From the Starting Line

“Hide the Christmas tree carefully, Helen. Be sure the children do not see it till this evening, when it is dressed.” (1)

The play begins with an idle comment from the woman of the house to her maid. Or does it? Even from the first innocent line of “A Doll’s House”, concealing information from the family and the idea of keeping up appearances are shown as major themes of the play.

The line is said by Nora, our leading lady, our woman of the house, our actress of deceit. Nora is not only hiding and dressing Christmas trees, but herself as well. She submits to being called “lark” and “squirrel” in order to appease her husband and create no cause for suspicion. All throughout the play, Nora’s biggest concern is that of concealing the crime she committed in order to protect her family from financial destruction. And yet, as she confides in Mrs. Linde, “I too have something to proud and glad of…” but “no one in the world must know.” (10) Who does she strive so vehemently to hide this from? The family she sought to protect.

Nora would not have to do this if she was the man of the house. The man of the house could confide his under the table doings to his wife with no fear of her reaction. However, because of the woman’s sphere that existed at the time, Nora’s indiscretion carries not only legal ramifications but personal reputation ones for Torvald as well. He must never know lest he be faced with the shame of being unable to provide for his family.

Thus, Nora must hide. She must keep appearances up. She must dress and dance as if nothing is wrong in order to assail any suspicions. Nora must only come out “when she is dressed”.


One must live.

Mrs. L. I have come to look for work.

Rank. Is that a good cure for overwork?

Mrs. L. One must live, Doctor Rank.

Rank. Yes, the general opinion seems to be that it is necessary. (Ibsen, 15)

 

In this passage, Mrs. Linde tells Doctor Rank that she has come to town for work. She had previously explained to Nora that all she had was what she could earn and for that reason, she has been working tirelessly for years. Her statements are paradoxical because she is sick from work, but she must work to stay alive. While this conversation happens between Mrs. Linde and Doctor Rank, its paradoxical meaning can be applied to much more in the play.

Mrs. Linde is not the only character caught up in a paradoxical situation; Nora is also suffering from being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Nora reveals that she secretly borrowed money to take her husband on a trip and save his life. She believed it was right and essential, just the way Mrs. Linde felt about constant work. Nora comes to realize as the play progresses, however, that because she forged her father’s signature on the paperwork, her little secret will ruin the reputation of her whole family. Mrs. Linde is tired of and from work but works to live; Nora saved her family only to ruin them. What makes the women different is the fact that Nora is a victim of her own wrong-doing; she created her misfortune. Both women, though, only want to live because as Nora repeatedly says, “Oh, it’s a wonderful thing to be alive and happy” (Ibsen, 13).

In all forms of life, both fictitious and realistic, survival seems to be most important. One will do what needs to be done – just to make it to the next day – because “the general opinion seems to be that it is necessary” (Ibsen, 15).


Inside the Bird Cage

Helmer “Is that my little lark twittering out there?”

Nora “Yes it is!”

Helmer “Is it my little squirrel bustling about?”

Nora “Yes!”

Helmer “When did my squirrel come home?”

Nora “Just now. Come in here, Torvald, and see what I have bought.”

Helmer “Don’t disturb me. Bought, did you say? All these things?  Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?” (pg.1-2)

The conversationbetween Nora and Torvald at the beginning of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is seemingly comedic. The way Torvald calls his wife a “squirrel” is not any different from 21st century couples calling each other “baby,” or “honey-booboo”. They are playful, in love, and it is adorable.

The reader then discovers that this quirk is more than just a joke. It is, in fact, a tactic played by Torvald to maintain the dominant position in his relationship with Nora. He calls his wife by these demeaning names in order to mold her into an obedient child. The way Nora asking for money instead of a Christmas gift is comparable to a dog begging for a treat from its master. Another example is the frequency which Torvald refers to Nora’s late father, who was apparently a “spendthrift”. Torvald guilting Nora is similar to a parent disciplining their child.

Torvald’s insistance on maintaining his upper-hand obviously derives from the historical context of when the play was written. In late 19th century, women had just been permitted to open their bank accounts. The social crevasse between men and women had just begun to move closer together, and not all of society was enthusiastic about such a change. During the argument between Torvald and Nora on Krogstad’s dismissal, Torvald mentions that he does not want his staff to think that he is “a man to be swayed by all sorts of outside influence” (35). It is evident that there are reasons originating from societal expectations to defend the male-supremacy quota.

However,  the reader also discovers that Nora is faced with a destiny that will strip her of the comfort that the social inequality has provided for her. Evidently, Nora has actually enjoyed being babied and nourished inside the bird cage. When she is forced out of her cage, she will realize the injustice she has been kept in for so long, and  possibly allude to the rise of Feminism.


Subordinate Songbird with a Touch of Deceit

Helmer: Didn’t you tell me no one had been here? [Shakes his finger at her.] My little songbird must never do that again. A songbird must have a clean beak to chirp with—no false notes! [Puts his arm around her waist.] That is so isn’t it? Yes, I am sure it is. [Lets her go.] We will say no more about it.                                                                                                                                   Ibsen, P25            

Helmer’s one-sided conversation with Nora touches on many of the play’s themes, including female subordination and the value of honesty, while revealing his lack of concern for the situation at hand.

The passage begins with Helmer catching Nora in a lie regarding Krogstad’s visit, and then he proceeds to demean her as usual. By referring to her as his “little songbird,” Helmer is reducing her to a cute form of entertainment, rather than a partner in a marriage. Songbirds connote the image of tiny, chatty creatures that speak all the time but rarely say anything important. When Helmer calls Nora his “songbird,” he removes her importance and influence as a person. He does not even confront her as an adult, rather telling her that she “must never do that again,” reprimanding her for lying as he would one of his children.

He continues his songbird metaphor by advising his wife that she should have a “clean beak,” as he will not tolerate lying. His exclamation of “no false notes,” carries a double meaning, as the incorrect notes of the song also foreshadow the document forgery that will later be revealed. After lightly chiding her, he resumes pushing her into a subordinate position by not allowing her to answer questions for herself, as he responds to his own question with, “yes, I am sure it is,” which does not demonstrate her agreement, but rather his ability to put words in her mouth. By concluding his discussion on the matter with his statement that they “will say no more,” he has taken away any chance she could have had to offer input or defend herself.

Underscoring the lack of value in both dishonesty and his wife, Helmer speaks lightly, but illuminates Nora’s subordinate and deceitful situation for the reader. His “songbird” cannot deliver any “false notes,” but his playful tone demonstrates that he clearly doesn’t see any real danger in her incidental falsehood.


Instability

Nora: Papa didn’t give us a shilling.  It was I who procured the money.

Mrs. L: You? All that large sum?

Nora: Two hundred and fifty pounds.  What do you think of that?

Mrs. L: But Nora how could you possibly do it? Did you win a prize in the lottery?

Nora (contemptuously): In the lottery? There would have been no credit in that.

Mrs. L: But where did you get it from, then?

Nora (humming and smiling with an air of mystery): Hm, hm! Aha!

(Page 11)

The above passage says a lot about the character of Nora and about her place in society.  The statement “I too have something to be proud and glad of” (10) precedes the passage and displays to readers just how proud Nora is of this feat.  However, being proud of her ability to borrow money through the use of a forged signature is nothing that Nora should be boasting about to others.  If the borrowing of money to save her husband’s life is the only thing that she has to be proud and glad about, what does that say about her life?

This passage is significant to the play as a whole because it is the first instance thus far that displays Nora as subordinate to her husband.  This passage begins the pattern of Nora continuously being seen as inferior by Torvald and by all men. By referring to Nora as a spendthrift and a squirrel, Torvald is constantly putting Nora down and treating her as if she is less of a human than him.  This passage is also significant because it presents Nora disobeying her husband.  Through the first two acts, Nora is continuously disobeying her husband’s rules and wishes.  Nora borrows money even though Torvald has stated that they were to be a family free of debts and borrowing.  Among other things, Nora also lies about her meetings with Krog and eats macaroons.  These two ideas display the instability of Nora and Torvald’s relationship.

The quality of Nora’s life comes into question after reading this short excerpt from the play.  The pattern of being treated as subordinate to her husband and the emergence of Nora’s disobeying ways bring into question the quality and worth of her life. Borrowing money is the only thing she can be proud of and brings readers to the assumption that she does not view her family life as worthwhile.  Why are her children not her “something to be proud and glad of” (10)? Nora’s obsession with the idea that she saved her husband’s life by borrowing this money is overreaching and causes many issues through the first two acts.  The instability of the marriage between Nora and Torvald is hinted at in this passage and displays the major issues present in Nora’s life.


Who’s Nora?

Rank:  It is just that that put me on the wrong track.  You are a riddle to me.  I have often thought that you would almost as soon be in my company as in Helmer’s (Ibsen 41).

Nora’s character allows for a multitude of interpretations.  Her attitude changes depending on whom she is interacting with.  With such a fickle personality, the topic of perception we discussed in Plato’s Republic has resurfaced in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

Being that Nora has an inconsistent attitude, I initially had difficulty in interpreting who she was.  Once I read Doctor Rank’s understanding of Nora, I realized that my opinion coincides.

I want to focus mainly on one sentence: “You are a riddle to me.”  As someone who gets easily frustrated trying to solve a riddle, I think that riddles are challenging, sometimes hard to understand, and potentially exasperating if they are unsolvable.  My irritations with riddles are parallel to my irritations with Nora.

Nora is a liar, money-loving mother whose intention is to do what’s best for her family.  While some may believe that she only has good intentions, I think she is somewhat of a flirt with Doctor Rank.  I was not surprised when Doctor Rank confessed his love for her, as she was acting as though she loved him, as well.

In my opinion, the biggest problem with Nora having different attitudes toward so many characters is that she will eventually self-destruct. As we continue to read, her anxiety heightens and she is slowly spiraling out of control.  However, it is important to reiterate that my personal perspective of Nora is what gives me these beliefs.  Others may have entirely different ideas of what will happen by the end of the play, which is what makes her such a fascinating character.


Mothers are the Problem

(page 27)

Hel. Just think how a guilty man like that has to lie and play the hypocrite with everyone, how he has to wear a mask in the presence of those near and dear to him, even before his own wife and children.  And about the children–that is the most terrible part of it all, Nora.

Nora. How?

Hel. Because such an atmosphere of lies infects and poisons the life of a home.  Each breath the children take in such a house is full of the germs of evil.

Nora [coming near him]. Are you sure of that?

Hel. My dear, I have often seen it in the course of my life as a lawyer.  Almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.

Nora. Why do you only say–mother?

 

In this excerpt from Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, we see Torvald’s manipulation of and domination over Nora in the realm of husband/wife roles.  Even though Torvald (referred to as “Hel” by Ibsen in the play) is indeed unaware of Nora’s affair with Krogstad, it’s almost as if he treats her with the knowledge that she is guilty of something.  The way in which Hel hovers over Nora is not just stifling, it’s domineering in nature.  Through the use of pet names such as “little squirrel” and “little skylark”, Hel, in one way or another, demeans Nora to that of his servant in a way.  By talking to Nora as if she is his precious counterpart, one with which he is so in love, she will then in turn desire to please him no matter what.  Even to the point of forging a signature on a bank document in order to save his life?  Why not?

In this excerpt, Hel is discussing with Nora the scandal in which Krogstad was involved regarding a forgery.  His tone is almost one of strict lecture-likedness as he warns Nora of the dangers that can occur within ones family when lying and deceit goes on.  A trick/intentional device put into place by Ibsen here, Hel is guilting Nora without even being aware of the situation at hand.  What connects back to the idea of Hel’s overbearing dominance in the role of husband is when he says, “Almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.”  Why is Hel saying this at this point in time when it is clearly and obviously Krogstad himself as a husband who has brought deceit to his family.

At this point, Nora is well on her way to figuring out that the way she has lived her life up until this point is unfulfilling.  I say this, yet at the same time I don’t think Nora has quite figured out what exactly about her life is unfulfilling.  I think she has simply begun to realize that her husband is in control and maybe this isn’t the way things have to be.  This excerpt proves that Hel will take any opportunity he can to prove his dominance to his wife.  Anything he can say to Nora to make her feel as though her position, not just within the family but in her own life in general, is less important than his, he will.  As he reasonably concluded in the above excerpt (and despite the fact that Nora is unfortunately the cause and existence of the issue at all), Krogstad was deceitful and made a dishonest business choice, therefore he is bringing poor morals, poisons, and vibes into his family at home, therefore dishonest mothers are typically the cause for those children who “go bad”.  A logical conclusion and worthwhile lesson for Hel to teach Nora!


“Just” Socrates’ Opinion

In attempt to define “justice,” Socrates creates a working analogy between a single man and a city. However, he fails to recognize that real cities, which are comprised of real men, are amorphous and unpredictable; in turn, his argument deteriorates.

While constructing a hypothetical Utopia from scratch makes for a simple and more easily-understandable theory, it breaches reality. We also have to assume that this working analogy that Socrates creates is entirely accurate. Whether or not a city is in fact a large scale man is entirely subjective. His first argument, should instead reflect upon the similarities and differences between a city and a man to ensure his argument is valid. As Socrates’ theory progresses, Glaucon and Adeimantus find holes in the argument. Glaucon states, “If you were founding a city for pigs, Socrates … wouldn’t you fatten them on the same diet?” (47). Glaucon realizes that if man has the resources and the means to eat food more luxurious than bread and water, that he will. Socrates did not take into account a man’s constant desire for more. As desire increases, luxuries increase and eventually existence becomes a materialistic survival of the fittest.

Socrates continues on to argue that poetry and storytelling threatens justice. He says “We must supervise the storytellers” because he will not “carelessly allow the children to hear any old stories, told by just anyone” (52). It seems that Socrates would rather strip children of their childhood and raise them on non-fiction, educational books rather than fictitious, children’s stories. If Socrates himself was banned from opinion-based reading such as poetry or stories, he would not have been exposed to many arts. At this point in Socrates’ theory, the connection between city, man, and justice is covered by mountains of Socratic questioning, which can be confusing to the reader.

Earlier, Socrates states, “And won’t our neighbors want to seize part of [our land] as well, if they too have surrendered themselves to the endless acquisition of money and have overstepped the limit of their necessities?” (48). Here, Socrates encounters this idea of social looping. (In my opinion) humans are inherently selfish, existing only to help themselves. If one man expands his land to harvest more food, so will the next man, and soon war will ensue. Then there, possibly, can we begin to discuss the justifications of war.


Breaking Down Socrates’ City

(I was just about to press the submit button as the fire alarm went off in the building that I was writing in. In order to avoid the mounting flames, I fled the building and am now in a safe location.)

Through a conversation between philosophers Socrates, Adeimantus, and the “rather uninteresting” Glaucon, the reader is able to examine how justice is both created and persecuted through the theoretical creation of a city.

While most philosophers/ thinkers of the time were trying to find the roots of justice from examining the small, individual interactions of man, trying to figure out what actions were just/ what actions were unjust. However, Socrates had something different in mind. Instead of studying the micro, Socrates decided to study the macro, breaking it down into pieces while examining it as a whole. After doing so, Socrates then wanted to compare how the micro is to the macro.

To begin, Socrates says that “a city comes to be because none of us is self-self-sufficent, but we all need many things”. Already, Socrates is showing how, despite what one may think about city life, the inhabitants of the city must rely on each other as “partners and helpers”,sharing things with one another, giving and taking, so that they will ultimately become better people.

Then, in the footnotes, it is said that a city (polis) is a collection of people, not a collection of buildings. While the buildings are necessary to occupy the people, the heart of the city is in its dwellers and not in its architecture.

I believe that it is here where we find that injustice dwells. Since the heart of the city is the people who inhabit it, justice must be defined and demonstrated by the complex intricacies of the human lifestyle. Are all of the inhabitants of this city going to be happy with the new things like equality, but also happy without luxuries? Are some inhabitants going to want to eat cattle and have fine furniture and work less than the other inhabitants? Of course. Are some inhabitants going to have jobs that, while necessary, are looked down upon by the other city dwellers? Absolutely.

Since it is inhabited by humans, this city, as a whole, is going to be an imperfect institution where justice and injustice must constantly clash together through individual interactions.


From Poetry to Injustice

Socrates attempts to create the image of perfect city in excerpts from Republic. Each individual has their own specific place in society which will be conducive to a functioning environment. However, Socrates then describes the process by which a city grows, and how injustice is due to a chain reaction of events in the growth of any city. Poetry and storytelling, along with other forms of what Socrates declares “imitation”, are a result of the luxuries brought about by a growing city, and are significant factors in what can cause injustice.

Socrates begins by describing the roots of a society. A small community with only a few people will grow as its citizens discover the necessary means to continue life. Most humans can agree that the basic necessities of life are food, shelter, and clothing; however, more individuals are needed as society becomes more complicated, and Socrates goes on to describe the concept of economic specialization. (p.44-45) This leads to a more affluent society than one of just self-subsistence, and this can lead to war in the conquest for even more growth. Socrates illustrates what the ideal soldier should be—skilled and devoted to protecting his land—yet this is somewhat irrelevant to his overall argument of what causes injustice. (49)

The growth of a city allows for more luxury, and with more luxury comes more culture. Included in this are forms of literature such as poems and stories. Socrates is wary of these being shared in society because of his belief in what is “truth.” According to Socrates, children should only be brought up hearing stories that are “fine or beautiful”, without any warring or fighting depicted, because this will cause them to think that injustice is normal and acceptable. (54) Socrates states, “If we’re to persuade our people that no citizen has ever hated another and that it’s impious to do so, then that’s what should be told to children.” Although this seems like a solid philosophy on how to teach a child morality, children should not be completely sheltered from the harsh realities of life. Perhaps injustice may be caused by citizens who have been raised hearing unrealistic stories that do not reveal the truth, as they will not be prepared to handle warring situations.