A Doll’s House
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Sacrificial Role of Women
In A Doll’s House, Ibsen paints a bleak picture of the sacrificial role held by women of all economic classes in his society. In general, the play’s female characters exemplify Nora’s assertion (spoken to Torvald in Act Three) that even though men refuse to sacrifice their integrity, “hundreds of thousands of women have.” In order to support her mother and two brothers, Mrs. Linde found it necessary to abandon Krogstad, her true—but penniless—love, and marry a richer man. The nanny had to abandon her own child to support herself by working as Nora’s (and then as Nora’s children’s) caretaker. As she tells Nora, the nanny considers herself lucky to have found the job, since she was “a poor girl who’d been led astray.”
Though Nora is economically advantaged in comparison to the play’s other female characters, she nevertheless leads a difficult life because society dictates that Torvald be the marriage’s dominant partner. Torvald issues decrees and condescends to Nora, and Nora must hide her loan from him because she knows Torvald could never accept the idea that his wife (or any other woman) had helped save his life. Furthermore, she must work in secret to pay off her loan because it is illegal for a woman to obtain a loan without her husband’s permission. By motivating Nora’s deception, the attitudes of Torvald—and society—leave Nora vulnerable to Krogstad’s blackmail.
Nora’s abandonment of her children can also be interpreted as an act of self- sacrifice. Despite Nora’s great love for her children—manifested by her interaction with them and her great fear of corrupting them—she chooses to leave them. Nora truly believes that the nanny will be a better mother and that leaving her children is in their best interest.
Parental and Filial Obligations
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 implies that his father’s immorality—his many affairs with women—led him to contract a venereal disease that he passed on to his son, causing Dr. Rank to suffer for his father’s misdeeds. Torvald voices the idea that one’s parents determine one’s moral character when he tells Nora, “Nearly all young criminals had lying -mothers.” He also refuses to allow Nora to interact with their children after he learns of her deceit, for fear that she will corrupt them.
Yet, the play suggests that children too are obligated to protect their parents. Nora recognized this obligation, but she ignored it, choosing to be with—and sacrifice herself for—her sick husband instead of her sick father. Mrs. Linde, on the other hand, abandoned her hopes of being with Krogstad and undertook years of labor in order to tend to her sick mother. Ibsen does not pass judgment on either woman’s decision, but he does use the idea of a child’s debt to her parent to demonstrate the complexity and reciprocal nature of familial obligations.
The Unreliability of Appearances
Over the course of A Doll’s House, appearances prove to be misleading veneers that mask the reality of the play’s characters and -situations. Our first impressions of Nora, Torvald, and Krogstad are all eventually undercut. Nora initially seems a silly, childish woman, but as the play progresses, we see that she is intelligent, motivated, and, by the play’s conclusion, a strong-willed, independent thinker. Torvald, though he plays the part of the strong, benevolent husband, reveals himself to be cowardly, petty, and selfish when he fears that Krogstad may expose him to scandal. Krogstad too reveals himself to be a much more sympathetic and merciful character than he first appears to be. The play’s climax is largely a matter of resolving identity confusion—we see Krogstad as an earnest lover, Nora as an intelligent, brave woman, and Torvald as a simpering, sad man.
Situations too are misinterpreted both by us and by the characters. The seeming hatred between Mrs. Linde and Krogstad turns out to be love. Nora’s creditor turns out to be Krogstad and not, as we and Mrs. Linde suppose, Dr. Rank. Dr. Rank, to Nora’s and our surprise, confesses that he is in love with her. The seemingly villainous Krogstad repents and returns Nora’s contract to her, while the seemingly kindhearted Mrs. Linde ceases to help Nora and forces Torvald’s discovery of Nora’s secret.
The instability of appearances within the Helmer household at the play’s end results from Torvald’s devotion to an image at the expense of the creation of true happiness. Because Torvald craves respect from his employees, friends, and wife, status and image are important to him. Any disrespect—when Nora calls him petty and when Krogstad calls him by his first name, for example—angers Torvald greatly. By the end of 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.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Nora’s Definition of Freedom
Nora’s understanding of the meaning of freedom evolves over the course of the play. In the first act, she believes that she will be totally “free” as soon as she has repaid her debt, because she will have the opportunity to devote herself fully to her domestic responsibilities. After Krogstad blackmails her, however, she reconsiders her conception of freedom and questions whether she is happy in Torvald’s house, subjected to his orders and edicts. By the end of the play, Nora seeks a new kind of freedom. She wishes to be relieved of her familial obligations in order to pursue her own ambitions, beliefs, and identity.
Many of the plot’s twists and turns depend upon the writing and reading of letters, which function within the play as the subtext that reveals the true, unpleasant nature of situations obscured by Torvald and Nora’s efforts at beautification. Krogstad writes two letters: the first reveals Nora’s crime of forgery to Torvald; the second retracts his blackmail threat and returns Nora’s promissory note. The first letter, which Krogstad places in Torvald’s letterbox near the end of Act Two, represents the truth about Nora’s past and initiates the inevitable dissolution of her marriage—as Nora says immediately after Krogstad leaves it, “We are lost.” Nora’s attempts to stall Torvald from reading the letter represent her continued denial of the true nature of her marriage. The second letter releases Nora from her obligation to Krogstad and represents her release from her obligation to Torvald. Upon reading it, Torvald attempts to return to his and Nora’s previous denial of reality, but Nora recognizes that the letters have done more than expose her actions to Torvald; they have exposed the truth about Torvald’s selfishness, and she can no longer participate in the illusion of a happy marriage.
Dr. Rank’s method of communicating his imminent death is to leave his calling card marked with a black cross in Torvald’s letterbox. In an earlier conversation with Nora, Dr. Rank reveals his understanding of Torvald’s unwillingness to accept reality when he proclaims, “Torvald is so fastidious, he cannot face up to -anything ugly.” By leaving his calling card as a death notice, Dr. Rank politely attempts to keep Torvald from the “ugly” truth. Other letters include Mrs. Linde’s note to Krogstad, which initiates her -life-changing meeting with him, and Torvald’s letter of dismissal to Krogstad.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree, a festive object meant to serve a decorative purpose, symbolizes Nora’s position in her household as a plaything who is pleasing to look at and adds charm to the home. There are several parallels drawn between Nora and the Christmas tree in the play. Just as Nora instructs the maid that the children cannot see the tree until it has been decorated, she tells Torvald that no one can see her in her dress until the evening of the dance. Also, at the beginning of the second act, after Nora’s psychological condition has begun to erode, the stage directions indicate that the Christmas tree is correspondingly “dishevelled.”
New Year’s Day
The action of the play is set at Christmastime, and Nora and Torvald both look forward to New Year’s as the start of a new, happier phase in their lives. In the new year, Torvald will start his new job, and he anticipates with excitement the extra money and admiration the job will bring him. Nora also looks forward to Torvald’s new job, because she will finally be able to repay her secret debt to Krogstad. By the end of the play, however, the nature of the new start that New Year’s represents for Torvald and Nora has changed dramatically. They both must become new people and face radically changed ways of living. Hence, the new year comes to mark the beginning of a truly new and different period in both their lives and their personalities.
by diane94, July 15, 2012
i think the toys Nora bought for her children also symbolise something.
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by indivij, November 04, 2012
it says in the character analysis that krogstad was shunned by society and wasn't let by people to move on from his past. i think that because of this, krogstad tries to blackmail nora for her forgery as a means of compensating for the unfair treatment he received.
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