Dance the Tarantella
The tarantella began in connection with the bite of a spider. Supposedly, after the bite of a tarantula, a disease called tarantism took over the patient, creating a hysteria-like symptoms (“Tarantella”). At its birthplace in Taranto, Italy, the “victims seemingly were cured by frenzied dancing” and thus today the dance includes “light, quick steps and teasing, flirtatious behavior between partners” (“Tarantella”). This fact, in addition to the symbolic role that women play in the dance, illuminates its significance in “A Doll’s House.”
At first the tarantella is used as a distraction for Nora, to avoid Torvald’s attention drifting to the mailbox. According to Sandra Saari, the initial draft of this scene, in which Torvald and Dr. Rank discuss “…the delicate bending of her neck” and the “grace in her movements,” shows how Nora plays along with her subservient and doll-like social role of a woman (Saari 79). As Torvald and Dr. Rank treat her like an object and admire her superficial qualities, Nora allows herself to be possessed and fulfills her disparaged social role.
In Ibsen’s final draft of the play, however, the tarantella becomes a “dance of her own self-expression whose increasingly wild execution displeases Torvald mightily” (Saari 80). With historical connotations of death and impending doom with the bite of the tarantula, Nora’s use of the dance in this context shows “the first point in the play where Nora does not heed, at least in some superficial way, Torvald’s commands. Unable to exert any direct control over her, he finally commands Rank to stop in order to force Nora to stop” (Saari 80). In this way, the tarantella’s use shows the exact opposite in the final draft as in an initial draft. With Nora’s use of the dance as a means to question Torvald’s dominance in the second draft, the dance puts the thematic question of female subservience vs. independence into the limelight.
Other interpretations of the tarantella probe its use in showing this female subservience. In Ibsen’s Myth of Transformation, Errol Durbach proposes that “Ibsen’s image of the dancing doll is a complex, many layered visual metaphor with a history that looks back to women as the sexual playthings of early nineteenth-century romanticism and forward to the post-romantic automata of male erotic fantasies” (Durbach 52). Obviously reflecting the social ideas of the time, the tarantella is just one more manifestation of the role of subservience and child-like dependence that women play in accordance with their roles as dolls. While Mrs. Linde served as the one exception, the one strong female character, “I have learned to go carefully. Life and hard, bitter necessity have taught me”, she eventually succumbed to the life of security and social acceptance by describing her choice of lifestyle as “a broken women clinging to the wreck of her life. Nobody to care about, and nobody to care for” (Ibsen 64). To this Krogstad, a typical small-minded male character, attributes “female hysteria” rather than acknowledging the ability of women to be just as independent as men (64). Although Mrs. Linde starts out as the strong, independent but socially scorned woman, she admits her despair in her situation and begs Krogstad to accept her into the role of his doll with the rationale that “I need someone to mother, and your children need a mother. We two need each other…With you I can face anything” (65). However, the initiation of the tarantella hushes the scene, eerily juxtaposed with Mrs. Linde’s surrender. The strategic positioning reemphasizes the point of female subservience being deeply rooted in the society; even the most hardworking and mature of women could barely break through its clutches.
However, another explanation for the tarantella in the play is that, while it functions as a distraction for Helmer, it is simultaneously a last attempt for Nora at keeping her role as a doll. Though she has proven herself capable of independence with her act of acquiring the loan and gradually making the payments on time, Nora battles inner turmoil as she tries on last desperate attempt at playing Torvald’s doll; as Torvald exclaims “Not so wild, Nora,” Nora, one the one hand wishing to please him but on the other realizing that “this is how it has to be,” simultaneously reconciles her unconscious desires for independence (Ibsen 59). As Torvald gives Nora directions and commands, even asking Dr. Rank play the piano so he would “be better able to tell her what to do,” but Nora continues dancing wildly, Torvald realizes “You have forgotten everything I ever taught you” (59). These ironic statements hint at Nora’s desperation at not only distracting Torvald from the letter box, but also distracting him from her inner turmoil and time of psychological and emotional reconciliation. Helmer even observed, “But my dear darling Nora, you are dancing as though your life depended on it” (59).
Nora’s flirtatious, exorbitant performance of the tarantella for Helmer is her last desperate attempt to be accepted back into his protection and dominance to grasp at the ever distancing role of an ignorant doll; however, her inner self has already tasted independence and is awakening to the realities of the socially constrictive position she occupies. If she were to return to the dollhouse, which part of her wishes to do, it could never be the same. As Nora counts down her hours left to live until the tarantella is over with Mrs. Linde and manages her issues with Krogstad on the side through her, Torvald obliviously calls “What’s happened to our little sky-lark?” (Ibsen 61). Like externally playing the role of a doll, Nora tweets back, “Here she is” as she runs “toward him with open arms” (61). While she may outwardly appear to grasp the last fringes of subservience and superficial perfection as life had been, deep down she knows that life has something novel and unknown in store for her, something different and lacking the certainty and security of the doll house, yet something to give her an opportunity to fulfill her duty to herself.