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A predicatable response to reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House might be a distaste for Nora’s feeble-minded obsession with money, possessions, and culture through the first two acts that is then, suddenly and unexpectedly, reversed as those harsh opinions fall upon her dumbfounded husband as Nora breaks loose from her marionette strings and takes a stand for the potential she had that was suppressed and squandered by the men dominating her life. Her revelatory speech is so stirring, so epic, that a reader cannot help but applaud her by the end of it and look upon Torvald Helmer with a sort of ire and shame at his gender-typical oppression, and when Nora slams the door at last on their marriage and her life as a “doll,” there should be a mental applause inside the reader’s head as the audience rises hollering from its seats with only the defeated Helmer remaining on stage to suffer through their joy. All this however, comes in stark contrast to the first two acts, in which the audience would have shaken their heads collectively at Nora’s shallow, simple actions and her husband’s looming troubles resulting from them. Indeed, the shift between acts two and three is jarring, to the point where a reader, after descending from the euphoria of that final speech, inevitably questions the transition. There is little in common between the Nora who pleads to her husband, “You know I could never act against your wishes,” (31) and the Nora who announces that “I believe that I am first and foremost a human being” (58), meaning that she revokes her status as his doll (although this essayist would like to make the point that, to parody Forrest Gump, human is as human does). However, while the case is often made that Nora’s sudden development is a flaw in the narrative, Helmer’s role is more ambiguous. After all, a reader would presume, did he not enforce Nora’s role as a puppet? Did he ever do anything to kindle a passion in her for things beyond macaroons and dresses? Certainly not, at least, not so far as the play reveals. And this becomes ample grounds to shake one’s finger at Helmer in shame. However, the case could also be made that Helmer was not as domineering and patronizing as Nora argued – at least, not by nature.
It could be that he himself was merely adapting to a role to suit her own actions; he did not, after all, shape Nora to be this way. Rather, he continued her growth in the same direction she had already been headed in and content with, as begun by her father, whose role is not so easily analyzed through the play because he features into it solely through Nora’s references, and even those are subjective and few. But, presuming that her father had as much of an effect on her as she claimed, then it is likely that when Helmer met Nora, she was already playing the doll and bore no signs of higher aspirations in life. She accused Helmer of shaping her to share his fancies and opinions, but perhaps the reverse is also true, that Helmer adapted himself to suit her doll-like mind. There is, after all, no indication of Helmer’s personality pre-Nora; he may well have been one to encourage those with intellectual potential, but as Nora never displayed this, he had no reason to assume she possessed a mind that could be concerned with anything more complicated than sneaking macaroons. In The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing argues that all people, men and women, identify themselves through others; perhaps this is the case here as well, and while Nora was conforming herself to her husband, he was doing the same to meet her halfway.
The key evidence to an argument in defense of Torvald is, of course, Nora’s evolution herself, with a focus on the questionability of her shift in personality, which bears more in common with a mid-life crisis or some biological event than a genuine revolution of thought. In fact, given Nora’s materialistic predilection and the fervor with which she left to change her life, one would not be remiss in imaging a sports car in her immediate future (barring the obvious anachronisms, of course). In practical terms, though, such a radical change in character, one bearing no precedent in the person, is more commonly attributed to acute depression, insanity, or the aforementioned mid-life crisis. These leaps in personality often arise without any prior indications as to their directions; a man who has been fastidious without abandon his whole life may, overnight, turn into a grungy mess of a man; women who were devoted lifelong to their children may abandon them unexpectedly and with little explanation. In contrast to the play’s reliance on a sudden revolutionary explosion whose fuse must have been burning steadily through the ages upon ages of oppressed and simplified women, these conditions do not require a precedent in order to be believable. If Nora had, for example, lost her mind to the whole ordeal (which, granted, may well have happened), the proud and confident note in her voice could be explained away with ease. If, however, readers are expected to believe that the woman who once played pet to a man who wielded such puerile nicknames as “squanderbird” and “squirrel” could have concealed so acute an intelligence as she would later display, then too many questions are left over. Assuming then, for the moment, that Nora did in fact lose her mind fretting over the Krogstad affair, thus explaining the disconnect in her personalities, then what blame could rightly be attributed to Helmer? If her radical departure was the fault of some biological function, how could her husband have helped that? In the play’s defense, Ibsen penned the story in 1879, when these ailments and whatnot weren’t so heavily explored.
With that said, it must be admitted that Helmer is at least guilty of underestimating Nora and of failing to take the stand and perform the “miracle of miracles” (59) which would have justified his place by the side of the “new and improved” Nora. And, though that failing could be attributed at least in part to the chaotic frenzy of paranoia, fear, broken trust, and disillusionment. Perhaps, then, Nora’s hope for a “miracle of miracles” is really that Helmer would be able to free himself of the puppet master persona he had taken on to suit Nora, and that they could join again without falling into such base co-dependant roles and stand together in equality, naked and pure from those falsities. In that way, then, the two could share the responsibility, with neither taking the whole of the blame – a possibility that would comply with Ibsen’s response to claims that his work was a great argument for Women’s Rights in which he said “I am not even very sure what Women’s Rights are. To me it has been a question of human rights” (28). If the responsibility can be shared between Helmer and Nora, with neither dominating the other and with both being true to themselves rather than dutifully fulfilling their gender roles, then the question of gender subsides, for both are equal and, in a sense, androgynous.
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