Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen; drawing by David Levine

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.

In his first exchanges with Nora, Helmer calls her “his twittering lark,” and his “squirrel,” his little “spend-thrift,” his “featherbrain.” These are not insults—far from it. The words represent the coins of affection they have been living on in the lean days. But still we see right off that Helmer is prudent and Nora is eager for room in life, for spontaneity. “No debts! No borrowing!” the husband announces. But he loosens up a bit with the prodigal demands of the holiday season and counts out some bills for Nora. “Money!” she says, sounding the thundering chord. When she is asked what she wants for Christmas, she declares that she would like cash. Helmer finds the occasion to frown over her likeness to her father when it comes to spending; the husband believes in the inheritance of acquired characteristics and, while he adores his little wife, he can see she is not entirely free of genetic imperfection.

At this point a visitor is announced. The social world of Ibsen’s plays is greatly restricted, enclosed in a narrow frame, cut off by the very geography of Norway; the long, dark winters make for social repetition, and a kind of solitude at the center of everything. When the bell rings and the eyebrows lift at the unexpected caller, it is, unless it be that odd member of the triangular mystery, almost sure to be an old school friend of either the wife or the husband. Everyone else you know is right there, so to speak. This small-town life has moral consequences always; the players live with the threat of trouble over the most petty matters. When Rosmer changes some of his theological ideas it is a scandal. Error or past dissipation casts a long, long shadow. Small towns always remember you when you were young; they seldom believe all the good things they hear you have done later, since you went off someplace else.

The visitor in A Doll’s House is Mrs. Linden. She has arrived on Christmas Eve. Those who call upon school friends they haven’t seen for years are in a state of emergency. Something awful has happened out there. But in Ibsen’s plays they receive a rather guarded welcome. No one has much to give; money, love, friendship come at a high price. This is a bourgeois world just hanging on, even petty bourgeois in the amount of money on hand, if claiming a somewhat higher status by education and profession. Nora’s husband has been made manager of the bank in the nick of time; Hedda Gabler’s husband, Tesman, is a professor with very little money; her father was a military man who left nothing; Hjalmer Lovborg is poor, his mistress, Thea, is poor; Rebecca West in Rosmersholm is poor. Mrs. Alving in Ghosts has enough money, but disasters such as she has known are worse than poverty.

Mrs. Linden is a confidante, a device, rather thinly sketched, but in her outlines of practicality and heavy duties she is an interesting contrast to Nora. Mrs. Linden has come to town to get a job. Money has had its way with her since birth. Her father died and she gradually had to look after her mother and her younger brothers. She married at last, seeking minimal security, foregoing love. But ill luck dogged her still. Her husband died and not before his business fell into trouble. He left her without money and even without “a sorrow or a longing to remember.” It had been a complete blank—and no pension at the end of it. She survived. Mrs. Linden is steadfast if somewhat depressed. She has always worked.

At this point Nora starts to reveal the real plot of the play. Hearing of Mrs. Linden’s troubles, of her lifelong sacrifices, Nora cannot resist admitting the troubles she, the happy, lucky young wife, has known. She has got herself into a mess on behalf of those she loves and she is proud of her steady, if unconventional, efforts to extricate herself. Nora too has made decisions, born burdensome consequences. Yes, she has a husband and “three of the loveliest children,” but she has had to find ways, she has had to work—“light fancy work…crochet and embroidery and things of that sort,” and copying late at night. Her secret is that she took on nothing less than the responsibility of saving her husband’s life.

Helmer, when they were first married, had lost his health in the struggle to survive in the harsh commercial climate of Norway. We have no reason to doubt that he might have died without a trip south, to the sun. The bitter Norwegian winters, the coughs, the lung diseases, the bronchial threats are perfectly convincing. “How lucky you had the money to spend,” the penny-worn Mrs. Linden says about their year in Italy.

Of course they hadn’t the money to spend. Nora, without telling her husband, who would have certainly refused or vetoed the idea, had borrowed the money from the disgraced money lender, Krogstad. This man had been a schoolmate of Helmer’s, an admirer of Mrs. Linden’s, a small-town embarrassment to himself and his family because he had at some time been guilty of forgery, had not actually been sentenced, but had lived on—forced into usura—with a small post in Helmer’s bank and no position in society. Nora turned to Krogstad for her secret negotiations on the money for the year in Italy; she also forged her dying father’s name to the note because she didn’t know what else to do. But they had their year in the sun, her husband is well, and she has been scrupulously paying back the loan with interest all these years, doing “fancy work,” and saving pennies from her household money.

Lies had to be told, but Nora never doubted that she had done something both necessary and honorable. Also, the trip to Italy was one of those necessities that happily coincided with the heart’s desire. When she gets out her pretty costume and dances the tarantella in a Mediterranean celebration of joy, we see that in saving her husband’s life she has had the best year of her own. “I seem the fool I am not,” said Cleopatra.

Mrs. Linden speaks of being alone and childless and Nora cries out, “So utterly alone. How dreadful that must be!” And yet when Mrs. Linden faces her present situation, her mother dead, the boys raised and on their own, Nora suddenly says, “How free you must feel!” Mrs. Linden finds only “an inexpressible emptiness.” She has no one to live for and yet “you have to be always on the strain.” This woman has had a hard life of lonely work. She is thoroughly capable, even shows a talent for business, and Helmer is easily able to offer her a job in his bank.

Still, Mrs. Linden is a paradox, the sort of puzzle at the very heart of this play. She is capable and hard-working, but she is not independent. Nora is impractical and inexperienced, loves “beautiful gloves,” and wants the house to be nice—she is also intrinsically independent and free-spirited. In the end she leaves her husband and her children in order to find herself, but it is not the final gesture that makes her free. Anna Karenina left her husband and her son, but she was tragically dependent, driven finally by the torments of love to a devastating jealousy and to suicide.

Mrs. Linden, with her business experience, is prudent and conventional like Helmer. She tells Nora, “A wife can’t borrow without her husband’s consent.” Nora thinks that is just nonsense, a technicality. (In this conclusion she shows herself prophetic of modern American practice.) She is not, like Krogstad, dishonest and self-pitying. Instead she seems to enjoy the triumph of the borrowing and the struggle to repay. She has nothing but the most honorable intentions toward the money and the interest. Krogstad is a true forger, always wanting to make a leap without taking the consequences. He whines about his reputation. “All paths barred.” It is strongly suggested that he would have been more respected if he had gone to jail. Instead he has somehow edged out of that but has not been able to push away the cloud over his name.

No one understands vice better than Ibsen. He knows what a Krogstad is like. The outcast does not care about reality, but only about fancy Krogstad holds Nora’s fate in his hands; the fact that she has almost repaid the money does not impress him. He knows about the forging of her father’s name. Well enough. She must make Helmer keep him on at the bank, give him that little bit of respectability. And then suddenly the minor post is not sufficient. Krogstad begins to dream, a true forger’s dreaming. He will not be a mere clerk; no, he must be Helmer’s right-hand man and soon become the manager himself! This flamboyant soaring, done in only a few lines, is masterly. (Old Father Ibsen dreaming over his schnapps, no doubt.) In the end, Mrs. Linden and Krogstad decide to share the future. It is a case of supply and demand.

Helmer finds out about the borrowing and the forgery. He flies into a rage and nowhere shows the “miracle” of understanding or of male chivalry Nora had pretended to expect. He thinks she’s a treacherous little idiot who can tear down in a moment of folly all a man has built up by his most painful efforts. When he sees that it may not all be revealed, that they can get by with it, his fury abates. But Nora has suffered a moral disappointment. Helmer is not only a donkey, but a coward as well. She makes her decision to leave him and her children because she feels she has been deceiving herself about marriage and happiness and must now learn what life is really about.

The change from the girlish, charming wife to the radical, courageous heroine setting out alone has always been a perturbation. Part of the trouble is that we do not think, and actresses and directors do not think, the Nora of the first acts, the gay woman, with her children, her presents, her nicknames, her extravagance, her pleasure in the thought of “heaps of money,” can be a suitable candidate for liberation. No, that role should by rights belong to the depressed, childless, loveless Mrs. Linden and her lonely drudgery. The truth is that Nora has always been free; it is all there in her gaiety, her lack of self-pity, her impulsiveness, her expansive, generous nature. And Nora never for a moment trusted Helmer. If she had done so she would long ago have told him about her troubles.

Nora kept her secret because she took pride in having assumed responsibility for her husband’s life. She also kept quiet out of a lack of faith in her husband’s spirit, a thorough knowledge of his conventionality and fear. Even as he is opening the letter that tells of the borrowing and forgery, before he knows, she thinks, “Goodbye, my little ones.” Of course her worst fears are true. Helmer behaves very badly, saying I told you so, and babbling on about her being her father’s daughter. Had Nora stayed with him, we can imagine a rather full store of grievance would be in the closet. At the least Helmer would be eternally joking about her foolishness and looking into his wallet at night.

Claire Bloom in the present New York production2 plays the early Nora with a great deal of charm and elegance. But neither she nor the director, Patrick Garland, has any new ideas about the play. They struggle on in the traditional fashion with the early Nora and the late Nora, linking the two by an undercurrent of hysteria in the first part. This is not sufficient and will not really connect the two women. The hysteria is a fleeting thing, based on reality. It has to do with the pressing practical problem of the odious Krogstad’s determination to use Nora for his own dishonest purposes. The hysteria, the worry will not open the door. The only way the two can be reconciled is for the players and the audience to give up their idea that an independent, courageous woman cannot be domestic, pleasure-loving, and charming. If the play were written today, Nora would have left Helmer long ago. They are ill-matched. She has a gift for life and a fundamental common sense made falsely to appear giddy and girlish by the empty, dead conventionality of Helmer.

An exchange about debt: Helmer says, suppose a catastrophe happened to a man and his family was left with a coffin of unpaid bills. Nora answers, “If anything so dreadful happened, it would be all the same to me whether I was in debt or not.” She shows this sort of undercutting intelligence and genuineness throughout the play. Her mind has always been free and original; she is liberated by her intelligence and high spirits.

Strange that Helmer should want a doll’s house and yet be so hostile to details of domestic creation. Over and over he leaves the stage with an air of insufferable self-love when there is anything to do with sewing or household affairs. In one scene he mocks the arm movements of a woman knitting. He flees from the presence of the children when they come in from the cold outside, saying, “Only mothers can endure such a temperature.”

Nora’s children—this is a hedge of thorns. Abandon Helmer, all right, but bundle up the children and take them with you, arranging for his weekend and vacation visits. Even in Ibsen’s day one actress refused the part saying, “I could never abandon my children.” Nora’s love for the children seems real. The nurse points out that they are used to being with their mother more than is usual. Helmer, again lecturing about heredity, says lying mothers produce criminal children. Nora shudders, remembering her interest payments. The nurse she will finally leave the children with is the one who has raised her, but still the step is a grave one. In one of the most striking bits of dialogue between husband and wife, Helmer says, “…no man sacrifices his honor, not even for one he loves.” “Millions of women have done so,” Nora replies.

When Helmer says that she cannot leave her children, she might have said, “Millions of men have done so,” and in that been perfectly consistent with current behavior. Nora seems to be saying that she cannot raise her own children in the old way and that she needs time to discover a new one.

Nevertheless the severance is rather casual and it drops a stain on our admiration of Nora. Ibsen has put the leaving of her children on the same moral and emotional level as the leaving of her husband and we cannot, in our hearts, assent to that. It is not only the leaving but the way the play does not have time for suffering, changes of heart. Ibsen has been too much a man in the end. He has taken the man’s practice, if not his stated belief, that where self-realization is concerned children shall not be an impediment.

In William Archer’s Preface to A Doll’s House he had the idea that the woman who served as the model for Nora had actually, in real life, borrowed the money to redecorate her house! There is something beguiling in this thought, something of Nora Helmer in it. The real case was a dismal and more complicated one. The borrowing woman was an intellectual, a sort of writer, who had some literary correspondence with Ibsen. A meeting was arranged and the biographer, Halvdan Koht, says that “she was hardly what he [Ibsen] expected, but young, pretty and vivacious.” She was invited to Dresden and Ibsen called her “the lark.” Some years later the lark married and borrowed money secretly to take her husband south for his health. She had trouble paying the money back and the Ibsens urged her to confess to her husband. She confessed and he, in fury, demanded a divorce. The poor wife suffered a nervous breakdown, was sent to an asylum. “In this catastrophe the marriage was dissolved.”

The play and the true happening are a wonderfully rich psychological comment on each other. When we learn the model for Nora was intelligent and ambitious everything falls into place. There is no need to wonder about motivation or changes of character, sudden revelations. Ibsen has not made Nora a writer, but he has, if we look carefully, made her extremely intelligent. She is the most sympathetic of all his heroines. There is nothing bitter, ruthless, or self-destructive in her. She has the amiability and endurance that are the clues to moral courage. Nora is gracious and fair-minded. Even when she is leaving Helmer, she thanks him for being kind to her. With Dr. Rank, the family friend, who is in love with her, she is honest and her flirtation has none of the heavy cynicism of Hedda Gabler’s relation with her family friend, Judge Brach, and none of the bitter ambitiousness of Rebecca’s relation with Rosmer. Nora is not after anything and we cannot imagine her in nihilistic pursuit of an architect (The Master Builder) or the sculptor (When We Dead Awaken). Nora’s freedom rests upon her affectionate nature.

The habit, as in Claire Bloom’s portrayal, is to play Nora too lightly in the beginning and too heavily in the end. The person who has been charming in acts 1 and 2 puts on a dowdy traveling suit in act 3 and is suddenly standing before you as a spinster governess. If the play is to make sense, the woman who has decided to leave her husband must be the very same woman we have known before. We may well predict that she will soon be laughing and chattering again and eating her macaroons in peace, telling her friends—she is going back to her home town—what a stick Helmer turned out to be. Otherwise her freedom is worth nothing. Nora’s liberation is not a transformation, but an acknowledgment of error, of having married the wrong man. Her real problem is money—at the beginning and at the end. What will she live on? What kind of work will she do? Will she get her children back? Who will be her next husband? When the curtain goes down it is only the end of volume one.

Because Nora is free and whole she does not present the puzzling tangle of deceit and subterfuge, suppressed rage and dishonesty that are so peculiar a tendency in the women in Ibsen’s other realistic plays. A Doll’s House is a comedy, a happy ending—except for the matter of the children. The play was published more than ninety years ago and we have found out very little we could add. In the case of grating marriages the children are still there, a matter for improvisation, resistant to fixed principles. Fortunately some of Ibsen’s more far-out heroines—Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West, and Irene—are childless and this makes their suicides and falling off a mountain easier on the moral sensibilities of the audience.

(This is the first of two articles on Ibsen’s plays.)

This Issue

March 11, 1971