Symbolism in A Doll's House

Symbolism is one of the literary devices commonly used in drama. The symbol imparts the hidden meanings other than the apparent ones and also shows the emotional effects on the characters. Though A Doll's House is not only realistic, but a naturalistic drama, Ibsen has made extensive use of symbolism in its setting, the use of imagery, and even in actions. The luxurious and harmonious looking scene at the beginning and the gradual degradation of that spick and span room of Nora is a -symbolic setting.

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)

The images of macaroons, stove, Christmas tree, lighted lamp, black shawl, clothes, visiting cards, and most importantly the door is among the most symbolic images in the play. Actions like Nora's dance and her hide and seek with the children are also symbolic in meaning.

The image of the Christmas tree symbolizes life, and the images of stove, fire, candles also symbolize warmth and comfort. If the beginning of the play is full of such images of life, love, luxury and harmony, the second and third acts bring in a number of images that have negative meanings, Towards the end of the play; we see the images of Nora's black shawl, Dr. Rank's visiting cards with black crosses on them, and the open door and the darkness outside which we can easily imagine as Nora leaves the room. Nora wears a multi-colored shawl during her rehearsal of the tarantella dance, and that symbolizes exuberance of life and her multiple dreams and desires. But, when Nora does her last dance at the ball upstairs, she wears a black shawl which she consciously links with death when she talks to Dr. Rank about death.

 The well-maintained room and the occasion of Christmas symbolize happiness and merriment as well as a harmonious married life of Nora. The fire in the room symbolizes warmth and life. The Christmas tree which Nora brings in is also symbolic of life and energy as well as a symbol of spiritual strength. But the setting changes along with the change in Nora's mentality and life. By the beginning of the second act, the Christmas tree has been "stripped and dishelved", and its candles are also "burned to their sockets". The broken and barren tree symbolizes the destruction of the life-force, the happiness and spirit of Nora's mind. The burning out of the candle also suggests a parallel decrease in the light and energy in the mind of Nora. At the beginning of the third act, we see the table brought to the middle of the room: this means that the playroom of Nora and Helmer has changed into a room for some serious dialogue across the table: (In English the idiom "The table was turned on someone" also means the reverting of situation: the table is indeed turned on Helmer as he changes from a master to a partner, a commander to a pathetic fellow.) In the third act, the door of the hail hall is also open, and this also somehow symbolizes Nora's exit, in retrospect (when we look back from the end).

Like the setting, the props in the scenes are also symbolically significant. The macaroons that Nora eats and Helmer prohibits her from eating stand for her innocence, childishness and happy-go-lucky nature (or rather appearance). Nora's eating of macaroons justifies that she possesses a childish nature. The macaroon also stands for her revolt against Helmer's authority that he wishes her not to eat it. At the end of act II, Nora after being failure to convince Helmer for Krogstad's cause, asks her maid to put plenty (ample, a lot, loads, sufficient) of macaroons on the dinner plate. Here the symbol Macaroons shows her disturbed mental state. The way Helmer prohibits "sweets" also suggests that he is treating her like a child: it is in fact that Nora behaves like a child because Helmer would like her to do so, and that Nora will do what he wants because she has the illusion of his love.

There are also symbolic actions in this play. Nora's tarantella dance, which she performs in a mood of frenzy (passionately), symbolizes her dance of life-and-death. Indeed, she tells Helmer that her life depends on it. This and such are the tricks that she has been performing in front of Helmer to please him and gain his love (or rather fun). This dance, originally performed by a person who had been bitten by the tarantula (a poisonous spider) in Italy has here become a kind of frantic response to the many injuries in the mind of Nora. One is the bite of Krogstad, a kind of snake, and the other is the injury of Helmer's oppression in the name of love.

The Stove symbolizes Nora's emotional and physical warmth. When Krogstad comes to have a talk with Nora, she keeps the door half open. She goes across the room and touches the stove. Actually there is no cause of doing so. Her action of making up the fire is the remedy of escaping from her fear of Krogstad's visit and the discomfort of her mind. She wants to keep the secrecy of loan from Helmer's knowledge likewise, when Dr. Rank declares his love to her, she walks over the stove. Here, too the stove symbolizes her mental disturbance caused by Rank unexpected declaration of love to her, which she would not like.

Most important of the 'symbolic' actions in-this play is Nora's final action of shutting Helmer behind in his house and going out of it. Nora's slamming the door shut behind her and her exit into the dark outside symbolizes the New Woman's leaving behind of the male-made homes and society, male-made traditions and laws, and male-made values and mentalities like that of Helmer. That action also symbolically represents the modem (late nineteenth century European) woman's revolutionary step of seeking challenge, identity and dignity at the cost of some risk. Indeed, a good reader must take that action of leaving a home only in the symbolic sense, as an act of seeking identity, and not as a simple act of divorce which any stupid woman can do and any stupid dramatist can show.

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