One of the most evident of these being the idea of the set on stage acting as a realist representation of a house, symbolic of the doll’s house that Nora, the metaphorical doll, inhabits. This structural division of space into the interior and the exterior of the house carries with it social and cultural implications. Gender roles are spatially defined in relation to the inside and the outside of the house. Traditionally it is the woman who makes the house into a home, her home, while the world of commerce, war, travel, the world outside, is a man’s world. Seeing the within and the without in terms of the outdoors and the indoors immediately transforms the theatrical space into a gender-charged environment, naturally fitted for acting out the drama of man and woman, Nora and Torvald.
Similarly, in developing the plot of the play Ibsen crafts certain scenes to reflect their relevance and importance through highlighting the location of a dialogue and the movements of characters within a given area. For example with Krogstads visit to the house while Nora is in preparation for the Tarentella, their intensely suspicious and secretive discourse regarding the loan takes place in the kitchen, the room furthest away from Torvald’s study, with Krogstad having entered through the back door of the house. The atmosphere created is one of concealment and deviousness with an intensity of fear and anxiety on Nora’s part.
The play is immediately introduced in a realist setting of the Helmers’ house describing the layout of where all the events unfold. Throughout the play Nora remains inside this setting and only leaves to attend the fancy dress party upstairs inside the building, never venturing out into the world of men as it were. She is confined within the house and therefore visually we can see the physical restrictions imposed upon her. This is extended to incorporate Torvald’s study as well since it is an area offstage in a sense because the audience are never invited to survey this area of the house due to the connotations it has as a male stronghold where women are prohibited entry; a possible synecdoche for the institutions of a society in which men are superior and the predominant ruling class.
A further indication of the powerless isolation that Nora endures is that she is only ever socialised through the outside interventions of others. It is only with the daily visits from Dr Rank it seems and the surprise visit of Kristine that she is able to express herself to a greater degree of freedom than with Torvald and therefore maintain a somewhat subconscious pretence of happiness when under such restrictions, for we see that it is Torvald who forbids her to talk of her childhood friends and wants her exclusively to himself.
The happenings of the play evolve predominantly around Nora as the central heroin figure and therefore the attention of the audience is focused upon the ‘doll’ and those who interact with her, from the outside such as Kristine and Dr Rank and even her own children who enter from outside of the house, only to be likewise imprisoned due to the somewhat different reasons of Nora’s insecurity and anxieties about her own morality; this remains consistent with the idea that the children too are dolls within the house, since they are confined to an extent and act as objects almost for Nora to play with just as she says she was Torvald’s ‘doll-wife’ and her ‘Daddy’s doll child’.
In developing the qualities of Torvald during the play, Ibsen demonstrates his superciliousness through precise instances of superficial pettiness such as his irritation at Krogstad’s tactless behaviour, ‘with his’Torvald this’ and Torvald that”, and his ability to return to normality having physically burnt the IOU despite the emotional and long-lasting consequences of this revelation in his relationship with Nora.
However more evocative in terms of theatrical space is the idea that Torvald ‘can’t stand the sight of mending lying about’, and therefore Kristine is forced into the other room with the children and maid, Anne Marie, once Torvald arrives back. This also highlights Nora’s attitude towards pleasing her husband and complying with his conformities. However, in contrast to Nora’s obedience there is her ability to subtly manipulate Torvald through her physical actions and seductively playful manner in moving about the stage and around Torvald.
Traditionally, the house has been associated with a woman’s social place, but it can also be seen to stand for her body and her sexuality and therefore become the location where she is most vulnerable. In the theatre, the contrast between interior and exterior space, between house and outside, could be eroticised, as in some productions1 of A Doll’s House, and the idea of Krogstad gaining access into the house, already threatening and devious due to the brooding question as to the loan, takes on almost explicit sexual overtones of penetration and violation.
While the male characters are often intent upon entering space designated as a woman’s sphere of influence, Nora is faced with trying to avoid being trapped, contained and restricted by the conformities embodied in Torvald. Having fixed her anxieties on the loan and Krogstad’s letter, Nora, towards the end of Act III recognises her imposed limitations and so aims to escape the restrictive space of her house. Therefore her anger and disappointment finds its theatrical expression in the actual, physical act of leaving the house, her children and her husband and venturing into the outside world in order to explore both the outside of her world and the inside of her being.