“A Doll’s House” is a play written by the dramatist Henrik Ibsen in three acts. Throughout the play, his effective use of the minor character, Dr. Rank, his illness and death serves a symbolic purpose towards Nora and her husband, Torvald’s relationship. The play is set in the 19th century which makes it out to be controversial and critical of the marriage norms of the time due to the way Ibsen chooses to portray certain characters’ values and morals towards marriage and relationships.
At a first glance, Torvald’s best friend, Dr. Rank comes across as one of the minor characters in the play. What shows significance in Dr. Rank’s character is when he is noted for his calm and stoic acceptance towards his ill-fate, of how he is incurably diseased and dying in Act II.
The way in which the play progresses, provides insight on the role Torvald took on in order to fulfill his expected responsibilities as a father, and a husband. Moreover, Ibsen critiques the cultural and marriage norms by questioning the problems that arise with reference to obligations towards gender roles in the typical upper-middle class society of the 19th century.
One function of Dr. Rank is that Ibsen uses his character as a symbol that represents a dying society. The illness that Rank experiences; tuberculosis of the spine, is a symbol used by Ibsen to portray the deteriorating backbone of society, as well as the beginning of the end of Nora and Torvald’s marriage. “Yes, indeed, the whole thing’s nothing but a joke! My poor innocent spine must pay for my father’s amusements as a gay young subaltern” (192, Act 2), the purpose of the quote was to show how Rank is suffering due to what his father has done in his past life, highlighting society’s ignorance and how many suffer from its obligations.
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Dr. Rank suffers because of actions of others and cannot escape events from the past. “What with death just around the corner? And when it’s to pay for someone else’s sins! Where’s the justice in that?” (192, Act 2) and by which Ibsen critiques how it is unjust for not only the women, but for the society to suffer because of the obligations that everyone is expected of fulfilling and for everyone else to suffer through society’s expectations.
Furthermore, Ibsen uses Rank not only to act as a symbolic function reflecting Nora and Torvald’s relationship, but his character also foreshadows their marriage and what is to become of it. His character gives an insight on the flaws of their marriage and the hidden secrets that are kept from each other as he is used to help bring them out. For example, when Dr. Rank is first introduced, he occupies Torvald while Nora reveals her “shameful” secret to Mrs. Linde. Introducing Dr. Rank into the play introduces the conflicts that Nora faces in her everyday married life.
Further into the play, when Rank reveals to Nora that he is ill also serves as the physical counterpart of the moral illness of Krogstad and, by extension, of Torvald. These two male characters in the play (Torvald and Krogstad), represent society and moral corruption. Dr. Rank becomes an innocent victim of a social disease, the physician is as deeply concerned as Torvald in maintaining an exterior of well-being. However, he is very different to Torvald in terms of treating Nora as he does not treat her like a child, but as another of his own level: “Well, Nora, now you know. And you know, too, that you can trust me – more than anyone else” (194, Act 2). At this point, Rank tells Nora that he truly cares about her, more than anyone else which includes Torvald and shows how differently he treats her.
Rank hides his sorrows rather than allowing anyone to witness the degrading aspects of his “final dissolution,” and then bids farewell to his friends and prepares to die in private. Torvald, by the same token, wishes to maintain appearances “at any cost” when he discovers Nora’s secret, of which he is the victim.
Ibsen uses the cards sent by Dr. Rank marked with a black ‘X’ to symbolize the ending of their marriage. “Yes. He told me that when the cards came it would be his leave-taking from us. He means to shut himself up and die.” From this quote, Ibsen introduces that start of the break-down of their marriage; it is Rank’s final presence in the play and as he leaves, as does Nora towards the end of the play.
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Dr. Rank’s method of communicating his imminent death is to leave his calling card marked with a black cross in Torvald’s letterbox. In an earlier conversation with Nora, Dr. Rank reveals his understanding of Torvald’s unwillingness to accept reality when he proclaims, “Torvald is so fastidious, he cannot face up to -anything ugly.” By leaving his calling card as a death notice, Dr. Rank politely attempts to keep Torvald from the “ugly” truth.
A symbolic portrayal is also used between Rank’s end and Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage. This is shown through the effect of foreshadowing; Nora’s statement after receiving Rank’s news about his upcoming death, “That when those cards came, he’d be taking his leave of us. He’ll shut himself in now and die”. This extract provides a symbolic statement used by Ibsen to show connections between Rank, the death of society, which consequently does not allow honesty in a marriage, and finally the revealing of Nora’s true character.
Dr. Rank’s leave is the point of the play indicating the deterioration of the relationship between Torvald and Nora. “Helmer’s refined nature gives him an unconquerable disgust at everything that is ugly; I won’t have him in my sick- room.” The card Dr. Rank tells Nora about, is an indication that the “loathsome end has begun.” This symbol to his suffering provides a connection to the suffering that Nora and Torvald will soon endure. Additionally when Torvald receives the letters from Rank about his death, the climax of the play is reached, and the deterioration of Torvald’s and Nora’s relationship is to begin.
Towards the end of the play, Ibsen uses both characters Nora and Torvald to portray differences in status in society. Where Torvald is used as a character to portray society, and how he is a victim of it. Nora is used to portray freedom as she stands up against Torvald in search of a better life. This is used as a symbol, as Nora symbolizes the search of freedom against society’s obligations and it is only when their marriage is broken, does she find inner peace and understands what is important to her as an individual.
In conclusion, Ibsen created the character of Dr. Rank purely for the symbolic nature and to portray the deterioration of marriage, its flaws as well as the negative implications of society. Through the use of literary features such as foreshadowing, Ibsen was able to clearly portray his views and give personal opinions on society through these characters, indicating that the following society’s obligations will results in the deterioration of ones marriage. Additionally, the use of Dr. Rank helps Ibsen portray the different gender roles that are presented through out the play, as Dr. Rank represents the moral male in the play, one that does not treat women as objects.
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