Symbolism in A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen
A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen is perhaps one of the most hotly debated plays to come out of the 19th century. The 19th century continued the process of the demystification that began with the Enlightenment. Because of the discoveries of the Enlightenment, humans could no longer be sure about their place in the universe. This, of course, had an impact on the theater. The movement toward realism, which, like the 19th century in general, was an attempt to become more scientific. Ibsen is considered by many as the father of realism, and one of the plays that belong to Ibsen's realism period is A Doll's House. But the play would come to be noted for more reasons than its style. The play would be remembered for its social impact as well as its artistic achievement: "Even Strindberg ...admitted...that, thanks to A Doll's House, 'marriage was revealed as being a far from a divine institution, people stopped regarding it as an automatic provider of absolute bliss, and divorce between incompatible parties came at last to be accepted as conceivably justifiable'" (Meyer 454-455). Therefore we can see that Ibsen's realism contributed to the demystification of Western civilization.
Indeed, the final scene produced the door slam heard around the world and the play is still the object of debate today. But Ibsen was not interested in becoming a spokesman for feminism. He just wanted to create a great play that dealt with the liberation of human beings, and he did. We are led to believe that Ibsen was more interested in art than social change. Perhaps, as his notes state, he was looking for a modern tragic hero. And what we know from Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy is that the hero is always partly trapped by forces from without. And who could be more trapped by outside forces than a wife and mother in a Victorian household: "A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view" (Ibsen 90). In order for Ibsen to create a modern hero out of a Victorian housewife he had to rely on all the tools of the trade. One of these tools that he employed in this and in other plays was symbolism.
Mining symbolism in Ibsen can be a difficult task indeed. Ibsen is first and foremost a poet; to the point where even his prose sounds like poetry. Every line and every phrase comes across as packed full of meaning and symbolism. It has been observed about A Doll's House, "that literally not a phrase is without its direct contribution to the structure" (Bradbrook 85), and that "One of the marvels of Ibsen's craft is that he hardly wastes a word" (Clurman 112). Symbolism in Ibsen is not limited to the set devices, such as the Christmas tree. But because we are dealing with realism, even phrases that...