Marriage and Symbolism in “A Doll’s House”
In the play A Doll House, Henrik Ibsen writes about the typical European marriage in the 19th century with the twist of a metaphorical comparison of the Helmer’s marriage and their home to a doll house. Ibsen also enriches the play with the use of symbolism throughout the story. These symbols include: the macaroons which represent how Nora misleads Torvald, Dr. Rank’s illness and the tarantella dress which represent the things wrong with their marriage. Lastly, another symbol is the Christmas tree which effectively shows that Nora’s place is the house is temporary.
The macaroons serve as symbols because they represent Nora’s disobedience and deceitfulness to her husband, Torvald. For instance, despite the fact that Torvald has forbidden Nora to eat macaroons, the play commences with Nora “drawing a bag of macaroons from her pocket” then eating “a couple” (1246). Also, before her husband could catch her red-handed, Nora puts “the macaroon bag in her pocket and [wipes] her mouth” (1246). This act of Nora where she sneaks macaroons into the house shows her disobedience to Torvald. Also, the fact that she hides the bag in her pocket before Torvald sees it illustrates that she knows he does not approve of them, however, continues to eat them. Nora even admits that “Torvald had forbidden them […] he ‘s worried they ‘ll ruin [her] teeth” (1257).
It is apparent that Nora is aware of the fact that Torvald does not want her to eat macaroons yet disregards his concern for her. In addition, later on, Torvald questions her if she has “munched a macaroon or two?”, and Nora reassures him by saying that “you know I could never think of going against you” (1248). Clearly, this situation shows that Nora lies by giving Torvald false assurance that she will not do anything against him when the readers know that she does by eating macaroons behind his back. Although the act of eating macaroons knowing that they are banned can be considered trivial, it helps understand how Nora is able to trick Torvald into believing that the money that funded their trip to Italy came from her father. The macaroons also help show that Nora is used to lying to Torvald thus keeping the secret about borrowing money from Krogstad was not that tough for her. Thus, the macaroons are used in this play to symbolize the lies she tells to Torvald, especially the one concerning the borrowed money.
Also, Dr. Rank’s illness and the timing of his death represents the problems in the Helmer’s marriage and the unfortunate future of their marriage. For example, his death occurs around the same time when the Helmer ‘s marriage is coming to an end. In other words, when Torvald goes out “to empty the mailbox” and finds “two calling cards – from Rank” (1289)announcing his death, occurs the instant before Torvald finds the letter from Krogstad which results in a break in their marriage. So, the time of his death symbolizes the death of the Helmer’s marriage, since they both transpire around the same time. Furthermore, Dr. Rank was known to be suffering from tuberculosis of the spine which represents Nora ‘s suffering from a lifetime of being treated like a doll. The marriage was able to survive for a certain time because Nora held it together by not questioning how Torvald treats her. Essentially, she served as the backbone of their marriage. Like Rank’s spine lead to his end, Nora’s inability to be independent and her being treated like a doll by her husband lead to the end of their marriage. She realizes that Helmer’s home has “been nothing but a play pen” where she played the role of his “doll-wife” (1294).
This link between Dr. Rank’s illness and the Helmer’s damaged marriage can also help understand how Nora reached the decision to leave and end their marriage. Just as Dr. Rank’s illness and his death were inevitable, so was the ending of the Helmer’s marriage, since the woman, the backbone of the house, could no longer accept to be treated like a mere doll. Unlike the ideal marriage, there is a lack of mutual trust and honesty amongst them. In other words, the Helmer ‘s marriage is missing its backbone which consists of trust and honesty; it helps to understand that eventually, the absence of these essential characteristics leads to the marriage ‘s end. Lastly, the play highlights on the how the women did not have the right to borrow money without a man ‘s consent. Undoubtedly, his illness can also represent the illness in the society at the time where men and women were not treated equally. Therefore, it is evident that his disease can represent multiple things that can be perceived as wrong in the Helmer ‘s marriage and the society which existed beyond the play.
Moreover, Nora’s mental state and her position in the household can be symbolized by the Christmas tree. For instance, the description of the tree in the beginning of the play seems to correspond with Nora ‘s mental state. The play begins with the introduction of Nora along with a delivery boy carrying the new Christmas tree. The fact that the tree is new and is “humming happily to herself” and “she laughs to herself” (1246) suggests that the condition of the tree and her condition are parallel. In other words, the tree is new so it is in great condition and the readers see Nora humming and laughing clearly suggest that she is in a good state as well. Essentially, Nora’s mental state is absolutely fine here because she is yet to discover what the future holds, this is represented by the new Christmas tree. Then in Act 2, the Christmas tree is described as being “stripped of ornament, burned-down candle stubs on its ragged branches” (1266). Then, the readers see “Nora, alone in the room, [moving] restlessly” (1266). Clearly, her restlessness shows that she is worried. She is also paranoid because she thinks that “”someone ‘s coming”” (1266) at the door so she proceeds to check the door and the mailbox when there is nobody outside. This restlessness and paranoia effectively represents Nora ‘s mental state at the time, after discovering that she has committed a crime by forging her father ‘s signature and after being threatened by Krogstad. Like the Christmas tree, she is in a terrible condition where the ragged branches represent the mistakes she has made and where she is stripped of the joy that she had in the beginning. Furthermore, the Christmas tree also portrays the temporary position of Nora in the household. When Christmas is over, the tree is taken out of the house. Likewise, Nora is also compelled to leave because like the Christmas tree, she was meant to be temporary. Also the fact that the tree and Nora were introduced together in the beginning of the play help understand the plot by foreshadowing what happens in the end. Hence, the use of the Christmas tree serves a key purpose, which is to show what the future holds for Nora and how Nora’s condition changes in the play like the Christmas tree’s condition alters.
Another significant symbol in this play is the tarantella dress that symbolizes the Helmer ‘s marriage which needs fixing and how Torvald has authority over Nora. Since in Act 2, Mrs. Linde is fixing the dress because “it ‘s all so tattered” (1268) just as their relationship is tattered. Furthermore, the dress connects to how Mrs. Linde is also trying to fix their marriage as well. For example, in Act 3, Mrs. Linde stops Krogstad from taking his letter back because she feels that “Helmer ‘s got to learn everything” and that “this dreadful secret has to be aired” and Nora and Helmer “have to come to a full understanding” (1285). The fact that Mrs. Linde attempts to fix things, like Nora’s dress, helps explain why she wants the truth to come out. Also, this dress was given Nora by Torvald which shows that he has authority over her and represents that how Torvald treats her like a doll, by dressing her up. Additionally, the fact that the dress itself is meant to be a masquerade dress also signifies something crucial in this play. It symbolizes how Nora ‘s life was fake and she was simply play a role in Helmer ‘s house. This is clear when in Act 3, Nora says that she is “getting out of [her] costume” (1292). Clearly, this act of getting out of the dress is symbolic of Nora stepping out of the role of a doll that she played her entire life. Hence, the dress represents their broken marriage, Torvald ‘s power over Nora and the fact Nora ‘s life is fake.
The masquerade party itself is symbolic of how people are fake, especially Torvald. For instance, in the end, Nora is shocked when she discovers that Torvald was simply going to give up and accept Krogstad ‘s demands. This helps her realize that the miracle that Torvald will “try to take on the whole weight, all of the guilt” (1279) in order to save Nora was all in her imagination. Instead, Torvald is simply furious and says things like, “now [Nora ‘s] wrecked all [of his] happiness” and “ruined [his] whole future” (1291). Evidently, it is not what Nora had expected which signifies that Torvald is fake and the masquerade party is used to symbolize that he is two-faced. So despite knowing Torvald for many years, the way he acted towards her is extremely different from all of the other times. Like in a masquerade party, people pose as something that they are not symbolizes how in the Helmer ‘s marriage Torvald also pretended to be someone he is not. Thus, the masquerade party represents the fact that Torvald is also deceitful.
In essence, the end of their marriage was meant to happen because of how Nora has been treated like a doll by the most important men in her life: her father and her husband. In addition, the play has depth due to the use of symbolism which help understand the story. It also gives insights into the typical European marriage of the 19th century where the husband controls everything and where it is not socially acceptable for the wife to fulfill the “manly” duties. This play itself represents the typical marriage of the time period and also helps understand how the society and marriage has changed from then to now.