Henrik Ibsen and the Real Lady of the Dollhouse

from A Doll’s House (original title: Et dukkehjem) by Henrik Ibsen:

“Nora [shaking her head]. You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.

Helmer. Nora, what do I hear you saying?

Nora. It is perfectly true, Torvald. When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you–

Helmer. What sort of an expression is that to use about our marriage?

Nora [undisturbed]. I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as your else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which–I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman–just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.

Helmer. How unreasonable and how ungrateful you are, Nora! Have you not been happy here?

Nora. No, I have never been happy. I thought I was, but it has never really been so.

Helmer. 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 great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.

Nora. I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are–or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.” Nora.

When Nora walked out of her house at the conclusion of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House it caused an uproar at its premiere at the Royal Theatre in Denmark. Depression due to the inequalites in marriage had long been a subject in literature, but the problem (except in rare cases such as Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall) had been “solved” by plunges off cliffs or glasses of arsonic.

One of the many things that stands out is that Ibsen has the guts to make Nora unsympathetic at times. This is most evident when she talks endlessly about herself to her friends, Mrs. Linde and Doctor Rank. (the former, a widow looking for employment at the bank. the latter, dying). It would have been all too easy to make Nora simply a poor, put-upon woman. Controversy remains to this day regarding the fact that she abandons her role as a mother. But as Nora makes clear, she is hardly suitable for that role, being nothing more than a child, or doll, herself.

It is this self-realization that sets Nora apart from the Madam Bovaries. She can acknowledge her flaws and she sees a way to solve them. Perhaps her solution is not ideal, but she is taking active measures. If she is given this chance to be by herself for the very first time in her life, then perhaps one day she can return home, “changed”. And if in the interim, her husband is able/willing to do the same, then perhaps, “the most wonderful thing of all could happen.”

Henrik Ibsen first saw his Nora coming to him in a blue woolen dress. He wrote on October 17, 1878 that, “A woman cannot be herself in modern society since it is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.”

It should be noted here that later on Ibsen declined an award from the Norwegian Women’s Rights League, claiming he had not consciously written the play thinking about women’s rights, but about all humanity.

Yet, the question remained, who was this woman who came to him in a blue woolen dress?

Laura Kieler was a friend of Ibsen’s. Their relationship had begun in 1870 when she’d sent him a novel she’d written entitled, Brand’s Daughters. Stricken, Ibsen nicknamed her, “lark”, as Helmer would later affectionately call Nora in the play.

In 1876, after discovering that Laura had secretly taken out a loan, her husband demanded a separation and had her committed to an asylum. Shaken by his friend’s ordeal and feeling powerless to help- Ibsen poured his frustrastions onto paper. His woman could and would, choose life and freedom.

Laura was released after a month and returned to her husband. She resumed her writing career and tried (unsuccessfully) to distance herself from being associated as the model for Ibsen’s, “Doll”.

The fate of Nora resides in readers’ imaginations.

Published in: on August 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm  Comments (22)  
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  1. Oh wow, this is really good. Do they have this on video as well? It really surprise me that it was an uproar when Nora pretty much left here husband. In today society it would of been a celebration. I guess back than please correct me when I am wrong, marriage was a status and not too many people believe is showing others they had a broken home.

    A separation ha, because Laura took a loan and than had the nerve to throw her into a crazy home. This is hitting last week conversation with DD post on the nail “Hysteria”. Giving her the boot was not enough. Geez, I am so happy time have change. But really if it is on DVD I would love to watch it.

  2. Hi Lora!

    There were several factors, but yes. a big one was the status thing. Victorians were obsessed with outside appearances. Everything was supposed to look, and be perfect. And to reach that end, everyone had a specific role they were supposed to play.

    Of course, the reality was much different, and it upset society when people outwardly showed the hypocracies, because then they might have to face the the ugy truths themselves…

    Oh- and you might be interested to know that when the play premiered in Germany back then, they changed the ending that she starts to leave but then loses her nerve, falling to the floor in tears. *the end*. Luckily, some theater goers, knowing of the original ending, protested, and the play was soon after performed with the correct ending.

    I checked and found a full-length, live version of the play on youtube. It’s with a very young Christopher Plummer (before Sound of Music) and Julie Harris.

    And yes! The hysteria issue. I’ve read reports (I will have to write about it soon) and it is terrifying how easily women were committed back then.

  3. Hi Tasha, you have gave me my first laughter of the day. Germany changed the ending to suit what they think is right or needed to be corrected to portray as weakness or regretting the action of leaving. Thank goodness they place it back as originated showing strong willful mind and bravery.

    Women from what I seen on old movies (I love old movies. I watch the hair, clothes, and behavior…it interest me plus I never know what will come next. Because back than not every old movies had a happy ending like now). From what I have understand women were not suppose to be well spoken in public. Just to look beautiful and behave lady like. Women was not allowed to have men job. I think this is why many women had pen name as men instead of using their own name. Plus they were taking more seriously. The era looks beautiful but to live in it back than … it was not a women world at all. I have found the video on youtube thank you. Plan to watch it later tonight. Also I am looking forward to hear more about the report you read.

  4. Okay I couldn’t wait. I maneuvered the iron board into the computer room and handle youtube and ironing at once. It was a very good play and I was totally drawn in. It is interested how the husband once he saw his job at jeopardy and looking down Nora was invisible to him. He care for her no more. Than once he open the letter that the threat has been omitted all was good again. The love and understanding was back. Nora appear to him, but this time what did he said “she will need/depend on him more than ever before.” My mouth was drop open. Like oh my are you serious man. You treated her like crap and now come here my love. Yes I understand why you have done what you have done now. Bull crap. Good for her that she found herself and done what was needed too. That would of hurt me dearly as well.

  5. Heya Lora,

    So happy that you enjoyed watching the play. šŸ™‚ i haven’t yet- but hope to have a chance soon. I wished they still performed live theater on TV.

    I’m also a huge fan of old movies. Most especially the 1930s and 40s. But also, the earlier days of silents.

    And yes- I would not want to live anytime before Women’s LIb. We take so much for granted nowadays. Civil Rights Movement too…

    Thank goodness there were men and women gutsy enough to stand up to the injustices. When any group is treated as a lesser- everyone suffers in the end. And that’s just the damn truth.

  6. Ibsen really laid it on the line, didn’t he? Things didn’t really substantially change for women until the 1960s. I remember my own mother telling me she had gone from a living at home with a domineering mother(!) to being married to a domineering husband. Divorce in the 19th century was nearly unheard of, and a scandal when it was. Edith Wharton showcased the same situation in upper class New York during the Golden Age in “The Age of Innocence.”

    I remember a line from a tv movie about Lizzie Borden, in which one of the women in the town is talking with her husband about what could have made someone (they suspected Lizzie of course, although the case is officially unsolved to this day) do such a heinous thing. The woman responded, “Sometimes these skirts get awful heavy.”

  7. He did indeed, DD. Now I want to reread all his plays.

    Funny that you should mention Lizzie Borden. She’s someone I’ve been meaning to write about on this blog for awhile. I’ve been fascinated by her case since a kid. The film you quoted from, is that the one in which Elizabeth Montgomery starred? The line is ringing a bell with me.

  8. I think you’re right, I think that was the one with Elizabeth Montgomery. It was a long time ago, but that line always stuck in my head. I get reminded of it everytime someone waxes nostalgic about the Victorian era. It really wasn’t a great time for women. Truly, as Carly Simon said, these are the good ol’ days.

  9. tell me about it! Whenever I hear a woman who…I don’t know…has just caught some BBC production and starts going on about how nice it would be to live back then because it was so pretty and romantic…I want to scream.

    Let them go back in time. They’d be in for a very rude awakening. I’d like to see how romantic they found it the first time they were told they were being improper by walking down a street alone or talking to a man. Or just about every little, trivial thing that is utterly natural for us to do.

    I’m utterly fascinated by that century (obviously!) and I love aspects of it. But to live back then? Hells, no!

  10. What I liked most is the fact that the play isn’t heavy-handed about its theme. Torvald isn’t abusive towards Nora – as she says, he’s been very kind to her. But the dynamics between them are such that she can’t be honest, much less grow as a person.

    I’m glad that Laura Kieler was able to resume her writing, but what must it have been like, living with someone who had you sent to an asylum for following your dreams?

  11. Hi Marian,

    Thank you for bringing that up! I’d actually meant to in my blog post. Turvald is patronizing, controlling, and smug- but not abusive.

    And ‘m glad ibsen didn’t go that route. Not that abuse isn’t an important topic!- but for the sake of this play- I think Ibsen made the right choice in showing why a woman would want to flee a “good” Victorian mariage.

    If Turvold had been a monster, it would have greatly negated the message of the play.

  12. Ah Ibsen, one of the greats. I loved how he challenged convention, not from the pulpit of high ideological or political rhetoric but from a simple understanding of the human condition and morality.

  13. Curious. Very curious. Would like to see this live very much indeed. The thought of him having her committed is scary to me, but the thought that she went back later is scarier.

  14. Wonderfully put, Ralfast.

  15. Very true, Colby. But I remind myself that at that time- the era of the “New Woman” was just beginning. Not many females lived independently yet, so the thought might not even have crossed her mind.

  16. p.s. I wasn’t able to find much info on her- but perhaps it was even one of the conditions of her release.

  17. sounds good

  18. Did Laura have children? Especially if she was committed to an asylum, the law would have been on her husband’s side, so perhaps the only way she could have had access to her own children would be to continue to live with him.

  19. Hi Chazz!

    It is quite good. If interested, you can read it for free online.

  20. Marian,

    That’s an excellent question. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any in depth information on Laura. I think there were some Norwegian sites that had more on her and her work, but I wasn’t able to read them.

  21. I wonder what Nora did after slamming that door behind her. She wouldn’t have had much in the way of work skills.

  22. Hi Diane,

    yup. And another reason to be thankful for the opportunities we have now.

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