Friday, May 20, 2016

Classics Corner: A Doll's House

Reviewed by Ambrea

Nora Helmer is a housewife:  she dutifully cooks and cleans, manages the household staff, takes care of the children, and, in general, oversees her husband’s home.  Flighty and lavish, Nora is doted upon by her husband, Torvald, and plays house for him.  But when their home and their very livelihood is threatened by an outsider, Nora’s decisions will come back to haunt her—and it will shake their marriage to its very foundation.

A Doll’s House is an intriguing play and, I think, definitely worth reading—or viewing—at least once, because it offers unparalleled insight into the life of a 19th century housewife and all the expectations that go along with it.  It’s a sharp in its telling, pinpointing marital flaws and social issues with uncompromising candor.

Nora is essentially a doll.  Through much of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Torvald dictates everything in her life—her clothes, her shoes, her manners, her religious beliefs, her children’s education, and more—and, when she makes decisions for herself (for the health of her husband, mind you), she is chastised and even threatened.  She’s given no leeway, no sense of individuality, and, essentially, no hope.  She’s a toy, a plaything, and she’s not really given the opportunity to change that, until her world comes crashing down around her.

I found it particularly fascinating to see how Nora grows up in an instant, how she changes dramatically when given the opportunity.  As things begin to fall apart—when her marriage and, yes, her very life is threatened—I thought it was interesting to see how she began to view herself and her husband through new eyes.  She begins to see her own self-worth, which is certainly an astonishing thing for a housewife who has known nothing else, and she views her husband for the man he is and not the man she imagined.  She begins to see happiness as a desirable thing, even if it means flouting social convention.

I was intrigued by her transformation.  More importantly, I was thrilled by her final speech when she decides that things must change—that she must change if she’s ever going to survive, if she’s ever going to become her own person.  Her moment of clarity is sudden and brilliant:  her happiness is important too.

And she will stop the cycle, as she states when she tells Torvald she has never been happy:

Torvald:  Not—not happy!

Nora:  No, only merry.  And you have always been so kind to me.  But our home has been nothing but a playroom.  I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Papa’s doll child; and here the children have been my dolls.  I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it was great fun when I played with them.  That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.

Nora has a startling insight into her marriage that changes the entire dynamic of their relationship.  Her transformation is astonishing, and her decision would have been unheard of.  The fact that she made a decision for herself at all would have been surprising in the heavily moderated and monitored Victorian society.  It’s actually pretty fascinating, and I think that Henrik Ibsen does a fantastic job of capturing the drama of a fractured domestic life.

Admittedly, A Doll’s House does have a few moments where it grows dull and dry, making it difficult to slog through the dialogue.  Honestly, the last five pages or so of the play were exactly what I was waiting to find—that’s exactly when the real drama unfolds and Nora shocks everyone (her husband included) by making a decision against convention.  Everything else then feels like idle chatter.

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