On Ibsen's A Doll's House
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[This is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 310 at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada. References to Ibsen's text are to the translation by James McFarlane and Jens Arup (Oxford: OUP, 1981). This text is in the public domain, released July 2000]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
Those of you who have just read A Doll's House for the first time will, I suspect, have little trouble forming an initial sense of what it is about, and, if past experience is any guide, many of you will quickly reach a consensus that the major thrust of this play has something to do with gender relations in modern society and offers us, in the actions of the heroine, a vision of the need for a new-found freedom for women (or a woman) amid a suffocating society governed wholly by unsympathetic and insensitive men.
I say this because there is no doubt that A Doll's House has long been seen as a landmark in our century's most important social struggle, the fight against the dehumanizing oppression of women, particularly in the middle-class family. Nora's final exit away from all her traditional social obligations is the most famous dramatic statement in fictional depictions of this struggle, and it helped to turn Ibsen (with or without his consent) into an applauded or vilified champion of women's rights and this play into a vital statement which feminists have repeatedly invoked to further their cause. So in reading responses to and interpretations of this play, one frequently comes across statements like the following:
Patriarchy's socialization of women into servicing creatures is the major accusation in Nora's painful account to Torvald of how first her father, and then he, used her for their amusement. . . how she had no right to think for herself, only the duty to accept their opinions. Excluded from meaning anything, Nora has never been subject, only object. (Templeton 142).
Furthermore, if we go to see a production of this play (at least among English-speaking theatre companies), the chances are we will see something based more or less on this interpretative line: heroic Nora fighting for her freedom against oppressive males and winning out in the end by her courageous final departure. The sympathies will almost certainly be distributed so that our hearts are with Nora, however much we might carry some reservations about her leaving her children.
Now, this construction certainly arises from what is in the play, and I don't wish to dismiss it out of hand. However, today I would like to raise some serious question about or qualifications to it. I want to do so because this vision of A Doll's House has always struck me as oversimple, as, in some sense, seriously reductive, an approach that removes from the play much of its complexity and almost all its mystery and power. For A Doll's House, as I read it, is not primarily a blow for women's emancipation, a social comedy revealing the need for change in the patriarchal middle class. It is, by contrast, a tragedy, and Nora has (for me) far more in common with, say, Oedipus or Antigone than she has with Major Barbara or the Goodbye Girl. Her exit, thus, is much more a self-destructive assertion of her uncompromising and powerful ego, a necessary expression of her Romantic quest for freedom, than it is an intelligently earned insight into how best she can learn to function as an individual amid a conforming and oppressive society.
I don't propose to set forth a fully detailed argument in support of this thesis, but I would like to raise some questions which might invite readers to consider (or re-consider) the adequacy of what I have sketched out above (in much too cursory a fashion) as the most common response to this play. My aim here is, as I say, to challenge any response to the play which might too quickly and complacently file it in an rubric labeled orthodox feminism fiction and move on to something else. In making my case, I shall move from things about which we can agree quite easily towards more complex and contentious issues.
The Social Context
Let me begin my interpretative remarks with something we can all readily agree upon, the nature of the social world depicted in A Doll's House, the society in which these characters have grown up and live. For there seems to be widespread agreement that Ibsen's portrayal of that society emphasizes how middle-class life here is limiting, brutal, and unforgiving.
The society appears affluent and agreeable enough for those who can operate in it successfully. The Helmers have a very nice home and are looking forward to even more commodious living once Torvald gets his appointment. There is room here to celebrate Christmas with presents, to employ servants, to play music, to enjoy all sorts of creature comforts, and to celebrate with one's friends. Many of the most cherished ideals of middle-class life, then and now, are clearly on display.
But we learn that such benefits come at a price: one must conform to a view of proper conduct which is, in many respects, extremely narrow, savagely enforced, and unforgiving. This society values money, contracts, and conventional respectability over anything else and has no room for people who do not fit comfortably into its expectations. Such people, the outsiders, live desperate lives. This aspect comes out most obviously in Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, not merely in their stories but, more importantly, in their appearance. In sharp contrast to Nora and Torvald's apparent health, these two people, still quite young, have prematurely aged (so much so that Nora has trouble recognizing Kristine when she first appears)--a factor that is at once noticeable in stage productions which choose to make the point. The savagery they have to endure on the outskirts of society manifests itself also in their desperate desire to get back into the ranks of accepted middle-class citizens. They have tried an alternative life, and the experience is killing them (and their children)--a point which, as we shall see, casts an all-important ironic shadow over Nora's emancipatory departure at the end.
The cruelty of that society is not simply economic, although that is the most obvious manifestation of what happens to outsiders, as we learn through Krogstad's situation. There is an important emotional component to their distress as well, for the isolation they must endure can leave them unable to create for themselves a meaningful relationship, to derive human significance from their interactions with others (the basis of Kristine's troubles). Those of whom society disapproves or who don't have a secure middle-class status are thus frozen out, literally frozen in that they have to fight for a subsistence, but also figuratively frozen by the impossibility of realizing a rich social existence. Kristine's experience here is important because when we first meet her she has what Nora chooses at the end of the play--independence from any immediate social responsibility--and she finds in it no satisfying living purpose. She wants to get back into the society. Her experience on the fringes has taught her that she must, if possible, live her life in society (more about this point later).
In this respect, an important element in this play may well be the weather. Outside the warmth of the house, the world is bitterly cold, full of snow (something film versions of this play can and have brought out more emphatically than stage productions). There is here no consoling sense that nature offers any alternative to society: nature here is brutal, a symbolic extension of the wintry life outside the respectable social group. One film production of the play (I believe the one starring Jane Fonda) makes this explicit by showing us Krogstad's desperately cold and cramped living quarters, where he has to try to raise his children.
The other eloquent testimony to what this society adds up to is the figure of Dr. Rank. He is, by any external measure of things, very successful, rich and well respected. He is a doctor, a man who heals. And yet Dr. Rank is dying from the inside, from syphilis, a disease which does not affect his well-groomed, prosperous, and respectable exterior but which eats away at his vital organs. He acquired this progressively debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, not from any wrong doing on his part, but from his father as his inheritance, just as other citizens have acquired their way of living and judging others from their past (from their fathers). In Dr. Rank (whose name in English means, interestingly enough, both a high status and a foul smell) we have encapsulated the destructive ironies at the heart of this middle-class ethic, presented to us as an inherited, incurable, fatal infection.
The nature of this disease as a symbol for the sickness in that society is important, for it is not the case that the infection is a single isolated disaster, on the order of, say, the plague in Oedipus' Thebes or the sickness in Macbeth's Scotland, something purged by the end of the play through the actions of and reactions to the hero. The sickness in this play is incurable, endemic, and traditional. It is a fatal condition imposed upon the community. This point is, as we shall see, important in any final assessment of Nora's final decision (which has no significantly transforming effect upon those she leaves behind).
When we turn our attention to Torvald the most important point we can make (to begin with) is the most obvious: he is a very successful participant in this middle-class society, a professional on the way up the social scale, in charge of the engine of middle-class respectability, the bank. He seems to like his job and, so far as we can tell, he has earned his success.
We need to bear this in mind, because it is all too easy to dismiss Torvald as a fool, some unworthy adolescent foisted on Nora by circumstance. He is not: he is a hard-working and successful professional man in a challenging job. All this endorses the notion that he is by no means unintelligent.
Torvald's problem (if that is the right word) is that his intelligence is entirely determined by and limited to his awareness of the social rules around him. We get no sense (until the very end) that he has any vital inner life of which he is aware: he thinks of himself through the eyes of others, and his opinions of others are wholly determined by how they affect his social position. His reasons for wanting Krogstad gone are clear enough evidence of this. Past connections with the man or even the man's character and abilities are irrelevant (to say nothing of any sympathy with his situation): what matters is that Krogstad's conversations with him are embarrassing; they challenge his social identity because they are inappropriate to the positions the two men occupy. We should not underestimate the strength of Torvald's feelings here--his identity, how he thinks of himself, is so bound up with what people will think of him in relation to what is expected that nothing else matters.
Hence, Torvald thinks (to the extent he thinks at all) in simplistic formulas. His moral code is entirely derived from society's expectations, and we get no sense that he is in any way a reflective man, wondering about any problems which might arise from such a simplistic approach to life. The rules matter to him more than the the people whom they hurt, and for Torvald the business of life is a matter of following those rules scrupulously, regarding those who break them (for whatever reason) as immoral and dangerous.
For these reasons, Torvald has no sympathetic understanding of or interest in people other than in their social context. For example, he treats Mrs. Linde very casually. She is an unimportant person, irrelevant to Torvald's sense of himself. Hence, she is hardly worth noticing. And Torvald's relationship with Dr. Rank does not include any complex and understanding sympathy for what that man is going through (although we learn that they were best friends as children). Why should it? Dr. Rank's friendship is an important social asset (hence, valuable to Torvald), but Dr. Rank's suffering and death bring an end to that, so there's no point in thinking about him further.
Given this aspect of Torvald's character it seems clear that Torvald has an acute sensitivity to what society requires and little sensitivity to anything else (to suggest that he is a totally insensitive man is, I think, to miss an important point). Presumably he has always been like this, and society has rewarded him handsomely for that approach to life: a nice home, beautiful wife, young children, important job, good income, good economic prospects. He's honest enough about that, for he makes no attempt to pretend that he believes in anything other than what society's rules indicate (the notion that he is capable of pretending, of having some secret desire not to be the way he is, seems extremely unlikely). More than that, he appears incapable of even imagining another dimension to life. In fact, we might well see him as the fullest living embodiment of the perfectly and entirely social man in this milieu (in this respect he's not unlike Creon in Sophocles' Oedipus although Torvald is a much more extreme case). That's why Torvald's comments about how he will act the hero should the need arise are so empty: heroes are, by definition, unconventionally great. Torvald is a thoroughly conventional man.
Torvald has thus little-to-no sense of personal independence. What he is and how he thinks are totally determined from the outside, and he is perfectly content with that (no doubt that's what makes him such a useful manager of the bank). This characteristic also makes him (as I shall argue in more detail later) a man relatively easy to manipulate, so long as his sense of society's rules is not violated. It might also mean that he is (as many have argued) as much a victim of this society as anyone else (a doll perhaps). He may be reaping the rewards this society has to offer, but the price is extremely high. At the same time, it also makes him correct in a good deal of what he says. Torvald is a man who understands how to function in society, and he is well aware of what happens to anyone who breaks the rules. We may find the fact that he believes in the rules and has no trouble appealing to them indicates a serious defect in his character (and it does), but that does not cancel out the fact that when he talks of how society will respond to Nora's forgery, he is right. We should not simply write off Torvald's feelings as an overreaction to what will happen if his wife's crime becomes well known.
The truly complex question in relation to Torvald concerns the nature of his feelings for Nora. We can see clearly enough that an important component in these feelings is the social satisfaction he derives from having a beautiful young wife all to himself, someone he can parade around in front of other men as his trophy, arousing their jealously when he takes her away from the party to gratify the sexual stimulation he has gained by her public dance. All this is clear enough. The important question, however, is whether there is any more to his feelings than that. Is she merely a trophy wife, a toy doll in his doll's house?
Much of our response to this issue will depend upon how Torvald is depicted, especially the extent to which he is presented to us as a sexually passionate, attractive man, perhaps even dashingly handsome (as was certainly the case in the Janet McTeer/Owen Teale production on Broadway a few years ago). We may like to imagine that excessively conventional social men cannot possibly be anything other than wimps in bed, but (if experience is any guide) that is surely an unjustified generalization. And there is no doubt that Torvald feels a strong sexual attraction for Nora (something which has induced a few directors to include the marriage bed in the scenery).
Why should this matter? Well, it does to this extent: if Torvald's sexual advances are coming from someone repulsive or even sexually offensive, then the production will underscore emphatically a certain dimension of Nora's later dissatisfaction. If, however, there is a sense that the Helmers are sexually passionate with each other and derive great mutual satisfaction from their sexual natures within their marriage, the dynamics of Nora's transformation acquire a significantly different texture. Whatever is forcing her to leave, sexual oppression is not a part of it. In fact, she may well be turning her back on her sexuality in her quest for independence.
My sense is that Ibsen goes out of his way to bring out Torvald's sexual nature in his feelings for Nora and gives every indication that those feelings are reciprocated. For all her apparent childishness, Nora is a sexual creature who radiates (and uses) sexual power over Torvald (in the dancing) and over Dr. Rank in that strange business with the silk stockings. It may well be that the apparent childishness is itself a sexual ploy, part of the erotic richness in the relationship. There is even a sense that Torvald recognizes what she is doing in this way and welcomes it as part of the sexual roles they play (as does Nora). I realize this line of thinking gets us into an infinite regression, but I make the point to stress that how one reads Torvald's sexuality in relation to Nora's (something clearly in the play) will be crucial in assessing her later accusations against him.
Obviously, there is more to be said about this relationship. Suffice it to say here that Torvald's sexuality does suggest that within that entirely conventional man a somewhat more complex figure lurks and that his love for Nora, however much we may disapprove of various moments in their lives together, has a strongly passionate core. This quality, I think, is essential to a full appreciation of the play (especially of Torvald's conduct at the end) and should not be neutralized by any attempt to see in Torvald a sexless, unintelligent bore, like, for example, Tesman (in Hedda Gabler), so that we can add sexual oppression more easily to the list of charges against that patriarchal society victimizing poor Nora.
The central mystery and challenge of A Doll's House are obviously the character of Nora, our century's most famous stage heroine. And no matter what one says about her, there will be counter-arguments, rival interpretations, as there are with all great dramatic characters who are always, in a sense, underdetermined.
What I mean by that phrase is that at the heart of great characters is a mystery, an ambiguity, something that finally eludes rational interpretation. We do what we can to make reasonable sense of their motives, but we can never be entirely successful and remain true to the character as presented to us, because, as one critic puts it (in relation to Shakespeare), the greatest dramatic characters have the "freedom of incongruity" (Bayley 47), and hence the power to evade the neat compartments we want to place them in. Part of my objection to what I have called above the common interpretation is that it denies this mystery. It overdetermines Nora, seeing in her a character whose actions are fully and entirely comprehensible in the light of a modern ideology, making her, in effect, typical rather than extraordinary, unique.
For that reason, I don't have any complete rational explanation for Nora. After all, in a sense I am contending that Nora is a great dramatic character because she eludes final definition, any neat compartmentalization. We should treat her as we do, say, Shakespeare's Cleopatra or Falstaff, someone eternally fascinating about whom we can make some useful observations, but not with any ambition finally to define her fully and completely.
So I propose to make some observations and suggestions about Nora, elements which arise from the text and which we have to take into account. What these (and other things I shall not be mentioning) all add up to is the challenge facing us in our seminar discussions.
An obvious place to start is the title of the play, A Doll's House. This invites us to apply a metaphor to the play, to see what is going on in the Helmer household as somehow analogous to a child's game featuring an artificial life of dolls manipulated by the doll master or mistress. The title invites us at once to wonder about the issue of power: Just who is in control here?
The quick and easy answer to this, of course, is that Torvald is in charge, society's darling and the male head of the household. But the opening scenes surely call this interpretation into question. For we see, in action, Nora controlling Torvald expertly. He may adopt a conventionally controlling tone, what with the rules about money and macaroons, but Nora is the one who is getting her own way, eating macaroons and spending money (and getting more) as her wishes prompt (the first thing we see her do is give the porter an over-generous tip). There may even be a sense that Torvald knows this: part of their relationship requires him to set the rules and Nora to flout them (in one production this is delightfully brought out by Torvald's brushing off the sugar from Nora's lips as she denies eating any candy).
And the staging of the play strongly suggest that the living room in which the action takes place is Nora's realm. Much here will depend upon the stage setting, of course, but throughout the play Torvald seems much keener to move off into his study than to linger in that room. And, even if Torvald is determined to stay in his study, when Nora wants him to appear, she knows exactly how to bring him out (as that word "bought" on p. 2 indicates).
Some viewers and readers object to what they feel are the demeaning animal pet names Torvald uses (sky-lark, squirrel, singing bird), although why these should be any worse than many modern equivalents (honey, baby, cutie pie, and so on) I'm not sure. There is certainly no sense that Nora finds these labels unacceptable--at times (although not here) she uses them herself to get her way with Torvald.
But, one might be tempted to remark, all this is surely very demeaning. Yes, Nora may appear happy enough and getting her way, but she's playing a silly role, acting the child-wife when she is, in fact, a mature married woman and mother in her late twenties. Isn't the game going on here oppressive to her? Isn't there something a little perverse about the way she acts with her husband?
Yes, of course, she is playing a role, as is Torvald. There is a game going on, however we choose to judge it. The question one needs to consider is this: Who is in charge of the script? Who is the doll master here? There is, I would urge, no simple answer to this question. The opening scene, before the interruption with the arrival of Mrs. Linde, puts pressure on us to recognize this complexity, especially given that Nora appears so happy, confident, and effective in her role (the direction that she is singing or humming to herself is significant in this respect).
Role Playing and Control
Having raised the issue of roles or game playing, let me offer the suggestion that this concept is one key to approaching the play, and particularly Nora's role. Let me further make the observation that one crucial factor in the roles Nora plays is that she needs to be in control, to take the lead role, as it were, using other people either as supporting actors or audience and that she writes her own script.
This notion (which I will seek to explore in more detail soon) helps me to deal with a question which frequently arises here: How can one woman make so many unexpected transitions? How is it possible for the child-wife to play the adult female tease (with Dr. Rank), the capable determined businesswoman (in her secret dealings with the debt), the frantically desperate woman thinking of suicide, and, above all, the coldly independent mature woman at the conclusion of the play? Well, one common feature these manifestations of Nora's character all have is that they enable her to control others, to assert herself without really attending to, listening carefully to, learning from, or acting on what other people say.
Consider for a moment why Nora would not have told Torvald long ago about the debt. The reason she gives is interesting: she doesn't need to at this point in her life--she's young enough and pretty enough to exert her control over him in other ways (and telling about the debt would shatter her image as the clueless but sexy child-wife). However, she is looking forward to using that event in the future, when she can no longer rely upon her looks. How exactly this would help restore his affections may not be clear, but there is certainly a sense that Nora hopes it will make her more important to him. The fact that Nora thinks of her relationship with Torvald in such terms is interesting: she will make him respond to her (as she does now); her actions will determine and preserve their marriage (and she will decide on the appropriate means).
Parenthetically, it's worth asking where the notion for all this dressing up, dancing, recitation, and so on, this performing in front of Torvald, comes from. We could, of course, write it off as a manifestation of Torvald's patriarchal oppressiveness (something Nora learned to do at her father's knee), but that, it strikes me, is too facile. He obviously enjoys it, and so does Nora, who shows no sign of dissatisfaction with it. If it is the case that Torvald loves Nora and Nora knows it (and that seems clear enough at the start), then one can (I think) assume that they are equally responsible for creating and maintaining this way of enriching their lives together: Nora will act out her various roles, and Torvald will respond. She will keep herself in the centre of the marital spotlight.
This characteristic tendency of Nora helps us understand, too, why she shows no particular interest in Torvald's work or in social issues outside her own sphere, why she is so insistent that if society's rules indicate that something she has done is wrong, then society itself must be at fault, why she, now in her late twenties, has learned nothing at all (and has no interest in learning anything) about other people or society in general. These things are irrelevant to Nora, not because she is denied an opportunity to think about them (her secret repayment of the debt puts her in continuing touch with a world outside her home), but because they don't interest her, they provide no opportunity for her to perform, no space in which she can appeal to a sympathetic audience, no world over which she can exert any control. On the contrary, to learn about such things she would have to stop performing and start listening to others, absorbing what they say, adjusting her understanding of herself in the light of new insights into larger questions, that is, surrender control. This Nora is unable to do. Hence, she dismisses such concerns.
The issue of Nora's need to be in the spotlight helps us to deal with another question: Why does Nora tell Kristine her deepest secret, after such a short conversation? She hardly knows the woman. The conversation leading up to Nora's revelation offers us a significant clue: there is a sense of competition between the two women. Nora's appearance and surroundings would seem to define her as something of a winner in the game of life, in comparison with Kristine, and Nora begins their talk by, in effect, showing off to Kristine, inviting her guest's admiration for her and the life she has. But Kristine speaks slightingly of her, reminding Nora of her childishness and spendthrift ways, in effect, challenging Nora ("What a child you are, Nora"); Kristine refuses to applaud, treating the notion that Nora might be able to help her as ridiculous: What, after all, has Nora ever accomplished? That remark, a direct challenge to Nora's ego, is enough to set Nora talking about her forgery, a dramatic narrative in which she is the star, in which she can demonstrate to Kristine and to herself that, however childish people might think she is, that's not entirely the case. That information also enables Nora to seize control of the conversation, to make herself the heroine of this small encounter, rather than listening sympathetically to what Kristine has to say. Having done that, she can pointedly refuse Kristine a bed for the night, a polite but brutal indication of Nora's indifference to Kristine's situation.
[The sense of a competition here in which Nora demonstrates her superiority over Kristine may help to explain a particularly puzzling question: Why does Kristine insist that Krogstad's letter be delivered? He, after all, offers to take it back, thus averting any disclosure of the forgery. Kristine dissuades him, and Torvald gets the incriminating document. Why does Kristine do this? She is much more intelligently aware than Nora is of the consequences of Torvald's receiving the news of his wife's forgery. She does not fully explain her reasons, but I cannot help feeling that she is here returning to that earlier conversation. Nora thinks she is so wonderful. All right, let's see what she does now when her entire world blows up in her face, just as mine did.]
The fascinating point in that first conversation with Kristine is that Nora's revelation springs from a need within her, or, if that is too strong a word, from the very nature of her character. Telling Kristine is hardly prudent. Nor is it necessary to bolster Nora's confidence about her achievements (Nora is very self-assured within herself). But bringing out the story is essential if Kristine is to see Nora as an important person, if she is going to control their moment together by becoming the centre of attention. The story serves Nora's need for self-dramatization as a means for controlling her surroundings.
The same issue arises in her relationship with Dr. Rank, a long-term friendship based upon roles: Nora performs for him (in conversation) and he listens. His confession of love (on p. 49), understandable and eloquent enough, upsets Nora. Why should it do that? His confession calls attention to his feelings, to his desire to act on her behalf, to take charge. In effect, he is changing the rules of the game they have been playing together. Nora has no interest in or understanding of such a transformed relationship; besides, she is in charge of the game. She's happy enough with their roles together as she defines them. She accuses Rank of having ruined everything, another small but puzzling insight into this complex heroine's character.
This notion of Nora's desire (or need) for control may help to explain the curious relationship she has with her children. They, of course, cannot be dealt with in the same way as adults; they are impervious to what Nora can do best, perform. Children require that their needs be attended to, that people listen and invite them to perform. They impose their own demands. Hence, Nora seems to show little interest in them. They cannot give her what she wants (they are, in some respects, too like her for her to deal with). She explicitly says how much she would like to be a child again.
And the strength of her relationship with Torvald becomes easier to understand if we see this element of Nora's character. For Torvald brings no personal demands, no complex personal identity to his experience, no desire to perform. In that sense, he is a perfect complement to Nora's character, and we can understand why they are so happy together. Yes, he is full of sententious moralizing about social issues, but we know those are irrelevant to Nora. She lets him act the authority on such questions and provide the space where they can live their lives. Her interest is in controlling that space (and part of that control, of course, is giving Torvald the sense that he is in control). She only begins to criticize him when he will not give her what she wants (she may be right here, when she accuses Torvald of being petty for rejecting Krogstad, but it's interesting that she hasn't had this insight into Torvald until this moment: one gets a sense that she is more upset at Torvald for refusing her than for his treatment of Krogstad).
Now, I don't mean to criticize or belittle Nora over this matter of control. For it's quite clear that her wish to be in charge at the centre of things has saved this marriage and is largely responsible for the pleasure she and Torvald derive from it. If Nora were not that sort of person, if she were less of an egotist and more acutely sensitive to the society and other people around her, she would never have gone ahead with the loan, and Torvald would have died. She was able to undertake that (and to save Torvald's life) only because she has such a strong emotional commitment to herself, to her ways of doing things, over any and all objections. Something needed to be done, and she did it (society be damned). Moreover, the hard disciplined work over many years necessary to repay the loan is a tribute to Nora's determination and skill in carrying out her own project, all the while sustaining her own marriage in quite another role.
This quality lies at the heart of Nora's heroic character. Her confidence in herself, in her abilities to control the situation, to solve the problem, has led to her success and has confirmed, in her eyes, that she is right. She flouted society's laws, worked hard, and is now about to reap the success of that action by handing over the final payment. It has not been easy, and there are times when a certain strain shows through (as in that mention of the word "Damn"), but there's no sense that Nora feels that she has been compelled to act in this way, that she has not freely chosen to be the person she is.
The Loss of Control
Krogstad's arrival, of course, changes things, because he insists that she answer to him. Most of the rest of the play is taken up with Nora's attempt to cope with this unexpected intrusion into her agenda. Her immediate responses invite us to ponder an obvious question: Why doesn't Nora simply tell Torvald? Why does she go to such frantic lengths to conceal the truth from him?
My sense is that Nora's panic has less to do with the secret coming out than with her growing sense that she is losing control of the situation. She is now having to answer to circumstances dictated by others rather than staying firmly in the centre of the stage answering to her own demands. She has no understanding of how to do this. So her mind resorts to what has worked for her in the past, taking on herself sole responsibility for somehow dealing with an unraveling situation. The various methods she uses (seeking to cajole Torvald, thoughts of suicide, the tarantella, attempting to rob the letter box) indicate her increasing desperation at having to deal with events which she cannot control. She is bringing to bear what has worked for her in the past, but what she has to deal with here resists her attempts. Other people and the rules of the society in which they live are too fatally complex and inexorable for her efforts.
When nothing seems to work she takes refuge in a self-generated fiction, that somehow Torvald will transform himself into the romantic hero of her dreams and the issue will be resolved. This, of course, is the most transparent illusion, given what we have learned about that society and Torvald's relationship to and understanding of it. It's a manifestation of Nora's inability to think intelligently about what is happening--like so many passionately tragic figures, the more complicated and out of control the situation gets the blinder she gets to what is really going on (Oedipus' notion that he may be the son of a slave comes to mind as something comparable)
The Final Conversation
The final scene of A Doll's House is one of the most famous and hotly debated moments in modern drama, endlessly argued about. I make no attempt here to account for all the complexities of this fascinating scene, but once again I'd like to offer some observations to fuel further discussion.
Torvald's behaviour once he reads Krogstad's letter totally demolishes the illusion Nora has taken refuge in, and the lectures he delivers to Nora at the start of the scene remind us unmistakably of what a total social prig he is, determined to salvage what he can by deception and very angry at Nora for what she has done. We are right to find what he says very offensive, especially since he makes no sympathetic attempt to talk to her, to explore her motivation, to share the crisis together as two individuals at a critical point in their lives together.
[Naturally, the staging of the first part of this scene is absolutely crucial for shaping our response to what happens later. If, for example, Torvald's angry abuse leads him to hit Nora, the impact of his tirade will be very different indeed from what it would be if we sense a genuine pain and panic under his insults, if it deflates him rather than energizing him to violence against her]
At the same time, we need to recognize that much of what Torvald says is right. If this gets out, he will be ruined. We know enough about his society to understand that the slightest accusation of criminal conduct will destroy them both (and that, we know, is so much more than just losing a job). And we have seen that for Torvald his social role is who he is, his entire identity. He has no conception of himself outside that role. So, in effect, Nora has, in his eyes, destroyed him. We may deplore the shallowness of his character, but we should not dismiss the intensity of his feelings or the accuracy of his perception of how society will react. Everything he believes in is in danger of being taken away. And that's why, once the danger has passed, he can instantly become himself again: his identity has been restored.
So when he utters (and keeps repeating) that line which so often earns a laugh in the modern theatre ("I forgive you everything") he is making (in his eyes) a sincere concession. Since society won't know, things can remain the same, and he is prepared to interpret her actions as love for him combined with inexperience in the ways of the world, a situation he is prepared to assist her to overcome.
All this is clear enough (although we have to be careful here, I think, to listen carefully to what Torvald is saying and recognize his feelings--something not easy to do in these transformed times). The real challenge in this scene is Nora's conduct. Why does she reject Torvald so utterly? And how are we supposed to respond to her indictment of their former life together?
Prima facie, there are two ways we might initially approach Nora's conduct. We might see it as the awakening into a more mature understanding of herself, a sudden insight into the inherently unsatisfactory nature of her previous life, fuelled by an intense desire to get rid of the oppressive need to, as Nora puts it, do "tricks for you, Torvald." She accuses Torvald and her father of having done her a great wrong by not permitting her to achieve anything, and she is now determined to strike a blow to gain her own independence. Such a view commits us to a sudden transformation into a "new" woman, something many critics have found implausible (see Marker and Marker, Chapter 3).
Such an interpretation can easily become a celebration of Nora's newly found independence, an endorsement of her actions as demonstrating a valuable and necessary integrity in the face of an unacceptably conforming and compromising life. She wants her life to acquire significant value, and she has come to the realization that that can only occur outside the family, on her own.
Alternatively, we might see that Nora is being entirely intransigent here: she is doing what she has always done, performing to her own script with no attention to anyone else. She is, as it were, choosing another role. The indictment of her previous life, after all, may be more a justification for what she has decided to do now than a just assessment of what she and Torvald experienced together. That line Nora says about never being happy, only thinking she was happy, when she wasn't really, invites us to think that there is some hair-splitting chop logic going on. Nora has decided now that she wasn't happy, and so she wasn't. We need to bring to bear here our response to the opening of the play. The same point applies to her charge that her father and Torvald never loved her; they only thought it was nice to be in love with her, a fine and justified distinction or some special pleading?
In fact, we need to treat Nora's accusations with intelligent honesty. When she says, for example, that she and Torvald have never had a serious conversation together, we might want to ask why that should be the case. She brings the point up in the context of how much she has been wronged by the men in her life. But how much responsibility does she bear for what she is now desiderating? Why are Torvald and her father the only ones who bear responsibility for this? Surely if she had wanted a conversation she could have initiated one easily enough at some point in the eight years of their married life together?
But is Nora capable of a true conversation? Is she really able to bring to bear a sufficient interest in other people to listen to what they have to say, to share the conversational stage with them as equals, to make the concessions necessary if they are to enjoy some of the social space? There is very little evidence of that in the play, since Nora's idea of dealing with other people is, as I have mentioned, something different from conversation. And this final talk confirms the point. Nora and Torvald are not having a conversation, because she isn't willing to listen to him. She's made up her mind, and it doesn't really matter any more. The old game is over, and she's not willing to negotiate a new set of rules, for she's already determined what role she will now play.
And it's important also to recognize (just in case we don't) that to some extent Torvald and Nora are arguing at cross purposes. The complementary nature of their characters, something which worked so well in their marriage, here leaves them incapable of understanding one another: she cannot fathom why he must always defer to social rules, and he cannot grasp why she wants to challenge them so drastically. So there is no common ground in their understanding of the issue. This point emerges in an exchange that is probably the most quoted passage from the final scene:
TORVALD: Nobody sacrifices his honour for the one he loves.
NORA: Hundreds and thousands of women have.
This quotation has been appropriated for all sorts of ideological concerns to the point where its dramatic complexity may be overlooked. For what's evident here is that these two have radically different notions of what honour means. Torvald is saying, in effect, no man will abandon his earned social position, the public recognition he has attained, his identity in the eyes of his fellow citizens for a personal relationship. Nora's response says, in effect, hundreds and thousands of women have surrendered their integrity (their personal sense of identity, their self-generated sense of themselves) in the service of society, specifically in marriage. The impasse here points to something above and beyond the gendered vocabulary in which it is presented: the clash between different aspects of the human identity, an issue that Ibsen is not concerned to solve but which this scene serves to illuminate and explore.
In sorting our way through this final scene, we need to pay careful attention to the changes Torvald goes through. For he makes some very important offers, concessions at odds with his very conventional views of male and female roles and social rules. He travels a long way from the insufferably scared and angry prig at the beginning of the scene. He suggests they live together as brother and sister, he says he may have the capacity to change, he wants to maintain contact--he gives every indication that he loves Nora and will do anything to maintain their relationship in some form or another (and she can set the terms). Torvald is never more sympathetically presented than here. For the first time in the play he confronts his deepest feelings and tries to act on them without falling back on a shallow convention, revealing in the process an unexpected flexibility which suggests that, if Nora took him up on his offer, he might very well learn and change. And his motives here register as deeply felt feelings from within, not a concern for keeping up appearances.
Every offer is coldly denied. Nora has made up her mind: the role she is now set on playing has no room for Torvald, and that's all there is to it. She provides all sorts of reasons, but they are unconvincing as reasons (e.g., "I must try to discover who is right, society or me"). There is no rational plan at work here, no carefully thought out life direction. Nora is acting out of powerful emotional feelings about herself, shaping reasons to justify deeply irrational desires. In fact, the above remark reveals that, for all she has been through, Nora still thinks of herself apart from and, if necessary, in opposition to society, not as someone who might have to make some sort of compromise with society (of the sort Torvald is offering). Such a compromise would require her to surrender part of herself to society, and that Nora is not prepared to do, any more than she was prepared to do it when the question of committing the original forgery came up, not even if preserving total control of her life requires her to turn her back on the man who loves her and whom she loved (and on the passionate sex life they have had together) and on her children (who have never been a significant part of her sense of herself). On this view of the matter, Nora's exit serves no reasonable principle: it is a radical assertion of her own egocentricity, an ultimately selfish act.
The Tragic Conclusion
I would like to suggest that both of the above interpretations of the final scene (and there are others) are, to a certain extent, applicable and that it is a great mistake to insist exclusively upon one or the other--to celebrate Nora as a champion of feminist principles or condemn her as an egotist. The complexity of the emotionally charged ending contains both of these possibilities working in such a strongly ironic combination that the ending resists simple moral formulation.
For Nora's exit is a heroically brave manifestation of her uncompromising integrity, her passionate sense of herself, her absolute refusal to live a life where she is not in control of her actions. There is about her actions something grand, defiant, and totally free, values all the more precious given the infected society she is rejecting. The sight of such a person acting in such a way can scare us, for such action calls into question all the compromises we make in our lives to remain within our own doll houses. Such a vision of freedom challenges our sense of what we have done and are doing with our lives. Those contemporaries who were outraged at the ending of the play were being honest enough about their own feelings. If we are less upset, that may be because we have consoling ways to reassure ourselves, to neutralize the full effect of what she is doing.
[This heroic quality in Nora's character indicates why the alternative "happy" ending Ibsen wrote for the play is so totally false. Technically it resolves the work into a comedy, by having Nora finally learn the importance of compromise for the sake of social bonds. But that shift violates everything that is most interesting and vital about her. There is nothing about this fascinating character which indicates that she would collapse so abjectly and unexpectedly. It's as if Sophocles provided an alternative ending in which Oedipus comes running back full of apologies, eager to make an appointment to see an eye doctor and a family counselor]
At the same time, however, her actions make no rational sense. They violate the strong bonds (and the social responsibilities those bonds bring with them) she has with Torvald and her children (whose major purpose in this play is to underscore this point about Nora). The frozen dark world she is going into is as unforgiving and brutal as the desert Oedipus wanders off into at the end of his tragedy. It is a world which has broken people like Krogstad and Kristine, who were better equipped in some respects than Nora is to cope with its demands. And she is carrying out into that world the most fragile of illusions: the demand for Romantic self-realization.
Hence, the question so many people want resolved ("Is Nora right or wrong to walk out the door at the end?") does not admit of a clear answer. The play insists that such a demand for simple moral clarity in the face of human actions is naive--rather like asking if Oedipus is right or wrong to destroy his own eyesight and become an exile. Nora is both triumphantly right and horribly wrong. She is free, brave, strong, and uncompromisingly herself and, at the same time, socially irresponsible, naive, self-destructive, and destructive of others. We may well want to sort out these contradictions into something more coherent and reassuring, something we can fit into our comfortable conventional moral frameworks (Nora the militant feminist, Nora the selfish home-wrecker), and there are productions which make that easy for us to do. My sense of the text, however, suggests that Ibsen is not going to sort out these contradictions for us, for they lie at the heart of the tragic experience he is inviting us to explore.
Those who see Nora's predicament as something primarily imposed on her from the society around her, by oppressive men especially, may well feel that this play has become somewhat dated. After all, we have made so many progressive strides since then, and leaving house and home to forge a self-created life is so much easier in all sorts of ways, for women and for men (some of my students have assumed that Nora can enroll in a self-help group, start studying at a local college, and quickly set herself up in business). Templeton pertinently observes that such an assessment is a great mistake (143), but her observation serves to remind readers that there is still much to do if women are to be truly free of the "chivalric ideal and the notion of a female mind" (145). The struggle must go on.
I, too, think any view that the play has become dated is premature but for a very different reason. For Ibsen's conclusion here, as I have mentioned, is something much more profoundly tragic, pointing, as it does, to the inevitably self-destructive course carved out by the personality (man or woman) who seeks full freedom to answer only to herself. It's true we have enormously eased the corrupting social pressures which enclose us all (at least in most liberal societies in the West) and which quickly condemn those who reject conventional expectations in order to carry out their own entirely self-determined projects. Or at least we like to think we have (perhaps we have only widened the playing field without changing the rules). It's a moot point, however, if anyone can achieve what Nora sets out to attain as she leaves, without finally paying the full price. That, for me, is presented here as a permanent fact of life, not as a temporary historical condition which we must strive to correct. Those who reject the most intimate social bonds in order to be themselves without compromising their integrity, as Nora does, are, like Antigone, Macbeth, Oedipus, and other tragic figures, heading for destruction.
Such a view pays tribute to Nora as a heroic personality, a tragic heroine, and makes this play less a comment on social problems than an insight into our permanent condition, our fate. We, of course, do not like to talk or think about fate, committed as we are to altering as aggressively as we can anything in our life we find limiting or threatening, and thus it is much easier for us to see Nora as a rallying point for social change, a major comic heroine leading us to the barricades. As I mentioned at the start, this is a popular view and there is much in the play to sustain it. But it fails to do justice to my response to Nora, which is not admiration, condemnation, or concern, but awe that she can be so committed to her own vision of things and have the ultimate courage and passionate egocentricity to walk out into that frozen desert alone, abandoning, among other things, love, rather than surrender one jot of what she perceives as her integrity. What she does makes little rational sense to someone, like myself, who defines himself from within the security of the community, but as an assertion of some ultimate individual freedom and heroic greatness, her actions stir one's soul.
Let me, in closing, anticipate one serious objection to the interpretative line I have suggested in this lecture, an objection which is not uncommon among those who sometimes find a tragic view of life suspiciously like an ideological defense of an oppressive status quo. It might be argued that seeing Nora as a tragic heroine (as I have tried to do), setting herself against the fatal conditions imposed by society, is an attempt to neutralize the revolutionary social impact of this play, an attempt to see patriarchal oppression, however unwelcome, as a law of nature, rather than as a corrigible social condition which can and must be altered.
I am alert to this objection, and I take it seriously, for there is ample evidence in history and in fiction (and in interpretation) of a reactionary desire to ascribe injustice to God or fate, rather than to human arrangements, factors which, in fact, can be (and have been) ameliorated. That is, I suppose, one principal reason why ardent reformers and revolutionaries of every persuasion so often have little use for tragedy.
The issue can be summed up in that well-known prayer: "God, give me the patience to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Those defending Nora as an archetypal heroine of social reform presumably laud her for seeking to make appropriate (and practical) changes in what she cannot accept; those, like myself, who derive from her a more tragic sense see her as lacking the wisdom to recognize the difference (her "wisdom," if that is the right, word, is anchored firmly in her powerful emotional sense of herself and does not include any intelligent appreciation of other people or the operations of society). This makes her a very different character (much more challenging and mysterious).
The text of the play, as it stands, can, I would suggest, support both possibilities, and others, and the particular emphasis given to this most famous of modern heroines will emerge from the details of the production. As I said at the start, I'm not trying to close off the more popular interpretation, but rather to encourage readers to think about alternative possibilities. What matters, after all, is not that we finally decide what this is all about, but that we promote a rich interpretative conversation which will teach us something about ourselves.
List of Works Cited
Bayley, John. "Pushkin's Shakespearean Lover." New York Review of Books, XLVII.8 (May 11, 2000), 44-47.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll's House. In Four Major Plays. Trans. James McFarlane and Jens Arup. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Marker, Frederick J. and Lise-Lone Marker, Ibsen's Lively Art: A Performance Study of the Major Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Templeton, Joan. Ibsen's Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997