A Doll’s House By Henrik Ibsen: The Use Of Language To Portray Power Struggle
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a form of social and political protest writing. In A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen examines those who are powerful and those who are powerless. Through verbal and written language the audience is able to see the theme of oppression experienced by play’s protagonist Nora who serves to represent the females in the society of her time. Although language is able to portray the oppression a character is going through, language can also be a tool of rebellion and freedom. Such an occurrence can be seen when comparing Nora at the start of the play to Nora at the end of the play.
In A Doll’s House Nora’s husband Torvald asserts his power upon Nora through his language. This is seen all throughout the play from the very start up until the end. At the beginning of the play, Torvald associates Nora with little creatures and calls her “my little squirrel” or “my little squander-bird”. Not only is she objectified, but she is also dehumanised. This represents how patriarchal his mindset is and how powerless she is as a woman, just like an animal she is needed to be owned by someone and can’t be set free. In Act 3 of the play, Torvald also says “my most treasured possession” suggesting how Nora is also seen as a trophy or an object of possession for Torvald to show off. This is shown as Torvald uses the possessive pronoun “my”. He then proceeds to say “mine, mine alone, all mine”. The repetition of the word “mine” further emphasises the possessive feeling Torvald has over Nora. Torvald through his language shows the audience how he has internalised oppressive gender roles and conforms to it. There was a significant lack of in the 19th century which led Ibsen to publish this playwright, giving the powerless women a voice.
A feminist would argue that through these aspects of language in the play, Ibsen criticises the way society has been constructed and shows his strong oppositions against the prejudiced and discriminating patriarchal society during these times in the late 1800s. Nora is further oppressed by several other characters in the play; Krogstad and Ms Linde. Both Krogstad, Ms Linde and Torvald frequently trap Nora in conversations. Nora is often unable to finish her sentences and is always interrupted demonstrating the lack of power and authority she has. Whoever has the language and the words tend to whole the power and there is constantly a power struggle between Nora and the other characters in the play. This is similar to the character Linda in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman who is constantly interrupted by her husband Willy. Willy rarely allows Linda to finish her sentence. The lack of words that these female characters have reflected the lack of authority that they possess. In these conversations, Nora’s replies are very short. Often she would use one-word answers such as “yes” or “no” or “well?”. Her short replies show uncertainty and the pressure being put onto her. It is difficult for Nora to give her own opinion as she is not allowed to have one. However, at times, it can be said that it is Nora who is oppressing Ms Linde. Nora shows a lack of remorse and attention around Ms Linde. She says “I’m not going to be selfish today” but quickly juxtaposes this by stating how she has something she has to tell Ms Linde about her life.
A Marxist would argue that this is due to the hierarchy in society. As Nora is a bourgeoise and Ms Linde is a proletariat Nora believes that she yields more power and authority over Ms Linde. It is only when she is with Ms Linde that although Ms Linde is patronising Nora she still believes that she posses the power. This is due to Nora’s status. Similar to Ms Linde, Nora has power over Dr Rank, however, this is not due to her language but rather her physical appearance as a woman. When it comes to Nora, her oppression is only not present because of her physical beauty due to being a woman and her social status in society. Nora has power over Dr Rank as she is able to flirt and manipulate him her beauty. Nevertheless, Nora’s language during part 1 and 2 of the play still show her oppression. Some might argue that Nora is seen as oppressing herself through her language as she has internalised her gender role and her place in society. This is shown through the style in which she interacts with the characters in the play and how she manages to adopt childish dictions and mannerisms while she’s communicating. Nora says to Torvald ‘I can’t get anywhere without your help’, which conveys how she has internalised the role of a submissive wife. It also reinforces the notion of society’s belief that women are to be dependent on their husbands. The word “can’t” shows helplessness and desperation and the lack of autonomy that Nora possesses. As she has been oppressed by her husband and society she has made herself believe that in order to be able to survive in the world she requires her husband.
At times Nora is also seen speaking in the third person when conversing with Torvald and shows how Nora has begun to degrade as an individual. Due to the expectations of society at the time both men and women are expected to live up the expectations of their gender roles. Micheal Meyer in 1991 stated that “A Doll’s House’s theme is the need of every individual to find out what kind of person he or she really is and strive to become that person”. Ibsen highlights how individuals oppressed by society must break free and discover who they really are. To truly free one’s self from oppression is to be able to discover who one really is. Apart from that, Ibsen also uses written language as a tool of oppression. The play hosts two main documents; a written document with Nora’s forged signature and Krogstad’s letter. Both of these documents symbolises the oppression and entrapment that Nora is going through. The forged signature acts as a catalyst to Nora’s downfall. As she is a woman she is not able to borrow money and her forging the signature of her father is an illegal act that could incriminate her. In the male centred nature of civilisation, rules are created by men for the benefit of men. The contemporary judicial system was particularly male. Nora states that “the law must be very stupid” after Krogstad explains to her that the law does not care about one’s motives. The word “stupid” shows Nora’s criticism demonstrating she is ahead of her time. It is revolutionary that Nora is able to suggest ways in which the law should function. The view on law taking into account motives is not only a radical view but also a very feminist view. Taking motives into account requires feelings of remorse and emotion which are often associated with women. Unfortunately, not many women were involved in making and interpreting the law.
Similar to the forged signature, there is also Krogstad’s letter. Both documents are written up by men and serve to destroy Nora’s life. Inconveniently for Nora, she is unable to gain access to any of these documents. This highlights Nora’s marginalisation and how irrelevant she is to the men in the society of her time. Despite these issues concerning the women involved, they are still unable to have a say. However, although the letter destroys Nora’s life, it is also because of the letter that Nora is able to gain freedom. Krogstad’s letter at first glance seems to trap Nora but in actual fact is what sets her free. Whilst the view of language seen as a tool of oppression holds a degree of merit, language also serves to show rebellion and liberation. In the final act of the play, it is very evident that Nora has fully gained autonomous control over her life. Throughout the play, there are signs of Nora realising her oppression such as when she states “I’ve the most extraordinary longing to say; Bloody hell!”. Nora realises her lack of control over language and how it shows her oppression. Her protests towards the confining roles women are given are shown when she exclaims in frustration, in regards to the fancy dress, that she wishes she ‘could tear them into a million pieces!’. The hyperbolic number ‘million’ in this statement as well as the exclamation mark symbolises her desire for control as well as foreshadowing her future rebellion which ends the play. By the end of the play, Nora’s lines get significantly longer and she is able to defend herself and how she really feels. Nora uses her language not as a tool of language but rather as a tool of liberation and new found freedom.
In conclusion, the constant power struggle in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is shown through language. Ibsen shows criticism towards the patriarchal male society’s beliefs as well as the judicial system which aids to oppress the advancement of women’s individuality and independence. However, the use of language to demonstrate rebellion, liberation and revolution is also very evident. Such is demonstrated several times through the play’s protagonist Nora. In essence, language is indeed a tool of oppression, but to say that it only used by those who are oppressed and serves only to highlight oppression would manifestly be superficial and premature.
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