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!