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)
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.