Comparing The Outsider and A Doll's House

Imagery is frequently used in literature as a tremendously powerful technique for characterization. Since the reactions to nature can conjure up powerful emotions, as well as trigger thought provoking ideas, it is not surprising that imagery can be used as a tool for characterization. In both “A Doll’s House” and “The Outsider”, there are many recurring references to nature; more specifically to trees and animals. But, however, the functions of these images are quite contrasting. In “A Doll’s House”, Ibsen uses such images to complement the complexity of the protagonist, Nora, while contributing to an overall better understanding of the character, whereas in “The Outsider”, Camus uses imagery to reflect the existentialistic nature of his protagonist, Meursault. Therefore by analyzing the reactions of the protagonists to the various references to nature, an insight into the values, emotional states, and the personalities will be gained.

In “A Doll’s House”, Ibsen uses the image of a Christmas tree to reflect upon the journey of Nora from conforming to the gender biased roles of society to developing into an independent woman. In a sense, the Christmas tree is a symbol of Nora. Through the use of personification, he metaphorically presents the tree with the human characteristic of being able to dress. (“Hide the Christmas tree carefully, Helen. Be sure the children do not see it till this evening, when it is dressed.”) The underlying intent of this technique illustrates the parallelism between the Christmas tree and Nora which in turn results in an insight to the character of Nora. The reaction of Nora to the arrival of the Christmas tree reveals the importance of appearance in her values. To Nora, the Christmas tree has to look beautiful before viewing. Furthermore, upon the announcement of Nora’s act of forgery by Krogstad, Ibsen creates an image of Nora dressing the Christmas tree to illustrate how impulsive Nora is. (“[Begins dressing the tree]. A candle here—and flowers here—That horrible man! It’s all nonsense—there’s nothing wrong. The tree shall be splendid! I will do everything I can think of to please you, Torvald! I will sing for you, dance for you.”) Instead of analyzing the situation to determine the best possible solution for preventing the news from reaching Torvald, Nora is presented as headstrong and naïve. She emphasizes that as long her marriage appears normal on the outside, it will be normal. When Torvald refuses to let Krogstad keep his job, Ibsen uses the image of the Christmas tree to reflect the emotional state of Nora. (“The Christmas tree is in the corner by the piano stripped of its ornaments and with burned-down candle ends on its disheveled branches…She is alone in the room, walking about uneasily.”) Ibsen presents the Christmas tree as disarrayed, hinting at the emotional anguish that Nora is experiencing from failing to convince Torvald to secure Krogstad’s job. In addition, the image of Nora’s inaction to beautify the Christmas tree provides an insight into the changing values of Nora. She is hardly concerned about the appearance of the Christmas tree, suggesting a maturity in her character.

On the other hand, in “The Outsider”, the imagery of trees is used to express the existentialist nature of Meursault. The usage of a first person narrative illustrates the honesty in Meursault’s reactions to the surrounding atmosphere which produces an accurate evaluation into his character. Camus uses trees to illustrate the importance of the physical world for Meursault. (“Soon afterwards, as the trams became fewer and the sky blackened above the trees and the lamps, the people gradually disappeared, until the street was deserted again and the first cat walked slowly across it.”) Unlike in “A Doll’s House”, Camus only uses the reactions to the trees to reveal certain aspects of Meursault’s character. The imagery of the landscape in which the sky blackens above the trees illustrates the preference of the physical aspects of the world over the social and emotional aspects in which, Meursault spends his day sitting on his balcony observing the physical aspects of the world, offering emotionless descriptions of the world before him. Camus further uses trees to signify the importance of the physical world during the encounter with the Arabs. (“They were looking at us in silence, but in their own special way, as if we were nothing more than blocks of stone or dead trees.”) Instead of offering an emotive assessment of the Arabs’ feelings, Camus offers a metaphor, in which he compares the looks on the Arabs’ faces to that of dead trees and stone, thus revealing his value of the physical world. The underlying intent of this imagery illustrates the indifference in the character of Meursault. He is only concerned about the physical aspects of the world. Thus, the psychological aspects of the world including religion are meaningless to him. This reveals his existentialist belief that religion is an artificial filler in life. Upon a further analysis, since psychological aspects of the world are meaningless, there is no meaning in life since the only thing in life that is certain is death.

In addition to the usage of tree imagery, both authors make frequent references to animals for the characterization of their protagonists. In “A Doll’s House”, Ibsen uses many references to birds, squirrels and other creatures to mimic the behavior of Nora. The usage of these images creates a better understanding of the behavior of Nora, in which her actions can be viewed as animal like, suggesting inequality between Torvald and Nora.. At the beginning of the play, Nora can be seen humming around the Helmer residence. (“Enter Nora, humming a tune and in high spirits”) Torvald responds by calling her a lark. (“Is that my little lark twittering out there?”) The image of the lark twittering connotes a happy and a carefree attitude, much like that of a young child. The underlying intent of this, contributes to the image of Nora being Torvald’s doll. Also, Torvald uses the image of a squirrel to relate to Nora. (“Is it my little squirrel bustling about?”) The image of the squirrel bustling about connotes for the action of hiding since bustling squirrels usually hide their acorns. This corresponds to the deceitful nature of Nora in which she hides the macaroons and her act of forgery from Torvald, ultimately giving an insight into her character.

Whereas, in “The Outsider”, Camus uses animal imagery to further develop the existentialistic nature of Meursault. Instead of using birds, squirrels and other animals, he instead focuses on insects. The usage of such images portrays the observant nature of Meursault. (“The room was bathed in beautiful, late-afternoon sunshine. A couple of hornets were buzzing against the glass room.”) The intent of using such small creatures shows how observant Meursault is. Furthermore, this image of Meursault observing the tiny little hornets adds to his idea that life is meaningless. His actions reveal his search for a meaning in life in a meaningless life. Since Meursault tries to search for a meaning, where it does not exist, he naturally feels tired. (“And I was beginning to feel sleepy.”) The underlying intent of this idea of observing illustrates humanity’s constant search for a purpose in life. (“I could feel my eyes getting tired watching the street like this with its mass of people and lights.”) The association of existentialistic ideas with the use of animal imagery adds to the complexity of Meursault’s character.

The usage of natural imagery to characterize the protagonist of the story is evident in both “The Outsider” and “A Doll’s House”. Camus uses natural imagery to illustrate the indifferent reactions of Meursault to life whereas Ibsen uses natural imagery as a parallel to the character of Nora. The countless references to trees and animals provide an added depth to the characters contributing to a sense of realism in the characters. Imagery can be seen as a powerful technique for characterization since the reactions to the various aspects of nature can provide a unique insight into the character’s beliefs and personality reflecting the overall characters of their protagonists into images of nature, both, Camus and Ibsen use a more subtle approach in describing their characters instead of bluntly stating their personalities. This approach adds an extra dimension of depth to these two novels.


Camus, Albert. The Outsider. London: Penguin Books, 1983. Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’S House. New York: Dover Publications, 1992.

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