My feelings about Heinrik Ibsen’s A Doll House are not as deeply rooted or as passionate as Bethany’s. It has not been a tale I have thought much about over the past eighteen and a half years. I found nothing offensive about it at the time, but also nothing particularly memorable. I suspect I would’ve disliked Torvald and felt sorry for Nora. This time around, however, I found both of the main characters pretty unlikable, though obviously for different reasons. Torvald was, of course, a jerk. But Nora’s façade of womanly ineptitude bothered me at least as much. My modern frame of reference had a hard time with their interactions, from beginning to end. Be it Torvald calling Nora various animal pet names, such as “Is that my little lark twittering out there (43)?” and “Is that my squirrel rummaging around (43)?” And then there’s this chestnut from page 44: “Nora, Nora, how like a woman!” Now this line is actually good, and helps to get to know Torvald a little: “No debts! Never borrow! Something of freedom’s lost—and something of beauty, too—from a home that’s founded on borrowing and debt. We’ve made a brave stand up to now, the two of us; and we’ll go right on like that the little while we have to (44).” So the fact that Nora borrowed a large amount of money would obviously be a bit of a blow to Torvald, knowing how he feels about taking things on credit. I’d love to know what he would think of our credit-wielding society.
Today I finished Long Day’s Journey into Night, and found that drama of the collapse of a family much more captivating than A Doll House. Why, you ask? Is O’Neill just a superior writer? Or was his subject matter more interesting? Surely a family of alcoholics and a dope fiend is more interesting to everyone than a banker and his wife whose only offense is borrowing money to take a trip to a warm climate. Perhaps O’Neill never could have written his tale of a family unraveling if Ibsen hadn’t written A Doll House and all his others first. I am going to end my discussion of the Tyrone family before my post about A Doll House turns into a post about a different play.
The supporting folks in A Doll House were much more interesting to me. The motivations and secret lives of Kristine Linde, Krogstad, and Dr. Rank are what I feel like ruminating on today, more than the implosion of Nora and Torvald Helmer’s marriage. For example, does Kristine show up at the Helmer home hoping to be offered a job at Torvald’s bank, or is it coincidence? Is Krogstad a villain or just a man trying to do what he can with his lot in life? And Dr. Rank…. Why is he even in the play?
I just reread the part of the play wherein Kristine Linde and Krogstad admit their feelings for each other. This comes at the beginning of the final Act of the play, and immediately precedes the climactic scene with Torvald and Nora depicted in the picture Bethany has at the start of her post. And anytime a man in a tuxedo gets down on all fours on a table, you know there’s something important happening. The first time I read through this part this time around I admit I skimmed it because I wanted to get to the important stuff with the Helmers. This time, it was actually quite lovely to read. Granted there was something of practicality to it, as Kristine admits, “I need someone to care for; and your children need a mother. We both need each other. Nils, I have faith that you’re good at heart—I’ll risk everything together with you (96).” But there’s also some lovely imagery of two shipwrecked people reaching out to each other across the wreckage, which reminds me of Titanic for some reason, but with a happy ending, at least for this couple. This scene changed my opinion of Kristine and Krogstad. They are not really the villains; they are instruments of the truth and their reward for setting Nora free is finding each other. I know that sounds a bit trite but it’s the best I could come up with.
And then there’s poor Dr. Rank, our character with the unknown purpose. He’s definitely a tragic figure. He has spinal tuberculosis, somehow obtained from his father who led a dissolute life. For a minute at the beginning of the play I thought he was supposed to be comic relief. There’s an exchange between him and Nora about his father’s vices and a comment made about “delectable things” striking at “unhappy bones that never shared in the fun (81).” Now I don’t know about you guys, but that sounds like a sexual innuendo to me. But then he tells Nora he loves her, and throws her into a bit of a tailspin. He announces his plans to leave a calling card with a black X on it when he is planning to shut himself in to die. This, logically, happens right before the big reveal, just like how he tells Nora he loves her right before Krogstad appears to tell Nora he will tell Helmer all about the loan if she doesn’t get him his job back. So perhaps his purpose is to ratchet up the tension that Nora and the audience are feeling as the play progresses.
At seventy-one pages, this play is the shortest work I have written about for the blog, and the first play. It’s an enjoyable play. I think that with the right actors in the roles it could be quite powerful to see performed onstage. But just reading it on my couch it didn’t resonate with me as much as it should have. There is nothing offensive to me about A Doll’s House, other than the impossible-for-my-twenty-first-century-brain-to-accept attitude about what women are capable of. I can only hope that if Torvald and Nora lived in more modern times their issues would not have been insurmountable. But probably they would be doomed no matter the century.