I don’t know what I can say about this play. Of course it’s good – if anything, it’s a model (or THE model) of what a modern play should look like. Of course it’s socially and culturally important. Of course the slamming door at the end is an effective device. But I pretty much spent everything in my account in my pre-reading notes when it comes to my own attitudes and feelings about this play, and they haven’t changed. I’ve read and taught this play so many times that nothing in it really surprised me, and it really is awfully straightforward. Torvard is a jerk. Part of his arrogant self-conception is culturally driven, of course, and in those ways he is simply acting out the masculine ideal that he has been taught. However, his pettiness and his cowardice and his pathetic pleading at the end of the play (“But couldn’t we live here as brother and sister?” ) indicate that part of his horrible personality is wrought into his character as an individual – which is ironic since he spends so much time worrying both about how Nora’s father’s character corrupted hers and how Nora’s character could potentially corrupt their children. I don’t get the sense that the other men in the play – Dr. Rank and even the sniveling Krogstad – would be as much of a jerk as Torvald if they were in his situation.
Do you want a plot summary? Of course you do. Here are the basics: it’s Christmas, and Nora is shopping and decorating the tree and planning surprises for her children and sneaking bites of macaroons (which her husband has forbidden), and it becomes clear that money is a sticking point in Nora and Torvald’s marriage. At the beginning of the play, their banter about money is lighthearted, and Torvald, with his genius for condescending metaphor, refers to Nora as his “little squirrel” (because of the way she collects money and then hides it away, presumably) and his “little spendthrift.” He has just received a great promotion at work, and Nora pleads with him to give her more money for Christmas expenses since his new raise will be coming in soon. She also asks him for money in place of a gift for herself – a request he resists since he claims that she always fritters money away on frivolous things.
In the middle of all this frolicking around, the doorbell rings and in walks Kristine Linde, Nora’s childhood friend, who has been working tirelessly since her husband died three years ago and has come to town looking for a job. She drops all kinds of hints about what she has had to do to earn money, with just the slightest inference that maybe she had to do things that were illegal or unethical, and Nora begins to hatch a plan to convince Torvald to hire Mrs. Linde at the bank. In this conversation, it becomes clear that Mrs. Linde, like Torvald, considers Nora to be a naïve idiot when it comes to money, and in trying to defend herself against this charge Nora reveals that eight years earlier, when Torvald had some illness and was going to die if he didn’t move to a warmer climate, she had secretly arranged a loan to finance a lengthy trip to Italy, telling Torvald that the money came from her father.
(By the way, while I’ve said that I’m not a fan of this play and didn’t much like teaching it either, I do very much think it’s interesting to look at the way money can poison human relationships in literature. When I taught this play, I often put it side by side with August Wilson’s Fences and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and had a lot of fun talking about the various emotions that money stirs up – pride, shame, envy, greed, fear – and the lengths to which people will go to avoid some of these emotions and preserve others. Good stuff.)
Enter Krogstad. Krogstad is an employee at Torvald’s bank, a former lover of Mrs. Linde, and the financier to whom Nora is still in debt for the money that funded the trip to Italy, although we don’t learn all of these things right away (the characters in this play have more secret past connections with one another than anyone since the characters in the movie version of Clue). Torvald doesn’t like him much and believes that he has a debased character because once, long ago, he was convicted of forgery. Torvald in general seems to think that a crime or sin, once committed, gives off a sort of miasma that has potential to infect everyone who comes in contact with it. He also seems to think that dishonesty in financial affairs manifests itself in men but is transmitted through the female line – you know, like hemophilia. When Nora introduces Mrs. Linde to Torvald, he fires Krogstad in order to hire Mrs. Linde. Krogstad tells Nora to intervene with Torvald in order to get his job back – or else he will tell Torvald that Nora obtained the money for their Italian trip through dishonest means. Ironically, Nora used the same technique that once got Krogstad in trouble: forgery. Her father was supposed to provide surety on her loan, but she forged his signature, and it was later learned (whoops!) that he actually died three days before the date of his signature on the document. Now, Krogstad is sort of a sniveling weirdo, but he is actually a sympathetic character here. He sees Torvald-the-hypocrite get a major promotion and hears him trumpeting his virtue and lambasting everyone else who has ever made a mistake, and he sees that he is about to lose his job for committing – years and years ago – the same crime that Nora committed with impunity. In addition, it becomes clear as the play progresses that it was the shame of Krogstad’s conviction for forgery that led Kristine to marry someone else – leading Krogstad into his current life of desperation and bitterness.
So then there’s some blackmail and dancing, and Nora plays hide-and-go-seek with the children (Question: did 19th-century Norwegians really name their children “Bob”?) and Dr. Rank announces that he’s dying and that he has always secretly loved Nora. (Who is Dr. Rank, you ask? Just some guy.) And in Act III there are all kind of double-entendre lines about masquerades and clothing and play-acting, and you can imagine some dramatic music accompanying the moment when Nora glares at Torvald with her steely eyes and says, “I’m getting out of my costume” (107). Torvald learns of Nora’s fraud, announces a plan to keep Nora living in his house (to avoid letting the neighbors find out what happened) without letting her have any contact with the children, and then he gets a letter from Krogstad in which he announces that he is forgiving Nora’s debt and returns the incriminating document, at which point Torvald retracts everything he said, exults in his great fortune, and “forgives” Nora in all kinds of condescending ways. And then they scream at each other and he cries and she leaves, slamming the door.
I can absolutely imagine that seeing this play performed in 1879 would have been an intense, shocking experience, and even I probably wouldn’t turn down a chance to see this play performed well. There are all kinds of universal human anxieties and fears being played out through these characters: the desire to provide and protect, fear of loss of property, fear of loss of love, guilt for past transgressions. This play is about the slow process of coming to realize that we are all the same – that men and women, even when they are assigned different social roles, see themselves as responsible for one another’s happiness and longevity, and that people with tarnished pasts may act with greater virtue than those with spotless records. It’s a great play for teachers to use to give students their first taste of modern drama, although I can’t for the life of me understand why one would teach it in an AP course that also included Light in August and Paradise Lost and Crime and Punishment. Maybe this play got lost on the way to the 9th grade syllabus and Fr. Murphy took pity on it. He was a compassionate man, Fr. Murphy.
I do see an opportunity here. You know those writers who are always writing “sequels” to Pride and Prejudice, about Elizabeth and Darcy going on African safaris, and what-have-you? If any of those writers are looking for work, they could write a sequel to this play. I can even suggest a title: A Doll House II, In Which Torvald Gets Eaten by a Bear: A Comedy. I would buy it in hardcover.
I don’t think I have said this before about any of the other books in the AP Challenge, but I am declaring now that I will never, ever read this play again. I don’t know if I will ever teach high school English again, but if I do and if this play is on the syllabus of a course I am assigned to teach, I’ll just tell my department chair or academic dean that if I’m forced to teach A Doll House even one more time, there is exactly a 98% chance that I will say the word “douchebag” in front of the students. And we wouldn’t want that.