Impressions before Reading
I am Norwegian. At least my heritage is over half Norwegian, with the rest being a mutt combination of Scandinavian (and French) relatives. So I was always dimly aware of Henrik Ibsen as the great Norwegian author and, being prideful and weird about my cultural background, I accepted him without reading his work. In honesty I backed away from his reputation and his labels. He has been called at once a misogynist and an feminist advocate, a staunch realist (which usually indicates formal attire and plodding plots to me), and the most important playwright since Shakespeare. He is also one of those frightful people who influenced Freud; I’ve taken enough psychology courses to take that man’s recommendations with a pinch of salacious–damn, I meant salt! Freudian slip….
I’d heard that he paved the way for Chekhov, one of my absolute favorites, and that Chekhov in turn helped spark life into many of the 20th century American plays I enjoy. Despite Chekhov being Russian, however, he tends to put some humorous touches in his work. Ibsen had come down to me as a distinctly hard-bitten man whom my teachers had been forced to analyze in college classes, exactly one play and one essay per week as if they were uncomfortably large vitamin supplements or, at best, reading Ibsen was like doing laundry.
And even after I read and enjoyed three of his plays–A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder–in a row, I can’t help but look at his face and wonder what his wife thought of that facial hair. (Sad to say, but as a guy I can’t help but admire the commitment that kind of look must have required, even in the more face fuzz friendly 19th century. He’s like a static-charged lion.)
Summary of the Play
I’ll be short, because most of the action is founded upon legal matters, loans, and IOUs. (I haven’t checked this for historical accuracy, by the way, but I think the play taught me that a loan did not require a witness to a signature in Norway circa 1879.)
At Christmas Eve, Nora is preparing happily for the festivities, her mind aimed at pleasing her husband, Torvald Helmer, and her children. She receives a visit from Krogstad, an employee at her husband’s bank, who loaned her money behind her husband’s back when she needed funds to take him to a more suitable climate so that he could recover from a near-fatal illness. Nora has been saving odds and ends and doing extra jobs so that her husband needn’t find out about the matter and she has nearly paid off the terms. Krogstad, however, is being fired from the bank and wants immediate payment or else he will reveal not only the money lending story to her husband but also the fact that she forged a signature on the IOU, a criminal offense. Nora’s obligations to her family suddenly give way to her own feminist awakening as she realizes that she has duties to herself that must be fulfilled.
The play was controversial from the outset, which obviously made it popular. Ibsen’s plays tended to inspire debate and cause trouble in reviews. Ibsen’s unprejudiced analysis of contemporary marriage and its effects on a wife and mother was scandalous to 19th century viewers, and over the winter of 1879-80 when the play was first performed in all three Scandinavian capital cities, ‘many a social invitation…during that winter bore the words: “You are requested not to mention Ibsen’s Doll’s House!”‘ When the play came to Germany, Ibsen was forced to substitute an alternate ending that hastily sutured over the play’s problems. Ibsen later called this new ending a “barbaric outrage,” but I thought it was more like a dirty soap bubble that fell flat in counter to the rest of the play.
Nora is perpetually infantilized by her husband, who calls her a “little skylark” or a “little squirrel” and micro-manages her existence, turning his tone around in an instant when she does something slight that doesn’t fit in with his conception of the perfect wife. I could nearly hear him puffing when he suspected her of eating a few macaroons behind his back. In consequence, the reader notices very early on that Nora is a drastically different person depending on whether or not her husband in in the room.
At first, the reader may assume they have a turbulent marriage that has grown sour from too many years together. As soon as Helmer starts critiquing Krogstad for forgeries at work–all the while Helmer can be imagined reveling on high in his own sense of self-righteousness–the reader starts to notice similarities between Krogstad and Nora. This starts to make Krogstad, for all his potential as an antagonist, a sympathetic figure. In realist plays, after all, there never are set villains.
Nora finds herself cajoling her husband into small favors that will allow her to get the loan money and save the family reputation before Krogstad can ruin it in the eyes of polite society. As a placating measure, Nora tries to get her husband to retain Krogstad at the bank. At first she acts the part of a fairy wife, sweet and innocent with an intentional pout, when she asks her favor:
NORA: Please, if only you would let [the little squirrel] have its way, and do what it wants, it’d scamper about and do all sorts of marvelous tricks.
HELMER: What is it?
NORA: And the pretty little sky-lark would sing all day long…
HELMER: Huh! It does that anyway.
Nora is objectified to an “it” when she allows this animalistic name calling to continue, and one gets a sense that Helmer is comfortable with this situation. It enables him to be easily dominant. She dances and sways for him, including a rather elaborate dance scene in the third act, all to distract him. In many ways, Nora seems to be completely in control, even if she is becoming rapidly more desperate as her days to repay the loan run down. Ultimately, Nora comes upon the conclusion that she has been living in a doll’s house, a pet toy to her husband with no value given to her own thoughts and deeds.
All in all, I enjoyed Ibsen’s domestic dramas. None of them are highly populated, allowing for a small cast of characters to play off each other in intimate conversations. As such, this format allowed Ibsen to traverse many social issues of his day. Hedda Gabler, a play the critics said was “a-crawl with the foulest passions of humanity,” continues Ibsen’s exploration of the role of a non-traditional housewife. Hedda is a tour-de-force character who, to my mind, could almost be a female equivalent Hamlet for the actress. Hedda revolves around so many character traits that, depending on the actresses’ inflections, she could be an early feminist or a villain. This play was even less moral driven, as A Doll’s House tended to be a tad direct with its points, and that made it all the more interesting. I recommend Hedda Gabler as well, with another nod of my critic’s cap given to The Master Builder, which depicts an older builder’s infatuation with youth and a young girl.
RANK: What is this you would love to say in front of Helmer?
NORA: I would simply love to say: ‘Damn’.
RANK: Are you mad?
MRS. LINDE: Good gracious, Nora…!
“When you’ve sold yourself once for the sake of others, you don’t do it a second time.”
“You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.”