It always amazes me that a literary work can be so completely ingrained in the popular consciousness that it feels familiar even when we know nothing about it. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen is a perfect example. For years, I’ve recognized the name Ibsen and I knew he’d written a work called A Doll’s House. However, I didn’t realize it was a play, or that Ibsen was Norwegian, or that he wrote the play back in 1879. You’d think if I was that casually comfortable with the reference I would have known at least one of those things.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd Sue Monk Kidd.)
But, having come to finally learn what A Doll’s House is about, I should probably talk a little about that. We have a woman Nora and her husband Helmer. To be honest, Helmer is somewhat of an ass and consistently treats Nora as a child:
Helmer. Don’t disturb me. [A little later, he opens the door and looks into the room, pen in hand.] Bought, did you say? All these things? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?
Nora. Yes but, Torvald, this year we really can let ourselves go a little. This is the first Christmas that we have not needed to economise.
Helmer. Still, you know, we can’t spend money recklessly.
Nora. Yes, Torvald, we may be a wee bit more reckless now, mayn’t we? Just a tiny wee bit! You are going to have a big salary and earn lots and lots of money.
Helmer. Yes, after the New Year; but then it will be a whole quarter before the salary is due.
Nora. Pooh! we can borrow until then.
Helmer. Nora! [Goes up to her and takes her playfully by the ear.] The same little featherhead! Suppose, now, that I borrowed fifty pounds today, and you spent it all in the Christmas week, and then on New Year’s Eve a slate fell on my head and killed me, and–
Nora [putting her hands over his mouth]. Oh! don’t say such horrid things.
Helmer. Still, suppose that happened,–what then?
Nora. If that were to happen, I don’t suppose I should care whether I owed money or not.
Helmer. Yes, but what about the people who had lent it?
Nora. They? Who would bother about them? I should not know who they were.
Helmer. That is like a woman! But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt. We two have kept bravely on the straight road so far, and we will go on the same way for the short time longer that there need be any struggle.
Nora [moving towards the stove]. As you please, Torvald.
Helmer [following her]. Come, come, my little skylark must not droop her wings. What is this! Is my little squirrel out of temper? [Taking out his purse.] Nora, what do you think I have got here?
Nora [turning round quickly]. Money!
This forms the core of the story. Nora borrowed money without Helmer’s knowledge and forged her father’s name on the bond in order to get it. Now the lender is holding that over Nora’s head, threatening to expose her to her husband and the world.
Of course, before you start thinking that Nora is as empty headed as Helmer thinks she is, she borrowed the money to take Helmer south on a trip his doctors told her was necessary to save his life. As for the forged signature, she didn’t want to bother her father while he was busy dying. It may not have been the smartest idea, but for a person who had always been treated as a child (whether by her husband, her father, and so on), not to mention someone worried about the lives of her ailing father and husband, that kind of error in judgment is perfectly and ordinarily human.
As you might imagine, the play comes to deal with the treatment of Nora along the way to figuring out what would happen regarding the fraud. I won’t go into that here. After all, I don’t want to spoil the entire play.
Still, I can tell you that I expected a bit more. Though I’d known nothing about A Doll’s House, it was stuck in my head as something iconic. I’m no authority on drama, but this just struck me as a decent and mildly interesting little play. Good, but nothing to write home about.
However, I have to remind myself that this play was written in 1879. The treatment of women and marriage may not strike me as particularly groundbreaking, but it had to have been downright shocking at the time. For me, I just thought Helmer was an asshole. It was that simple and there was no doubt in my mind. I’m betting, though, that audiences of the time period did not find things so cut and dried. Still… I’m sure it got them thinking.
Regardless, I just only enjoyed the play so much. It just seemed to state the obvious about what is wrong with Helmer’s kind of behavior. A Doll’s House is well-written, but it didn’t provoke too much thought. The historical value of A Doll’s House is probably incalculable, but it wasn’t too thrilling for me to read.
Sorry, but that’s my take. Theater people may now commence stoning me.