Literature is full of sympathetic jackasses. If you’ve been following the discussion in the comments section of my Jane Eyre review (which I recommend, by the way – it’s much more interesting than the review itself), you’ll know that I find Rochester in Jane Eyre to be one such character. To put it simply, he’s a jerk. He calls Jane names and mocks her for her naïvete and dresses up as a fortune teller in order to trick her and deliberately makes her jealous by pretending to court Blanche Ingram and proposes marriage to her without telling her that his first wife is still living. I do also find him a sympathetic character, though, because he has been manipulated and hurt by his father and brother and because he’s lonely and because his situation is obviously torturing him at least as much as his actions torture Jane. I think that many readers are willing to give characters like Rochester a lot of slack – more slack than they might give such an individual in real life – and while I don’t know exactly why this is, I think it might be because on some level we evaluate characters in literature with the same parts of our brains that we use to evaluate ourselves. We recognize the reasons behind our own irascibility and selfishness and moodiness and even our own occasional cruelties, and when we can forgive these qualities in literary characters it is almost like a trial run for forgiving them in ourselves, which is not always so easy to do.
Unless, of course, the literary jackasses just go too damn far.
All of this is a long way of telling you that Torvald Helmer in A Doll House is not loveable. He is just a good old-fashioned garden-variety jackass. At the moment, I can’t think of a character in literature that I hate more than Torvald. He is condescending and petty and incompetent and proud, and he covers up all of his own defects by transferring them onto his wife Nora. I’m not a huge fan of Nora either, but I’m willing to forgive her almost everything because she has the horrible fortune of having to live with Torvald.
Unlike most of the books we’ve read as part of the AP English Challenge, A Doll House has not drifted painlessly to the back of my mind for the past 18 years. I’ve taught this play many, many times, usually at the sophomore level in both honors and standard classes, but also as part of the World Lit courses that I taught a few times when I was a grad student. So I know exactly what I’m getting into when I start to read it, and here goes:
First, it’s really easy. Even in sophomore classes, I never really need to do much explaining about what the text means. Even though the play is over a hundred years old, the domestic scenes it consists of are very accessible to readers of all ages today – as is the financial mess that provides its central conflict. And while the expectations about male and female roles in marriage have changed since the 1870’s, Torvald and his self-righteous condescension still feels very, very real. We all know a few Torvalds – I see a little bit of him in my current mailman, a little bit of him in a former boss, and a lot of him in any number of co-workers that I’ve had through the years. The idea that there is something fundamentally “silly” about women is still very much out there, though it’s often muted, and women as well as men participate in keeping this idea alive.
(An aside: Ever since I started blogging early this year, I have been bombarded constantly with ideas for new blogs. One of my many untested ideas is for a blog that rates local restaurants and other businesses depending on the rate at which their employees refer to customers by diminutives like “sweetie,” “honey,” and “dear.” I’m thinking that it might be amusing to name the unit of measurement in this rating system the “torvald”: Four torvalds to the Dunkin’ Donuts in Webster, MA, where employees of both sexes compete to see who can pack the most “honeys” and “sweeties” into each sentence at the drive-through window; one and a half torvalds to a coffee shop where they insist on calling me ‘miss’ [I’m thirty-six, for God’s sake! In a different generation I would have grandchildren by now!)]; zero torvalds for those few revolutionary restaurant-industry workers out there who understand that the best strategy is not to call customers anything. There’s no rule that says that questions like “Is there anything else I can get for you?” or “Are you ready for the check?” need to have some kind of ridiculous and insulting name tacked on to the end of them.)
In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve happened upon a bit of a sensitive issue here. Keep in mind that I haven’t actually started reading A Doll House yet – I’m just all mad and trembling and sensitive simply knowing what will await me when I do. I really, really, really hate that guy.
I don’t know how much more I have to say, really. This play is so easy that sometimes when I teach it there really isn’t anything to say, and my students and I just sit there and stare at each other – and then start complaining about the way Dunkin Donuts employees always call everyone “sweetie.” One year I found a whole bunch of primary source documents in a theatre textbook about nineteenth-century marriage laws and the perils of being a single woman in the late 1800’s (as Nora presumably will be after she slams the door on Torvald in the final scene), and I used this unit more as a chance to practice working with primary sources than as a chance to talk about literature. And this time I have a feeling I will spend the time just fuming with anger at Torvald, and also at the behaviors that Nora uses to cover up her own intelligence and ingenuity and therefore perpetuate the horrible way he talks to her.
I was under the impression that I read this play in its entirely back in AP English (a rare feat for me back then), but when I pulled my copy off the shelf I found that there is, of all things, a four of spades stuck between pages 66 and 67 – just before the end of Act I. Now, I could have put the four of spades there to mark the page in class discussion or while I was writing an essay or for some other reason unrelated to using it as a bookmark, but it’s also possible that I grew a little impatient with Torvald and didn’t actually read the whole thing back then. I don’t remember Torvald making me really angry back in high school, so maybe I didn’t read the whole play. Not sure. I do wonder quite a bit about the four of spades, though. Why would I have broken up a deck of cards just to give myself a bookmark? I never minded dog-earing pages and still don’t, so why didn’t I just do that if I didn’t have a bookmark? Was the deck of cards already missing cards anyway? I grew up in a highly organized household, where decks of cards were not just indiscriminately split up. Did I steal the four of spades from someone else’s deck of cards? And why the four of spades? It’s kind of a creepy card, when you really think about it.
As far as Hedda Gabler, I know for a fact that I didn’t read it. Never even cracked the pages – and to this day I have never read it. I do, however, know that there is a gun in it. I’ve known that for some time – not sure how – and this fall this fact was reinforced when I took the Literature in English GRE Exam and there was a question about it. The question wasn’t quite as simple as
Is there a gun in Hedda Gabler?
but it was close.
And that’s all I have to say about that.