy home,’ originated wholly from Krogstad’s depravity, oblivious to the fact that it had been integrated within her nature since the beginning of her marriage and contributed toward her blind acceptance of the tight societal restrictions placed on her actions.
Nora’s realization of her defenseless against the poison signifies the rise of her agitation and panic as she desperately attempts to preserve her marriage by delaying the discovery of her crime. She believes that if Torvald learned about her crime, he would “take everything upon [himself]” and proclaim himself as the “guilty one,” transferring Nora’s poison to him instead. To prevent this “wonderful thing” from happening, Nora contemplates suicide as a way of succumbing to the poison and protecting Torvald. Nora’s selflessness and out-of-character sacrifices made for Torvald emphasizes the conception that she truly believed she loved him. However, this belief only serves to magnify the extent of her revelation at the end of the play and how societal constraints have contributed to a falsified view of her life.
While Nora continues attempting to postpone Torvald’s reading of Krogstad’s letter, her actions become more spasmodic and frantic. She exclaims “Now play for me! I am going to dance!” to Torvald, and performs a wild and violent version of the tarantella, much to the distaste of Torvald. Nora’s dance reflects her shaken and terrified state of mind as the poison is beginning to overwhelm her. As the climax of the novel, this tarantella dance scene symbolizes Nora’s expression of an inner split that is gradually emerging within her in response to Krogstad’s threats, her plans for suicide, and her overall helplessness in the situation.
In the words of anthropologist Victor Turner, Nora’s performance of the tarantella could be seen as a liminal occasion, straddling the threshold between an old and new mentality and identity. To facilitate these liminal occasions, Turner states that sacred dances and performances are often utilized, such as the tarantella. In Nora’s case, her old, poisoned cognitive state was characterized by strict conformity to bourgeois ideology. She maintains the role of an ideal wife, residing entirely within the domestic sphere. Although this ideology confines Nora within the walls of a glass prison, where all her actions are put on display to represent Torvald’s wealth and respectability, she is an avid supporter of it. However, the web of lies that underlie Nora’s life is becoming increasingly apparent as she begins to realize Torvald’s inherent selfishness and the suppression of her individuality in a patriarchal society. Thus, her frenzied and impassioned dance can be seen as her struggle against the strict conformities of societal expectations and an implicit desire to break free of them.
However, Nora’s attempt to express her existence remains largely within the traditional bounds of bourgeois domesticity. The tarantella and Nora’s Neapolitan fisher-girl costume allows her to temporarily step away from her everyday identity. According to Turner, once Nora is masked in a different identity, she is expected to act in the role of that identity. Nora’s transformation into a sensual dancer coincides with Torvald’s desires, representing a willing acceptance of patriarchal rules. The tarantella lies within the realm of proper bourgeois behavior while serving as a loophole that allows Nora to express her troubled and disheveled emotions. Thus, it is important to note that Nora does not completely break free from societal constraints at the end of the dance. The tarantella serves to add suspense to the plot, depicting Nora’s struggle to confront her inner turmoil in a way that is considered tolerable in the context of bourgeois society.
Despite Nora’s desperation at self-expression and independence from Torvald, she must act subtly and find gaps within the rigid laws of proper behavior. Truly, the tarantella and masked Nora scene portray the ultimate tragedy of married women in the late 19th century. While Nora performs the tarantella as a plea for recognition of her independent existence, she is perpetuating the identity of an ideal wife who acts at the pleasure of her husband.
In Act III, as Nora and Torvald return from the dance and Torvald discovers the letter, Nora begins her final transformation, fully cleansing the poison from herself. She previously believed that she would have “Thirty-one hours to live” as she planned to commit suicide once the tarantella was over. However, through Nora’s final conversation with Torvald, she is exposed to his true egoistic nature, which restrained and discouraged her attempts to construct an independent identity. Her poison, she realizes, did not originate from Krogstad, but instead from Torvald. Thus, she exclaims that “I have changed my things now,”discarding her costume and ending the tarantella that she has been dancing throughout her entire life. Nora’s change into her everyday dress represents the transition from a fabricated appearance to the reality of herself.
As she finally dismantles all of the deceptions of her life, expressing to Torvald that ‘our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll wife…That is what our marriage has been.’ To her horror, she discerns that she has been entrapped in the tarantella her entire life, failing to perceive the poison that slowly overtook her existence as she willingly fell victim to the overpowering pressures of bourgeois ideology. Nora’s outlook transitions from a perspective inside the doll house, where she was oblivious to the lies surrounding her, to one outside the doll house, where she can finally see the ways she was being controlled and the limitations imposed on her aspirations for life.
Throughout the play, Torvald is representative of the crushing nature of societal expectations on women, asserting that above all, women are a wife and a mother. However, Ibsen, through Nora’s character, challenges this notion, stating that “I believe before all else I am a reasonable human just as you are.” As Nora successfully cleanses the agonizing poison that has entrapped her within a glass prison, Ibsen makes a bold statement regarding society’s suffocation of the freedom of identity of women in the late-19th century. He depicts the lack of autonomy of married women in bourgeois society to express themselves and act independently of their husbands through the symbol of the tarantella. Although controversial, Ibsen’s stark portrayal of gender inequality paved the way for the rising feminist movement in 19th century Norway.