Figurative Language in "The Doll's House"

The doll's house is a metaphor for a marital trap.
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Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House," the story of a disintegrating marriage in an unidentified 19th-century Scandinavian town, is often characterized as a feminist play; however its author, in his speech to the Norwegian Society for Women's Rights, said, "My task has been the description of humanity." In his portrayal of Nora and Torvald Helmer, Ibsen addresses both a woman's need for human sympathy and for liberation with his use of figurative language, specifically metaphors.

1 Husbandly Endearments

Torvald, Nora's husband, couches virtually all references to her in figurative terms that reveal his true feelings. He calls her "featherhead," "squirrel" and "skylark" and invariably adds "sweet" and "little" as adjectives to diminish Nora's sensibilities. He insists she perform "our Tarantella"; this light, quick and teasingly stylized Italian folk dance is meant to be seductive but becomes instead a metaphor for her desperate attempts to please. By Act Three, Torvald's metaphors have become icily unsympathetic: Nora is a "hunted dove ... saved from hawk's claws," helplessness personified. When she leaves him, he calls her a "heedless child."

2 Wifely Response

Nora, for the play's first two acts, matches her husband's figurative jibes by expanding them as if endorsing her own degradation: "Your little squirrel would ... do all her tricks if you would be nice," she begs, adding, "Your skylark would chirp about every room." Dancing the Tarantella--a supposed flirtation to please him--she reinforces the marital metaphor when he insists on slow moves and she replies, "I can't do it any other way." This represents her first defiance: a small but crucial act of self-will. He insists, "That is not a bit right"; figuratively, their marital dancing is incompatible.

3 Metaphors of Morality

When the plot, which involves Nora's forgery of a signature to gain money for Torvald, comes to a climax, Ibsen injects a metaphor for morality and illness into his drama, indicating that his figurative canvas has broadened to include the corrupted society that is partly responsible for destroying the couple. Nora's blackmailer, Krogstad, is labeled "morally diseased"; the incriminating forged bond he holds, destined for the fire, becomes a metaphor for Nora's desire to preserve her marriage even as both her husband and outside forces combine to ensure the relationship's destruction.

4 Metaphors for Departure

By Act Three, Torvald has degraded Nora beyond reason for her forgery; it is clear she must leave him. Ibsen's metaphors become emblematic both of Nora's need for liberation and the lack of human sympathy in her marriage. Leaving her "doll's house," she takes off her "fancy dress"--her front of normalcy--and announces that like a trained animal, she has only existed "to perform tricks." She leaves Torvald because she "cannot spend the night in a strange man's room"; her husband's unsympathetic fury has made him alien to her.

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.