A Doll's House has had dozens of problems propounded for it. We have heard them -- after the theatre: "Did Nora do right to leave her husband?" "Was their marriage an ideal one?" "Is a marriage that is not ideal a real marriage?" "Ought Nora to have deceived her husband?" "Was she justified in forging the note?" "Is one ever justified in breaking a law?" "Was Nora's conduct ideal?" "Does Ibsen believe in marriage without mutual trust?" "Ought married women to eat candy?"
The real problem of the play is perhaps a little more concrete than any of these and more universal than all of them. The conception of a problem play as one in which some problem of modern life is discussed by the characters and worked out in the plot is foreign to Ibsen, as to all great artists. His plays deal with situations and characters from modern life and are, in so far, allied to the problem play. But they do not present problems, in the ordinary sense of the word, nor do they solve them.
Joseph Conrad, in Youth mentions two kinds of tales, -- one, the meaning of which envelops it like a haze; the other, in which the meaning lies in the tale itself, like the kernel of a nut. To these might be added a third class, in which the meaning is partly within the tale and partly without -- a soft, alluring haze, mysterious, far-reaching, and suggestive, lit up, now and then, by gleams of light flashed upon it from within. Ibsen's meanings belong to this third class. The symbol is clearly given, and the plot; but around them and enveloping them is a meaning of which one gets glimpses, now and again, tantalizing and elusive. One feels that there is a hidden meaning. He tries to find it by reading deeper into the text. But it eludes him. It is not there. The real problem will not be guessed till he looks outside the play itself, and then only as it is revealed in flashes, by gleams thrown upon it, from within, by character and plot and symbol. If one would understand a play, he must first understand the character about which the play circles, and he will not understand the character till he grasps the symbol that lies at the heart of it.
The problem of A Doll's House, for instance, is not concerned with the marriage relations of Nora and Helmer, but with the character of Nora. The question whether she had a right to forge the note that saved her husband's life is of far less importance than the fact that she is what she is, and that as she is, she will face life and find herself. In so far as this is a problem, it might be the problem of any playwright, from Shakespeare to Bernard Shaw.
When the play opens, seven years after the forging of the note, and she comes upon the stage, a gay, dancing, twittering, flitting spirit, she is laden with Christmas gifts for the children -- a horse and sword, trumpets and dolls and cradles -- tiny things, inexpensive and useless and full of love. She carries, too, the little bag of macaroons on which she nibbles, assuring Helmer, when he sternly questions her, that she has not touched one. His "little lark" he calls her, his "squirrel" and "spendthrift." She is charming and dishonest, always flitting, never resting, a light-headed, light-hearted, inconsequent thing. A deeper note sounds in the music and the reader is startled by the revelation that this flippant creature has been carrying for years a secret and a burden that would have wrecked a heavier nature. The character is improbable, impossible; yet something in the telling of it holds one to a sense of reality. She has her little presents for the children, the Christmas tree, the macaroons, the surprise for Torvald, and last, and most important, her costume for the fancy-dress ball. She is to dance the tarantelle, the Neapolitan dance that her husband has taught her. She is eager to dance it well for his sake and for her own.
The tarantelle is the play.
Coming in the natural course of the play, it seems a simple stage device, a mere feature of the fancy-dress ball, which, in its turn, is an episode of the play. But the tarantelle is not an ordinary dance. It is named for the tarantula, and its swift movement and dizzying rounds are measured to the victims of that poisonous sting. Round and round, in frenzied, hurrying course, swifter and swifter -- laughter and chatter and flight -- till they drop dead. Only a miracle may save them.
The tarantelle is the symbol of Nora. Its wild, unresting movement is the tragedy of her nature -- light and frivolous on the surface, but concealing underneath a dread secret -- a wound that carries death in its train. It is the gruesome climax of Nora's doll life, and it is placed where the chief symbol of Ibsen's play is always placed, at the climax of the play. It is the culmination of the plot. The action approaches it and ebbs from it. It is a torch set at the apex, flaring both ways.
Looking backward, by its light, Nora is no longer an inconsequent, impossible character. She is consistent throughout. Her inconsequence is the essence of her nature. She must always dance and flit and sing while her heart is heavy. The poison is in her veins, a part of her life. How it came there is unimportant. That she herself held the horrible, crawling thing to her bosom, pressing it close, and closer as it stung, lest it should escape her and harm those she loved, is unimportant. Those things are beside the action. Only a miracle can save her now -- the miracle of Torvald's love. And if the miracle should be that he should take upon himself her misery, that Krogstad should sting him as he has stung her! She does not for a minute guess that the poison in her veins is not of Krogstad's doing, that he, and he alone, is not responsible for her misery. To her he is the vile crawling thing that has thrust his fangs into her -- as he may into Torvald! No, it shall not be. Torvald shall not take it upon himself -- this dull, helpless ache, this melancholy fight -- and always the wild desire to dance and sing and laugh, till one drops dead. The miracle shall never me!... Then she discovers Torvald's real nature -- its selfishness, its meanness -- and she herself performs the miracle that sets her free. The wild dance is over. The poison has left her veins. She sees with clear eyes. "Yes, I have changed my dress." Her life is no longer a masquerade. She will no longer dance while her heart is breaking. She leaves her doll's house. Only "the miracle of miracles" can bring her back.
I have chosen A Doll's House for a first illustration of Ibsen's symbolism because it is well known and because the tarantelle is at once more obvious and more subtle than many of the other symbols used. The symbol is, however, less finished than in other plays and will not bear too close application in detail, though it fits the play in its essential points. Dr. Rank, Nora's double in concealed disease, and Krogstad, her double in crime, both appear upon the scene for the last time during the tarantelle dance -- that is, at the climax of the play. All the movement is directed toward this symbol. Everything hinges on it. It is the superficial motive of the play. Toward which external events move, and it stands for the character in whose nature the real movement of the play takes place. The meaning of the play ... can not be understood unless this symbol and its bearing on the character of Nora are clearly seen.
A Doll's House is the second play in which Ibsen made use of the kind of symbolism outlined here. He wrote, after this, ten plays; and with each of them his mastery of symbol increased, growing more detailed, more minute, and intricate. In A Doll's House we have the main features of his method plainly indicated. In later plays he grows more skilful in his use of the device, but in each case the symbol of the play is some material object or event, a part of the mechanism of the piece. This object is introduced early in the action; it is wrought more or less closely into the structure of the play; and its last appearance is the climax. From this point to the close of the play it becomes a chain of results.