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Correlation between symbols and themes in Ibsen’s A Doll’s

Dr. Senem Üstün Kaya
Başkent University

Henrik Ibsen is assumed as one of the major Norwegian dramatist, social critic and thinker of
the 19th century, who criticized the social issues due to secularization, Darwinism, lost in
beliefs and faith and the independence desire of the individuals. He is described as ‘the realist,
the iconoclast, the successful or failed idealist, the poet, the psychologist, the romantic’
(Lyons, 1987, 4). Dealing covertly with the impacts of the changes of 19th century and the age
of Enlightenment in a patriarchal society, Ibsen suggest the significance of the realistic
depiction of hypocrisy and deceit of the middle-class people, of the individual freedom and of
self-assertion, particularly for women. Henrik Ibsen, as a modernist and feminist, focused on
the liberation of women in his literary works; particularly in his famous work A Doll’s House.
Ibsen’s main concern in his plays, particularly in A Doll’s House, is on the significance of
truth and individual freedom, not only for women but also for men, which can heal all the
cures of Victorian society. This study aims at the interpretation of symbols within the text
analysis of Ibsen’s famous play, A Doll’s House, to present one of the major themes of Ibsen:
the clash between the appearance and reality.

Key words: Ibsen, realistic presentation, liberation, individual freedom, truth, interpretation


I. He achieves this www. which represents the problems of Victorian society from the perspective of a bourgeois family. the impacts of the bourgeoisie families.ijellh. and thus. socially and physically. the cruel power of economy over human relations and loss of values in the most sacred institutions of society. he presents the problems without any demand of solutions. social oppressions. 2006. deceits and values (McFarlane. The inequalities in life led to the struggles of women who were in clash between the reality and the appearance. As McFarlane (1994) stated Ibsen based his plays on the message of ‘individual freedom’. and gender inequalities. In 19th century. including Ibsen dealt with the economic. 225). we can understand the man struggles and conflicts of the characters in his fiction. As a writer. In his plays. Ibsen creates two different worlds: the appearance (desired) and reality (actual). the common criticism was on the hypocrisy of the middle-class society with its false morality. The play is accepted as ‘the first full-blown example of Ibsen’s modernism’ in which the female sacrifice and male dominance are depicted (Moi. the changes and developments after the Industrial Revolution led to drawbacks in the order and cycle of society. Introduction: Henrik Ibsen deals with the characters in real situations with a realistic and naturalistic style from modern 19 . ‘liberty of spirit’ and ‘truth’ (68). As the capital power led to the suppression of the poor by the powerful. economically. the moral conflict of women who were judged by masculine standards (446) became the main concern for writers and critics of that period. Many of Ibsen’s plays present these problems. In Victorian society. On purpose. As Meyer (1971) stated. are labelled as problem plays. People at that era suffered from capitalism. social and politic problems of that era in a vivid realistic way. If we analyze the world Ibsen represents. writers. I will try to interpret the symbols and analyze them within text-analysis to provide one of the most significant themes of Ibsen. In the seventies. The microsociety of the play mirrors the macro-society as stated by McFarlane (1994): ‘the power structure within the walls of the domestic home reflects the hierarchal power which prevail in the wider world’ (70). Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) is a perfect example. Ibsen believed that it was the initial goal of a writer to realize the ‘truth’ and educate the readers about it. 1994. a play set with a background of 19th century Victorian patriarchal society. 69). identity crisis. I will analyze the correlation of symbols and themes of the clash between reality and appearance in A Doll’s House. In this article. women were oppressed by male domination culturally. lack of individual freedom.

class distinctions and inadequacy of relations are presented. On the surface structure of the play. is the ideal representation of the men in 19th century. who seeks freedom to find her real self. p. Nora.ijellh. Nora). Nora. 51). 144) who dresses her and controls her whole life. He classifies people according to the importance and social status of people. When Torvald learns the truth. her husband and her family as she discovers that their marriage is not based on love: ‘You have never loved me. the impacts of capitalism ( 20 . She is the ‘creation of Torvald’s aesthetic imagination’ (Johnston. thus.designed middle class house. is considered to be an obedient wife and a typical sacrificing mother who has devoted her life for her family. Krogstad. in the end. everything is revealed and Nora realizes the falsity of her marriage and turns out to be a woman.duality through his employment of objects on the surface structure and their symbolical meanings in the deeper structure. the happy married couple Nora and Helmer lives in a well. In the deeper analysis provides the reader the interpretation of symbols. Rank). Torvald is the perfect representation of male attitudes towards female identity. desires to be freed from the obligations of society. throughout the end of the play faces with the www. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me’ (Ibsen. Her marriage is at the stake and she needs a miracle to be saved. Torvald has never had a serious conversation with Nora. the Bank Manager. experiencing a selfrecognition. He appears to be a loving. yet selfish husband whose egoist and admiring behaviors towards Nora lead him deceit and hypocrisy. Torvald. themes of hypocrisy of bourgeois (Helmer). the corruption and illnesses of society (Dr. 1989. Beneath the surface. Torvald controls Nora in every aspect: housekeeping budget. the protagonist. 1989. In a house decorated with the selected furniture and objects. Nora realizes that her husband favors his honor above the love of Nora. the reader realizes the clash between the appearance and reality. At the beginning of the play. Treating women as inferior in 19th century. Having borrowed money from a banker Krogstad by forging her father’s signature and without her husband’s consent. he turns his back on his ‘treasure’ and tries to save his own dignity. Their marriage seems to be a game and fun for Torvald. On the other hand. her clothes. Nora has committed the biggest sin. However. her manners and her individual freedom. Nora. Mrs Linde). Threats of Krogstad lead her to a deeper tragedy. her childlike attitudes make her a real ‘doll’ in a house. as they face a problem in life. Stage directions and symbols indicate the truth about their marriage and lives (Johnston. 225). the power struggle between the individuals (Helmer.

Doll. the reality clashes between the appearance and individuals suffer from the conflicts arouse from the clashes. As Moi (2006) stated Nora has been the doll which has was ‘perfected by mechanics and played by humans’ (236). p. as the Knight protecting his loved one’ (McFarlane. Ibsen prefers certain symbols in A Doll’s House. which provides the main theme of the writer: in 19th century Victorian patriarchal society. which causes her dilemma and psychological sufferings. who were accepted as mindless and selfless entities in a male dominated society in Ibsen’s period. represents the position of women. Children play with dolls by creating imaginative situations and by putting them into different social roles. As mentioned earlier. As she realizes the truth about her marriage and life. she reacts: ‘I believe that before everything else I’m a human being’ (Ibsen. Nora has long become the childlike creature for Torvald from whom she hides the macaroons. has become a woman who has been dehumanized and treated like a pet in the house. The first correlation between the symbol and theme lies in the title itself of the play: ‘dolls’. which contribute to the theme of clash between reality and appearance presented by Ibsen. Ibsen aimed at presenting the truth within the clash between appearance and reality. The protagonist Nora has escaped from the realities and lived under the shadows. The objects mentioned and used in the play have functions in the surface structure within household of the family. Nora. being saved from the false appearances. she realizes that her Knight has been a selfish. Therefore. In reality. Nora realizes the www. Symbols in A Doll’s House In order to represent the clash between reality and appearance. 1989. the objects are symbols that refer to certain meanings in the deeper structure. she decides to find the truth about herself. In fact. egoist husband who cares about his dignity more than his love. 228). 34). it is no doubt that symbols have dramatic 21 . Torvald calls her with the nicknames which dehumanize and humiliate her personality: ‘squirrel’. indeed. The Realistic Cycle of Ibsen is accepted as ‘the dramatization of the struggle of the human spirit to achieve authenticity and adequacy as it journeys forward’ (Johnston. in the deeper structure.limitations caused by the social rules imposed by males in her life. she has ‘constructed a dream in which the man would spring forth as her protector. Torvald dresses her and entertains himself with her as he desires. 81). In the end. II. That is why. 1994.ijellh. ‘scatterbrain’ or ‘songbird’. as the doll of Torvald. When Torvald reminds her about her duties as a wife and mother. However.

The closed door at the back of the stage is Torvald’s study room. Not only Nora but also Torvald and other characters in the play experience rebirth. which again symbolically contributes to the theme of the play. The ‘decorated. away from all the restrictions of a traditional male-dominated society. As the stage directions indicate. Krogstad fights for a position at the bank to survive. Nora realizes that she has been in www. it turns out to be the prison of a deceitful marriage. The play is set at Christmas time and New Year’s 22 . only Torvald can this room because he is the father of the family. The house has a symbolic meaning in the deeper structure to contribute to the theme of the conflict between reality and appearance. Money is the symbol of the impacts of Industrial Revolution.ijellh. Although house of the Helmers appears as a perfect shelter for a middle-class happy family. which has oppressed and dehumanized women.falsity of her marriage at the end and this provides the clash between appearance and reality below the surface structure of the play. which indicates that women cannot deal with the serious jobs of men. Consequently. he leaves the office and enters the living room to play with his doll. Nora finds her exit. The Helmers are impatiently waiting for the New Year: Torvald is expecting a promotion and better salary and Nora is hoping to repay her secret debt to Krogstad. yet in appearance money seems to be the least important thing in their lives. she exits for an independent life to discover her true self. Kristina has sacrificed her life to earn her family’s living and Nora is trying to pay her debts to save her marriage. His male friends also enter the room throughout the play. Having an office at home also indicates Torvald’s attitude towards his work. sheltered and protected Victorian house is captured by the Victorian problems’ (Johnston. by leaving the house for an independent life. She closes the door of her doll’s house. Nora never appears as entering the room. In reality all the characters have become the slave and victim of money. Death of the old year is expected to bring the birth of a new one. which are associated with ‘rebirth’. the breadwinner. Torvald’s study room indicates that men belong to the public sphere and real life while women belong to the house. The living room of the Helmers seems a happy and peaceful place for the family. 1989. a regeneration. which is more important than her family. Nora. To have a good position in society and to survive in life. Torvald is waiting for a better position and more money. Whenever he wants entertainment. 148). the entertainment place for men. The problems of real life are supposed to be handled by the men of the family while singing and dancing women are considered to be the dolls of the house. all the characters are obsessed with money.

the tree is bare and disheveled but Nora wants the desired: an ornamented Christmas tree. As Nora is threatened by Krogstad. in reality it becomes the main symbol of Nora’s tragedy. She is confused and lost her light as the Christmas tree. The yuletree has a significant symbolic and metaphoric function in the play. Nora and the tree have many in common. Madam? Nora: Here. Christmas tree (yuletree) itself is symbolic and it mirrors Nora’s psychological state. hope and joy of a new year. in the middle of the room.bring me the tree. Helena. The tree disheveled and the decorations of it fall down as the deceits and lies of Nora are coming into light. p. 215). p. she wants only the Christmas tree. p. As she leaves Torvald behind. which would ruin her happy life (Ibsen. please…. Christmas tree symbolizes charity. Although in appearance. She wants the maid to hide the tree before the children see it: ‘Hide the Christmas tree. Later on. 176. Besides. In that sense. Krogstad and Kristina also realize that they can find salvation with each other.ijellh. p. which reminds her the hope and salvation of her soul: Nora: Helena . In the actual. and that I am bringing you back to my home for the first time’ (Ibsen. Throughout the play. She is treated like a child by Torvald who controls her physically and emotionally. as Torvald fantasies about her. she appears closer to the tree and tries to decorate it to hide the ugly realities. he declares that she should stay young and charming forever. p. the stage directions tell that ‘The Christmas Tree is […] stripped and disheveled. as Nora ‘walking about uneasily’ in the room after Krogstad’s visit. after the party. The festive object. It is generally decorated and put in houses as ornament for Christmas. Nora functions as the decorated tree in the house.I imagine that you are my little bride. 151) to be destroyed. 178. It is highly evident when he forbids Nora eating macaroons to prevent her ‘sweet teeth’ (Ibsen. 177.a deceitful marriage with a selfish husband who cares about his honor more than his love for his wife. Both symbolize a plaything for Torvald and children. the yuletree is the small tree cut before it grows. As explained by Johnston (1989). At the beginning of the play. with the stumps of burn-out candles’ (Ibsen. whenever she faces the hazardous tragedy approaching towards her little house. 215). Maid: [with the Christmas tree]: Where shall I put it. Helmer dreams about Nora as: ‘…. Nora decorates the tree for Christmas and she is playing with tree as her husband dresses and plays with her. 180). 181). Torvald realizes that he has lost ‘the dearest treasure’ (Ibsen. that we have just come from the wedding. The children mustn’t see it till this evening’ ( 23 . Maid: Is there anything else you want? www. 147). p.

in reality. 239). p. As Torvald learns about the wife’s deceit. yet he calls it as ‘too realistic’ (Ibsen. her dance seems total madness. Torvald wants to see her in an obedient and loving soft ways.Nora: No. Nora appears in struggle and she eventually experiences a rebirth. From then on. The bite of tarantula leads to hysteria. which annoys Torvald who wants her to stop. Dancing the tarantella. 176). it becomes the symbol of a cure for the poison and saves Nora spiritually. The first letter in the letterbox reveals Nora’s secret against her husband and the second one is the promise to retract Krogstad’s blackmail. Kristina! Helmer: But. is a pagan religion dance which later became popular in Europe. 158). darling. For Torvald. It takes its name from the ancient city of Taranto in Italy. 204). you are dancing as if your life depended on it! Nora: So it does (Ibsen. dancing the tarantella represents a sense of madness and violence. she is saved from the poison which has covered her body and life. jumping and running at corners. p. derived from the tarantula spider. Tarantella dance is another influential symbol that serves to the theme of the conflicts between the desired and reality and self and the society. 212). tarantella dance takes place at the climax of the action. Only a miracle can save people from the poison. this is fun. Although Nora tries hard to avoid Torvald read the first letter. 179). Krogstad sends two letters to the Helmers. After the dance ends. a condition of tarantism. p. ‘Nora’s body expresses the state of her soul’ (Moi. This dance is a dance stimulating the furious whirling movement of people bitten by tarantula spider. In appearance. In order to divert her husband’s attention from the letterbox. Nora sees the hypocrisy of her husband and the falsity of her marriage. She realizes that she has no identity apart from being www. 2006. thank you. exaggerated gestures. In desired 24 . It is with fast movements. explained by Thompson (1929) as the impact of a ‘Dianic or Dionysiac cult’ (164). The dance reveals the actual state of Nora. Tarantella dance. The person who was bitten by the tarantula had to dance to be saved from the deadly poison (Johnston. p. At this time of the year. she fails to do so. Nora. Torvald learns about her secret and Nora realizes the falsity of her marriage. the poison would fill Torvald’s doll’s house as he says: ‘An atmosphere of lies that infects and poisons the whole life of a home’ (Ibsen. In the play. Nora dances wildly as if she were trying to be saved from the poison that Krogstad has brought in her life: Nora: [as she dances]: Oh. 1989. I’ve got all I want (Ibsen. She decides to leave this false life and deceitful husband. Letters function as motives in the subtext of the play and they reveal the true nature of events between Torvald and Nora.

Garden City. Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism. (1929). Indeed. he dealt with impacts of the Industrial Revolution and its outcomes.) A Doll’s House. McFarlane. she experiences an awakening and decides to leave Torvald for the sake of self-assertion. In his many plays. A Doll’s House. 1989. (1989). we can observe the clash between the actual objects and their hidden meanings as symbols. (1987). H. Tubner and Co. The History of the Devil. Moi. Trench. which contribute to the theme of the playwright: the clash between reality and appearance lead to sufferings and the salvation is through self-assertion and individual freedom. By reading deeper into the play. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Cambridge. (ed.) Critical Essays on Henrik Ibsen. (1971). however. 227). the Norwegian playwright Henri Ibsen is one of the major playwrights of the 19th century Victorian period.a wife and mother and she has been living with a stranger (Johnston. Oxford: Oxford University Press. www. (1994). 144).Y. N. III. USA: The Pennsylvania State University. C. p. L. T. Johnston. Ibsen. J. Text and Supertext in Ibsen’s Drama. B. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University. Conclusion In conclusion. 25 . R. England: Cambridge University Press. Lyons. (1987) (ed. The second letter seems to save Nora.ijellh. M.: Doubleday and Company. He probed the problems of human beings with a critical eye in an aesthetic. Thompson. Paul. (2006). References: Ibsen. R. Boston: Hall Print. yet realistic nature. A Biography. Ibsen’s message is stated by Nora who decides to leave her family to find her true self: ‘I must try to educate myself…I must stand on my own feet’ (Ibsen.