Conventions can be painfully oppressive if you are a superior mind. Conventions are good for the mediocre minds that hate independent thinking and love to follow the herd. Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, shows the eminence of a woman’s mind and how that mind is held captive by a conventional social system.
Nora is a very conventional wife at the beginning of the play. Her husband, Torvald Helmer, loves her very much. It appears so, at least. He calls her “my little lark”, “my little squirrel”, and so on. He works and earns for the family. Nora is a housewife. A few years ago, Torvald was ill and needed treatment in Italy. But they did not have the money. So Nora borrows the money, a large amount, from Krogstad and tells a lie to her husband that the money was given by her father. Torvald would not have allowed her to borrow the amount, particularly from Krogstad. Italy saves Torvald’s life and Nora pays off the debt by saving whatever she could from the money given to her for the kitchen. She also does some odd knitting and stitching jobs.
When Torvald is appointed as the boss of a bank, the problem begins. He is going to dismiss Krogstad who is not only an immoral person but also an off-putting personality. Krogstad threatens to blackmail Nora unless she pleads with her husband on his behalf. He wants her to ask Torvald not only to reinstate him but also to give him a higher post. Torvald refuses Nora’s request bluntly. Nora wonders what place she holds in her husband’s life.
Krogstad had taken a surety from Nora when he lent her the big sum. The surety was signed by Nora’s father. The truth is Nora had forged her father’s signature and the date she put was a day after her father’s death. Though Nora had paid almost all the money back and there was just one more instalment left which she would definitely pay on time, Krogstad threatens to inform Torvald about the forgery.
Nora passes through the hell. She wonders why the world is like this. Whatever she did was out of love. She borrowed the money out of love for her husband. The money saved his life. She forged her father’s signature because she didn’t want to trouble him when he was not well. She loved her father. She repaid the debt in regular instalments. She has been a good woman. She is a good mother too. She is a good wife, a good daughter. It is love that prompted her to do what she did. What’s wrong then?
She realises that she has been living merely like a doll, a puppet. Before marriage, she was her Papa’s doll, and after marriage, she has been her husband’s doll. But now, when Torvald comes to know about the forgery, she becomes “a hypocrite, a liar – worse, worse – a criminal” in the words of her husband who finds what she did “unutterably ugly”.
Krogstad repents what he did because it’s Christmas after all. He returns the bond as well as the forged signature. As soon as Torvald receives those documents, he transforms once again into the conventional husband who loves his wife dearly. What’s more, he is willing to forgive her for what she did.
Nora thanks him for his forgiveness but adds that she cannot live with him anymore. “You have never loved me,” she says. “You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.” She was just a domestic pet for him and nothing more. Before marriage, she was not entitled to any of her own opinions. “When I was at home with Papa he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you…”
Live with you. She doesn’t say when they married. “I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Papa’s doll child.” She doesn’t want to be a doll anymore. “I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being just as you are – or, at all events, that I must try and become one.
She tells her husband that if he had genuine love for her, instead of blaming her for what she did, he would have taken up the blame on himself. That is love. Sacrifice yourself for the beloved especially when you know that she was sacrificing herself for you. She refuses to accept Torvald’s explanations, hollow words coming from hollow conventions, hollow morality, hollow religion. Even the immoral Krogstad is a better human being.
Ibsen lived and wrote in the 19th century when questioning conventions ran the risk of being targeted by the society. Ibsen made his heroines question the conventions which was worse than making men do that job. He made people think of the worth of certain conventions and the hypocrisy we practise in the name of those conventions. He shook the very foundations of people’s unthinking attitudes.
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
3. The Castle
Next to come on Monday: England, My England