A Doll’s House

I kept coming across references to Ibsen’s Doll House in Second Wave feminist writing (most recently in Millet’s Sexual Politics, “Until Ibsen’s Nora slammed the door announcing the sexual revolution, [patriarchy’s triumph over matriarchy] went nearly uncontested”), so I dug it out of the stacks at the library. Translations of the 1879 work abound, but I selected a slim pink volume translated by William Archer, stripped of the fluffery of introductions and expositions on the importance of Ibsen. The text stands alone just fine, thank you. Nora has been married for eight years, bearing 3 children, to a man who calls her his squirrel, pet, lark, twittering bird. She plays this role to the hilt, beautiful and pretending frivolousness and being accused of spending too much money by a husband that refuses to go into debt. An old pal, Christina, washes up on the doorstep to ask for her help in getting a job at the bank Nora’s husband was just promoted to manage. To widowed and childless Christina, Nora flaunts her successful life with adorable children, but then drops a bombshell of a secret, that she did not get an inheritance from her father to pay for the family’s trip to Italy (to save her sick husband, Torvald), but that she borrowed money and forged the IOU with her father’s signature (we find out about the forgery later). She’s been paying the debt off gradually with her limited pocket money, and resorted to getting copying work one winter, “I shut myself up every evening and wrote far into the night. Oh sometimes I was so tired, so tired. And yet it was splendid to work in that way and earn money. I almost felt as if I was a man.”
Krogstad is the man to whom she’s indebted, and he tries to blackmail her in order to keep his job at the bank, but fails. Things start to spin out of control, Nora sees visions of drowning herself to spare her husband the ignominy of her falseness, she dances frantically and attempts to keep Torvald from discovering the truth. Doctor Rank is a friend of the family who drops by every night; I think his only purpose in the story is to tempt Nora to the edge of asking for money but then proclaims his love for her at just the wrong moment so she’s unable to ask for help. Bizarrely, Christina reveals her love for Krogstad and is exhilarated that she has someone to work for, a home to make happy. Not sure why that needs to involve a husband, but…
The conflict comes, Torvald reads the letter detailing her “crime” and goes on a rant about the awfulness of it. “During these eight years – she who was my pride and my joy – a hypocrite, a liar – worse, worse – a criminal. Oh the hideousness of it! Ugh! Ugh!”And later proclaiming to Nora: “you have destroyed my whole happiness” and that the children cannot be trusted to her care anymore. But wait! Another letter arrives, and Krogstad has sent back the promissory note with an apology. Torvald is overjoyed “I am saved! Nora, I am saved!” Nora (one can already see her rising up, stepping back, with a raised eyebrow), “And I?” Torvald, “You too, of course; we are both saved, both of us.” Torvald professes his forgiveness and love, but it’s too late, Nora has awakened. “I thank you for your forgiveness.” She leaves, “to take off my doll’s dress.”
Torvald, clueless of the change, “Yes, dear. Try to calm down and recover your balance, my scared little song bird. You may rest secure, I have broad wings to shield you.” He prattles on about how everything is back to normal, how there is something indescribably sweet when a man forgives his wife, “she becomes his property in a double sense. She is as though born again; she has become both wife and child.”
Nora comes back in, having changed into a more sensible dress. “Sit down, Torvald; you and I have much to say to each other.” and “We’ve been married eight years. Does it not strike you that this is the first time we two, you and I, man and wife, have talked together seriously?” She lays out her plan to leave him, to take nothing with her. He implores her to keep to her “holiest duties” as wife and mother. Nora: “My duties toward myself are equally sacred.” She questions her knowledge of religion and society. “I really don’t know – I’m all at sea about these things. I only know that I think quite differently from you about them… I must make up my mind which is right – society or I.” And she leaves, the door slamming on her way out. Yes, yes, yes!