A doll’s house: The symbolism of tarantella


  • Ibsen uses the motif of the ‘tarantella’ to communicate the evolution of Nora’s relationship with Helmer over a period of time, potentially ending with the dance. Nora learned this form of dance on a trip to Capri for which she borrowed money to help Torvald recover from his illness. Thus this dance is a symbol of recovery and happiness for them. However, the dress is discovered in ruins after Krogstad comes in and plans to destroy Nora and Torvald’s relationship which suggests the approaching destruction of their relationship. Mrs Linde encourages Nora by saying “it’s only the trimming come away here and there” suggesting that it can be “put right” with a bit of work. However, the fact that Torvald doesn’t like the sight of mending lying about which is a metaphor for their relationship, suggests that he wants everything to be perfect and cannot possibly stand anything wrong in a relationship. When Nora senses that everything is going to go wrong, she asks Torvald to tell her “what to do” keep her right as he always does, suggesting her desire for their relationship to back to being the way it was, seemingly perfect. The wildness and the tempo of her dance indicate her last wish to be her husband’s puppet and try to ‘recover’ their relationship or capture the happiness as in the moment in Italy. The tarantella is thus used as a motif to show the development of their relationship, it’s end coinciding with the end of their relationship.
  • The costume serves as a theatrical symbol for Nora’s persisting desire to obey Torvold as she continues to fulfill his requests – as Nora expresses that Torvold wants her to wear the costume as a Neapolitan Fisher Lass to the ball. Literally, this is Helmer dressing Nora up as a doll, and figuratively, Helmer expressing his control over her. Furthermore, Nora tells Ms Linde “Torvold can’t stand the sight of mending lying about,” not just depicting the extent to which Nora goes to please him, but reinforces Torvold’s intolerance of the presence of ‘feminine’ activities and unfinished, imperfect things – tying with the theme of patriarchy and reputation.

    Torvold’s desire for control and correspondingly, Nora’s lack of complicity to give it to him is expressed through when Nora practices the tarantella dance. This is in contrast to the symbolism which the dress holds – representative of the Nora’s submission to Torvold and the image they intend to present to public. Nora “snatches the tambourine out of the box … then with a bound she leaps forward.” Helmer immediately comments “not so fast!” and “not so wild!” but Nora responds she “can’t help it.” The way which Nora performs the dance is theatrically expressive of Nora’s emotions and desires via her movements, disregarding the gentle and feminine-like nature of the dance she is supposed to follow instead. Nora’s conscious choice to ignore Torvold’s comments are illustrative of her growing independence or lack of care to listen/please him.

    The costume and upcoming dance also references the time which Helmer and Nora went to Italy, as Nora says “Torvold made [the dress] for me down there.” This was also where Nora disclosed she had secretly borrowed the money from Krogstad – what the explicit conflict of the entire play revolves around. Toward the end of the act this reference is expanded upon as Nora says to herself “then twenty-four hours till the next midnight. Then the tarantella will be over. Twenty-found and seven? Thirty-one hours to live.” The theatrical event of the ball is representative of what Nora plans to do next, which she is currently scheming and foreshadows a big occurence – the build up to the ball as a metaphor to a big reveal after a countdown.

    The ball itself is also associated with formality, class, and a place of social gathering. The dance and costumes are representative of the statement which each person/couple wants to make. Hence, the ball could be theatrical symbolic of a physical place to establish image and impression to society.

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