Symbols and Symbolism - A Comparison of Nicknames in A Doll's House and Major Barbara

Symbols and Symbolism - A Comparison of Nicknames in A Doll's House and Major Barbara

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Symbolism of Nicknames in A Doll's House and Major Barbara

The use of nicknames in literature is an important tool in which the author can provide insight into the attitudes of the characters toward each other and to provide illumination as to the nature of specific characters. Two such pieces of literature in which these attitudes and illumination can be evidenced are A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen and Major Barbara by Bernard Shaw. The attitudes of the characters in A Doll's House, more specifically Torvald Helmer and the maid Anne-Marie, toward Nora can be evidenced with the names by which she is referred. In Major Barbara, the names by which the characters call each other not only show their personal attitudes toward each other, but also provide classical reference by which we can better understand the characters.


In A Doll's House, Torvald Helmer's attitude toward his wife Nora can be seen in the ways in which he refers to her. In line 11 of the first act, we come across the first instance of Torvald's bird references to Nora with "Is that my little lark twittering out there?" This reference is the first of many in which Torvald refers to Nora as a lark. Often this referencing is preceded by diminutive terms such as "little" and "sweet, little." Torvald also refers to Nora as a squirrel, a spendthrift, a songbird, and a goose, these terms also preceded with a diminutive. The significance of this nicknaming is to show Torvald's attitude toward Nora. Torvald sees Nora as small, sweet, unobtrusive and therefore easily controlled. This position is one he would like Nora to continue to occupy. In line 257, Torvald refers to Nora as "my richest treasure" denoting his attitude toward her as his possession.


Nora's nurse, and the nurse of her children as well, Anne-Marie, shows her attitude of Nora as well. In the beginning of the second act, we find Nora in a conversation with Anne-Marie in which Anne-Marie refers to Nora as "Miss Nora," "little Nora," and "poor little Nora." It seems to everyone that Nora not only acts as a child, but is seen as one as well. It is here we realize it is not only the man being overbearing and keeping the woman in what he sees as her rightful position, but the maid also contributes to the indoctrination.

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In Major Barbara, by Bernard Shaw, we see that nicknames provide insight not only into the attitudes of the characters toward each other, but also into the characters themselves. The use of classical references to illuminate a character's persona is an often and long-used literary tool. The first instance of this nicknaming can be found in the references of Undershaft toward Cusins. Cusins is a scholar of the Greek language and, while in the presence of Undershaft in act II, mentions the classical Greek tragedian, Euripides. This mention of Euripides remains in the mind of Undershaft and, for the rest of the play, this is the name by which Cusins is called. Another reason Undershaft calls Cusins by this name is, while reciting a bit of his translation of a Euripidean piece, Cusins uses the name Barbara, a word meaning "loveliness" and the name of Undershaft's daughter and Cusin's love:


Cusins: To hold a hand uplifted over fate?

And shall Barbara be loved for ever?

Undershaft: Euripides mentions Barbara, does he?

Cusins: Its a fair translation. The word means Loveliness.


This use of Barbara, in a non-traditional sense, places Cusins in the place of the writer, hence the nickname "Euripides."


Undershaft is known by several nicknames as well. The first mention of Undershaft being called by a name other than his own can be found in line 858 of act II:


Cusins: (Aside to Undershaft.) Mephistopheles! Machiavelli!


These references are particularly interesting in that they foreshadow later events in the story and give insight into the type of person Undershaft is. Mephistopheles is the name given to Satan in the Faust legend. It was to Mephistopheles that Faust sold his soul, and, later in the story, it will be to Undershaft that Cusins will "sell his soul." The second classical reference is to Machiavelli, an Italian political philosopher who used his book, The Prince, to advance his views of a state in which power is achieved and maintained by a ruler who is indifferent to moral considerations. This reference calls to mention the fact that Undershaft will sell his munitions to whomever will buy, without consideration of the rightness or morality of the war. To further make reference to Satan, Undershaft is called the "Prince of Darkness" four times in act III.


An author often uses Nicknames to provide insight into the nature of characters and to show attitudes existing between the characters. Classical reference is another tool, used in conjunction with nicknames, to provide this same type of illumination. The above evidence from the two plays is sufficient to prove this point.
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