Male and Female Space, Onstage and Off, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

In “Space and Reference in Drama,” Michael Issacharoff argues that diegetic space is offstage space and mimetic space is onstage space. Issacharoff argues that “dramatic tension is often contingent on the antinomy between visible space represented and invisible space described” (Issacharoff 211). This dramatic tension between mimetic and diegetic space promulgates the conflict of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. The visible and invisible space in this drama are antinomic; the mimetic represents the domain of women and the diegetic that of men. Nora Torvald is clueless as to the men’s world, the diegetic space. Torvald Helmer appears in the mimetic space, but he does not primarily operate in it and fails to understand the female world. This cluelessness causes mimetic and diegetic space to collide. Ibsen uses semiotic systems, including symbols of enclosure and the roles of the characters, to intensify this conflict that develops between mimetic and diegetic space. One might argue that the diegetic and mimetic are not representative of male and female space. Torvald, Dr. Rank, and Nils Krogstad all appear onstage. These men, however, are not working in mimetic space. Torvald’s office is offstage. Krogstad only discusses his work with Nora to manipulate her into influencing Torvald not to fire him. Torvald ignores Nora’s plea for him to not fire Krogstaff; Torvald will not discuss business with a woman. Men can be present in female space, but they cannot play the roles belonging to the space. When referring to the mimetic space, Torvald says, “the place will only be bearable for a mother now” (Ibsen 26). A mother is a feminine role; thus, this quote emphasizes the femininity of mimetic space. Torvald says this to Mrs. Linde, which might lead one to argue that women are not trapped inside mimetic space. Mrs. Linde is female, and Torvald’s comment suggests he does not expect her to “bear” mimetic space. Torvald hired Mrs. Linde as a secretary, so does not she work in diegetic space? Even though Mrs. Linde may appear welcome in the male-dominated diegetic space, she is still only a secretary. While in diegetic space, society prevents Mrs. Linde from attaining the same amount of power as men. Both men and women can be present in both diegetic and mimetic space, yet women are more dominant in the mimetic space and men are more powerful in the diegetic. For this reason, mimetic space represents femininity and diegetic space represents masculinity. Because of the inequality of the sexes within each individual hemisphere (diegetic or mimetic), the two spaces collide. Ibsen develops the conflict between the mimetic and the diegetic (the feminine and the masculine) space by using “semiotic systems,” which are sign systems. According to Issacharoff, all semiotic systems must have “a mode of operation,” “a domain of validity,” “a limited number of signs,” and “a relation between the signs, giving them a distinct function” (Issacharoff 220). The “mode of operation” refers to the “sense channel through which the system functions” — for example, visual or auditory. The “domain of validity” is “that in which the system is obligatory and must be recognized or obeyed” (220). The “relation between the signs” refers to “how the system works” (220). In A Doll’s House, symbols of enclosure and the roles of the characters function as “semiotic systems.”The letters, keys, rings, and doors function as symbols of enclosure. This semiotic system is conveyed visually (“mode of operation”) and operates within both diegetic and mimetic space (“domain of validity”). The function of these symbols is to heighten the isolation of the mimetic and diegetic space. For most of the play, the letters are sealed and locked in a box offstage. Torvald has the key to this box; Torvald has access to diegetic space. While the letters are off in diegetic space, Nora remains in mimetic space. After Torvald brings his mail to mimetic space and opens the letter from Krogstaff detailing Nora’s forgery, Nora starts to consider leaving mimetic space. Nora is appalled by Torvald’s reaction to the letter. Nora had expected Torvald to make sacrifices to protect her; she had expected a “wonderful thing” to happen. She thought Torvald would “come forward and take everything upon [himself]” (Ibsen 85). When Torvald instead laments about how Nora has “destroyed all” his “happiness” and “ruined” his “future”, Nora decides she needs to leave her husband and children so she can “make out who is right, the world or [her]” (84). When Nora leaves, she hands Torvald her key, symbolizing that she is will no longer allow herself to be locked in mimetic space. They each return their wedding rings, symbolizing the end of their union. Nora then opens the door and slams it, finally fleeing to diegetic space. In the beginning of the play, these symbols of enclosure prevented Nora’s escape by isolating mimetic and diegetic space. By the end, however, these symbols function as a means of escape by uniting mimetic and diegetic space. The climax occurs at the end when diegetic space and mimetic space are united for Nora and Torvald. Nora enters diegetic space with the hope of learning more about the men’s world. Torvald is forced to learn more about mimetic space because he is left without a wife to tend to “women’s work.”Nora’s escape into diegetic space and Torvald’s isolation in mimetic space show a reversal in character roles. These roles, like the symbols of enclosure, are a semiotic system. This system is conveyed via the actors’ presence on stage and also via the dialogue. The domain of this system is both diegetic and mimetic because the audience learns about the characters both from seeing them onstage and hearing about their actions offstage. This system is related via the differences and similarities between the characters. Torvald and Nora foil each other. At the beginning of the play, Torvald seems stronger than Nora. Torvald seems like a domineering husband. He calls Nora demeaning names, such as “my little squirrel” and “spendthrift.” Nora seems to live for Torvald’s desires. This is evident when Nora converses with Mrs. Linde about how she will feel after she has finished paying off her debt. When Nora describes what it would be like to be free, however, she describes exactly how Torvald oppresses her: Free. To be free, absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it.As the conflict continues, however, the audience becomes aware of Nora’s manipulation of Torvald. For example, Nora pretends to be concerned with the tarantella to stop Torvald from checking the mail. Torvald is oblivious to this manipulation, and does not check the mail until Nora suggests it. At the climax, one becomes aware of Torvald’s cowardliness and Nora’s strength. After receiving the second letter from Krogstad, Torvald no longer believes it is necessary to shun Nora. He even says Nora’s helplessness gives her a “double attractiveness in [his] eyes” (79). Nora, however, has the strength to escape Torvald and enter diegetic space so she can become aware of the world from which Torvald has sheltered her. As the story ends, the audience is unaware whether Nora will succeed in the outside world. One can determine, however, that Nora will gain a better sense of self by understanding both the diegetic and mimetic spaces, both the masculine and feminine worlds.

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