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A Doll’s House

Ibsen could never be agreeable for very long. He seemed to have the fat of choler in his bloodstream, all of it collecting there from a youth as bitter, homely, and humiliating as a man could endure. Fate kept this large mind and angry ambition working as a druggist from the age of sixteen to twenty-two in the freezing cold of the little town of Grimstad. Well-named. He was sore at his family because they were worse than poor; they had gone from being well-enough off to a great diminishment—the kind of reversal that stood out like a birthmark in the nosy, petty provincial world of Ibsen’s life, and of his plays.

The Ibsen family had to move from town to a miserable little farm on the outskirts. Father Ibsen had the inclination to bankruptcy and shadiness Ibsen used over and over in his work, and along with it the sardonic wit of a small-town failure who drank too much. Ibsen detested all of them, except perhaps his sister, and he himself suffered some of the hardness of heart of those who cannot come to terms with their families. Ibsen’s mother, according to the biographer Halvdan Koht,1 started out as a sensitive woman who liked music and painting, but all her soul and energy soon sank into caring for her children and patiently enduring the bankrupt-prone father and his drunken-evening nonsense. It might be thought from Ibsen’s interesting women characters that he felt some special love for his mother. It was not so simple as that. When his sister wrote that his mother had died, he didn’t answer the letter for four months.

Still, he had learned everything and his ambition managed to feed on his own ill luck. In Hedda Gabler, Tesman says, “But, good heavens, we know nothing of the future!” and Lovborg answers, “No, but there is a thing or two to be said about it all the same.” And so it is with Ibsen. He is guarded, protecting himself from too much feeling, and yet he had a thing or two to say about everything he had experienced. He seemed to have felt a troubled wonder about women that made his literary use of them peculiar, original, and tentative—like a riddle. His wife was devoted and constant and notably strong-minded. When her son was born she announced that was the end of it. No more! And so little Sigurd had no brothers or sisters. Ibsen pondered this, without so far as we know strong emotion; he simply wondered what it might mean about his wife. His mother-in-law had been a novelist. There was a clear, Scandinavian, radical skepticism in the Thoresen family he had married into. For himself, Ibsen liked being away from the detested Norway, writing and writing, and getting a little drunk at night.

As he grew older and well-known, fan mail came from the sort of young woman who yearned to attach herself to a famous man. Ibsen answered with more than the usual inanity; he met some of the girls. But again he was guarded; he didn’t trust them too far and took a lot of it out in love notes. Emilie Bardach, the most important of these young girls, said her joy in life was taking men away from their wives. Ibsen was floored by this degree of ruthlessness. The “May sun in the September of his life” was a demon. Her demonism interested him, but in the end he could say, “She didn’t get me, but I got her for my writing.” Emilie was clearly the model for the “inspiring” Hilde who attaches herself to the aging architect in The Master Builder. She sent Ibsen a photograph of herself signed “The Princess of Orangia,” a pet name used in the play. The great man was greatly annoyed. That was overstepping. He dropped her.

A Doll’s House was naturally taken up by the women’s rights movement. At first this was agreeable, but Ibsen couldn’t in the end resist a put-down. He made an address before the Norwegian Society for Women’s Rights and said he didn’t know what those rights were. He cared only for freedom for all men.

The plays are about writing, disguised as architecture or sculpture (ambition for greatness), about provincial narrowness and hypocrisy, bourgeois marriage, money, hereditary taints of all kinds from syphilis to the tendency to get into debt. He had obviously learned all he needed from Grimstad, bankruptcy, anger, the torments inside the little parlors of Christiania. And there was a large, steady poetic and dramatic energy that kept him going day after day, year after year.

Ibsen’s realistic plays are somewhat different from those of his followers. His psychology is close to the kind we are used to in fiction; character develops in an interestingly uneven fashion, moving a little this way and then a bit in another direction. His people are not quite fixed. They are growing, moving, uncertain of their direction in life. With this sort of personality, dialogue and selected dramatic conflicts cannot tell us all we want to know. We would like to go back with Hedda Gabler and forward with Nora Helmer. We feel a need for some additions to the surrounding scenery. The characters take hold of our imagination and vanish just as we are beginning to know them. The curtain goes down.

It is not a defect in dramaturgy; no, all of that is mastered perfectly. The trouble has to do with the sort of character Ibsen wanted to write about, particularly the women characters. Their motivation is true, but incomplete. Perhaps the fluid, drifting, poetic tone of Chekhov would have suited these women better. We would not have expected quite the same sort of resolution Ibsen’s playmaking techniques demand. You look deeper into the plays and there are hints, little fragments here and there, stray bits of biography, detached, fascinating, and mysterious suggestions. We feel Ibsen himself created certain characters out of a musing wonder and a deep, intriguing uncertainty.

Studying his plays is unsettling in the profitable manner of the very best literature. You are full of questioning. Where are the mothers of Hedda and Nora? Both of these women have been brought up by their fathers. What about the ménage à trois so frequent in the plays—one woman with her husband and the family friend, the doctor or judge who comes over every evening? Or the house with the wife and another woman, a predatory, idealistic woman, full of devastating plans? Even in his general attitudes Ibsen is immensely complicated. You never know. There are breaks in his liberalism and social concern; and yet he never wavers in his contempt for business, the clergy, and the social hypocrisy of the Norwegian towns. He also hated the destructiveness of clean abstractions (“the ideal”) when it was imposed upon the streaked and stained effort to survive.

Is Ibsen “our contemporary”—to use Jan Kott’s phrase? He shares most of his subject matter with the prose literature of his time. There has always been, in addition, the special tie between nineteenth-century Norway and nineteenth-century America: the same galling, busy puritanism, the town life moving on the wheels of disgrace and scandal, drunkenness and deceit. Think of the provincial character of the agonies: the neighbors, one’s position in the town, the accountability for everything, the necessity for prudence and the temptation to excess. Some of this scenery has vanished and what is left may be broken and cracked, but neighbors and families and gossip, boredom, marriage, money, and work are still what the drama of life is about.

There has been recently an accretion of interest in the women characters in Ibsen, in the plight of Mrs. Alving, the chaos of Hedda Gabler, the ambition of Rebecca West. These are all dramatically interesting portraits, but world literature offers more complex and richly imagined women. What newly strikes us about Ibsen may be just what we had a decade or so ago thought was stodgy about him—he sees women not only as individual characters and destinies caught up in dramatic conflicts but also as a “problem.” He seems alone, so far as I can remember, in suggesting that he has given thought to the bare fact of being born a woman. To be female: what does it mean?

He worried about the raw canvas upon which the details of character were painted. First you are a woman and then you are restless, destructive, self-sacrificing, whatever you happen to be. No doubt there is some Scandinavian texture in all this, some socialistic brooding, something to do with the masterful Thoresen women in his wife’s family, with his wife herself. Women seemed very strong to him, unpredictable; they set his literary imagination on fire and so he needed them, but he didn’t want to be engulfed, drowned by new passions. He was not domestic and liked living in hotels and hired places in Italy or Germany, summering in cottages by a lake, writing, not necessarily needing the whole sweep of the feminine plan of house, permanence for possessions, roots.

What can A Doll’s House be for us? Nora’s leaving her husband can scarcely rivet our attention. The only thing more common and unremarkable would be her husband’s leaving her. The last line, the historic “speech,” is in the famous stage direction that ends the play. “From below is heard the reverberations of a heavy door closing.” The door is the door of self-determination. We have some idea why it is at last opened, but why had it, before, been closed?

A Doll’s House is about money, about the way it turns locks. Here is the plot once more. Nora Helmer is the charming young mother of three children. She has been married for eight years. When we first meet her she is full of claims to happiness, but it is rather swiftly revealed that strenuous days and nights lie in the past. Still the marriage has life in it and Nora thinks she is happy. Indeed she is on the brink of being happier—things have taken a good turn. Nora’s husband, Helmer, has been a struggling lawyer, but it is typical of his character that the courage and aggressiveness needed to survive as a solitary professional are not quite suitable to his temperament. He requires the corporate frame. Helmer has just been named manager of the Joint Stock Bank. It is a promotion in self-esteem, in social position, best of all in money.

It is Christmas Eve, the tree is brought in by a porter and almost the first line of the play is, “How much?” Nora gives the man a crown and in her first exclamation of liberation says, “Keep the change!” This gratuity, this enlargement of possibility and personal expansiveness are the very sweetness of life to Nora. Her money worries have been overwhelming; natural generosity, pleasant extravagance have had to be sacrificed. True the new money is still maddeningly not quite there. Helmer’s increased salary will not begin for three months. No matter, Nora has bought presents for the family instead of, as in previous years, sitting up all night making the trimmings and the gifts herself. In a mood of hope and indulgence she nibbles some sweets her husband, true to our own dental beliefs, has “forbidden” her in the interest of sound teeth.

  1. 1

    Halvdan Koht, Life of Ibsen, translated and edited by Einar Haugen and A.E. Santaniello (Benjamin Blom, $17.50).

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