Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review of A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen Or, Take That, Torvald!

Sometimes it takes a second read to really appreciate a book.  I’m no stranger to book re-reading.  I may or may not have just finished A Room With a View for the 4th time.  I may or may not have read Anne of the Island every autumn of high school and college.  If you go through my bookshelf you’ll notice most of my books are dog-eared, bookmarked, and self annotated.  Most books get better with age and multiple readings.  Some books, regretfully, fall by the wayside on a closer read (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, alas!).  And then there are the books I gave a cursory read, did my duty, checked it off my list, discussed in class, forgot about until years later when I suddenly realize what a goldmine I passed by.  Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is one such read.
While I haven’t read a lot of plays, the few I have are generally one-setting plays, little glimpses into the private home, deep insights into the human psyche.  
Doll Houses then...
... and now
I read A Doll’s House for my theatre class in college and somehow it only earned 3 stars.  After having just read it again, I was blown away by how ahead of it’s time it is!  I would have loved to meet Mr. Ibsen and chat with him over tea about his thoughts on society and gender roles.   Originally written in Norwegian, and premiering on the stage in Denmark in 1879, A Doll’s House is a short play showcasing a pivotal moment in the life of Nora Helmer and her relationship with her husband, Torvald.  Nora is a doting and dutiful wife except for one very important secret that she has kept from her husband.  When this secret is in danger of being revealed, Nora desperately tries to find a way to protect her family from the inevitable consequences.  

What an interesting dichotomy this play reveals about gender roles! Nora is Torvald's little songbird, little squirrel, little sparrow. She is flighty and irresponsible and simply there to bring light and comfort to the home. All this we are told by Torvald, and even from Nora. But what a contrast from the actions we see. Nora who has no head for business, has kept an excellent account of all her records, hired herself out to make the money she needs, painstakingly saved money from her own allowance. Nora, the flighty delight of the household in action is mired in desperation and despair over the choices she has made. She contemplates taking her own life to solve her troubles. Does this sound like a thoughtless woman? And Torvald, always exalting his love for his wife, longing for a way to spare her life in exchange for his, falters and fails with hypocrisy. Nora, in the best scene of the novel, calls him out on it.

This is the moment Nora realizes they have never known each other, and she has never known herself.  Nora is heartbroken, but her eyes are opened.  The end of this play is one of the most satisfying pieces of writing I have ever read.  Nora speaks to Torvald as if they had “passed through the grave” as Jane Eyre would say.  Until this point Nora has always believed she was just a decorative piece of Torvald’s home.  She was simply a doll for him to manipulate.  What an ending! "I have another duty- equally sacred. My duty to myself... First and foremost I am a human being."

In summary: Torvald, what a hypocritical bastard!


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