Nora and Helmer Essay
The relationship between Helmer and Nora strikes modern readers as intolerable. Helmer assumes a position of superiority in the marriage which takes for granted his wife’s role as decorative accompaniment to the man of action and achievement. At the end of the play Nora declares that she is not just a wife and mother. “I believe that before all else I am a human being, just as you are” (77). Until the events of the play Nora has accepted her role as flighty, unserious, trivial, “charming” consort, though Ibsen shows from very early on that this is not the whole truth about her. Her actions have been motivated largely by a desire to protect her husband from the consequences of his own arrogant folly. It is a moment of great irony when Helmer says “I’ve forgiven you” (73), since her actions have been entirely self-sacrificing, and designed to save him, physically and mentally. In her enlightened state she finds it impossible to forgive him.
Helmer’s attitudes are partly characteristic of his time, but it is clear that he has personal weaknesses that make his behavior more infuriating. He calls Nora his “little lark” (3), “my little squirrel” (4) and other such patronizing endearments. He also sees her as considerably less than a mature adult in her handling of the world. She is “my little spendthrift” and “my little featherbrain” (4). Money “just slips through your fingers” (6), though he is of course unaware of why she needs money. His fussy attitude to debt, which he declares as a sort of gospel law to her, is the cause of the whole Krogstad crisis. She can never tell him where the money came from – the money that saved his life – because “it would hurt his self-respect–wound his pride… Our whole marriage would be wrecked by it” (16). His pompous arrogance and priggishness force Nora to spin an elaborate fabric of concealment, and lead eventually to her realization of the truth. Similarly his declaration that “Almost all cases of early delinquency can be traced to dishonest mothers” (32) terrifies her, but also reveals the central contempt he has for women generally, and therefore, though he would not admit it, for Nora herself. Her only device to influence him seems to be her acceptance of the demeaning role he has designed for her. If he will agree to reinstate Krogstad “Your squirrel would skip about and play all sorts of pretty tricks” (40). He will not do it because he fears people would laugh at him for being influenced by his wife. He is “entirely unimpeachable” (41) in contrast to her father, and anyway, Krogstad would address him by his Christian name, at which Nora’s mask comes off inadvertently and she says “But–it’s all so petty” (41), a disastrous thing to say to so egocentric a man.
His behavior in Act 3 reveals all the truth of his deepest assumptions about her and their relationship. When she tells him he is always right she is “my sweet, sensible little lark” (65). His conception of their marriage is that she is a property: “Why shouldn’t I look at my own dearest treasure? – at all this loveliness that is mine” (65). His passion for his “young bride” (66) is misplaced, as he disregards her mood. How can she not want him at the moment, “Aren’t I your husband –?” (66)? All the assumptions of power are in his words, and a disregard for her human individuality. His romantic dream of saving her from danger seems stupid in the circumstances, and leads to his horrific change of tone when he reads Krogstad’s letter. Now she is “a hypocrite, a liar” (71). She has inherited her father’s lack of principle. He urges her, with supreme irony, to “stop all this play-acting” (71). She will no longer be allowed to bring up the children, though the pretence of normal married life will be maintained for the sake of appearances. Then his response to the second letter is sickening: “Nora, I’m saved! I’m saved!” (72), his thoughts concentrated, as they always have been in fact, entirely on himself. Then he can go back to the role of protecting knight, he thinks. “There’s something very endearing about a woman’s helplessness” (73). But by now Nora has seen the truth, and the cataclysmic but liberating end is in sight.
Nora has accepted her position without serious question until this final crisis, again as a result of social convention. The marriage relationship has required her to be a child, and that is what she has done. She never rebels at Helmer’s patronizing descriptions of her, choosing to see them only as affectionate, and indeed living her life in an immature fashion. She is always laughing gaily, childishly eating macaroons and sweets in secret: “(Wags a threatening finger at her): Has my little sweet-tooth been breaking rules today?” (7). She is happy to let him think that her desire for money is a result of her irresponsibility. “Oh! How lovely it all is” (8), she cries of her life in general. With Mrs Linde she is terribly insensitive in the way children are. She tells this aging, childless widow that “I want you to tell me all about yourself” but immediately goes on to burst out naively that with Helmer’s new job, “I’m so happy and excited! Won’t it be wonderful to have lots and lots of money, and nothing to worry about” (10). But when Mrs Linde says “You’re just a child, Nora” (13), it begins to become clear that there is far more to her. The money was borrowed to save Helmer’s life, and indeed all the ramifications of her actions stem from the necessity to prevent him from knowing how she got the money, to protect his foolish male arrogance, in fact. Money can be raised by a wife in this patriarchal world “if a wife has a good head on her shoulders” (15), and this is exactly what she has. Now we can see why she asks him for money, though she does not disturb his conception of her as irresponsible. Her whole life is play-acting, but the role she plays is the one designed for her by him, and by the society for which he speaks, and so deeply ingrained that she is largely unaware of it herself.
The rebellion is not yet here though. She plays happily with the children, characteristically taking on the role of a child herself. Everything will be all right because “after all – I only did it for love’s sake” (30) and to please Torvald. She takes his warning about the corrupting effect of the mother seriously and plans to leave her children, seeing herself alone as guilty. She continues to play the “squirrel”, only once laughing at his pettiness, where surely her genuine intelligence comes to the surface. She will sacrifice herself, even, to save Helmer’s “honor”, and dances for him, desperately clinging to the myth that “we’re having such fun” (56). Mrs Linde urges her to “tell your husband everything” (63), but Nora knows him well enough to realize that this is not an available option. Her hope is that “the wonderful thing” (57) will happen, that Helmer will indeed act as the all-wise protector he has always claimed to be, but even as she says this she is calculating how many hours she has left to live. She is always too intelligent to believe her own fantasies.
Only she can understand Rank’s tragic plight, and her “Sleep well, Doctor Rank” (69) is moving and compassionate. Then comes the crisis of the letter and all her buried intelligence comes to the surface and her life is transformed from fantasy to reality. She is quiet through all his attacks and then “forgiveness” because “I think I’m beginning to understand for the first time” (71). They have never had “a serious talk” (75) before, and his failure to understand what she means is a measure of the gap between them. With calm fluency she tells him the complete, unflinching truth as it now appears to her intelligence. “You never loved me. You just thought it was fun to be in love with me” (75). Movement from her father’s house to her husband’s was simply replacing one nursery with another. She was never happy, “only merry” (76), a quite different thing. Now she must start her education in the world. He can make nothing of her words, perhaps because they challenge so radically everything he assumes to be true, and he is the most conventional of men, who married, it now emerges, the most original of women. He says she is ill, but in fact “I’ve never felt so sure – so clear headed – as I do tonight” (78). She cannot spend the night in a strange man’s house, and the heavy front door slams behind her.
It is hardly surprising that A Doll’s House caused a commotion when first performed in 1880. It still has a power to shock as well as to move audiences. The view of marriage it contains undoubtedly helped to change the world, and the profound understanding of Nora’s experience provoked thought and reflection in all who saw it. It is one of the documents of the modern world.