In a “Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen, although Nora’s role as the submissive wife is initially exhibited through performances for her husband, the tarantella dance is later used as a method of distraction and ultimately as a metaphor for Nora’s growing disillusionment with her marriage. The multifaceted metaphor of dance and performance demonstrates role playing in the Helmer’s marriage as well as the development of Nora’s character culminating with an attempt to break free of imposed societal norms. In addition to Nora’s transition in nature, Helmer’s admiration of performance for his sake demonstrates his patriarchal character and dependence on Nora’s acquiescence. In addition to serving as a climax in the plot, the Tarantella represents a critical moment in Nora’s developmental journey and final decision to leave her marriage with Torvald.
Primarily in the first act of the work, the metaphor of performance through dance is used to illustrate Nora’s subservient character to her male counterpart, her husband. Through Nora’s dancing and consequent submission to her husband, we are shown the clear establishment of roles in the Helmers’ relationship. Following Nora’s request to borrow money from Helmer, she says to him, “I’ll play Elfin-girl and dance for you in the moonlight” (147). As demonstrated in this quote, Nora is playing the part of a submissive child-like character in a performance that she is putting on for her husband. The childlike language of “playing” further demonstrates Nora’s initial naivety and innocence. Moreover, the nature of role playing in the Helmer’s marriage is illustrated when Nora says to Mrs Linde of the impending ball, “Torvald wants me to go as a Neapolitan fisher-girl, and dance the Tarantella that I learnt at Capri.” (183). This quote demonstrates Nora’s role as a doll (the key metaphor of the play) for Torvald to show off in a performance they are both taking part in.
This is confirmed by Mrs Linde’s response when she says, “ I say; so you’ll be giving a whole performance” (183). As shown, Torvald is dictating the role that Nora plays and he admires her because he can show her off through her outward appearance. The labelling of Nora’s dancing as a performance illustrates the one-dimensional nature of their marriage and her role as a “neapolitan fisher-girl” demonstrates Helmer’s ability to modify his wife in anyway he wishes. Finally, we are shown Nora’s inceptive guileless when Mrs Linde asks if she will ever tell him about the loan, and Nora says, “Yes – perhaps one day – when Torvald no longer find it amusing to have me dance for him, and dress up and recite things.” (122). This statement by Nora emphasizes that the beauty and innocence that Torvald associates with his wife is far from everlasting.
Moreover, as demonstrated in this quotation, Torvald is attempting to dictate to Nora a compliant role that he, and in the larger scheme society, have forced her into. Despite Nora’s dancing initially serving as a reflection of her obedience to her husband, later in the play the wild Tarantella danced by Nora is used to exhibit her manifested fear oas well as her inner turmoil. In the play, the Tarantella is the anticipated dance that Nora is due to perform at the ball she attends with Torvald. Prior to the ball, Nora insists that Helmer help her practice her dance rather than open his letters in an effort to protect the secret of her loan with Krogstad, and her marriage. As she dances to the music of Dr Rank and the guidance of her husband, the stage directions read, “Nora dances more and more wildly. Helmer gives her frequent instructions. She does not seem to hear him; her hair comes down and falls over her shoulders; she pays no attention to it, but goes on dancing.” (163). Despite Torvald’s instructions serving as an attempt to control his wife, Nora begins to step out of the mold that Torvald has created for her symbolized by her hair falling down and her continued wild dancing. In addition, the Tarantella dance is representative of Nora’s inner conflict on her role as a compliant housewife.
On one hand she is the subservient in her performance and her dancing, but on the other hand the tarantella is representative of her desire to for independence and to break free of the morally upright woman mold that society (represented through Torvald) has created for her. In this way, the dance is a form of self expression for Nora and an attempt to rid herself of a toxic relationship, much like the “poison” that is ridded of through movement in the real life Tarantella dance. Moreover, there is an ambience of danger associated with the dance as shown when Helmer says to Nora, “My dear darling Nora, you are dancing as if your life depended on it.” (199) and Nora claims that after the dance she “will be free” (164). Clearly, Nora is exhibiting her desperation and fear through her frantic dancing, something that Helmer does not realize. At this point, Nora assumes that freedom with come when the dance is over, but she is yet to realize the outcome of ending the dance is ending her marriage. Finally, the hazard associated with the dance is shown when Mrs Linde says to Krogstad of her decision to return his bond “You must be quick and go! The dance is over; we are not safe a moment longer.” (204). This quotation further establishes the connection between the dance of the Tarantella and Nora’s safety.
In addition to exhibition of the Nora’s character, we are also shown the role that is established of Torvald in the Helmer’s patriarchal marriage, and his obtuseness of his wife’s newfounded independence. Helmer’s ignorance of his wife’s growing disillusionment is shown when he says to Dr. Rank after the ball, “She had danced her Tarantella, and it had been a tremendous success, as it deserved — although possibly the performance was a trifle too realistic —”. (214) Despite the reference to her dance as a performance, as Helmer states, this rendition was “realistic”, a true depiction of her emotional state. Moreover, Helmer’s superficial fascination with Nora’s dancing is demonstrated when he says to Nora, “ When I watched the seductive figures of the Tarantella, my blood was on fire; (245). Helmer’s erotic obsession with Nora’s dancing furthers the notion that he admires her as a sexual object rather than a human capable of establishing a meaningful connection with. In this way, the tarantella provide the reader with insight on both members of the Helmer marriage.
In a Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, the metaphor of performance through dance is used to exhibit the theatrical nature of the Helmer’s marriage through role playing, as well as Helmer’s ignorance of Nora’s newfound clarity of the superficial nature of her marriage. We are shown multiple aspects of performance through dance in the play as it transitions from innocent playing to a fervent form of self expression and manifestation of Nora’s troubling emotions. The use of the metaphor of dance transforms to symbolize the character development of the protagonist. The frantic and delirious performance traditionally put on in the Italian Tarantella is not coincidentally used in the play as an effort to rid the performer of “disease” and “poison”; or in Nora’s case to break out of the role that society has pushed her to fulfill.