Usage Of Hyperbole And Symbolism In The Doll’s House
A Doll’s House delves into the lives of a young couple living in Victorian era Norway. The play follows Nora through her journey, from her previously unexamined life of domestic, wifely comfort, to questioning the very foundation of everything she used to believe in. Having borrowed money from a man of ill-repute named Krogstad by forging her father’s signature, she was able to pay for a trip to Italy to save her sick husband’s life. Since then, she has had to secretly contrive ways to pay back her loan. Through this play, Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright who is often considered to be the father of realism in drama, aimed to challenge the suffocating beliefs and values of the time. Set in an upper-middle class home, the play demonstrates the importance of social class in late-19th century Norway. Born into the upper-middle class himself, Ibsen not only understood the importance of social class, but also the expectations placed on its members. Likewise, A Doll’s House tells the story of Nora and Torvald: a married couple living in a society where in order to maintain social standing, you had to abide by its strict, and at times, constricting standards. Nora and Torvald are proof that upper-middle class life can be a comfortable one–if you fit into its narrow margins. Society can be an unequivocally powerful force, that shapes communities and people, and so, this essay will discuss how Ibsen uses the idea of power, to represent the Victorian Norway society as a product of its beliefs and values, in his play A Doll’s House, by examining the ways in which he highlights the power of society and its influence on gender roles, money, respectability, heredity and appearances, as well as by exploring the cultural context.
The concept of gender inequality and sociocultural expectations of men and women closely ties into the issue of power. In the play, Ibsen uses various literary and stylistic techniques to paint a bleak picture of the sacrificial and superficial role held by women of all economic classes in his society. He also highlights the patronizing attitude towards women, and their lack of independence and freedom to do almost anything. However, Ibsen also looks at the issue from another perspective, where even the men must conform to societal norms, which is why they treat women the way they do. For example, Torvald’s dominant and superior attitude pervades every word he speaks to Nora, and his objectification of her is most evident in his affectionately diminutive pet names for her. Torvald’s insistence on calling Nora by these names exemplifies her helplessness and her dependence on him. The only time that Torvald calls Nora by her actual name is when he is scolding her. When he is greeting or calling her, however, he addresses her with childish animal nicknames such as “my little skylark” and “my squirrel”. By placing her within such a system of derogatory names, Torvald not only asserts his power over Nora but also dehumanizes her to a degree, through this animal imagery, maintaining the atmosphere of subordination more appropriate to a father than a husband. Additionally, Nora’s gift selections for her children – a sword and a horse for her sons and a doll for her daughter – also shows that she reinforces the stereotypical gender roles that hold her subservient to Torvald. Nora sees her daughter the same way that she has been treated her whole life – as a doll. Throughout the play, Nora is used as a symbol of all the women of her time, who were thought to be content with the luxuries of modern society without worrying about the men’s world outside the home.
A Doll’s House exposes the restricted role of women during the time of its writing and the problems that arise from a drastic imbalance of power between men and women. Throughout the play, Nora is treated like a child by the other characters. Torvald calls her his “pet” and his “property,” and implies that she is not smart or responsible enough to be trusted with money. Neither Krogstad nor Dr. Rank take her seriously, and even Mrs. Linde calls her a “child.” While this treatment does seem to mildly frustrate Nora, she plays along with it, calling herself “little Nora” and promising that she would never dream of disobeying her husband. She even goes on to say, “how on earth could you imagine that I would have any influence over my husband? However, is evident that she is not entirely happy with the limited position and independence she has as a woman in her society. When revealing the secret of how she borrowed money to finance the trip to Italy, she refers to it as her “pride” and says it was fun to be in control of money, explaining that it was “almost like being a man.” The fundamental issue expressed here is domestic life as it was conceived and lived at the time, in the way it legally and culturally infantilized women and made it impossible for them to be recognized or treated as full individuals. Furthermore, Mrs. Linde’s story shows how difficult it was for women to survive without a man’s financial support. The need for money effectively forced her to marry her husband, and after his death, her struggle to support her family highlights the obstacles women faced in earning an income. Indeed, both Nora and Mrs. Linde’s attempts to earn money were restricted to work deemed appropriate for women, such as embroidery or working in a school. Also, Mrs. Linde’s adamant condemnation of any deceit between husband and wife, no matter the circumstances, reflects society’s inflexible rules regarding marriage and gender roles. From Nora’s perspective, her deceit was justified, as it saved Torvald’s life, but her difficulty in getting Torvald to agree to the trip suggests he does not trust her intelligence and ability to make rational decisions, solely because she is a woman.
Meanwhile, the men of the play are also expected to play a certain role. Both Torvald and Krogstad are very ambitious, driven not only by the need to provide for their families but also by a desire to achieve higher status and money. Respectability is of great concern to both of them. A need for money affects all the major characters in A Doll’s House. In the beginning of the play it is revealed that Torvald was recently promoted and will receive “a big fat income,” however he still chastises Nora for spending too much. In the play, money symbolizes the power that the characters have over one another. In the first scene, Torvald’s ability to dictate how much Nora spends on Christmas presents shows his power over her. Meanwhile, the debt that Nora owes Krogstad allows him to have power over her and Torvald. Both Nora and Mrs. Linde cannot earn large incomes because they are women; their inability to access significant amounts of money is one way that they are oppressed by the sexism of the time. The play also shows that, while earning money leads to power, it can also be dangerous. In the beginning of the play, Nora is proud of the fact that she “raised” the money for her and Torvald’s trip to Italy herself—however the debt she owes soon becomes a source of terror, dread, and shame. The thrill of obtaining money is therefore shown to have a downside. Additionally, the line “his duty as a husband not to pander to my moods and caprices” alludes to the Bourgeoise sense of responsibility, where the husband too has to play a certain part to fit into the constricting roles that society has created for them.
Furthermore, like Nora, Krogstad is a person who has been wronged by society. Both Nora and Krogstad have committed forgery, and though he did break the law, Krogstad’s crime was relatively minor. Yet, society has saddled him with the stigma of being a criminal and prohibited him from moving beyond his past. Additionally, Krogstad’s claim that his immoral behavior began when Mrs. Linde abandoned him for a man with money so she could provide for her family, makes it possible for us to understand Krogstad as a victim of financial power. One could argue that society forced Mrs. Linde away from Krogstad and thus prompted his crime. Though society’s unfair treatment of Krogstad does not justify his actions, it does align him more closely with Nora, as they have both been denied power by society, and therefore tempers our perception of him as a despicable character. Additionally, the concept of borrowing and debts is one that is referred to constantly throughout the play, and signifies the importance of being independent and self- sufficient to be considered a respected man. This is seen through Torvald’s exclamation, “No debts! Never Borrow! A home that is founded on debts and borrowing can never be a place of freedom and beauty”. Additionally, Nora too seems to value money greatly. The use of exaggeration as she states, “It’s lovely to have heaps of money” and the dark foreshadowing in her dialogue, “It’d be so painful and humiliating for him to know that he owed anything to me.(…) This life we have built together would no longer exist”, highlights the destructive and vicious power of money, but also the value society places on it.
In the first act, the central moral dilemma of the play of whether Nora was right to lie and commit forgery if it saved her husband’s life is also put forward. Nora certainly believes that in this instance, the ends justified the means. However, as Krogstad points out, the law and the opinion of society are inflexible. At this point, Krogstad is certainly the antagonist of the play, manipulating and threatening Nora with the same unforgiving attitude of the rest of society. However, his motivation for doing so is that he has also been punished for committing fraud—showing that society’s harsh judgment causes people to turn against each other. In some ways, deceit is presented as a corrupting and corroding force in the people’s lives; however, in Nora’s case, it is clear that the motivation for her dishonesty was love—she lied in order to save her husband’s life. Furthermore, the play has elements of a Hegelian tragedy, as seen in the quote, “Hasn’t a daughter the right to shield her father from worry and anxiety when he’s old and dying? Hasn’t a wife the right to save her husband’s life?”. Her actions wouldn’t have had to be deceitful if it weren’t for societal law dictating that women were not allowed to handle financial matters independently. As Nora argued, “The law does not concern itself with motives. Then the law is stupid.” Therefore, Nora’s deceit was not the result of a personal flaw, but rather the only means necessary of overcoming social barriers and restrictions in order to commit a noble act.
The power of heredity is also a very common theme throughout the play. Nora, Torvald, and Dr. Rank each express the belief that a parent is obligated to be honest and upstanding, because a parent’s immorality is passed on to his or her children like a disease. In fact, Dr. Rank does have a disease that is the result of his father’s depravity. Dr. Rank is used as a symbol of a dying society as his illness, tuberculosis of the spine, represents the deteriorating backbone of society . Torvald also voices the idea that one’s parents determine one’s moral character when he tells Nora, “Nearly all young criminals had lying -mothers” and “a fog of lies like that in a household, and it spreads disease and infection to every part of it. Every breath the children take in that kind of house is reeking evil germs”. The visual and olfactory imagery, as well as the foreshadowing in his dialogue, suggests that the concepts of heredity and environment were readily embraced by 19th century European naturalism, and were considered the motivating principles of character and action. This belief in the conditioning power of heredity and environment denies individual agency. Nora’s character, therefore, is representative of the conflict between the power of socially inherited beliefs and heredity and freedom. Through Krogstad and Nora’s rebellious actions and their capacity to change themselves during the course of the play, Ibsen suggests that the individual self has more autonomy than the restrictive notions of the time allowed.
Over the course of A Doll’s House, appearances prove to be misleading veils that mask the reality of the play’s characters and situations. The first impressions of Nora, Torvald, and Krogstad are all eventually undermined. Nora, who initially seems a silly, childish woman, progresses into an intelligent, motivated, and a strong-willed, independent thinker. Torvald, though he plays the part of the strong, benevolent husband, reveals himself to be cowardly, petty, and selfish. Krogstad too reveals himself to be a much more sympathetic and merciful character than he first appears to be. Additionally, Nora’s ability to manipulate her husband highlights the theme of reality and appearances. When it suits her purpose, Nora will play the role of a ‘doll wife’ to get what she wants from her husband. Therefore, since woman do not have their own source of income, through Nora’s characteristics, they are portrayed as manipulative and secretive. This instability of appearances within the Helmer household results from Torvald’s devotion to an image at the expense of the creation of true happiness and freedom. Because Torvald craves respect from his employees, friends, and wife, status and image are important to him. Throughout the play, we see that Torvald’s obsession with controlling his home’s appearance and his repeated suppression and denial of reality have harmed his family and his happiness irreparably, making clear the power of appearances in an unprogressive and orthodox society such as his.
All in all, Ibsen’s use of a variety of stylistic devices, such as foreshadowing, hyperbole, symbolism, and more, to highlight the theme of power, exemplify the influence that society has on the behavior, actions, thoughts and beliefs of people. This play, although written to hold a mirror to the Victorian Norway society, is still relevant in today’s times, with the advent of social media, the prevailing inequalities, etc. In A Doll’s House the power of society pervades everything that characters think and do, whether it be in regard to their financial status, their morality, their freedom, their deceit or their appearance. Under the broad umbrella of society, Ibsen addresses the various issues that stem from its influence, including the power of gender, financial power, the power of heredity and the power of appearances, and aimed to challenge and shatter the conventional views of that time, through this controversial and shocking play.
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