Metaphors and symbols analysis in A Doll’s House

Doll in a doll’s house
In Act 3, Nora tells Torvald that both her father and Torvald have treated her like a doll-child, with no opinions of her own, and have only played with her. Both men, she says, have committed “a great sin” against her in discouraging her from growing up. Torvald’s pet names for her are often prefaced by “little,” showing that he sees her as a child. However, the responsibility for Nora’s stunted state is not wholly his. In Act 1, she acts like a silly, spoilt child; later, when she is practicing and dancing the Tarantella (for which he dresses her as one would dress a doll), she acts the captivating, decorative plaything. Both doll-like acts are for the benefit of Torvald, who wants her to remain dependent upon him; she gains security and devotion from the arrangement.

Some critics see Torvald as another doll in the doll’s house. They point out that he is as restricted by his chosen role as Nora is by hers; and that he is sheltered by Nora and Dr Rank from disagreeable truths, as a child would be. As Torvald uses Nora for amusement and as a decorative and beautiful object, so Nora uses Torvald as a provider of money and security.

Little squirrel/skylark/songbird
These are all pet names of Torvald’s for Nora that emphasize that he does not see her as an equal. He believes her role is to amuse and delight him. But squirrels, songbirds and skylarks are all wild animals that do not belong in a cage, any more than Nora can tolerate living in the restricted atmosphere of Torvald’s house.

Big black hat
In Act 3, Dr Rank has a coded conversation with Nora (designed to protect Torvald from unpleasant truths) in which he says he will attend the next fancy dress ball wearing a big black hat that will make him invisible. This is a way of saying that he will be dead.

Symbols in A Doll’s House:

Nora’s fancy dress costume in A Doll’s House
Torvald chooses Nora’s fancy dress costume, a Neapolitan fisher-girl’s dress that he had made for her in Capri. In effect, she is wearing it for him: the sight of her dancing in it throws him into a state of erotic fascination. This reinforces the idea that it is Nora’s superficial and transient qualities, such as her beauty, that Torvald most appreciates. It is significant that when the Nurse first brings out the dress (Act 2), Nora notices that it is torn and is tempted to rip it to shreds. This may be symbolic of the flawed state of her marriage and of her feelings about it. Mrs Linde, who is less impetuous and more mature than Nora, suggests repairing it, and it is Mrs Linde who decides that Nora and Torvald must be made to face the truth about Nora’s secret. She believes it would be beneficial to the marriage, though in Nora’s view the marriage, like the dress, is beyond repair.

The Tarantella in A Doll’s House
The Tarantella was a wild southern Italian dance, generally danced by a couple or line of couples. The dance was named after the tarantula spider, whose poisonous bite was mistakenly believed to cause ‘tarantism,’ an uncontrollable urge for wild dancing. The ‘cure’ prescribed by doctors was for the sufferer to dance to exhaustion. Modern psychologists speculate that the true cause of the disorder, which achieved its highest profile in the nineteenth century and which involved symptoms of what would now be called hysteria, was not the spider’s bite but the repressed morals of that age. The only outlet for passionate self-expression, they reason, was the Tarantella.

In this light, it is significant that Torvald tells Nora to practice the Tarantella while he shuts himself away in his office: “I shall hear nothing; you can make as much noise as you please.” While Torvald is ostensibly being indulgent towards his wife, the image of her practicing this passionate dance alone and unheard emphasizes her isolation within her marriage. She persuades him to watch her practice the dance in order to prevent him opening Krogstad’s letter. He tries to rein in her wildness with his instructions, but she ignores his comments and dances ever more wildly, her hair coming loose. The mythology of tarantism suggests that she is dancing in order to rid herself of a deadly poison. Depending on how we wish to interpret this symbolism, the poison may be the threat posed by Krogstad’s revelations, or the poison of deception and hypocrisy that characterizes the Helmer marriage.

Light in A Doll’s House
Light is most often used to symbolize Nora’s state of awareness. After Torvald claims to be man enough to take everything upon himself (Act 2) and while she is talking to Dr Rank, the light begins to grow dark. This symbolism refers to two processes. First, Nora is using her sexual attractiveness to manipulate the dying Dr Rank into giving her money to pay off her loan. When Dr Rank confesses his love for her, she is shocked out of her game. She brings in a lamp, telling Dr Rank that he must feel ashamed of himself now that the lamp has come.

Light also appears to symbolize hope and spiritual redemption when Dr Rank is talking in code to Nora about his coming death (Act 3). He talks of death as a big black hat that will make him invisible, an image of obliteration of life. But Nora brings him a light for his cigar as she wishes him goodbye. Dr Rank loves her, and in spite of her sometimes dubious behavior towards him, she has given him understanding, compassion and acceptance. She also means at this point, it seems, to join him in death by committing suicide. Their bond is represented on stage by the image of them standing together in the pool of light from her match – a frame that excludes Torvald.

Christmas tree in A Doll’s House
In Norway, Christmas is an important family celebration, but the focus of the festivities and the opening of presents occurs on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is something of an anti-climax. This is paralleled by events in the play. At the beginning of the play on Christmas Eve, Nora still believes her marriage to be happy. We see her ordering the Christmas tree to be brought in and insisting that it is hidden until she has decorated it. Symbolically, this alerts us to the fact that there are hidden aspects to life in this household, that a carefully created appearance is what matters, and that Nora is the keeper of appearances. Significantly, when she is trying to wheedle Torvald into keeping Krogstad in his job, she draws his attention to how pretty the flowers on the tree look.

By Christmas Day, the tree is stripped of its ornaments and its candles have burnt out (a link with the symbol of light). By this point, Torvald has refused to keep Krogstad in his job and Nora feels sure that Krogstad will reveal all to him. The carefully maintained appearance of the happy marriage is disintegrating under the encroachment of truth.

New Year’s Day in A Doll’s House
New Year’s Day is traditionally viewed as a new beginning, and the Helmers at the beginning of the play are looking forward to just such a new beginning. Torvald is due to start a new and better paid job at the bank, and Nora anticipates being “free” from her debt. By the end of the play, Nora has indeed made a new beginning, though it is of a quite different nature, consisting in leaving Torvald and her children.

Other characters too enter new phases in their life. Mrs Linde and Krogstad begin their life together after long periods of suffering, and Dr Rank dies, which can be seen as an end or a transition, depending on one’s viewpoint.