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Setting is used as an immediate representation of the social conventions imposed on the central female characters. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen presents the appearance of cosy bourgeois family life through the ‘comfortably and tastefully, but not expensively furnished’ setting. This is further exemplified through the Christmas tree; a festive season and the synonymous family security and happiness is indicated in order to establish a cosy, middle-class home conforming to religious and social expectations. Nora is seen at times during the course of the play concentrating on its decoration, conveying her involvement in ensuring her family’s well-being and in turn, emphasising the strict gender role in which she is restricted to.
Despite this, the audience cannot help but feel the setting has been created to suit Torvald’s tastes, thus depicting Nora’s confinement within her home.
For example, Nora rings the bell of the house before her initial entrance, suggesting that she does not possess her own key.
This is further emphasised when she ‘listens at her husbands door’, implying that she does not have full access to the house. Ibsen immediately establishes a typical bourgeois home and the conventions of a patriarchal society through a blend of naturalism and realism to depict the suppression of the central female character and also to create a world instantly identifiable to his middle-class audience in order for them to relate to Nora’s situation.
In addition to this, the image of doors in A Doll’s House contributes significantly in conveying Nora’s internment within her home. For example, the opening stage direction describes a main living room – providing the focus of the dramatic action – with four doors; one leads to Torvald’s study, and represents patriarchal authority, one leading to the nursery, representing her responsibilities as a mother, and one leading to the outside world, offering Nora the prospect of liberation.
Doors are used throughout the play to reinforce her confinement within her home. For example, Nora never enters Torvald’s study, conveying her conformation to patriarchy. As other characters come and go freely through the hall, Nora becomes increasingly restricted to the main living area throughout the course of the play. She is seen using the door to the outside world only twice; on the rise of the curtain and in the denouement to claim her independence. It is the sheer irony in this image which is particularly effective in reinforcing her entrapment within her home; doors typically connotate freedom and infinite space. Nora finally achieves her independence from Torvald at the final slam of the door; she essentially slams the door on conventional ideals and rejects society’s restricted role of the archetypal wife and mother, or metaphorically is emancipated from her ‘doll’ role in order to gain a sense of self-liberation.
Nora is immediately presented as the archetypal wife and mother through her submissive behaviour towards her husband, Torvald, who is ‘proud of being a man’. This is illustrated through her impartial reaction to Torvald’s generous use of diminutive nicknames for her such as ‘little squirrel’ and ‘little songbird’. The use of small mammals or birds – easily trapped or caged – is effective here in conveying Torvald’s – and indeed society’s – idealised view of the submissive wife and in turn, the constraints this imposes on Nora, who accepts these terms in order to act out the prescribed role society expects her to play, that of a ‘doll’. Nora’s submission to the archetypal role is further emphasised through the short episode when she plays with her children, acting out the role of devoted mother.
Torvald’s – who represents the epitome of middle-class society – idealised view of marital roles is further emphasised in this scene when he comments that dealing with children is ‘for mothers only’, synchronising with society’s expectations. It could be argued that Nora acts out the role of the submissive wife due to her upbringing; her conscious views were shaped by men, resulting in the true ‘self’ being repressed into the subconscious, and a strong sense of conventions was imposed on her from her father: ‘When I lived with papa, he used to tell me what he thought about everything, so that I never had any opinions but his.’ It could be said that Nora is a product of patriarchy, and as such fills the submissive role of wife and mother because that is all she knows, thus depicting her confinement within herself.
Despite this, Nora is at odds with the ideals of her society; she cannot comprehend why she would be prosecuted for forging her father’s signature ‘for love’: ‘Has a woman really not the right to spare her dying father pain, or save her husband’s life? I can’t believe that.’ This conflict between the individual and society eventually results in her disillusionment with marriage as an institution and society’s conventions, forcing her further into despair and confinement within herself. This is illustrated particularly effectively through her melodramatic posturing and fragmented monologues which surface as the play progresses: ‘Corrupt my little children – ! Poison my home! (Short pause. She throws back her head.) It isn’t true! It couldn’t be true!’ The disjointed rhythm of this monologue conveys her inner turmoil, relating to the conflict between her ideals and society’s.
Her increasing despair is emphasised through her increasing restlessness; she paces the floor impatiently, often gravitating to the stove which provides the warmth and security she so urgently craves. During the course of the play, she is forced to confront the reality of her situation through character mirrors and foils; Nora views Mrs Linde’s situation as desirable independence, one of which she will venture out into at the end of the play, and Krogstad as a ‘moral cripple’ who represents the life as a social pariah that she could lead. Through these mirrors, Nora is gradually forced to confront the reality of her confinement and to gain a life of independence that she so desperately craves in the final Act.
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