Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is an exploration of the difficulty of obtaining and sustaining individuality in a constricting society that revolves around fixed stereotypes. This theme is developed throughout Ibsen’s play in various ways that effectively communicate his opinion of society. Among the techniques used to accomplish this are his use of set and stage, small items that become multilayered symbols throughout his play, and his clever use of dramatic irony to make certain that the audience is made uncomfortable through the thought provoking ideas presented. Though generally playwrights use specific language and the development of their characters to express their opinions, Ibsen relies more heavily on subtle details to capably communicate his themes in A Doll’s House.
Ibsen’s play was initially used as a vehicle to comment on Norwegian society in the Nineteenth Century. His overarching theme – the difficulty of being a non-conformist – relies heavily on its context to gain significance. Throughout the play, Torvald Helmer is portrayed as a man made by society; a high-ranking businessman who is obsessed with having a good reputation, and whose greatest fear is losing it; ‘No man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.230). The hypocrisy of Torvald is highlighted in this, since previously he had remarked that; HELMER: …I’ve often wished that you could be threatened by some imminent danger so that I could risk everything I had – even my life itself – to save you (Ibsen, 1879, p.218). Similarly, Nora is originally portrayed as society’s ‘perfect wife’; HELMER: You loved me as a wife should love her husband…I shouldn’t be a proper man if your feminine helplessness didn’t make you twice as attractive to me (Ibsen, 1879, p.223). The radical ending to the play and Nora’s pronouncement of the need to ‘find herself’, however, stirred the general public at the time to such a degree that Ibsen was forced to write an alternate ending to the play; one that would not criticise the traditional order of society at the time to quite the same extent as his original conclusion had.
The need for an alternate ending is proof that the context of the play is vital for the development of Ibsen’s theme; for without the foundation that the context provides, it is void of meaning and significance altogether. Furthermore, Ibsen subtly draws on the importance of context and setting in the play by his clever use of a sole room. Almost the entire play is set in one room, a confined space that represents society, just as the relationship of the Helmers within the room represents the people confined by society. Though at the beginning of the play, the room is described as ‘comfortable’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.147), it soon comes to signify discomfort, misery and decay; The same room. In the corner by the piano stands the Christmas tree; it is stripped and dishevelled… [NORA, alone in the room, walks about restlessly…] (Ibsen, 1879, p.181). The need for Nora to physically leave Torvald, as she proclaims towards the end of the play, ultimately exemplifies people’s need to leave the confinements of society, to break free of the enslaving bonds of idealist expectations, just as Nora had to liberate herself from her marriage and from her stereotypical role in the domestic household.
Throughout A Doll’s House, Ibsen uses small details as complex, multilayered symbols to explore his themes in a very comprehensive way. Nora’s macaroons, for instance, and when they appear, prove to be significant; they provide substantial insight into Nora’s character and the relationship she and Torvald share. ‘Nora shuts the door, and takes off her outdoor clothes, laughing quietly and happily to herself. Taking a bag of macaroons from her pocket, she eats…’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.148). It is evident that Nora takes some joy in her rebellion against Torvald, who has forbidden her from consuming macaroons as he believes they will spoil her appearance. Despite this selfish, childish connotation, however; the macaroons… provide the play’s first hint that Nora is capable of a surface resistance to Torvald and the doll house, and that the more important resistance must take place within herself, against the doll-like ideas and behaviour she has incarnated (Pocock, 2006, p.22). The use of the macaroons to illustrate this resistance becomes more evident when Nora plans on ending her life. She then declares ‘… [Calling] And some macaroons, Helena, lots and lots…’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.205), bringing the macaroons out into the open, rather than discarding them as she was planning on doing with her doll-like life.
This proves that the independence shown through her acquiring and consuming the forbidden sweets were not linked with Nora’s childish ways, but with an inkling of hope that she clung to; the thought that perhaps one day she would be able to resist societal ways which were so ingrained in her. Furthermore, just as food is required for consumption when one is unfulfilled, Ibsen uses the macaroons to describe Nora’s desire for fulfilment. It is evident that she originally felt she would find such fulfilment in the traditional domestic role of a woman; NORA: …to be able to have no more worries at all! To be able to romp with the children, and to have all the lovely up-to-date things about the house that Torvald likes so much… (Ibsen, 1879, p.163). Through her delight in rebellion and apparent pride in having acted independently, however, it becomes clear that Nora is unsatisfied because, though she believed her duty as wife and mother would provide her with freedom, she realises that the obligations of a domestic woman were, in actual fact, restraining her; HELMER: Isn’t it your duty to your husband and children?
NORA: I have another duty, just as sacred… my duty to myself. HELMER: Before everything else, you’re a wife and a mother. NORA: I don’t believe that any longer.
(Ibsen, 1879, pp.227-228)
As well as symbolising discontentment, the macaroons, and in particular the consumption of them on stage before a live audience, were used to create the illusion that what they were seeing was, indeed, reality. Methods of persuasion to convince the audience to contemplate the play’s message were Ibsen’s forte, and his deliberate use of small, apparently trivial details was an effective way of developing his themes in the play.
The role of dramatic irony in A Doll’s House displays Ibsen’s fervent desire for his comment on society to be heard and understood by all audiences. The foreshadowing and small allegories used to make radical statements are devices that Ibsen uses to point out the gradual decline of society. The title of the play, for example, very clearly denotes a description of the state of the Helmers’ household in the play; NORA: … I’ve been your doll-wife here… that’s what our marriage has been, Torvald (Ibsen, 1879, p.226). Ironically, Nora raises this concept of a ‘doll’ throughout the play, especially in interacting with her children, when she refers to her daughter as a ‘little baby dolly’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.169). Through the use of this irony, it is clear to the audience that the situation is, indeed, like a dolls house; a place where Nora is controlled to be a perfect little doll without any independence. It is obvious, to the outsider then, as it was to Mrs Linde, that this marriage will soon decay; MRS LINDE: …I’ve witnessed things in this house that I could hardly believe… This wretched secret must be brought into the open so that there’s complete understanding between them. That’d be impossible while there’s so much concealment and subterfuge (Ibsen, 1879, p.211). Similarly, the deterioration of the Helmers’ relationship is epitomized in Dr Rank’s declining health. Rank’s life is being attacked by a disease that originated from a sin his father committed, just as Nora’s naivety, which can be traced back to her dependence on her own father, contributes to the dysfunction in the Helmers’ household; ‘I was passed out of Papa’s hands into yours’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.226). Items mentioned in stage directions throughout the play are also used to draw on Ibsen’s theme in an ironic way.
Ibsen crafted the Christmas tree, for example, to be another physical representation of the degradation of the Helmer’s relationship, and subsequently of society. Mentioned in the opening stage directions, the Christmas tree first appears in the sole room as a healthy, undecorated tree, which Nora comments on, saying ‘Hide the Christmas tree properly, Helena. The children mustn’t see it till this evening, when it’s been decorated’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.147). Through this, Nora explicitly likens herself to the tree; for she, too, would be seen in the evening decorated in fine clothes for the pleasure of her husband; ‘No one’s allowed to admire me in all my finery till tomorrow’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.202). After Nora is finished dancing at the party she takes off her fancy dress, and changes into her plain day clothes (Ibsen, 1879, pp.223-224). Likewise the Christmas tree is said to have been ‘stripped and dishevelled’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.181), no longer decorated beautifully, again being a representation of Nora’s marriage to Torvald falling apart. These are all examples of staging effects that Ibsen has used to foreshadow the conclusion of the play to the audience.
Ibsen’s use of multilayered symbols and dramatic irony in A Doll’s House reveal the unspoken nature of the characters, something that words alone in a dramatic performance are unable to do so comprehensively. Though words are essential to the play, Ibsen does not use his language in such a ways that provides the greatest depth of insight into his theme and Nineteenth Century Norway. He writes the plain truth, with no hidden agenda, for example in the concluding scene when Torvald and Nora make a comment on gender in society; TORVALD: … no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves. NORA: Thousands of women have.
(Ibsen, 1879, p.230)
Though this is undoubtedly a radical comment, Ibsen voices it purely as it is, as he does throughout his entire play, relying not on the words he writes to effectively portray the depth of his theme, but instead relying on the details within the words he writes, and within the staging and setting that the context provides to do so. Similarly, where majority of playwrights depend upon their characters’ development for the progression of their plot and themes, Ibsen’s characters have such limited development throughout the play that for his innovative themes to rely heavily upon them would be senseless. Nora, in order for the finale to play out as it did, had to develop some sense of the futility of living as society expected you to, however this development was abrupt, stemming from when she declared, ‘now I’m beginning to realise everything’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.220).
Torvald, on the other hand, showed no sign of development throughout the play at all, for he was the same man at the conclusion of the play as he was at the beginning, which causes Nora to point out that the only way things could be mended between them would be that ‘both of us would have to be so changed… Oh, Torvald, I don’t believe in miracles any longer’ (Ibsen, 1879, p.232). Through this is it evident that even Nora has lost hope that Torvald, as a man, will ever develop enough to resist the pressures of society. For this reason, though both words and characters are important to the play, Ibsen uses staging, irony, minor details and context as much more prevalent vehicles for effectively communicating his themes in A Doll’s House.
In his play, A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen uses the staging, context and other dramatic devices to explore his themes more so than he uses language and character development. His ultimate aim, to point out the difficulty of remaining an individual in a constricting, stereotyped society, relies heavily on the context, for without it the meaning of the play becomes void. Ibsen also cleverly uses small, seemingly insignificant items through the play to make big statements, and the use of dramatic irony in the play, the audience’s ability to predict the play’s outcome, is a technique used to be sure that all people have seen and interpreted the message of the play.
Ibsen, Henrik, 1879, A Doll’s House and Other Plays, Penguin Group, England
Pocock, Stephanie J., 2006, Between Reality and Mystery: Food as Fact and Symbol in Plays by Ibsen and Churchill, accessed 03/09/2013,