How the symbols in 'A Doll's House' pass on message

Torvald (Maqbul Mohammed) and Nora Helmer (Lydia Gitachu) in Henrik Ibsen's classic drama, 'A Doll's House', in 2006. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Dramatic irony occurs when the audience and some characters in the play know something that another character does not know.
  • His comment about her dancing wildly is also ironical because Nora’s life is about to come to an end because she plans to commit suicide after that party.
  • It is also ironical that the seemingly happy naive and carefree Nora turns out to be a very intelligent, decisive and independent woman.

Style is the channel through which a writer expresses his ideas and explores important issues in a society. A writer chooses his words and stylistic devices carefully and uses them creatively to make his work unique and impressive to the readers.

Henrik Ibsen in his play, A Doll’s House, has used a number of stylistic devices to bring out themes and character traits. These include irony, suspense, foreshadowing and symbolism, among others. Today we will focus on irony and symbolism.


Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience and some characters in the play know something that another character does not know. Other types of irony include situational, tragic, comic and verbal. Ibsen has employed a lot of situational and dramatic irony to highlight themes like deception and gender roles, among others.

In Act One, Helmer tells Nora that they should not borrow money or incur debts because there can be no freedom or beauty about a home that depends on borrowing. This is dramatic irony because Nora knows that their home is already in debt owing to the loan she is secretly paying although her husband has no idea.

Helmer says that he cannot retain Krogstad at the bank because he is morally sick and he once committed a forgery, which Helmer cannot forgive, and he feels physically ill in the company of such people. Making such a comment is ironic because Helmer is living with such a person right inside his house. Nora had committed exactly the same crime behind his back when she forged her father’s signature so that she could get a loan to save him.

Just before the secret is out Helmer tells Nora, “… I often wish that you would be threatened by some great danger, so that I might risk my life’s blood, and everything for your sake."

The irony of this statement is that Helmer is not aware that Nora is actually threatened by the impending divulgence of her secret, which will change her life forever. What is more ironic is that when the time comes for him to sacrifice and protect her, he does the exact opposite, scolding and abusing her for ruining his happiness and reputation. Through this irony, the playwright highlights the pretentious nature of Helmer and the theme of hypocrisy.

Nora insists that she has forgotten the Tarantella dance and Helmer must totally devote himself to her and help her practice. During the practice, she dances violently and wildly, making Helmer believe that she has truly forgotten the dance and he comments that she was dancing as if her life depended on it. The irony about the whole thing is that Nora has not forgotten the dance but this is only her scheme to distract him and delay the opening of the letter box, because she knows the letter from Krogstad, which contains the details about her secret is lying there.

His comment about her dancing wildly is also ironical because Nora’s life is about to come to an end because she plans to commit suicide after that party to avoid making Helmer suffer the shame when everything is in the open.

The violent dancing is also a kind of therapy for her, considering the agony and pain she is psychologically going through. The name of the dance was derived from an Italian word meaning tarantula, a poisonous spider. Once bitten by the tarantula, the victim would engage in a frenzied dance to sweat the poison out. When Nora dances violently, it is like she is also trying to do away with the pain and anguish she is experiencing at this particular moment.

It is also ironical that the seemingly happy naive and carefree Nora turns out to be a very intelligent, decisive and independent woman. At the beginning of the play, Nora is portrayed as a helpless, poor creature who cannot make any decision of her own but she has to rely on her husband for whatever she wants.

As the play progresses, however, her true character is slowly exposed, the real Nora is seen towards the end of the play when she engages her husband in very intelligent conversion after which she makes an astounding decision of leaving both her husband and children to go and understand herself.

These are among the many other instances of irony which the Ibsen uses to reveal the deceit and the lies the characters have lived and the impact of these lies on their lives.



A symbol is a thing that represents or stands for something else. Ibsen has used symbolism to express his ideas in a more concrete way.


The Christmas Tree

The play opens on Christmas eve and Nora, who is in high spirits, brings a Christmas tree to the house and instructs the maid to hide it from the children until evening when it is dressed. The Christmas tree serves to decorate the house during Christmas and it has to be dressed to look more beautiful and appealing.

It symbolises Nora, who serves the same purpose in Helmer’s house. He uses her to impress himself and he even dresses her up in costumes and makes her dance for him. Just the same way the tree is hidden until it is dressed, Helmer cannot see her in the new costume until the following day during the party.

At the beginning of Act Two, the tree is stripped of its ornaments, the candles are burnt down and the branches are dishevelled. This sight compares to Nora who is at this moment in bad shape because of the psychological torture she is going through after failing to convince Helmer to retain Krogstad at the bank.


The New Year Day

The New Year symbolises a new beginning. The Helmers look forward to the new year with a lot excitement with Helmer newly appointed the bank manager, which means more financial stability and a better life for the family. This, however, is never to be, because they will have a totally different beginning when the marriage disintegrates. Krogstad and Linde also have a new beginning having reconciled and decided to start life together as a couple while all the other characters will begin a new phase in their lives; the maid will take the place of a mother in the children’s lives and the children have to do without their mother.


Doll’s House

The title of the book is symbolic. It represents Helmer’s house where Nora is his doll; to be dressed and played with for his amusement. In the one and only serious conversation Nora has with her husband, she tells him that their house has been a playroom with Nora as his doll-wife and the children as her dolls and she thought it great fun when he played with her the same way she thought it fun to play with the children. She looks back and realises the great sin both her father and her husband have committed against her. Because of them she has made nothing out of her life.


Tarantula dance

The dance was originally done as a therapy to cure a poisonous spider bite. Nora practices the tarantula at a time when her life is in a turmoil and she can do anything to avert the impending catastrophe. The wild and violent dancing symbolises her attempt to rid herself of the misery and torture in her mind just the way the dance would cure the spider bite. She dances violently, barely listening to the instruction from her husband.

This could symbolise Nora’s metamorphosis from the calm and obedient wife to a free and aggressive person who can do things her way without caring about pleasing anyone. After this dance, she will change the fancy dress and wear her ordinary dress, symbolising Nora’s transformation from the dependent and voiceless person to an independent decisive one. It is in this dress that she challenges Helmer as a mature person, not a doll, before leaving him forever.

Ibsen has carefully selected symbols and used them effectively to bring his message home. Through this, he creates mental pictures in the reader’s mind which enable them to see the kind of relationship that exists between Nora and Helmer and also their character traits. The way Helmer treats Nora like a doll portrays him as patronising while Nora’s deceitful nature is seen when she plays along.


The writer teaches at Alliance Girls. [email protected]