I originally conceived of a chapter on Ibsen's The Doll's House in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I deleted it because it was a naturalistic drama and not enough of the Gothic in it. This two-part piece substantially rewrites that chapter in large part because I have benefited from the insights of Toril Moi's Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 2006).
—I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house.
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865
—I believe that I am first and foremost a human being—like you—or anyway that I must try to become one.
Nora in The Doll’s House
To accomplish that feat, Ibsen sets out to challenge two current beliefs: a kind of moral utopianism that the purpose of art is to uplift and that husbands and wives, and mothers, sisters, daughters must conduct their lives according to the prescribed "ideals" of love, fidelity, self-sacrifice. The result is that they live constricted and deformed lives not only diminishing their lives and family relationships; they can also cast a pall on others since their comments and actions are only weighed in terms of how they affect their immediate family not on how they would harm or show appalling insensitivity to others. At the beginning of the play, Nora is flighty and irresponsible caring only about her family’s interest and has no understanding of society or the law. By the end all that is changed, as their marriage unravels. Her evolution from a doll-woman towards a nascent self-knowledge, together with knowledge about others, by leaving the comforts of her velvet prison-home to purse an uncertain life is why The Doll’s House is a seminal drama and why audiences continue to watch performances.
For eight years, Nora and Torvald Helmer believe they are happily married and on the brink of a blissful new phase of life: Torvald has been promoted to bank manager and their money worries are over. Nora has been apparently content to masquerade as the “spendthrift,” the “featherbrain,” the ‘little squirrel’, in short the flighty, cosseted child–wife–mother in contrast to her doting husband Torvald who poses as the wise, benevolent protector. Nora displays a silliness and insensitivity that are also part of her downfall. At the beginning she is lying to Torvald about the macaroons he has forbidden and she has concealed. This could be comic if it were not part of a tissue of lies and evasions that make up her life.
Near the end of the drama when the illusions she had nurtured about him are stripped away, Nora recognizes with painful insight how both her father and Torvald had treated her as a doll–child. Although they loved her, they were responsible for her socialization into a life of pleasing men and performing tricks, but never thinking for herself and developing her own opinions and tastes. Instead of being taken seriously as a person in her own right, she is admired for the pleasure she provided for them, and she feels with some justifiable bitterness that they are responsible for her inability to develop her potentials and strengths.
Nonetheless, although she has been infantilised by her upbringing, marriage and social position, as A.S. Byatt has noted, Nora is not always a sympathetic character in her dealings with people outside her family. Nora has a secret debt, incurred with good intentions when she forged her father’s signature. With her husband's new position comes the threat of blackmail. When speaking to one of her husband’s employees, Krogstad, who lent her money and whose financial career is on the skids because of a comparable "indiscretion," Nora has no appreciation of the desperation he feels that he is willing to resort to blackmail. Nora says she could not have told her dying father of the threat to her husband's life when he was dangerously ill. When he asks her whether it occurred to her that she was being dishonest to him, she dismisses the question: “I didn’t care about you.” Krogstad was merely an obstacle to achieving what she wanted. She sees things only in terms of her own place in her own family and is incapable of being a human being with the capacity for imagining or having empathy for another person regardless of what happens to Krogstad.
Nora's insensitivity is at its starkest in her conversation with Dr. Rank, who has come to tell her he is dying. First she expresses "relief" when he tells her his bad news is about himself. Then when he tells her that "within a month I may be rotting up there in the churchyard", she says: "Ugh, what a nasty way to talk!" He persists—"As soon as I know the worst, I'll send you a visiting card with a black cross on it, and then you'll know that the final filthy process has begun." To which all Nora has to say is that he is really being "quite impossible this evening. And I did hope you'd be in a good mood" so that she can charm and flirt with him into lending her the money to pay off Krogstad. Her husband Torvald, who is supposed to have a clear-eyed understanding of the world, is no different. He must be screened from Dr. Rank’s sickroom because “his refined nature gives him an unconquerable disgust at everything that is ugly.”
|Dr. Rank (Philip Rham)|
Nora reveals little understanding about the difficulties that other women have experienced. When Nora’s widowed old schoolmate Kristine appears with her tale of hardship and poverty, Nora has no understanding of what she is talking about: "You must tell me everything" and immediately embarks on the narrative of her own money problems—which are to do with a luxurious holiday for a well-off couple, not the impossibility of making ends meet. Nora who lives in a comfortable middle class home has yet no inkling of poverty and the desperate choices people are forced to make. In her brief exchange with Anne-Marie, the nurse, Nora, who merely enjoys a romp with the children before they go to bed while the other woman does the real mothering, asks Anne Marie about why she gave up a child. The nurse stoically responds, "a poor girl whose got into trouble and can't afford to pick and choose." She is far more pragmatic about love relationships than Nora at this point.
The unraveling of her lies provides the backdrop for Nora’s stark recognition of the sham of her marriage. She always harboured a fantasy that her husband would protect her from any infamy, including the blackmail threatened by a discontented “morally infected” bank clerk. After they return from a party and just before he reads the fateful letter, with his usual pompous bravado Torvald says to Nora, “I have often wished that you might be threatened with some great danger, so that I might risk my life’s blood, and everything for your sake.” Moments later, this chivalric posture collapses as he flies into a rage and heaps invective on her—“she who was my pride and joy—a hypocrite, a liar—worse, worse—a criminal! Now you have destroyed all my happiness. You have ruined all my future.” Instead of refusing to submit to the blackmail and shoulder the responsibility to protect his wife, he shrivels to an ignominious stance: “I am in the power of an unscrupulous man; he can do what he likes with me…. And I must sink to such miserable depths because of a thoughtless woman….I may be falsely suspected of having been a party of your criminal action.” Torvald’s response to her revelation of her forgery and its results is wounding. He, too, is a person of limited imagination. He too is a man trapped in a doll's house. However pompous he is, the play is moving because he does love her and does not understand her departure.
Because circumstances have changed in Krogstad’s life prompting him to return the incriminating bond, a second letter arrives, but as Torvald experiences only relief that his reputation has been preserved, he can now “forgive” Nora’s “womanly helplessness.” After he has been “saved,” oblivious to her pain, he even reverts to his role as protector although moments before he had angrily proclaimed their love was over. The earlier smug patronizing is now replaced by disingenuous posturing: “here [in our home] I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk’s claws.” But Nora, aroused from her torpor, has had enough of his condescending “protection,” and stripped of any illusions that she has cherished about his paternalistic guardianship, she decides that she must leave in order “to try and educate herself” recognizing that she knows almost nothing about the outside world even though she showed ingenuity in engineering the loan.
No longer willing to live a suffocating circumscribed life, defined as wife and mother, she turns the Victorian ideal of self-sacrifice on its head. Without a trace of her earlier nervous skittishness, she announces to her husband with steely determination that her most sacred duty is to herself, to become “a reasonable human being,” and search for an authenticity that she had not experienced before. She recognizes that she does not love the man that she hoped him to be, whose life she has secretly saved, and who struggled to meet her financial commitments. While she sacrificed on clothes by buying the “simplest and cheapest things,” she ensured that he received good food. When he refused to protect her, because “no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loved,” she sees him as though for the first time with devastating clarity: “As soon as your fear was over…it was exactly as nothing at all had happened. Exactly as before, I was your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile.” Walking out the door absolving him of any legal obligations, holding out only the slimmest possibility “a miracle” of returning to have a “real marriage,” she took the first dazed but painful step toward maturity claiming responsibility for her own life. At that moment, Nora was no longer content to define herself as a mother, daughter or wife but simply as an individual.
Nora is not only the only one straitjacked by role playing. As the practical man and the chivalric guardian of the cloistered female, Torvald shields her from the world’s harsh realities while he shoulders the burdens of earning a living and interacting with the public institutions. What Ibsen’s classic clearly demonstrates is that this reassuring ideology of the separation of spheres “reflected neither ‘natural’ competencies nor the realities of men and women’s lives but…masked inequality and forced segregation based on sex.” Anything but a “helpless little mortal,” she does manage the household finances. As her protector, Torvald is so preoccupied with safeguarding his honour and assailing her “disgraceful behaviour” that he is completely incapable of appreciating his wife’s altruistic motives—she did acquire the loans so that they could travel to warmer climes for him to recover from his physical illness—and her need to understand the relationship between personal behaviour and society’s legal restrictions. When she tries to explain her perplexity about an unfair law that prevents her from “sparing her dying father or to save her husband’s life,” he accuses her of talking like a child. His empty rhetoric about chivalric protection collides with her ominous realization that it is women not men that are willing to make the necessary sacrifices for men including their honour.
Chivalry was a code to rationalize the infantilisation of women. Torvald is no oppressive brute: true, unduly insensitive and blithely unaware, still he has, as Nora says, been kind to her. Yet even as he indulges her, he sets the corseting rules, and when he catches Nora in a lie about whether Krugstad has been in their home, he admonishes by patronizing her with his lecture, “my little song–bird must never do that again.” Later after the painful revelations, he has no inkling of understanding of her need for self-education and her hope that a real marriage could be based upon something fundamentally different than what she had experienced. She is not able to articulate a relationship based upon equality and mutual respect: that could only emerge from her future explorations that would include an examination of her part in the marriage.
Like so many real life feminists, she could investigate the politics of the family and her collusion with her husband in the relationship. She acquiesced with Torvalds’s pampering and baby talk, she willingly deceived him about how she spent money, and she believed that she needed to protect his pride from the humiliation that he owed her something—his life. She would have to explore how she, intelligent and astute, a woman without power, would have allowed herself to be infantilized with pet names when she wanted something from him. For example, when she wants to exercise influence over his decision to discharge Krogstad from the bank, she diverts his attention by resorting to coquetry and self-abasement by persuading him to choose the dress for her. When he condescends to her as his “obstinate little woman [who] is obliged to get someone to come to her rescue,” she feeds his vanity and denies her own capacities with her disingenuous response “Yes Torvald, I can’t get along a bit without your help,” It may be true that her submission was a form of manipulation, and this was a culturally conditioned strategy of the oppressed, but these questions could be raised as part of her education.
When Torvald oscillates between the indulgent and the overbearing, we wonder whether he could move from a position based upon chivalry to one grounded in justice. When Nora decides, with a calm resoluteness that she must leave, he questions whether she has any sense of morality or religion before appealing vainly to her sense of duty to her husband and children and before arriving at the accurate conclusion that she no longer loves him. A few minutes earlier he had pronounced that she was not a fit mother. Then he tries to dismiss what he had said as something uttered in the heat of the moment. But earlier in his assault on the character of Krugstad, without any hesitation he passes onto Nora the unexamined cultural assumption that it is usually mothers who are responsible for producing “young criminals.” The play concludes with him hearing the door slam, his self-assuredness cracking, feeling helpless and bereft, and (one feels) without the wherewithal for even beginning to grapple with what Nora had said to him. When she closes that door, the moment is painful because she is collapsing, at least for now, a relationship. That The Doll's House shines a harsh light on the messy heart of relationships, and the difficulty of being honest with another human being, even when you love that person, is likely to resonate with modern audiences.