Monday, 6 October 2014

Escaping Slavery: 'A Doll's House'

by Lottie Kent

A Doll’s House was a paragon of Modernist theatre; it attempted to dismantle the façades of propriety and morality, exposing repressive normativity for what it really was. Nora embodies the collapse of a façade, and the subsequent revelation of what might be called a ‘real’ identity. Initially, she appears to the audience as capricious and immature, snaffling macaroons, giggling and ‘sulking’. Yet, from the outset, there are indications that Nora is a far more intelligent woman than her behaviour suggests, and it becomes evident that the life she leads is at odds with her true intellectual and emotional capacity. Furthermore, though Nora may be in need of personal growth in order to achieve this capacity, she is restricted from doing so by the feminine identity that contemporary society prescribes her.

This feminine identity is encapsulated in the belittling sobriquets that Torvald chooses for his wife. From ‘my skylark’ to ‘my squirrel’ to ‘my little squanderbird’ and even ‘my little sweet-tooth’, Nora is compared to small, powerless animals – and, worse, a part of Torvald’s body (one that causes him to indulge frivolously). Moreover, he consistently employs the first person pronoun ‘my’ to address her, demonstrating his inescapable ownership of her every action. The fact that she answers to this myriad of pet names appears to a contemporary audience as a submission, we are uncomfortable that she simply assumes the juvenile identities that her husband imposes. However, there is evidence to suggest that Nora’s behaviour has a greater profundity to it, that it is performative, and that her ‘reality’ is the need to maintain this performance.

Gillian Anderson as Nora
(source: Donmar Warehouse)
This idea is illustrated when Torvald says to her ‘Nora, Nora, how like a woman!’. Her ignorance of business and frivolous conduct is expected given the social role she occupies. Moreover, she very publicly occupies this social role, so her ‘womanly’ qualities are not only required within her marriage, but also by greater society – to the extent that her family’s reputation is on the line if she does not fulfil them. In Act One, Torvald says ‘the squanderbird’s a pretty little creature, but she gets through an awful lot of money. It’s incredible what an expensive pet she is for a man to keep.’ This reflects the position that women were often compelled to keep, in an age when the household pet was extremely popular: as a creature on show, a very visual symbol of domesticity and ownership and convention. However, the fact that Torvald talks to Nora this way, describing her in the third person, suggests that the ‘squanderbird’ he is referencing is not truly analogous to Nora; in separating the two through the lack of a direct address (‘you’), there exists an implicit notion that the ‘real’ Nora lies outside of her spoken relationship with her husband.  

Moreover, as Nora infers in her response, ‘if only you knew how many expenses we larks and squirrels have’, she is more than just an emblem of the normative bourgeois family, she is its life-force – holding the entire unit together, doing so in secret. The fact that Nora hides that she has borrowed money, even to ‘save Torvald’s life’, shows she is intelligent because she clearly recognises the restrictions placed over her by moralist, middle-class society. She realises that her act must stay a secret in order to maintain her marriage, saying ‘it’d be so painful and humiliating for him to know he owed anything to me. It’d completely wreck our relationship.’ Here, Nora knows she is bound to uphold her family’s reputation by appearing financially impotent, but has not had the spiritual or intellectual growth to understand why this limits her or why she might want to challenge it.
Nora’s need for this sort of development is further conveyed in her first exchange with Kristina Linde in Act One. In their duologue, Kristina is used as a foil for Nora’s self-centred, even puerile, chatter. Despite saying ‘I’m not going to be selfish today’, Nora seems to be unable to stop herself from gushing about her own ‘happy’ life and family – even though her friend is in clear need of emotional support. Her streams of speech are only briefly interrupted by Kristina, who proffers polite, but quietly miserable responses, such as ‘it must be lovely to have enough to cover one’s needs anyway.’ Whilst the audience can infer that Kristina is making a muted plea for Nora to recognise her hardships (as a financially insecure widow) and not brandish her happiness so readily, Nora is not empathetic enough to see it. Oblivious, she continues ‘Not just our needs! We’re going to have heaps and heaps of money!’ In rendering Nora so insensitive, Ibsen seeks to comment on the shelter of privileged domesticity. He demonstrates its stultifying effect on the intellectual growth of the individual: those who are only exposed to life within the home cannot conceive of a reality beyond it. And yet, he also seems to offer the idea that experience beyond the boundaries of home, though it might cultivate the self, is no better than (perhaps even worse than) life inside these walls. Mrs. Linde is a widow, left penniless by her husband, forced to work to support an ailing mother and younger brothers. Now that her mother has died and her brothers support themselves, she says she is ‘unspeakably empty’: she has no one to strive for, but must continue doing spiritually draining jobs to just stay alive. These women are diametric opposites, but they are both enslaved by a system that holds money and reputation at its heart. Thus, though Nora is relatively naïve, Ibsen uses Kristina’s character to contend that intellectual and spiritual growth will still not free her. In this way, he is holding a critical mirror up to the contemporary society that spurns the freethinking mind in the face of repressive, class-driven norms.

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