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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
In Dr. a symbolic extension of the wintry life outside the respectable social group. and to celebrate with one's friends. There is here no consoling sense that nature offers any alternative to society: nature here is brutal. if possible. The cruelty of that society is not simply economic. as we learn through Krogstad's situation. from syphilis. 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. and conventional respectability over anything else and has no room for people who do not fit comfortably into its expectations. rich and well respected. to employ servants. And yet Dr. 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. and the experience is killing them (and their children)--a point which. but from his father as his inheritance. and unforgiving. then and now. in their appearance. very successful. The society appears affluent and agreeable enough for those who can operate in it successfully. and respectable exterior but which eats away at his vital organs. For there seems to be widespread agreement that Ibsen's portrayal of that society emphasizes how middle-class life here is limiting. to enjoy all sorts of creature comforts. just as other citizens have acquired their way of living and judging others from their past (from their fathers). in many respects. This aspect comes out most obviously in Mrs. not from any wrong doing on his part. literally frozen in that they have to fight for a subsistence.Let me begin my interpretative remarks with something we can all readily agree upon. 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. brutal. although that is the most obvious manifestation of what happens to outsiders. to derive human significance from their interactions with others (the basis of Kristine's troubles). extremely narrow. not merely in their stories but. by any external measure of things. casts an all-important ironic shadow over Nora's emancipatory departure at the end. live her life in society (more about this point later). contracts. This society values money. Rank is dying from the inside. The other eloquent testimony to what this society adds up to is the figure of Dr. She wants to get back into the society. the nature of the social world depicted in A Doll's House. He is a doctor. Rank. are clearly on display. both a high status and a foul smell) we have encapsulated the destructive ironies at the heart of this middle- . prosperous. Outside the warmth of the house. live desperate lives. for the isolation they must endure can leave them unable to create for themselves a meaningful relationship. In this respect. In sharp contrast to Nora and Torvald's apparent health. Linde and Krogstad. Many of the most cherished ideals of middle-class life. but also figuratively frozen by the impossibility of realizing a rich social existence. a disease which does not affect his well-groomed. full of snow (something film versions of this play can and have brought out more emphatically than stage productions). He is. Such people. still quite young. where he has to try to raise his children. Her experience on the fringes has taught her that she must. 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. an important element in this play may well be the weather. and unforgiving. a man who heals. these two people. Rank (whose name in English means. savagely enforced. There is room here to celebrate Christmas with presents. Those of whom society disapproves or who don't have a secure middle-class status are thus frozen out. But we learn that such benefits come at a price: one must conform to a view of proper conduct which is. The Helmers have a very nice home and are looking forward to even more commodious living once Torvald gets his appointment. more importantly. He acquired this progressively debilitating and ultimately fatal disease. the outsiders. There is an important emotional component to their distress as well. They have tried an alternative life. interestingly enough. to play music. as we shall see. the world is bitterly cold. the society in which these characters have grown up and live.
because it is all too easy to dismiss Torvald as a fool. 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. And Torvald's relationship with Dr. seems extremely unlikely). some unworthy adolescent foisted on Nora by circumstance. 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. she is hardly worth noticing. He's honest enough about that. 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. The nature of this disease as a symbol for the sickness in that society is important. and we get no sense that he is in any way a reflective man. For these reasons. We need to bear this in mind. of having some secret desire not to be the way he is. Rank's suffering and death bring an end to that. so far as we can tell. say. valuable to Torvald). irrelevant to Torvald's sense of himself. Rank's friendship is an important social asset (hence. as we shall see. He seems to like his job and. Hence. wondering about any problems which might arise from such a simplistic approach to life. Torvald thinks (to the extent he thinks at all) in simplistic formulas. to miss an important point). in charge of the engine of middle-class respectability. Why should it? Dr. All this endorses the notion that he is by no means unintelligent. important job. he treats Mrs.class ethic. The sickness in this play is incurable. His reasons for wanting Krogstad gone are clear enough evidence of this. they challenge his social identity because they are inappropriate to the positions the two men occupy. He is not: he is a hard-working and successful professional man in a challenging job. 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. how he thinks of himself. His moral code is entirely derived from society's expectations. 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). young children. This point is. Linde very casually. 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. The rules matter to him more than the the people whom they hurt. he has earned his success. a professional on the way up the social scale. It is a fatal condition imposed upon the community. and society has rewarded him handsomely for that approach to life: a nice home. presented to us as an inherited. on the order of. and for Torvald the business of life is a matter of following those rules scrupulously. is so bound up with what people will think of him in relation to what is expected that nothing else matters. for it is not the case that the infection is a single isolated disaster. beautiful wife. the bank. but Dr. important in any final assessment of Nora's final decision (which has no significantly transforming effect upon those she leaves behind). incurable. Torvald has no sympathetic understanding of or interest in people other than in their social context. endemic. regarding those who break them (for whatever reason) as immoral and dangerous. Hence. so there's no point in thinking about him further. Torvald 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. and his opinions of others are wholly determined by how they affect his social position. . For example. good income. We should not underestimate the strength of Torvald's feelings here--his identity. good economic prospects. fatal infection. She is an unimportant person. I think. Presumably he has always been like this. and traditional.
Whatever is forcing her to leave. This characteristic also makes him (as I shall argue in more detail later) a man relatively easy to manipulate. The important question. it also makes him correct in a good deal of what he says. We should not simply write off Torvald's feelings as an overreaction to what will happen if his wife's crime becomes well known. there is more to be said about this relationship. That's why Torvald's comments about how he will act the hero should the need arise are so empty: heroes are. 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. Why should this matter? Well. He may be reaping the rewards this society has to offer. Nora is a sexual creature who radiates (and uses) sexual power over Torvald (in the dancing) and over Dr. the dynamics of Nora's transformation acquire a significantly different texture. especially the extent to which he is presented to us as a sexually passionate.More than that. Torvald has thus little-to-no sense of personal independence. At the same time. 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). Suffice it to say here that Torvald's sexuality does suggest . We may like to imagine that excessively conventional social men cannot possibly be anything other than wimps in bed. If. he appears incapable of even imagining another dimension to life. It may well be that the apparent childishness is itself a sexual ploy. Torvald is a man who understands how to function in society. and he is perfectly content with that (no doubt that's what makes him such a useful manager of the bank). It might also mean that he is (as many have argued) as much a victim of this society as anyone else (a doll perhaps). sexual oppression is not a part of it. someone he can parade around in front of other men as his trophy. but that does not cancel out the fact that when he talks of how society will respond to Nora's forgery. unconventionally great. 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). 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. so long as his sense of society's rules is not violated. I realize this line of thinking gets us into an infinite regression. but the price is extremely high. however. however. Torvald is a thoroughly conventional man. The truly complex question in relation to Torvald concerns the nature of his feelings for Nora. Is she merely a trophy wife. Rank in that strange business with the silk stockings. a toy doll in his doll's house? Much of our response to this issue will depend upon how Torvald is depicted. attractive man. 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). 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). Obviously. For all her apparent childishness. 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. but (if experience is any guide) that is surely an unjustified generalization. part of the erotic richness in the relationship. In fact. All this is clear enough. and he is well aware of what happens to anyone who breaks the rules. perhaps even dashingly handsome (as was certainly the case in the Janet McTeer/Owen Teale production on Broadway a few years ago). then the production will underscore emphatically a certain dimension of Nora's later dissatisfaction. by definition. he is right. What he is and how he thinks are totally determined from the outside. arousing their jealously when he takes her away from the party to gratify the sexual stimulation he has gained by her public dance. In fact. she may well be turning her back on her sexuality in her quest for independence. is whether there is any more to his feelings than that. it does to this extent: if Torvald's sexual advances are coming from someone repulsive or even sexually offensive. 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.
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). seeing in her a character whose actions are fully and entirely comprehensible in the light of a modern ideology. any neat compartmentalization. What these (and other things I shall not be mentioning) all add up to is the challenge facing us in our seminar discussions. It overdetermines Nora. So I propose to make some observations and suggestions about Nora. This quality. in a sense. elements which arise from the text and which we have to take into account. We should treat her as we do. For that reason. 2 indicates). Part of my objection to what I have called above the common interpretation is that it denies this mystery. typical rather than extraordinary. I don't have any complete rational explanation for Nora. however much we may disapprove of various moments in their lives together. 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. unique. A Doll's House. After all.that within that entirely conventional man a somewhat more complex figure lurks and that his love for Nora. This invites us to apply a metaphor to the play. For we see. someone eternally fascinating about whom we can make some useful observations. so that we can add sexual oppression more easily to the list of charges against that patriarchal society victimizing poor Nora. in action. making her. say. the greatest dramatic characters have the "freedom of incongruity" (Bayley 47). as there are with all great dramatic characters who are always. Nora The central mystery and challenge of A Doll's House are obviously the character of Nora. there will be counter-arguments. but Nora is the one who is getting her own way. in effect. I think. of course. in a sense I am contending that Nora is a great dramatic character because she eludes final definition. Shakespeare's Cleopatra or Falstaff. What I mean by that phrase is that at the heart of great characters is a mystery. 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). 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. what with the rules about money and macaroons. as one critic puts it (in relation to Shakespeare). Tesman (in Hedda Gabler). And the staging of the play strongly suggest that the living room in which the action takes place is Nora's realm. And. because. society's darling and the male head of the household. unintelligent bore. for example. when Nora wants him to appear. an ambiguity. even if Torvald is determined to stay in his study. but not with any ambition finally to define her fully and completely. but we can never be entirely successful and remain true to the character as presented to us. . of course. We do what we can to make reasonable sense of their motives. our century's most famous stage heroine. An obvious place to start is the title of the play. rival interpretations. Much here will depend upon the stage setting. is that Torvald is in charge. But the opening scenes surely call this interpretation into question. and hence the power to evade the neat compartments we want to place them in. And no matter what one says about her. she knows exactly how to bring him out (as that word "bought" on p. has a strongly passionate core. Nora controlling Torvald expertly. but throughout the play Torvald seems much keener to move off into his study than to linger in that room. like. 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. underdetermined. He may adopt a conventionally controlling tone. something that finally eludes rational interpretation.
Rank). this performing in front of Torvald. the coldly independent mature woman at the conclusion of the play? Well. in fact. Linde. too. How exactly this would help restore his affections may not be clear. cutie pie. listening carefully to. 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). We could. especially given that Nora appears so happy. acting the child-wife when she is. and. let me offer the suggestion that this concept is one key to approaching the play. Yes. using other people either as supporting actors or audience and that she writes her own script. as is Torvald. or acting on what other people say. before the interruption with the arrival of Mrs. 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. and so does Nora. who shows no sign of dissatisfaction with it. Consider for a moment why Nora would not have told Torvald long ago about the debt. of course. a mature married woman and mother in her late twenties. one might be tempted to remark. but she's playing a silly role. Role Playing and Control Having raised the issue of roles or game playing. Let me further make the observation that one crucial factor in the roles Nora plays is that she needs to be in control. is too facile. the frantically desperate woman thinking of suicide. puts pressure on us to recognize this complexity. her actions will determine and preserve their marriage (and she will decide on the appropriate means). although why these should be any worse than many modern equivalents (honey. This characteristic tendency of Nora helps us understand. it's worth asking where the notion for all this dressing up. But. and Torvald will respond.Some viewers and readers object to what they feel are the demeaning animal pet names Torvald uses (sky-lark. of course. and effective in her role (the direction that she is singing or humming to herself is significant in this respect). If it is the case that Torvald loves Nora and Nora knows it (and that seems clear enough at the start). singing bird). to assert herself without really attending to. There is a game going on. above all. He obviously enjoys it. 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. and so on) I'm not sure. write it off as a manifestation of Torvald's patriarchal oppressiveness (something Nora learned to do at her father's knee). Nora may appear happy enough and getting her way. as it were. 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). recitation. dancing. the capable determined businesswoman (in her secret dealings with the debt). it strikes me. confident. when she can no longer rely upon her looks. She will keep herself in the centre of the marital spotlight. The question one needs to consider is this: Who is in charge of the script? Who is the doll master here? There is. one common feature these manifestations of Nora's character all have is that they enable her to control others. all this is surely very demeaning. why she shows no particular interest in Torvald's work . However. she is looking forward to using that event in the future. but there is certainly a sense that Nora hopes it will make her more important to him. she is playing a role. comes from. Parenthetically. learning from. squirrel. however we choose to judge it. I would urge. 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. to take the lead role. and particularly Nora's role. baby. The opening scene. but that. no simple answer to this question. and so on. 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.
] The fascinating point in that first conversation with Kristine is that Nora's revelation springs from a need within her. But bringing out the story is essential if Kristine is to see Nora as an important person. adjusting her understanding of herself in the light of new insights into larger questions. let's see what she does now when her entire world blows up in her face. This notion of Nora's desire (or need) for control may help to explain the curious relationship she has with her children. to take charge. . a direct challenge to Nora's ego. [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. This Nora is unable to do. inviting her guest's admiration for her and the life she has. absorbing what they say. no space in which she can appeal to a sympathetic audience. to learn about such things she would have to stop performing and start listening to others. Kristine refuses to applaud. understandable and eloquent enough. Nor is it necessary to bolster Nora's confidence about her achievements (Nora is very self-assured within herself). perform. 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). and Nora begins their talk by. 49). they provide no opportunity for her to perform. 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. Nora thinks she is so wonderful. after all. 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. in comparison with Kristine. then society itself must be at fault. a long-term friendship based upon roles: Nora performs for him (in conversation) and he listens. They. that's not entirely the case. after such a short conversation? She hardly knows the woman. The story serves Nora's need for self-dramatization as a means for controlling her surroundings. she is in charge of the game. She accuses Rank of having ruined everything. but because they don't interest her. is enough to set Nora talking about her forgery. She does not fully explain her reasons. That information also enables Nora to seize control of the conversation. but I cannot help feeling that she is here returning to that earlier conversation. she can pointedly refuse Kristine a bed for the night. to make herself the heroine of this small encounter. The conversation leading up to Nora's revelation offers us a significant clue: there is a sense of competition between the two women. why she is so insistent that if society's rules indicate that something she has done is wrong. has Nora ever accomplished? That remark. offers to take it back. Hence. now in her late twenties. upsets Nora. Telling Kristine is hardly prudent. cannot be dealt with in the same way as adults. to his desire to act on her behalf. Kristine dissuades him. rather than listening sympathetically to what Kristine has to say. and Torvald gets the incriminating document. showing off to Kristine. These things are irrelevant to Nora. no world over which she can exert any control. Why should it do that? His confession calls attention to his feelings. after all. challenging Nora ("What a child you are. The same issue arises in her relationship with Dr. she dismisses such concerns. of course. has learned nothing at all (and has no interest in learning anything) about other people or society in general. if she is going to control their moment together by becoming the centre of attention. Having done that. All right. from the very nature of her character. however childish people might think she is. a polite but brutal indication of Nora's indifference to Kristine's situation. in effect. reminding Nora of her childishness and spendthrift ways. She's happy enough with their roles together as she defines them. On the contrary. why she. just as mine did. Rank. in effect. Nora's appearance and surroundings would seem to define her as something of a winner in the game of life. His confession of love (on p. besides. another small but puzzling insight into this complex heroine's character. But Kristine speaks slightingly of her. they are impervious to what Nora can do best. In effect. thus averting any disclosure of the forgery.or in social issues outside her own sphere. or. that is. in which she can demonstrate to Kristine and to herself that. treating the notion that Nora might be able to help her as ridiculous: What. Nora"). Nora has no interest in or understanding of such a transformed relationship. he is changing the rules of the game they have been playing together. surrender control. a dramatic narrative in which she is the star. if that is too strong a word.
They impose their own demands. if she were less of an egotist and more acutely sensitive to the society and other people around her. Other people and the rules of the society in which they live are too fatally complex and inexorable for her efforts. Moreover. This quality lies at the heart of Nora's heroic character. The various methods she uses (seeking to cajole Torvald. of course. too like her for her to deal with). in her abilities to control the situation. Most of the rest of the play is taken up with Nora's attempt to cope with this unexpected intrusion into her agenda. thoughts of suicide. She only begins to criticize him when he will not give her what she wants (she may be right here. he is full of sententious moralizing about social issues. and she did it (society be damned). when she accuses Torvald of being petty for rejecting Krogstad. she would never have gone ahead with the loan. She flouted society's laws. 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). worked hard. 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. but there's no sense that Nora feels that she has been compelled to act in this way. the tarantella. In that sense. but we know those are irrelevant to Nora. in some respects. . that somehow Torvald will transform himself into the romantic hero of her dreams and the issue will be resolved. 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. They cannot give her what she wants (they are. and we can understand why they are so happy together. and is now about to reap the success of that action by handing over the final payment. he is a perfect complement to Nora's character. to her ways of doing things. Hence. She lets him act the authority on such questions and provide the space where they can live their lives. Nora seems to show little interest in them. taking on herself sole responsibility for somehow dealing with an unraveling situation. because he insists that she answer to him. She has no understanding of how to do this. and Torvald would have died. This. 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. So her mind resorts to what has worked for her in the past. She explicitly says how much she would like to be a child again. that she has not freely chosen to be the person she is. Yes. She was able to undertake that (and to save Torvald's life) only because she has such a strong emotional commitment to herself. The Loss of Control Krogstad's arrival. Her confidence in herself. I don't mean to criticize or belittle Nora over this matter of control.Children require that their needs be attended to. For Torvald brings no personal demands. Something needed to be done. changes things. Now. that people listen and invite them to perform. over any and all objections. If Nora were not that sort of person. Her interest is in controlling that space (and part of that control. of course. 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. is giving Torvald the sense that he is in control). And the strength of her relationship with Torvald becomes easier to understand if we see this element of Nora's character. in her eyes. attempting to rob the letter box) indicate her increasing desperation at having to deal with events which she cannot control. but what she has to deal with here resists her attempts. It has not been easy. has led to her success and has confirmed. is the most transparent illusion. no desire to perform. that she is right. When nothing seems to work she takes refuge in a self-generated fiction. and there are times when a certain strain shows through (as in that mention of the word "Damn"). no complex personal identity to his experience. of course. to solve the problem. She is bringing to bear what has worked for her in the past. all the while sustaining her own marriage in quite another role.
especially since he makes no sympathetic attempt to talk to her. he will be ruined. an endorsement of her actions as demonstrating a valuable and necessary integrity in the face of an unacceptably conforming and . in his eyes. and the lectures he delivers to Nora at the start of the scene remind us unmistakably of what a total social prig he is. The real challenge in this scene is Nora's conduct. for example. Why does she reject Torvald so utterly? And how are we supposed to respond to her indictment of their former life together? Prima facie. he can instantly become himself again: his identity has been restored. All this is clear enough (although we have to be careful here. He has no conception of himself outside that role. 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. fuelled by an intense desire to get rid of the oppressive need to. Such a view commits us to a sudden transformation into a "new" woman. destroyed him. We may deplore the shallowness of his character. to listen carefully to what Torvald is saying and recognize his feelings--something not easy to do in these transformed times). is so much more than just losing a job).given what we have learned about that society and Torvald's relationship to and understanding of it. to explore her motivation. If this gets out. We know enough about his society to understand that the slightest accusation of criminal conduct will destroy them both (and that. to share the crisis together as two individuals at a critical point in their lives together. Everything he believes in is in danger of being taken away. and he is prepared to interpret her actions as love for him combined with inexperience in the ways of the world. the staging of the first part of this scene is absolutely crucial for shaping our response to what happens later. and she is now determined to strike a blow to gain her own independence. Torvald's angry abuse leads him to hit Nora. but we should not dismiss the intensity of his feelings or the accuracy of his perception of how society will react. in effect. Chapter 3). Such an interpretation can easily become a celebration of Nora's newly found independence. 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. 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. I think. determined to salvage what he can by deception and very angry at Nora for what she has done. if it deflates him rather than energizing him to violence against her] At the same time." She accuses Torvald and her father of having done her a great wrong by not permitting her to achieve anything. If. 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. We might see it as the awakening into a more mature understanding of herself. Nora has. things can remain the same. So. It's a manifestation of Nora's inability to think intelligently about what is happening--like so many passionately tragic figures. we need to recognize that much of what Torvald says is right. a situation he is prepared to assist her to overcome. Since society won't know. there are two ways we might initially approach Nora's conduct. And that's why. Torvald. And we have seen that for Torvald his social role is who he is. as Nora puts it. I make no attempt here to account for all the complexities of this fascinating scene. his entire identity. something many critics have found implausible (see Marker and Marker. [Naturally. do "tricks for you. endlessly argued about. we know. a sudden insight into the inherently unsatisfactory nature of her previous life. We are right to find what he says very offensive. once the danger has passed.
She's made up her mind. no man will abandon his earned social position. because she isn't willing to listen to him. since Nora's idea of dealing with other people is. And this final talk confirms the point. only thinking she was happy. hundreds and thousands of women have surrendered their integrity (their personal sense of identity. and so she wasn't. She wants her life to acquire significant value. So there is no common ground in their understanding of the issue. in effect. concessions at odds with his very conventional views of male and female roles and social rules. his identity in the eyes of his fellow citizens for a personal relationship. specifically in marriage. He travels a long way from the insufferably scared and angry prig at the beginning of the scene. in effect. He . their self-generated sense of themselves) in the service of society. here leaves them incapable of understanding one another: she cannot fathom why he must always defer to social rules. on her own. Torvald is saying. 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. and she's not willing to negotiate a new set of rules. we might want to ask why that should be the case. choosing another role. and she has come to the realization that that can only occur outside the family. In sorting our way through this final scene. The old game is over. something which worked so well in their marriage. Nora and Torvald are not having a conversation. a fine and justified distinction or some special pleading? In fact. She brings the point up in the context of how much she has been wronged by the men in her life. 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. to share the conversational stage with them as equals. Alternatively. as it were. The indictment of her previous life. the public recognition he has attained. Nora has decided now that she wasn't happy. We need to bring to bear here our response to the opening of the play. when she wasn't really. for she's already determined what role she will now play.compromising life. something different from conversation. Nora's response says. For what's evident here is that these two have radically different notions of what honour means. The same point applies to her charge that her father and Torvald never loved her. as I have mentioned. 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. That line Nora says about never being happy. they only thought it was nice to be in love with her. performing to her own script with no attention to anyone else. we need to treat Nora's accusations with intelligent honesty. we need to pay careful attention to the changes Torvald goes through. after all. The complementary nature of their characters. an issue that Ibsen is not concerned to solve but which this scene serves to illuminate and explore. and he cannot grasp why she wants to challenge them so drastically. 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. This quotation has been appropriated for all sorts of ideological concerns to the point where its dramatic complexity may be overlooked. invites us to think that there is some hair-splitting chop logic going on. 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 she and Torvald have never had a serious conversation together. 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. for example. For he makes some very important offers. and it doesn't really matter any more. She is. When she says. we might see that Nora is being entirely intransigent here: she is doing what she has always done. NORA: Hundreds and thousands of women have.
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). the above remark reveals that. but they are unconvincing as reasons (e.g. Nora is acting out of powerful emotional feelings about herself. Torvald is never more sympathetically presented than here. if Nora took him up on his offer. any more than she was prepared to do it when the question of committing the original forgery came up. 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. he says he may have the capacity to change. not a concern for keeping up appearances. On this view of the matter. Those contemporaries who were outraged at the ending of the play were being honest enough about their own feelings. Nora's exit serves no reasonable principle: it is a radical assertion of her own egocentricity. And his motives here register as deeply felt feelings from within. to neutralize the full effect of what she is doing. to a certain extent. 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. But that shift violates everything that is most interesting and vital about her. 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. 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. society or me"). It's as if Sophocles provided an alternative ending in which Oedipus comes running back full of apologies. and totally free. that may be because we have consoling ways to reassure ourselves. defiant. not as someone who might have to make some sort of compromise with society (of the sort Torvald is offering). values all the more precious given the infected society she is rejecting. if necessary. by having Nora finally learn the importance of compromise for the sake of social bonds. There is no rational plan at work here. in opposition to society. For Nora's exit is a heroically brave manifestation of her uncompromising integrity. shaping reasons to justify deeply irrational desires. Such a compromise would require her to surrender part of herself to society. for such action calls into question all the compromises we make in our lives to remain within our own doll houses. revealing in the process an unexpected flexibility which suggests that. 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). There is about her actions something grand. no carefully thought out life direction. for all she has been through. and that Nora is not prepared to do. [This heroic quality in Nora's character indicates why the alternative "happy" ending Ibsen wrote for the play is so totally false. Such a vision of freedom challenges our sense of what we have done and are doing with our lives. eager to make an appointment to see an eye doctor and a family counselor] At the same time. her actions make no rational sense. 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). "I must try to discover who is right.suggests they live together as brother and sister. her passionate sense of herself. There is nothing about this fascinating character which indicates that she would collapse so abjectly and unexpectedly. If we are less upset. Technically it resolves the work into a comedy. She provides all sorts of reasons. Nora still thinks of herself apart from and. The sight of such a person acting in such a way can scare us. Every offer is coldly denied. her absolute refusal to live a life where she is not in control of her actions. however. It is a world which has broken people like Krogstad and . In fact. 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. 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. he might very well learn and change.
Hence. self-destructive. for women and for men (some of my students have assumed that Nora can enroll in a self-help group. our fate. as Nora does. The struggle must go on. by oppressive men especially. like Antigone. committed as we are to altering as aggressively as we can anything in our life we find limiting or threatening. She is free. in closing. But it fails to do justice to my response to Nora. And she is carrying out into that world the most fragile of illusions: the demand for Romantic self-realization. as it does. for they lie at the heart of the tragic experience he is inviting us to explore. among other things. a major comic heroine leading us to the barricades. Postscript Those who see Nora's predicament as something primarily imposed on her from the society around her. as I have mentioned. which is not admiration. It's a moot point. socially irresponsible. and other tragic figures. 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. As I mentioned at the start. We. and thus it is much easier for us to see Nora as a rallying point for social change. rather than surrender one jot of what she perceives as her integrity. at the same time. and quickly set herself up in business). this is a popular view and there is much in the play to sustain it. without finally paying the full price. Those who reject the most intimate social bonds in order to be themselves without compromising their integrity.Kristine. Oedipus. like myself. who were better equipped in some respects than Nora is to cope with its demands. strong. My sense of the text. Such a view pays tribute to Nora as a heroic personality. 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. Nora the selfish home-wrecker). not as a temporary historical condition which we must strive to correct. we have made so many progressive strides since then. and there are productions which make that easy for us to do. an objection which is not uncommon among those who sometimes find a tragic view of life suspiciously like an ideological . do not like to talk or think about fate. and leaving house and home to forge a self-created life is so much easier in all sorts of ways. of course. and destructive of others. Macbeth. however. for me. abandoning. something we can fit into our comfortable conventional moral frameworks (Nora the militant feminist. think any view that the play has become dated is premature but for a very different reason. who defines himself from within the security of the community. too. For Ibsen's conclusion here. After all. heading for destruction. Templeton pertinently observes that such an assessment is a great mistake (143). if anyone can achieve what Nora sets out to attain as she leaves. We may well want to sort out these contradictions into something more coherent and reassuring. Or at least we like to think we have (perhaps we have only widened the playing field without changing the rules). to the inevitably self-destructive course carved out by the personality (man or woman) who seeks full freedom to answer only to herself. What she does makes little rational sense to someone. condemnation. 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. start studying at a local college. 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). are. may well feel that this play has become somewhat dated. brave. and makes this play less a comment on social problems than an insight into our permanent condition. 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. her actions stir one's soul. That. I. anticipate one serious objection to the interpretative line I have suggested in this lecture. however. Nora is both triumphantly right and horribly wrong. naive. is something much more profoundly tragic. or concern. Let me. pointing. a tragic heroine. and uncompromisingly herself and. is presented here as a permanent fact of life. but as an assertion of some ultimate individual freedom and heroic greatness. love. suggests that Ibsen is not going to sort out these contradictions for us.
I am alert to this objection. This makes her a very different character (much more challenging and mysterious). As I said at the start. as a law of nature. The issue can be summed up in that well-known prayer: "God. as it stands. rather than as a corrigible social condition which can and must be altered. and the wisdom to know the difference. I would suggest. support both possibilities. What matters. I'm not trying to close off the more popular interpretation." if that is the right. like myself. for there is ample evidence in history and in fiction (and in interpretation) of a reactionary desire to ascribe injustice to God or fate. who derive from her a more tragic sense see her as lacking the wisdom to recognize the difference (her "wisdom. is an attempt to neutralize the revolutionary social impact of this play. can. factors which. I suppose. The text of the play. the courage to change what I can. word. can be (and have been) ameliorated. in fact. 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). and the particular emphasis given to this most famous of modern heroines will emerge from the details of the production. however unwelcome. but that we promote a rich interpretative conversation which will teach us something about ourselves. .defense of an oppressive status quo. That is. and I take it seriously." 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. after all. an attempt to see patriarchal oppression. and others. but rather to encourage readers to think about alternative possibilities. is not that we finally decide what this is all about. one principal reason why ardent reformers and revolutionaries of every persuasion so often have little use for tragedy. give me the patience to accept what I cannot change. It might be argued that seeing Nora as a tragic heroine (as I have tried to do). those. rather than to human arrangements. setting herself against the fatal conditions imposed by society.