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Confinement and Self-liberation in ‘A Doll’s House’

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Setting is used as an immediate representation of the social conventions imposed on the central female characters. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen presents the appearance of cosy bourgeois family life through the ‘comfortably and tastefully, but not expensively furnished’ setting. This is further exemplified through the Christmas tree; a festive season and the synonymous family security and happiness is indicated in order to establish a cosy, middle-class home conforming to religious and social expectations. Nora is seen at times during the course of the play concentrating on its decoration, conveying her involvement in ensuring her family’s well-being and in turn, emphasising the strict gender role in which she is restricted to.

Despite this, the audience cannot help but feel the setting has been created to suit Torvald’s tastes, thus depicting Nora’s confinement within her home. For example, Nora rings the bell of the house before her initial entrance, suggesting that she does not possess her own key. This is further emphasised when she ‘listens at her husbands door’, implying that she does not have full access to the house. Ibsen immediately establishes a typical bourgeois home and the conventions of a patriarchal society through a blend of naturalism and realism to depict the suppression of the central female character and also to create a world instantly identifiable to his middle-class audience in order for them to relate to Nora’s situation.

In addition to this, the image of doors in A Doll’s House contributes significantly in conveying Nora’s internment within her home. For example, the opening stage direction describes a main living room – providing the focus of the dramatic action – with four doors; one leads to Torvald’s study, and represents patriarchal authority, one leading to the nursery, representing her responsibilities as a mother, and one leading to the outside world, offering Nora the prospect of liberation. Doors are used throughout the play to reinforce her confinement within her home. For example, Nora never enters Torvald’s study, conveying her conformation to patriarchy.

As other characters come and go freely through the hall, Nora becomes increasingly restricted to the main living area throughout the course of the play. She is seen using the door to the outside world only twice; on the rise of the curtain and in the denouement to claim her independence. It is the sheer irony in this image which is particularly effective in reinforcing her entrapment within her home; doors typically connotate freedom and infinite space. Nora finally achieves her independence from Torvald at the final slam of the door; she essentially slams the door on conventional ideals and rejects society’s restricted role of the archetypal wife and mother, or metaphorically is emancipated from her ‘doll’ role in order to gain a sense of self-liberation.

Nora is immediately presented as the archetypal wife and mother through her submissive behaviour towards her husband, Torvald, who is ‘proud of being a man’. This is illustrated through her impartial reaction to Torvald’s generous use of diminutive nicknames for her such as ‘little squirrel’ and ‘little songbird’. The use of small mammals or birds – easily trapped or caged – is effective here in conveying Torvald’s – and indeed society’s – idealised view of the submissive wife and in turn, the constraints this imposes on Nora, who accepts these terms in order to act out the prescribed role society expects her to play, that of a ‘doll’. Nora’s submission to the archetypal role is further emphasised through the short episode when she plays with her children, acting out the role of devoted mother.

Torvald’s – who represents the epitome of middle-class society – idealised view of marital roles is further emphasised in this scene when he comments that dealing with children is ‘for mothers only’, synchronising with society’s expectations. It could be argued that Nora acts out the role of the submissive wife due to her upbringing; her conscious views were shaped by men, resulting in the true ‘self’ being repressed into the subconscious, and a strong sense of conventions was imposed on her from her father: ‘When I lived with papa, he used to tell me what he thought about everything, so that I never had any opinions but his.’ It could be said that Nora is a product of patriarchy, and as such fills the submissive role of wife and mother because that is all she knows, thus depicting her confinement within herself.

Despite this, Nora is at odds with the ideals of her society; she cannot comprehend why she would be prosecuted for forging her father’s signature ‘for love’: ‘Has a woman really not the right to spare her dying father pain, or save her husband’s life? I can’t believe that.’ This conflict between the individual and society eventually results in her disillusionment with marriage as an institution and society’s conventions, forcing her further into despair and confinement within herself. This is illustrated particularly effectively through her melodramatic posturing and fragmented monologues which surface as the play progresses: ‘Corrupt my little children – ! Poison my home! (Short pause. She throws back her head.) It isn’t true! It couldn’t be true!’

The disjointed rhythm of this monologue conveys her inner turmoil, relating to the conflict between her ideals and society’s. Her increasing despair is emphasised through her increasing restlessness; she paces the floor impatiently, often gravitating to the stove which provides the warmth and security she so urgently craves. During the course of the play, she is forced to confront the reality of her situation through character mirrors and foils; Nora views Mrs Linde’s situation as desirable independence, one of which she will venture out into at the end of the play, and Krogstad as a ‘moral cripple’ who represents the life as a social pariah that she could lead. Through these mirrors, Nora is gradually forced to confront the reality of her confinement and to gain a life of independence that she so desperately craves in the final Act.

Nora’s confinement is further conveyed through her dialogue with Dr Rank in Act two. On considering the subtext of this episode, Nora’s internment within her gender role and her marriage becomes explicitly clear. For example, Nora – and Dr Rank’s – emotions are not directly stated, for fear of defying the conventions of society and marriage, but are instead hinted at through their commonplace words and actions. For example, Nora demonstrates her awareness of the sexual disease Dr Rank’s father acquired through her riposte about ‘oysters’ – reputedly an aphrodisiac. In a nineteenth century patriarchal society, this type of knowledge would be forbidden to women, who should be seen as pure, ignorant and innocent. As a result of this, Nora adds ‘It’s too sad that all those lovely things should affect one’s spine’ in order for her emotions to remain under the surface, as society demands. Nora’s relationship with Dr Rank could be seen as a secret fling to defy the confines of society and her marriage and to express her sexual ‘self’. It is in the secretive manner of this relationship, illustrated through the subtext in this scene, that Nora gains a form of self-liberation; she can reject the restrictions of her gender and her society implicitly through this secret fling, whilst still remaining the pure and innocent women in her marriage and under the glaring watch of society.

The most significant symbol in A Doll’s House is undoubtedly the ‘doll’ image. The title provides the image of a fantasy world where children control dolls and make them act out specific social roles; it is an icon encapsulating women’s situation in society. Through the agency of the title and numerous speeches within the play, Ibsen draws clear parallels between the fantasy life in a child’s doll house and the life that is presented on stage, Nora being the principle ‘doll’: ‘I’ve been your doll-wife, just as I used to be papa’s doll-child. And the children have been my dolls.’ It is through this image that Ibsen presents the central female character’s confinement, primarily within her gender role, emphasising the restrictions placed on women to act out prescribed roles – that of submissive wife and devoted mother – whilst sacrificing her sense of self; as Ibsen stated: ‘A woman cannot be herself in modern society.’

This theme is further emphasised through the tarantella. The dance’s name is derived from the frantic convulsions of a victim from the fatal bite of a tarantula, effectively depicting the essence of Nora’s situation; society will prove fatal to her true ‘self’ if not confronted. It could be argued that the tarantella represents Nora trying to defy the confines of her gender role by expressing her sexual ‘self’. It is notable that in the rehearsal of the dance, Nora is under the strict authority of Torvald, who controls her every move, and Dr Rank, who provides the music. The patriarchal rule is emphasised here when Torvald orders her to dance ‘slower!’ and ‘not so violently’, inhibiting her mode of personal expression. In the final performance of the tarantella, Nora is required to were a costume; that of a Neapolitan fisher-girl that Torvald chose, as a sort of misogynistic fantasy. It appears that Ibsen is suggesting that, in a patriarchal society, ‘femininity’ involves playing a series of roles that require the disguising of the ‘self’.

The powerful denouement of A Doll’s House provides the platform for Nora’s self-liberation. Nora’s eventual realisation of her ‘doll’ role could be termed as an anagnorisis, or a moment of illumination. This is illustrated particularly well when Nora ‘[takes] off [her] fancy dress’, a metaphor for abandoning the disguise of her true identity, and declares her transformation: ‘Yes, Torvald. I’ve changed.’ In doing so, Nora neglects her ‘most sacred duties…towards [her] husband and [her] children’ to concentrate on herself: ‘I believe that I am first and foremost a human being.’

In rejecting her ‘doll’ role, she is perfectly aware that she will become a social outcast but has concluded that she needs to ‘educate’ herself to who she really is and adopt her own opinions: ‘I must try to satisfy myself which is right, society or I’. Upon slamming the door, Nora rejects the constraints society has imposed on her in order to realise her full potential as an individual in the outside world, therefore claiming her humanity. Her refusal to mould into the self-sacrificial role of wife and mother equates to a rejection of Hegel’s theory of women’s role in the family and society. Her quest for self-realisation is emblematic of women’s struggle for social and political rights, and Ibsen implies that the conventions of society would have to change in order for women to prosper in modern society; the ‘miracle’.

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