One of the many paradoxes of human life is that many people who are overtly religious may have the vilest evils lurking beneath their overt behaviour. Such evils may never become manifest in external behaviour since they remain successfully suppressed by the religiosity of the person. The same is true of morality. Conversely, many people who are not overtly religious or moralistic may be much better at heart than those who display virtues in their external behaviour.
Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, depicts this paradox. Ibsen died in 1906. The play was originally published in 1879. It is classical enough to grip our imagination and exercise our minds even today.
Helmer, the protagonist, is a morally upright person, a man of honour. No one will accuse him of any fault. Yet when his wife, Nora, leaves him in the end returning the wedding ring, he sinks into the chair crying “Empty!.” It is his inner emptiness that he has to confront now, the exemplariness of his external behaviour notwithstanding.
Nora had borrowed a large sum of money from a moneylender in order to take her husband to Italy in accordance with his doctor’s advice. Since Helmer would not agree to taking the loan, especially because he was not aware of the seriousness of his physical condition, Nora told him a lie that the money came from her father. Moreover, she had forged her father’s signature as the surety on the bond. She did it because her father was on the deathbed and could not sign himself. She had no intention of cheating anyone, anyway. She has been paying back the loan with whatever money she could save on dress and other items as well as doing some extra bits of work. But the forgery comes back to sting her in the form of a blackmail when she refuses to do the favour of recommending the moneylender to her husband for a job. She does her best to recommend him, but Helmer is too “honourable” a man to retain a “dishonourable” man in his bank. In fact, the moneylender’s error had been committed long ago and could have been ignored since he had lived an “honourable” enough life afterward. But Helmer had certain personal grouses too against the man. Nora’s “dishonourable” act of forgery is now revealed.
At this juncture, however, something good happens in the life of the moneylender. His former love, who is now a lonely widow, returns to him in search of his and his motherless children’s love. The moneylender decides to forego his vengeance on Nora.
Helmer who was initially furious about Nora’s “dishonourable” deed is now ready to forgive her since the matter would not become public knowledge. But Nora has to now live under his tutelage, learning lessons in “honourable” behaviour. She chooses to walk out of his life altogether. She had been living like a doll so far; first her father’s doll, and then her husband’s doll. She had never taken life seriously, either. Her oft-repeated utterance was: “It’s a wonderful thing to be alive and happy.” And happiness, to her, meant wealth. A life with “heaps and heaps of money” and no anxiety was happy life, according to her. She was happy with the attention paid to her by her husband and the sweet names he called her. She was happy with whatever religion that the priests had taught her as a child. And she had never realised that the law was not concerned about one’s intentions and motives.
Now she realises that what she had done was legally wrong though she thinks of such law as “foolish.” And she wants to understand whether the religion taught to her by the priests is indeed true for her. She is on a personal quest for meaning in life at the end of the play.
Nora will grapple with her unique self and its emotions. She has confronted her inner emptiness and is ready to deal with it, unlike Helmer who still thinks of himself as “honourable.”
Helmer and thousands (if not millions) of others like him remain spiritually empty because of the honourableness they have learnt to display in their external behaviour. Such honourableness is only about appearances. Even the moneylender turns out to be a much better human being who understands the value of love and relationships above “honourableness.”
Nora will now ask herself: “Who am I?” She has realised that she is not meant to be “a doll” and that life is not all about “heaps of money.” The fullness of life comes from discovering or forging a harmony between one’s inner, deep psychological forces (emotions, urges, attitudes, etc) and the demands of the external life (family, society, and the very cosmos). Such harmony is what makes one a superior individual.
No wonder, G B Shaw became an admirer of Ibsen. Shaw pursued this theme of superiority and created his superman later. But Ibsen’s own countrymen had considered him immoral and mad!