One of my reading goals for the year was to read a play, which I have now completed, as today I finished reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I was hoping, however, that the play I read would be one I hadn’t read before, which didn’t turn out to be the case, as I’ve read A Doll’s House multiple times. I read it this time around because I’m teaching it in my Literature and Composition class. Perhaps I’ll still read a new-to-me play this year. We’ll see.
But I do love A Doll’s House. The thing I appreciate about it most, having read it I don’t know how many times, is the way Ibsen doesn’t waste a line. Everything is so tightly structured, so carefully crafted, that every line every character utters furthers the plot or the themes, and it’s a delight to see the way he leads the plot toward the stunning conclusion.
Is there anybody who hasn’t read this play? I read it in High School and have taught it so often that I feel like it’s an educational staple, but I might be wrong. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a couple, Nora and Torvald, who act in the first scene as though they have a perfectly happy marriage and family, but right from the start you pick up on some warning signs, and as the play goes on, you learn that Nora has a secret, that she’s desperately scrambling for money, that Torvald has little understanding of and respect for her, and that their family life is about to fall apart.
Here’s where I give away the ending, which is the best part of the play — Nora realizes just how little her husband knows about her, how much he cares about his own reputation even if she has to suffer for it, how poor of an education she has gotten and how little she knows about herself and the world, and she decides to leave Torvald and go live by herself until she has a chance to grow up. She leaves the doll’s house, and she leaves it dramatically; the play closes with these stage directions, “The sound of a door slamming is heard from below,” and the play is over. The play was first performed in 1879, and, as you can probably imagine, audiences found it shocking.
Ibsen doesn’t follow the classical unities of time, action, and place exactly, but he’s very close; the play takes place over the course of a few days around Christmas time, it’s all set in Nora and Torvald’s apartment, and it tells one unified story, that of the dissolution of the marriage. There are three other characters beside Nora and Torvald, two of whom, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, operate as foils to the main couple; they have lived difficult lives, lost reputations and family members, and suffered in ways Nora and Torvald can’t really understand. But by the end of the play, they have found happiness, while Nora and Torvald have found their lives ripped apart; as the fortunes of one couple fall those of the other rise.
The other character is Dr. Rank who appears to have little to do with the plot; he’s the one character who is possibly expendable, if one is concerned about keeping the action unified. But Dr. Rank brings together many of the play’s themes. He’s suffering because of his father’s excesses — his father contracted a venereal disease which he then passed on to his son — and so introduces the idea of inheritance and the legacies, both good and bad, that parents leave for children. We learn that Nora’s father supposedly passed on his spendthrift ways and dubious moral character to her, and now Nora is deathly afraid of passing along her own errors to her children. As Dr. Rank says,
“To have to pay this penalty for another man’s sin! Is there any justice in that? And in every single family, in one way or another, some such inexorable retribution is being exacted.”
Nora’s decision to leave at the play’s end is partly an attempt to break this chain of heredity; she wants to live on her own until she has figured out what she believes and how she will live, and only then will she consider living with a family again.
But, of course, her leaving is also about her refusal to live with a man who won’t recognize her as a human being and who treats her as a child instead. Although Ibsen backed away from the claim that this is a feminist play, it’s very hard to read it otherwise; what Nora walks away from is a very narrowly defined role of wife and mother — she walks away from the husband who, when Nora talks about the sacred duty she has to herself, can say, “Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.” I noticed this time through that Mrs. Linde talks eloquently about the value of work, and Nora herself speaks of enjoying the little work she has been able to do, sewing to earn a little extra money. She’s longing for a taste of independence, for a challenge, for something to push her so that she can discover who she is.
So, yes, I enjoyed this play, and I think my students are enjoying it too. We’re discussing the conclusion to the play this week; we’ll see what they make of Nora’s dramatic exit.