05 January 2014

Doll House

This is my next column for The Sunday Guardian.

I can hardly pass the new year without thinking of Ibsen’s Nora and the changes she dreamed the new year would bring. A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s best-known play, was controversial when it was first published in 1879. In it, Nora, the seemingly unworldly wife of the rich, clever banker, Torvald Helmer, watches herself turn into a doll as she performs the roles she is cast into. The play opens at Christmas time, and Torvald has just been promoted to bank manager, and there is an atmosphere of hope that their money troubles will end and that the new year will hold greater success and contentment for the family. But Nora has a secret debt that threatens to come out into the open, and she is slowly and surely tiring of being adorable and dependent and needy. It was the original marriage drama, a play that powerfully effected change and tended to either weaken or strengthen the relationships of the couples who watched it. In the final scene of the play, Nora walks out on a marriage that would have offered her safety and financial security. The final stage direction is this: “From below comes the noise of a door slamming.”

Over the years, Scandinavian literature has continuously and radically questioned evolving patterns of domestic partnership. Ibsen asked, before Sheryl Sandberg or Anne-Marie Slaughter did, whether daughterhood and wifehood and motherhood were fulfilling enough to define the years of a woman’s life. He questioned the idea of male privilege within heterosexual relationships, suggesting that mutual respect required equal autonomy. For the time in which it was written and performed, these were revolutionary ideas, but one hopes that the novelty has worn off and that the play feels more and more dated each year, for feminism has had disastrous results if women’s roles are defined in the same way they were in the eighteenth-century.

In many ways, though, the real change is less about the themes of A Doll’s House and more about who the people are who identify with those themes. In a world of shifting social dynamics, Nora becomes the wayfarer that we all see something of ourselves in. Where once this was solely a feminist worldview, as Nora slammed the door on patriarchy, today, it is a more human issue of finding oneself, of balancing domesticity and aspiration, of the honesty that a marriage of true minds necessitates. Men and women are equally vulnerable to the doll’s world, to play-acting through life, work, and relationships, because that is simply an easier way to get by. “You have never loved me,” Nora tells Torvald, “You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.” Ibsen, ever the egalitarian, suggests that men, too, are victims of societal expectation, playthings of the masters of privilege, equally susceptible to the mind-numbing boredom of living life by other people’s standards.

Beyond the tedium of pretentious living, other aspects of the play – jobs, money, debt, blackmail – continue to resonate with modern audiences in very real ways, while its feminist connotations slide into more symbolic positions, standing for newer and very different troubles for women in partnerships of romantic, sexual, and monetary significance. Perhaps the thing about works of art that endure, that really endure, is that they come to mean different things to different generations.

Nora does not get the new year she had originally hoped for, but she does step out into a new year that never knew she wanted. For me, Nora has always been the original feminine mystique, remarkable for her sheer willingness to change and to make her life her own. The new year is just as much a time to slam the door on the poisons that infiltrate our lives as it is a time to open the door to fresh opportunities and beginnings. There is nothing terribly special about this time of the calendar year that makes it better for introspection than any other. But like every occasion, unless it is marked and remembered, we may forget to think these thoughts and make these decisions. It is a daunting time, like one’s birthday, for one looks back on the year that was and wonders if it was all that it could have been. But the wonderful thing about time is that it is generous. A new year is just what it sounds like – a new and finite period of time to do things better and to be kinder and wiser and truer. Really, as Nora reminds us, it’s another chance to get it right.

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