is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 310 at Malaspina
University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada (now Vancouver Island University). 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]
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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
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
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).
Playing and Control
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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
Loss of Control
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?
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.
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)
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.
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.
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]
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
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.
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?
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).
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.
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?
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?
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.
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:
Nobody sacrifices his honour for the one he loves.
Hundreds and thousands of women have.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
of Works Cited
John. "Pushkin's Shakespearean Lover." New York Review of
Books, XLVII.8 (May 11, 2000), 44-47.
Henrik. A Doll's House. In Four Major Plays.
Trans. James McFarlane and Jens Arup. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Frederick J. and Lise-Lone Marker, Ibsen's Lively Art: A Performance Study of
the Major Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Joan. Ibsen's Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,