The Lawyer’s Wife

Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House had been one of the oldest TBRs ever. I added it to my list when I was like 17 after attending a special seminar on modern European Drama back in College but for some unexplained reason I did not get around to reading until 16 years later. Why? No idea. All I can say is that I am immensely glad I took part in the 12 Months Classic Challenge, which finally led me to read this drama after all my intellectual and academic fervor that I cannot say has had much tangible results. The brilliance  or lack of it in our modern education system is a theme I rest for discussion another day, and for now move on to The Doll’s House review! Cleo, my partner in all kinds of reading adventures came along for the read and made it a read along – she will be putting up her post soon and you can find it on her website!

The Doll’s House opens on the Christmas Eve with Nora, a young housewife coming back home from a shopping expedition in a happy expectancy of the gaities of the season and the expected good fortune stemming from her husband, Torvald Helemer being appointed a Bank Manager. It is evident that while Nora and Torvald seem to be in a comfortable circumstances, they have reached this status, through much hard work and trimming their expenses and there have been times, when they were in significant financial distress. However they are debt free and while they had to sacrifice much to achieve this status, they have managed to do so without being beholden to anyone, a matter of significant pride for Torvald. The relationship between Torvald and Nora appear to be one of happy contentment; Torvald seems to rule Nora and check her more extravagant tendencies, treating her more like a child, who needs to be alternately petted and disciplined to ensure the smooth functioning of the home and hearth. Nora is completely dedicated to her husband and her home, his opinion of her and her actions are her guiding factors and though there are things which she undertakes secretly from her husband, the primary motive of those actions is to keep Torvald happy. The first act also introduces the audience to the ensemble cast of Dr. Rank a doctor, who is Torvald best friend and has been a companion to the Helemer household for anions. The audience is also introduced to Mrs. Kristine Linde, an old friend of Nora’s, who has come seeking employment from Torvald, since she is now a widow and in financial difficulty and finally Nils Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank, whom Torvald seeks to replace and a man who had committed some misdemeanor in the past but is desperate to regain a respectable footing for the sake of his children. The audience soon is made to understand that about 8 years previously when the Helemer’s were just married and extremely poor, Torvald had fallen gravely ill with the only cure being to take him to Italy for the summer. Being extremely poor, they could not undertake this trip and Nora desperate to save her husband’s live was forced to borrow money from the same Krogstad and she since then has been paying him off through odd jobs. Torvald has no idea that his wife has borrowed money from the man he plans to fire and believes that the money came from Nora’s dying father. Act Two reveals that in a desperate bid to save his job, Krogstad blackmails Nora and asks her to use her influence on her husband otherwise he will disclose her monetary dealings with him including the fact that she had forged her father’s signature on the gaurentee papers – an act she undertook because she wanted to spare her then dying father the agony of her financial and personal crisis. When Nora is unable to convince Torvald to retain Krogstad, she shares her story with Mrs. Linde, who in turn offers to persuade and talk to Krogstad and with whom she was engaged previously. This intervention however comes in late and though Krogstad convinced by Mrs. Linde sends another letter to nullify the harm of the first one which had earlier posted revealing all,  Nora is forced to contend with her husband’s displeasure and face far more hard hitting reality than she could have previously fathomed, forcing her to make decisions she could have never forseen or believed herself capable of making!

So much has been written and debated about this play, that I am quite at a loss of what to actually say. When originally published, the play created a furor even to the extent that the German production had to amend the ending to suit the sensibilities of the audience then and uphold the image of women as mothers and centers of the hearth! I can understand why there should have been such angst with its publication in 19th century – many scholars contend that this play was centered on emancipation of women, but I cannot help but feel that it was more than an woman’s empowerment concept; the drama in fact seemed to me to revolutionize the concept of an individual, instead of a collective identity of mother/wife. it recognized Nora as a being  and even in the more individualistic 21st century society, this concept of standing on sole instead of clan identity is difficult for many to adjust! But this very stand, revealed in Act 3 made this play a piece of brilliant work for me and put me in awe. The first two acts, I could not abide by much – Nora seemed like a scatterbrain with the best intentions and least abilities to think through the actions stemming from those interventions. I was sick of what would Torvald think, do, react, – yes Torvald, no Torvald and three bags full Torvald. In creating Torvald’s character however I think, Ibsen’s brilliance came forth; its not like you like him, though he seems like a respectable, self made man devoted to his family and friends (his duplicity is not revealed till the end) but you cannot quite seem to like him  – I am not sure if it is a 21st century phenomena but his “skylaring” “squirelling” Nora put in the mind of men who call their partners “honey/doll” etc, which seems to dehumanize these women to fluffy pink icing pastry! The very fact that he wants Nora to be a perfect wife/mother/hostess, singing/dancing pleasing one and all, gives the audience the first glimpse into the “Doll’s House” and the Doll Master! This slow unraveling of what seems picture perfect, is a testimony to the dramatic capability of Ibsen where in 3 acts he reveals all without really rushing the reader. The ensemble cast is quite as brilliant as well – in Krogstad , the audience readily feels sympathy of a man being tried twice for the same crime, especially when desperately trying to establish his credibility for the future of her children. Mrs. Linde’s character is a foil to Nora’s – a sensible grounded woman who has worked hard all her life and now when emptiness seems to threaten to overtake her, she once again seeks work to keep her balance. In terms of plot, I did feel that Act I  was too prolonged and Act III kind of hurriedly reconciled the end, but the brilliance of Act III overpowers all flaws and left me converted to Ibsen.

I feel like an idiot for not reading this work sooner and will surely look up more of his plays!

4 thoughts on “The Lawyer’s Wife

  1. Hmmm ….. I had problems with this play and here’s why.

    Isben certainly portrays Nora as doll-like and a little vacuous initially. She doesn’t show stellar intelligence by her borrowing of the money. Yes, she does get her husband through his sickness but it is with a single-mindedness and not due to any deeper convictions. She also lies by omission, which one assumes will not play out well any way you look at it. Yet, even with her doll-likeness and Torvald’s silly petting, she appears happy. She has a loving husband and children and a good life.

    The third act annoyed me. Suddenly, with her husband’s over-reaction to her debt, she, who has previously been rather dense and simple, SUDDENLY realizes that she has been oppressed and condescended to all her life. Does she try to work this realization out within the life she is living and the people around her? No! She is going to leave —- this little green doll —– and seek a life that she has had no experience with and cannot possibly know what it is like, but SOMEHOW she knows that it must be better. Okay, so suddenly she’s liberated, but she sure isn’t happy, nor is she particularly concerned that she would devastate not only her husband, but her children with her actions. Nor does she ever take any responsibility for her bad judgement with borrowing the money on the sly in the first place. I was really not impressed with her and had no sympathy whatsoever.

    As for Torvald, he treated Nora in the way she expected to be treated. I suppose you could argue she knew no other way, but she never did anything to alter their relationship, except with her complete overreaction at the end. It did irritate me when he expressed that his honour was more important than she was to him.

    So really neither of them showed the necessarily care for fellow human beings that could bring happiness to life. I really wonder if they both got what they deserved.

    1. Agree with everything! Nora is a twit with no judgement or discretionary abilities! I also agree that her life so far seems perfect and I had a lot of problems with her leaving the children through I did not care about Torvald at all.I thought the ending rushed and too easily tied up; but I do know one thing – Words carry a lot of power and sometimes a simple incorrect word/term have wrecked relationships. I am not arguing on the brittle nature of this particular marriage or the fact that in general to make a relationship work, you have to constantly work at it and adjust; however sometime, one word to far may happen and there I understand Nora’s reaction. I know that it seems suddenly enlightenment came to her, but she clearly calls out in the end that one of the reasons why she is leaving is because she does not know many things and needs to learn. If I could just road Act III independent of the remaining acts, I think, it would stand for a powerful work!

      1. I perhaps could agree with you with regard to a hasty word wrecking a relationship. The problem I have with her reaction is not on that level though …… it’s simply completely inconsistent with her character. Torvald is rather insensitive and I can certainly, in all their years of marriage, see him saying something similar or having a similar reaction to a situation. So why the extreme reaction this time? Isben leaves us groping for a reason. I guess you could say the stress of the situation got to her, but again, I’m grasping as it wasn’t clearly conveyed.

        And she swings wildly from wanting to kill herself to wanting to learn? Really?!! I’m sorry, it was just hard for me to buy. Act III independently would still leave me asking “why?” from lack of development. Perhaps I’m coloured from my reading of the Greek plays, because they leave you with no unclarity at all about people’s motivations!

        I’m still wanting to like this play and I haven’t read any commentaries yet. I’m kind of subconsciously avoiding it. If they try to go for the feminist angle, I fear I’ll scream and tear at my hair. 😉 But we’ll see ……..

      2. You know your are right when you say Torvald probably had similar reactions in the past; but there have many so many people who mask their inconsistencies so well until a break comes and then we are introduced to a whole new personality. I am not defending Ibsen on the hasty end which I agree with you is not consistent,. but more of generic comment on mankind. Spare yourself the pain and avoid the commentaries…if I read one more thing about Nora and feminism, I will throw the book at someone!

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