Ruminations on A Doll’s House

There are certain things I miss about school.  One is the opportunity to truly delve into an analysis of literature.  It’s something that’s hard to do in a vacuum and without guidance.  Outside of school, there are few places of which I’m aware in which to discuss literature at an academic level and fewer places where any sort of essay would find an audience.

However, since I have neither the time nor the money to go back to school for a master’s in English literature at the moment, and since I have this little blog here that’s all my own, I’m going to start posting a bit of literary analysis from time to time.  I welcome anyone and everyone to weigh in on the concepts, whether you’ve read the work in question or not.  Of course, there will likely be spoilers in all of these Literary Analysis posts, so proceed with caution if you care.

There are stories that retain a sort of permanence of themes and reactions in my life, and then there’s Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  I’ve now read this play three times: first in high school, again in college, and just recently after my 18-year-old sister raved about it.  Her reaction was entirely different than my own at that age, so I figured I owed it another shot.

In high school, I hated Nora for her lack of independence, feeling she’d brought her troubles upon herself.  You teach people how to treat you, after all.
In college, I hated Nora for her lack of moral values.  Her seemingly flippant and selfish abandonment of her husband and children was practically blasphemous to me.
Now, I offer you this.

In Defense of Nora Helmer

A Doll’s House is an exploration in how identity influences the way we relate to people.  Nora’s upbringing is a little murky, but it’s clear she grew up in a household with problems.  Her father apparently had legal or financial issues that Torvald was able to ameliorate, more or less in exchange for Nora’s hand in marriage.  As a child and a young woman, she was never encouraged to think for herself, and she never really sought to.  Life was prettier and easier on the surface; let someone else deal with the dark underbelly.  Nora’s strength was in her heart, not her mind.  Her actions at the end of the play might lead a casual reader to believe otherwise, but Nora is a warning in what happens when a person focuses all devotion and care on others without ever learning to know oneself.

Without the drama of life with her father, Nora settles into a comfortable but entirely superficial existence.  Her relationship with Torvald is superficial: she’s an entertainment to him, not a companion.  Her relationship with her children is superficial: she’s a playmate, not a caretaker.  Her relationship with Dr. Rank is superficial: she’s an object to him, not a friend.  Her life is all show and no substance — until Torvald is taken ill, that is.

She jumps at the chance to do something real, something with consequence, something that is completely and utterly her own doing.  However, because she does not have the savvy to do the research (she’s never had to do such a thing before), she forges a signature to procure a loan, not realizing how serious a grievance that is.  Still, there’s something of a delight for her in having a deep, dark secret.  It gives her roots.  There’s nothing superificial about owing creditors and having to sneak money from one’s husband, and she thrives on it.  She also takes great pride in and credit for having sacrificed to save her husband’s life.

Even so, Nora is never truly in danger until Krogstad arrives.  The feeling of actual danger, of being able to do nothing to keep one’s life from being ripped away, throws her into a frenzy unlike anything she’s ever experienced.  The little deception isn’t fun anymore.  She doesn’t understand why no one is playing along.  It is through this that she begins to understand that, not only is there a world outside of her little life, but that she has no idea how it works.  And that realization causes her to see the cracks in the foundation of her own house.

Through most of the third act, we are led to believe that Nora is considering suicide because she is afraid to face up to the consequences.  Something I missed in my first two read-throughs, or at least something that didn’t hit quite like it did in my third, is that she was doing it for Torvald, not for herself.  She was throwing herself on the pyre to save Torvald’s reputation.  She was willing to sacrifice her life as a final act of devotion to Torvald.  She fully expected him to still love her, to still want her, perhaps even more so for what she’d done and what she’d been through.  She was certain he would protect her.  And because of her faith in Torvald’s love, she was willing to put forth the ultimate sacrifice to save him.

But when it comes down to it, Torvald lets her down — and in the worst possible way.  In the moments between when he reads Krogstad’s first letter of demands and when he sees Krogstad’s second letter recalling the first, Torvald essentially shuns Nora, says his love for her is gone, but they’ll have to stay together to keep up appearances.  To add insult to injury, he tells her she won’t be able to see her children, that she’s not fit to raise them.  There is no concern for her whatsoever; he is only interested in damage control.  That he could turn on her so quickly and then turn back with a snap of his fingers is all the proof Nora needs to prove that she knows nothing about anything at all.  The thing of which she was most sure in the world — Torvald’s love — was nothing but a sham.

Knowing this, she chooses to move forward with eyes open.  She realizes she knows nothing, and she’s not content with that.  She chooses to stand on her own, to think, to question, to learn.  In short, she chooses to become a full person, and an adult one at that.  There is no sin in this.  The only real criticism that can be leveled at Nora is the manner in which she chooses to pursue these goals.

Throughout the play, Nora is shown to be rather impulsive, whether its her proclivity for sneaking macaroons or her quick-changing emotions.  In the final moments of the play, she is no different.  She takes little time to think about the consequences of her actions on others, perhaps for fear that she would talk herself out of leaving.  She dashes any hope for reconciliation and essentially declines the opportunity for Torvald to make any amends whatsoever.  Her words toward Torvald border on cruel, but they are no worse than what he inflicted on her only moments earlier.  He shattered her world, and, while her coldness toward him is not exactly virtuous, it’s certainly understandable.

Personally, my only real, unresolvable qualm is her abandonment of her children.  Without the benefit of knowing the basics of child psychology, it’s understandable how she justifies this.  It’s my hope that, in the fictional world of life beyond the last pages of A Doll’s House, Nora comes to realize that her children do need to know her and that she does have something to offer them, and that something is worked out to that end.

Having significantly more life experience under my belt than the last time I read it, and, frankly, quite a different worldview, I was much more able to identify with Nora.  The choice to give up the life you imagined for yourself is never an easy one, no matter how right it is.  Seeing the cracks in the façade is painful, and realizing they stem from the foundation itself is downright heartbreaking.  Patches can be applied to hide the damage, but things can only get worse until the entire house begins to crumble.  Nora realizes she can either die as the home collapses upon her, or she can get out and rebuild.  She makes the brave and difficult choice.  She doesn’t do it perfectly, but she does it the best she can.  And I can no longer fault her for that.

3 thoughts on “Ruminations on A Doll’s House

  1. I think when two people get married, it creates worlds. Call me a believer in fairytales (you’d be correct), but I think the new world created contains all of our dreams and hopes. The flipside of that, is that sometimes the world is not one of potential, sometimes it’s a nightmare. And I think the potential of both possibilities depends on the free will of the individuals involved.

    And if you place any stock in the belief that a marriage is a union of two into one flesh (this third “other” that’s the gestalt of what both mates are together), it’s always painful, no matter what, when these worlds collapse and when the union is ripped apart. That goes for both worlds, good AND bad. As one of my favorite writers describes it, and I do think he’s accurate, is that it’s comparable to a vivisection.

    I know because I speak from experience.

    I’ve somehow escaped from such a collapsing world and am learning how to cull life out of the now, post-apocalyptic desert land(moon)scape.

    A Doll’s House is a painful and resurrective experience. Tonally. Spiritually. As a dude, I can empathize with both Nora and Torvald. It’s not hard for me to insert myself into Torvald’s character (and although my own personal experience was different, I actually think I was a decent husband, distant…but decent) and see the world from his eyes.

    Nora, to me, is the Phoenix (Gaiman’s Firebird) rising out of the ashes of her scorched world (marriage). I can relate because it’s painful to enter a marriage and pour everything you have into it, only to discover that your partner’s feelings for you are not ardor, but artifice. And although it’s painful to discover that, it’s even harder to decide to flee the sinking ship.

    I never read or experienced the play as a teenager, but like you, I would have morally judged her. Now I know better.

    Forgive me for the comparison (I have severe cinephilia and my language is celluloid and stories), but there was some stuff involving the destruction and opening of worlds in (don’t laugh) the Abram’s Star Trek movie that made me look at marriage and divorce in a different light.

    If a marriage is the genesis and birth of a world, and if divorce is the apocalypse, what do you do when all of the dreams you put in that world die with it? You believed in your dreams and put everything you had into them, and now they are just gone because they involved that other person. Nero’s ship comes out of the black hole and suddenly worlds have ended…but new ones are there to find new dreams in.

    But if you’re like me, you find out that this new path, these new dreams are actually the secret ones you’ve held in your heart as a child, but were too afraid to believe in.

    There is rebirth for Nora, and there is rebirth for us.

    And yes, I think in the fictional world that occurs off the stage, Nora is a part of her children’s lives. Because (sometimes we don’t know i), fairytales are real. Sometimes we just need to conduct them into the world to make them real.

    • You know, I was speaking with another friend on IM about this post, and I actually said I felt I should do an “In Defense of Torvald Helmer” post, too, just to be fair. 🙂 Helmer is a child in many ways himself. I don’t see him as a villain in this story any more than I do Nora. The fascinating thing about “A Doll’s House” is that there really aren’t any true villains when it comes down to it. Even Krogstad isn’t a true villain, though it’s easy to cast him in that role. In truth, though, he’s a desperate man who reluctantly takes desperate action, just as both Nora and Torvald are willing to do themselves.

      I don’t have much to add to your marriage/divorce metaphors. I think they’re all pretty spot on, really. I believe they’re very much in line with what Nora discovered. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  2. Yeah…perhaps the true villain is the flawed nature that comes with being a human in this world. The insecurities and selfishness and messy behavior we can’t always control. We’re all fragile in that way, once you take away the walls. I think Torvald’s flaw is that he’s selfish and he lets it fuel his desperation. But, definitely, there’s always two sides to these tragic stories, and I think each perspective deserves a chance to air their grievances.

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