Monday, March 7, 2011

Review: A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen

Reviewed by Christina.

The Blue Bookcase is participating in a project called A Year of Feminist Classics that features discussion about an important feminist text each month; Ibsen is Mr. March.

Published: 1879

It's about: Nora and Torvald are a happy, conventional, upper-middle-class married couple. Torvald has a lucrative new appointment as manager at a bank, and he gives Nora an allowance with which to keep the children, servants, and house in order. He is extremely condescending toward her, calling her by silly, diminutive nicknames. He treats her like a child and she always responds cheerfully.
Little does Torvald know that several years earlier, Nora secretly sought out an illegal loan in order to fund a therapeutic trip to Italy when Torvald's health was at stake. She is proud of the fact that she saved Torvald's life without damaging his ego; he believes the travel was paid for by Nora's father. She has nearly repaid the loan (in part with the allowance from Torvald) and she believes her secret is safe.

I thought:
[BEWARE! Spoilers ahead. PLEASE don't read my thoughts if you don't want to know the ending.]

I don't know how to read plays critically, so I feel a bit as if I'm at sea here. I think I liked it? But I also think I didn't really get it. So here's a collection of my thoughts. I'm looking forward to some discussion about this classic and subsequent enlightenment.

A Doll's House was hugely scandalous when it was first performed. Audiences perceived it as an attack on the sanctity of marriage; in the end, Nora chooses to leave Torvald and the children. Ibsen was coerced into writing an alternate ending before its German debut, in which Torvald gets Nora to look at her sleeping children, and she breaks down and stays with the family. But the idea of a woman leaving her husband and kids isn't that shocking nowadays, and I think that's why I was a little underwhelmed by A Doll's House. I knew that it had caused a stir when it was written, so I expected prostitution or opium addiction or at least some adultery- something more provocative than one forged signature and a separation.

Speaking of separation, this play led me to think about how divorce and custody have evolved to be more woman-friendly. Nora chooses to actively leave her family. In doing so she automatically forfeits her children and any monetary help from Torvald. Nora doesn't lament these losses, since she wants to make a clean break and discover herself on her own. But the societal principle here is so obviously wrong: a woman must stay with her husband if she wants to be with her children, and if she wants to have any household income to speak of. The tables have turned now, at least in the U.S. I'm no expert on the subject, but I believe the default arrangement is for the mother to have primary custody of her children after a divorce, and we all know about alimony and child support. Did early feminist literature like A Doll's House contribute to this change? Social change usually has to happen before legal change, right?

I certainly understand Nora's desire to leave her husband, a man who never truly appreciated her as a person and who fails to take her side even when he learns that she broke the law to save his life. But as a mom, I was pretty surprised at how casually Nora left her children. The kids aren't major characters in the play, and they are almost always attended by a nanny. There is a scene where Nora plays with them, and she mentions them fondly a few times. Then during the climax, she only vaguely alludes to how often she'll think of the Torvald, the children, and the house. And that's that. Why doesn't she feel more connection to them? Does the nanny act as a sort of buffer between them, enabling Nora to leave without much inner conflict? I guess she knows they will be well cared-for, and she assumes the children don't need an actual mother when they have such a capable nurse. Personally, I'm quite familiar with the identity struggle that I think many moms experience: Yes, I'm a mother, but I'm also a SELF. Why doesn't Nora deal with that? She shrugs off the mother part to develop the self. Did Ibsen fail to realize the power of a mother-child connection? Surely he felt a strong connection to his own son, who was grown by the time A Doll's House was written.

Another interesting thing about this play is the way Nora defends her decision to forge her father's signature. Nora needed a male cosigner on her loan, and rather than seek her dying father's signature, she chose to sign for him. She explains that she didn't want to upset him right before his death. When Krogstad explains to her what a serious crime she has committed, she is unconcerned; her motives justify the minor indiscretion she has committed. This exchange follows:
KROGSTAD: The law is not concerned with motives.
NORA: Then it must be a very stupid law.
KROGSTAD: Stupid or not, it's the law that you'll be judged by if I produce this paper in court.
NORA: I simply don't believe that. Hasn't a daughter the right to protect her dying father from worry and anxiety? Hasn't a wife the right to save her husband's life? I don't know much about the law, but I'm quite certain that it must say somewhere that things like that are allowed. Don't you, a lawyer, know that? You must be a very stupid lawyer, Mr. Krogstad.
This whole thing reminds me of the Heinz dilemma and other classic "would you steal food to feed your starving family" ethical dilemmas. What's more important, the laws against forgery, stealing, etc., or the life and well-being of family members? I'm going to guess that many women (now and in the 19th century) would choose to do as Nora did, but the sad sign of the times is that she didn't understand the law well enough to realize the criminality of what she was doing. A woman in her situation wouldn't have any opportunity to know the law.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. I didn't love it, but I know how important it is. And I know that I'll appreciate it more as we discuss it in conjunction with the Year of Feminist Classics.

Reading Recommendations: Get a good translation. I started reading this on my ipad- it was a free download. The translation was so dry that I ended up preferring the library's Penguin Classics edition. I'd also recommend finding one with a better introduction than mine had.

Warnings: definitely none.

Favorite excerpts: Nothing's coming to mind. It's all a bit of a blur. I'll probably edit this with a favorite quotation if I see one in the Feminist Classics discussion.

What I'm reading next: Exley by Brock Clarke