I was excited to hear from you the other day. It sounds like everyone in your part of the world is doing well. The kids sound so busy with their many activities, I don’t know how you keep up with it all. If I read between the lines correctly, it sounds as if they have you running Monday through Friday with soccer practices, violin lessons, cross country practices, and sailing lessons. Then on the weekends, it seems as if your time is consumed with soccer games, cross country meets and sailing tournaments during the daytime, and concerts or other performances in the evenings. When do you find alone time for you and Harry? I suppose you take care of your own needs during the day while the kids are in school and Harry is at work? Of course, I forgot about your work with the nursing home and the community center, not to mention keeping your house spotless and the shopping is done. It’s a good thing you don’t need to work. Now that I’ve thought about it, it doesn’t seem as if you have a single spare moment!
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In light of this revelation on my part, I have to say that I’m quite impressed that you took the time out of your schedule to read through Henrik Ibsen’s play The Doll’s House. I know you wrote when you saw it performed at the playhouse that you didn’t understand it very well. I’d like to think that I had some input in your decision to read through it in order to grasp the story in more immediate detail. When you have the text in front of you, you can sometimes see points and allusions that were difficult to pick up in the activity of a playhouse, especially since Traci and Nicole were so fidgety! I was sorry, though, to hear that you still didn’t feel you’d understood the point of the story. Personally, I feel the story is quite relevant to your particular living situation and find it surprising that it didn’t touch a chord of resonance with you. This is not to say that I think you should walk out on your family or that you are unhappy in any way with your living situation. I’m sure Harry is quite supportive of your activities and does not belittle their importance. However, this was obviously not the situation for Nora. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take the time to go through your letter point by point and explain a little about how I understand the play. If you have time and inclination, I’d love to hear your response in your next letter.
In your last letter, you said that “The character of Nora seems overly pampered and relatively childish in her behavior.” Of course, you are right. She does seem to be overly concerned with trivial matters and incapable of considering things that are of weight, but I wonder if you’ve considered just where you get this impression from? For instance, at the very opening of the play, we don’t know much about Nora at all other than that she’s been out shopping for Christmas and has a package of macaroons in her pocket that she is eating on the sly. To me, the idea that she is trivial is established in these opening lines not through her actions or words, but instead through the characterization given her by Torvald. Throughout the first act, can you find a single instance where he treats her as an adult instead of as a child or a favorite plaything? He refers to her as a ‘lark’, a ‘little squirrel’, and ‘a little featherhead’, all before his tenth line! While Nora does seem preoccupied with money, instantly brightening when Torvald hands her two pounds as a means of cheering her up after he’s chastised her about borrowing, good reasons for this emerge later that have nothing to do with her ‘birdlike’ characterization. Other hints continue to be dropped regarding Nora’s spending habits throughout this first act, all of which are characterized on Torvold’s side in terms of an indulgent superior providing a brainless plaything with the tools to make it happy.
I know, of course, Patti, that Harry trusts you exclusively with the house’s bookkeeping and that you are a whiz with money and investments, but suppose Harry continued to treat you as if you had no mind for numbers. Do try to place yourself in Nora’s shoes and imagine you were doing all you could to save money for the family, even assuming you don’t know the facts behind Nora’s real need for additional funds. I’m sure you can relate to the idea that men never seem to have any true idea of what it costs to run a decent household. With soccer uniforms, running shoes, music books, and other things you’ve written about, I’m sure Harry’s idea of the family’s operating budget is much closer to what he remembers of when he managed the books as a bachelor than what they are now. Now assume that despite all this, Harry is always adopting the kind of condescending attitude Torvold takes toward Nora. How would you feel? Would you be able to keep the kind of dutiful, submissive stance Nora takes as a proper wife of her time? Even if you were boiling mad every time he spoke, without examples to the contrary, would you know how to respond to such behavior, especially when your motives had to remain secret, as did Nora’s?
The first clue that Nora isn’t the brainless creature her husband makes her out to be is in her cautious purchases made for the holidays. Her presents might not be strictly practical, consisting as they do of a sword, horse, and trumpet for one child and a doll and doll’s bed for another, but they are children and it is Christmas. These gifts do not suggest an extravagant mother going overboard in buying gifts for her children but rather of a mother attempting to provide her children with a happy Christmas on a very limited budget. In addition, she takes a positive outlook on the necessity of being cheap. She tells Torvald, “they are very plain, but anyway she [Emmy, their little girl] will soon break them in pieces” (Act 1). Gifts for the rest of the household include a new suit for Ivar and dress lengths for the maids, all highly practical and economical. Torvald himself points out how industrious she is, mentioning memories of last holiday season when Nora “shut yourself up every evening till long after midnight, making ornaments for the Christmas tree and all the other fine things that were to be a surprise to us … But there was a precious little result, Nora” (Act 1). Knowing what we do of the loan Nora took out to nurse Torvold back to health in Italy makes it clear to us that she was working to sell these ornaments and things as a means of earning the money she needed to pay back the loan. In fact, throughout much of their marriage together, Nora has worked on small things like this behind her husband’s back as a means of paying back this loan without making any unnecessary demands on his income. In the play, it is revealed in Nora’s reunion with Mrs. Linde that her early marriage to Torvald was not easy as both of them had to work long hours just to survive and Torvald is simply enjoying the fact that he is finally able to provide his ‘little’ wife with the dollhouse he’d always envisioned. The fact that Nora borrowed money illegally to get Torvald to Italy to recover from an illness highlights the financial condition they were in as well as demonstrates Nora’s capacity for self-reliance.
I am certain, Patti, that you can relate to this condition as well. I remember well those letters you used to write, full of concern about how you were ever going to be able to provide for the children working for a convenience store while Harry was finishing his education. I remember you telling me how there was never enough money to go around, that you were always having to borrow from one credit card to pay another one, and worried about when someone would finally put an end to the cycle. Of course, Harry never would have restricted your ability to earn money and you never kept it a secret from him how much money was needed or where it was coming from, but suppose these were necessary elements of your life, as they were for Nora. Torvald wouldn’t allow her to borrow money from anyone, but the couple did not have the necessary funds to cover their expenses when he was sick. What choice did she really have? Because of Torvald’s stubborn refusal to borrow money, she was forced to go behind his back to get the money they needed for him to get better and become an earner again. Despite this, Nora still did what was necessary to ensure the money was paid back, having the original loan almost paid off by the time the play opens. She takes justifiable pride in the way she has accomplished this all on her own as you do for your part in ensuring the family debt was paid off after Harry found a professional position and took over the household bills. If I remember right, you worked for another two years after that just to be sure all the credit cards were paid and other bills were eliminated before you went to stay-at-home status.
In the end, you said you just didn’t understand why Nora walked away from her comfortable life, her family, and, most disturbingly, her children when Torvald grew angry with her for her actions. You wrote, “Why didn’t she just keep him from reading the letter, knowing that everything would have worked out all right in the end?” Nora had to give up a lot in order to take care of her husband and she didn’t want her sacrifices to pass unknown. When Torvald grew ill, she had to sacrifice being a dutiful daughter and helping her father when he was ill in order to take care of Torvald as a proper wife should. While she didn’t necessarily expect grand ceremonies honoring her as the best woman ever, she did hope for a more equitable relationship with Torvald once he realized she wasn’t the ‘little featherhead’ he’d always considered her. A pat on the back and an increased opinion of her abilities were what she was hoping for. When she decided to encourage Torvald to open the letter from Krogstad regarding her illegal loan, it was because she needed to know her husband valued her addition to the household. When he reacted in anger, she realized she would either need to sacrifice her self-respect or sacrifice her happy home. After all, she’d been through and all she’d done, she was not capable of doing the former, so she accomplished the latter at the expense of her children. This was not so much because it was what Torvald demanded, but was instead because it was how she felt herself. In her time period, for a Victorian woman to wish to gain independence and freedom of thought from her husband or male relatives was to consort with the devil. Her restrictions away from her children were driven by an internal conception that she was an evil woman and would only harm the children by remaining in close contact with them. Please, Patti, before you condemn women like Nora for their actions, remember that if it hadn’t been for women like her, you wouldn’t have the freedom today to decide whether you wish to work or stay home with the children and you might not even have the liberty to enjoy the strong relationship you share with Harry.
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Ibsen, Henrik. The Doll’s House. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1992.