How Does Ibsen Present the Characters of Nora and Helmer in Act One of “A Doll’s House”

Similarly, stage props are used to show the agony of a character’s dilemma. When Nora enters at the beginning of the play, she is bringing home a Christmas tree, a symbol of a festival focused on the renewal of life and family happiness. The tree is seen only briefly but for long enough to establish both the time of year and Nora’s involvement in ensuring her family’s wellbeing. In an attempt to rid herself of the fear after receiving the threat from Krogstad, she calls for the maid to place the tree in the middle of the room, the focal position in theatrical terms. Here it stands to represent family security and happiness as Nora tries in vain to concentrate upon its decoration and blot out her anxieties. By Act Two, however, it is clear that Nora’s attempts to distract herself from the repercussions of her past have failed.

The Christmas tree now stands ‘in the corner by the piano … stripped and dishevelled, its candles burned to their sockets’. In this way, Ibsen places symbolism even onto superficially minor props, such as the macaroons and the Christmas tree to illustrate the fragility of Nora’s emotions in Act One and throughout the play. When Nora secretly eats a few macaroons at the beginning of Act One before concealing the bag from her husband, Ibsen establishes that Nora has a childish capacity to deceive and delight in secret rebelliousness and that her husband has a parent’s authority over her. The macaroons can further be seen as symbolising all the good things which seem to be safe from Krogstad’s threats.

For each character in ‘A Doll’s House’, Ibsen has created a habit of speech appropriate to their class and personality. Each character speaks naturally but each with a distinctively different voice. Initially, their relationship seems to rest upon Helmer’s paternalism and Nora’s childlike qualities but as the act progresses and Nora reveals her secret to Mrs Linde, it becomes clear that Nora is the one in charge but would not want to sabotage their relationship by damaging Helmer’s frail sense of manhood. As Nora says, ‘he’s so proud of being a man’. Helmer’s actions are largely led by his patriarchal views and delusional sense of self-importance, reinforced by his distinctive speech. His use of endearments such as ‘skylark’ and ‘squirrel’ define his attitude towards his wife, objectified and infantilised as ‘an expensive pet … for a man to keep’. In addition, his ‘playful friendliness’ is often insulting as he dismisses his wife as shallow and driven purely by money, ‘Has my little squanderbird been overspending again?’ and his frequently lecturing tone helps to establish his own view of himself in the minds of the audience.

The seven monologues given to Nora may seem an exception to the overall effect of mundanity but in fact, they are simply broken repetitive utterances to inform us of Nora’s increasingly intense inner torment. In the case of Nora’s speech and use of language, throughout her monologues and speech to other characters, she uses refined exclamatory expressions such as ‘Pooh’ or diminutive expressions such as ‘Just a tiny bit’. These phrases add to the initial characterisation of Nora as infantile and naive. It quickly comes to the audience’s attention, however, that many of these expressions are all part of the act that she puts on for Helmer. There is also a large contrast between these superficial and immaterial expressions at the start of the play to the certain and absolute declarative sentences when she decides to leave Helmer. In the phrase ‘I have another duty which is equally sacred’, Nora’s advent of self-awareness is readily apparent. The audience no longer sees Nora as the sheltered, care-free wife of an attorney. She knows what it means to struggle and take risks. With Nora and Helmer’s relationship when Helmer unleashes his disgust towards Nora and her crime of forgery, Nora realises that her husband is a very different person than she once believed. When Helmer fails to give up everything for her, Nora accepts the fact that their marriage has been an illusion…

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