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The Nature/Nurture Dichotomy of Ibsen’s Nora Helmer

by Mary Grennen

The final door slam at the end of Ibsen’s controversial play A Doll’s House is one of the most famous exits in dramatic literature, one that has spawned ceaseless debate, horrifying disbelief, and even the invention of an alternate ending. In the standard version, Nora leaves behind a life of subjugation and confusion at the expense of abandoning her children, in search of identity and fulfillment as a complete individual. Her status as a woman in a male-dominated Victorian society, one whose marriage is discovered to be an empty shell of pretense and superficiality, is a testimonial of what Ibsen observed in his own society. Knocking down the walls that heretofore protected the privacy of domestic and intimate relationships, Ibsen propagated a new awareness of the dangers that convention and tradition place upon individual triumph. The Helmer household, representative of the tyranny of one human being over another, collapses under the oppressive constraints imposed by a society in which individual freedom is traded for conformity and public image.

The notion of heredity in human fate prevails over several of the characters in realist works. Miss Julie, the protagonist of Strindberg’s play of the same name, can be seen as one who has inherited a sense of honor associated with the privileged classes. Likewise, Mrs. Alving in Ibsen’s Ghosts has inherited the ghosts of the past, along with an attitude determined by convention, and Mrs. Ranevsky, in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, is incapable of adapting to the social changes that threaten the stability of her inherited wealth and beloved cherry orchard. Tragic works of all periods have regularly venerated the human ability to achieve wisdom through suffering. The hero often becomes enlightened even in defeat, or in realizing that he or she simply cannot overcome the assigned fate. With the concurrent emphasis on environment, particularly social environment, modern dramatists pose the question, “How are we to live in a world so riddled with chaos and over which we have no control?” The characters struggle against society, making decisions based on ideals that have been decidedly imposed. In many works, heredity is so entrenched in environment that it sometimes becomes nearly impossible to analyze the two as mutually exclusive forces. In Ghosts, Oswald’s inherited syphilis is the direct result of his upbringing by a father who took pleasure in extra-marital affairs, the syphilis itself a symbol of the victimization that pervades the entire play. Oswald is doomed before he exits the womb, his fate sealed by something which he cannot control and which he struggles against until the play’s last lines. Tragic fate, therefore, takes on a different hue in the modern era. Human nature becomes more psychologically aberrant and intertwined with social constraints so that both elements become one force at the vanguard of all decisions and actions taken by the characters.

Countless articles concerning the plight of Nora Helmer point to the male-dominated society that has so firmly molded her character and impeded her development. Her words and actions clarify her complete ignorance of the severity of her crime. In her first discussion with Kristine, Nora asks, “Is it rash to save your husband’s life?” (Ibsen 1775). Kristine reminds Nora that the law prevents a woman from borrowing money without her husband’s consent. It is presumed that a father’s consent is equally permissible, since Nora chooses to employ her father as co-signer on the loan. The crime that she has committed is forgery, since we learn later that the signature is dated two days after her father’s death. With good intentions, Nora wanted only to save her husband’s life. She is completely aware of her malfeasance but sees it only as a clever trick that would secure the money she needed to heal her sick husband. She has every intention of paying back the money, as she saves up her weekly allowance and takes on side jobs.

What assuages Nora’s guilt is her ignorance of the legal system, having been insulated her entire life from matters pertaining to anything outside the four walls of her home. What she considers to be a crafty scheme is actually a crime that is punishable not only by imprisonment, but also by a shattered reputation, which Victorian citizens held sacred. The only misconduct she believes she is guilty of is having kept her loan a secret from her husband. To Kristine, she says, “… I’d intended letting him into the secret and asking him not to give me away” (1775).

Nora’s choice of the words “secret” and “not to give me away” in place of “crime” and “not to turn me in” shows just how trivial she considers the matter. In the same conversation, she tells Kristine that she, herself, raised the money for the trip to Italy, buying only the least expensive clothes with her allowance and even hiding her part-time job. To her, her repaying of the loan suffices, even though she has forged the loan’s co-signature. When confronted by Krogstad, the banker who advanced the loan, she is baffled about all the fuss made over the fact that she signed somebody else’s name to a legal document. She asks, “Well? Haven’t I paid the installments regularly?” (1783). The conversation reaches its climax when Krogstad finally says, “But did it never strike you that this was fraudulent … ?” [and] “Mrs. Helmer, it’s quite clear you still haven’t the faintest idea what it is you’ve committed” (1784). When Krogstad advises Nora of his awareness of her offense, she simply states, “Why? You’ll soon have all your money back” (1784). This simple reason explains why she cannot fathom Torvald’s rage when he, too, learns the truth. But the sacrifices she has made to save his life become trivialized in the face of a scandal that will ruin the family’s reputation, a scandal she never even entertained as a potential outcome.

The domestic environment that defines the Helmer marriage is one of illusion and role-playing. The pet-names that Torvald uses to addresses his wife are, in themselves, harmless terms of endearment. But when the father/daughter role-playing is the overriding quality of the entire relationship, one in which days are spent preparing for dance recitals and hiding evidence of the latest cookie jar raid, the marriage becomes nothing less than a perversion of genuine love.

Ibsen uses the trappings of Victorian society as a backdrop, and injects into it a pair of characters whose destructive relationship represents a hyperbole of the author’s political umbrage. Various practices in the Helmer household typify Victorian life. Nora’s weekly allowance fails to startle Kristine, who says, “Poor Nora! So it had to come out of your own allowance? (1776). Nor does Kristine express any astonishment over Torvald’s possessing the only key to the household mailbox. What gives the work its terrible power is the heroine’s exaggerated immaturity, and it is Ibsen’s creative talent that molded the childlike Nora as a caricature of the inequities and false morality of his Norwegian culture.

As the most influential element in Nora’s environment, Torvald represents not only the chauvinistic attitudes that spawned the ubiquitous self-effacement of females, but also the burden of public opinion that threatened the lives of even the most law-abiding citizens. Nora’s dreams of Torvald’s rescue are shattered when he becomes enraged at her disgraceful act. Both his autocratic nature and his concern for public reputation ultimately provoke Nora’s desire for independence and self-realization.

Torvald’s condescension is explicit throughout the play, with consistent jabs at female inferiority. Perhaps less conspicuous are his references to Nora’s fanciful ideas. In Nora’s first scene with Kristine, she says about Torvald, “He said … that it was his duty as a husband not to give in to all these whims and fancies of mine… ” (1775). Later, Torvald confides in Dr. Rank about Nora: “It’s nothing but these childish fears I was telling you about” (1804). One of the most famous literary works that revolves around the Victorian notion of the frailty of the female mind is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a semi-autobiographical account of a summer the author spent confined to an attic bedroom of a country house, since the prescribed treatment for women suffering from postpartum depression was isolation and inactivity. The pathetic posture of the woman “creeping” along the floor at the end of the story and ripping the paper from the walls is the author’s literary expression of what may have happened to her had she not finally rejected the treatment and escaped. As stated in Teaching An Introduction to Literature: Fiction / Poetry / Drama, Gilman successfully conquered her depression only weeks after her flight to California to resume her favorite occupation—writing—which had been altogether forbidden while she was convalescing (Barnet, Berman, and Burto, 62). Victorian views about the delicate female mind are also provided in the text: “Victorian medical theory held that women—more emotional, more nervous, more fanciful than men—needed special protection if they were to combat lunacy” (61). Though the work was originally appreciated as a simple ghost story, modern feminists have found deeper implications to the symbolism, and have offered a wide variety of interpretations, the most famous being that of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and that of Jeanette King and Pam Morris:

For Gubar and Gilbert, the wallpaper represents ‘the oppressive structures of the society in which [the narrator] finds herself’ (90). The figure behind the wallpaper is the narrator’s double, trying to break through. But [for] Jeanette King and Pam Morris … the wallpaper [is] a metaphor of the ‘forbidden self’ (29), ‘the repressed other’ (30). The narrator, seeking to comply with the male ideals, is thus threatened by the wallpaper, and her ‘attempts to tear down this obdurate wallpaper are not intended … to free her from male repression … but to eliminate the rebellious self which is preventing her from achieving ego-ideal’ (30). That is, she wishes to remove the paper (the image of her secret self, which she strives to repress) in order to gain John’s approval. (Barnet, Berman, & Burto, 63-64)

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” along with its collection of feminist criticism, provides insights on the very subject raised in A Doll’s House. Torvald’s references to his wife’s fancies underscore the repressive environment as a driving force in Nora’s fate.

Torvald also represents the Victorian obsession with pride and honor that was so familiar and detestable to Ibsen, who himself suffered the abuse of public humiliation and social ostracism at age eight, when his father’s bankruptcy reduced the family to impoverishment. Ibsen’s own social expulsion thus makes it understandable that the play’s climax revolves around the sacrifice of reputation that Torvald cannot bring himself to make. What Nora hopes will be a return sacrifice on her husband’s part for the sacrifices she has made in saving his life turns out to be a delusion. To Torvald, a lawyer who “refuses to take on anything that’s the least bit shady” (Ibsen 1771), reputation is everything, and Krogstad embodies the result of a ruined name. Torvald says, “Just think how a man with a thing like that on his conscience will always be having to lie and cheat and dissemble; he can never drop the mask, not even with his own wife and children … I quite literally feel physically sick in the presence of such people” (1787-88). Torvald can’t bear to imagine what people would think if they knew he was a former friend of such a man. Further, the parallel between Nora’s crime and Krogstad’s provides the necessary tension, building up to the explosion in Act III, when her husband denounces the glory of her sacrifice, which she had hoped would be returned in a miraculous reciprocation:

Oh, what a terrible awakening this is. All these eight years … this woman who was my pride and joy … a hypocrite, a liar, worse than that, a criminal! … All we can do is save the bits and pieces from the wreck, [and] preserve appearance … (1814-15)

The rapidly growing interest in heredity during the realist movement is emphasized with equal attention in the play. Dr. Rank is dying of syphilis, the result of his father’s “gay subaltern life” (1795), Krogstad is condemned for allowing his corrupted morals to poison his children, and Nora is admonished for having inherited her father’s uncontrollable zeal for spending money. Darwin’s and Zola’s naturalist theories were in their zenith during the writing of this play, and it is no surprise to see those ideas personified on the Ibsen stage:

Just like your father. Always on the look-out for money, wherever you can lay your hands on it; but as soon as you’ve got it, it just seems to slip through your fingers. It’s in the blood. Oh, yes, it is, Nora. That sort of thing is hereditary. (1769)

The theory’s embodiment in this single scene draws our attention to the entire set of character traits that would equally contribute to Nora’s fate.

Nora Helmer is a child in woman’s clothing, enjoying the only life she has ever known, married to a surrogate father who not only disciplines her as one would a child, but also insulates her from danger, from error, and from all the harsh realities that exist outside the walls of their idyllic home. Nora basks in the sunshine of her blissful existence, and shrinks from anything that might disrupt her merriment. When the doorbell interrupts her conversation with Torvald, she says, “It’s probably a visitor. What a nuisance!” (1770). When Kristine asks about Krogstad’s line of work, she says, “But let’s not think about business … it’s all so dull” (1777). When Dr. Rank brings the news about his own impending death, she says, “Really, you are being quite absurd today. And here was I hoping you would be in a thoroughly good mood” (1795). Nora’s maternal responsibilities are limited to playing hide-n-seek, dancing around the room, and purchasing the prettiest outfits while the nursemaid tends to the children’s primary needs.

What such a life has instilled in Nora is a subconscious desire to be needed in a big way—to rescue someone from disaster. During her conversations with Kristine, whose loveless marriage has been the solution to her family’s impoverishment, Nora is aroused by Kristine’s courage and selflessness. She notices the change in Kristine’s appearance, the result of work and sacrifice after her first husband’s death left her in poverty. As she tells Nora of her past suffering, Nora shows admiration: “All that long journey in wintertime. That took courage” (1770).

This scene is crucial not only as a contest of character between the two women, but also as an exposure of Nora’s secret, which she reveals only because she must redeem herself as a true hero who saves her husband’s life. While Nora is awestruck by Kristine’s sacrifices, Kristine gives a lackluster reception to Nora’s own suffering during the time of her father’s death. When the subject of the twelve hundred dollars comes up, Nora says, “Well, we got it from Daddy, you see” (1772), which Kristine mulls over for a page and a half before launching a series of belittling remarks, starting with “I haven’t any father I can fall back on for the money, Nora” (1773), and culminating with:

… you haven’t known much trouble or hardship in your own life … Well, good heavens, a little bit of sewing to do and a few things like that. What a child you are, Nora! (1773).

It is Kristine’s disparagement that forces Nora to reveal the entire truth—“the really big thing” as she calls it.

Nora’s compulsion to expose the truth to Kristine is rooted in an intense desire to be needed and appreciated, especially when the time comes when she can no longer rely on her charm and beauty to attract her husband. She must hide her secret from Torvald until the time arrives when she can repay him for his many years of protection, and she can tell him of all the work she secretly took on in order to make payments to the bank. Torvald would not appreciate his wife’s deeds at the present time:

… Torvald is a man with a good deal of pride – it would be embarrassing and humiliating for him if he thought he owed anything to me… . when he’s lost interest in watching me dance, or get dressed up, or recite. Then it might be a good thing to have something in reserve … (1775)

There is more selflessness in this speech than meets the eye. Nora is admitting that all her tricks, her charms, and her self-effacing behavior over the past eight years have been deliberate and fully recognized as the nourishment for Torvald’s pride. If she allows him to possess her, to keep her young, and to make her dependent on him, she will secure his love and shelter. This extreme dependence has produced in Nora a social retardation and complete lack of preparedness for making it on her own, should the time come when she is widowed prematurely, as has been Kristine. Nora has sacrificed far more than she is even aware of, and her years of inflating her husband’s ego while deflating her own are not even recognized as the cause of her self-destruction. Her desire to help Kristine by landing her a job in Torvald’s bank is, in fact, a desire to increase her husband’s power. Bernard Paris states, “She fails to see … that she has also participated in the creation of her destructive relationship … Nora and Torvald have had such an intensely romantic relationship because they have satisfied each other’s neurotic needs” (40-46).

The tragic fate of Nora lies in the realization that her dreams of glory can never be fulfilled, and that the life she has shared with Torvald has been a shabby imitation of marriage. When Torvald is about to open Krogstad’s letter, Nora thinks that he will take responsibility for her crime. But the burden of pride that has poisoned his psyche reigns victorious over her expectation. Only seconds before he opens the letter, he claims, “You know, Nora … many’s the time I wish you were threatened by some terrible danger so I could risk everything, body and soul, for your sake” (Ibsen 1813). Unfortunately, his wish can never materialize because his pride won’t allow him to become empowered by a man who represents every contradiction of honor. Thus, Torvald’s tirade and complete denunciation of what Nora believed to be an act of love reduces him to a synthetic dummy, a crude mockery of the ideal man whom she thought she had married.

The backdrop of this play, a society whose laws, ideals, morality, and repression have instilled in the characters a sense of false hope in the acquisition of individual freedom and happiness, is closely linked to their identities. Nora’s miniature stature, brought to life with animated, child-like gestures and a stunted role in her marriage and motherhood, serves as the perfect counterpart to the overpowering male who shares the space. Their needs, conflicts, and ultimate destinies stem from, and react against, the dictates that govern their world.

Nora’s decision to abandon her family in search of a means to complete her development into a fully-formed human being has been attacked as an inconsistency in character. However, Paris refutes this attack by claiming, “Her transformation is plausible when we recognize that with the collapse of her predominant solution, her previously repressed tendencies emerge” (40). Nora’s realization of the falseness and emptiness of her life produces an eruption that, though seemingly uncharacteristic, is the surfacing of a natural desire that has been heretofore suppressed.

Perhaps Ibsen’s intent was to draw attention to the natural urgency for self-realization, showing in Nora that humans will do almost anything to achieve this basic need. In Carl Jung’s studies of the psyche and the structures of personality, he pointed to “an irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is, just as every organism is driven to assume the form that is characteristic of its nature” (9: 357). To achieve this state of wholeness, he regarded self-knowledge as the most successful, but most challenging, path (17: 58). Hall and Nordby attest to the importance of self-knowledge, and to its unfortunate lack in many people:

… many people want to fulfill themselves without having the slightest knowledge of themselves. They want instant perfection, a miracle that will transform them into a fully realized person. Actually, the task is the most arduous one man faces in his life, requiring constant discipline, persistent efforts, and the highest responsibility and wisdom. (Hall & Nordby, 53)

The miracle that Nora was convinced would effect her own transformation into that fully realized person proves not to bring the desired results, and her recognition of this fact comes in a vicious assault on her character, the character she created in an attempt to satisfy another human being. Her response is the only choice she has to achieve what Jung called life’s main goal (53). Hence, the most resounding door slam in the history of the theatre, jolting the very foundation of nineteenth-century European culture, was, in fact, the natural slaking of a thirst for life.

Works Cited

Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto. Teaching An Introduction to Literature: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, 10th ed. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993.

Hall, Calvin S., and Vernon J. Nordby. A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York, NY: The Penguin Group, 1973.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 8th ed. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York, NY: Longman, 2002.

Jung, C.G. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Bollingen Series XX. Ed. Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, M.D. M.R.C.P., Gerhard Adler, Ph.D., and William McGuire, executive editor. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. 14 vols. New York, NY: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Paris, Bernard J. Imagined Human Beings: A Psychological Approach to Character and Conflict in Literature. New York, NY: New York Univ. Press, 1997.

Letter from the President

by Jason Davids Scott

On behalf of the 2012 Board of the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association, I welcome you to the MAPACA home page. MAPACA is an organization dedicated to the theories, histories, and constructions of popular and American culture across a wide range of disciplines. Our members are professors, teachers, historians, graduate students, and independent scholars from around the world. Our annual fall conference hosts over 400 presenters and guests every year, presenting in over three dozen areas. While we are one of the largest regional affiliates of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, we pride ourselves on maintaining an intimate and focused conference atmosphere, where colleagues and friends from disparate areas of study can share their work against the backdrop of the region’s most culturally rich and compelling cities. This year, we are pleased to be holding our conference at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Pittsburgh, located just a stone’s throw from the confluence of the Three Rivers, PNC Park, Heinz Field, the Carnegie Science Center, Duquesne University, and Primanti Brothers restaurant.

This is also the year that we have undertaken the long-overdue process of updating the MAPACA website, which we hope will set a new standard for academic organizations. Under the auspices of our secretary Colin Helb, web designer and MAPACA member Antonio Savorelli has been hard at work recreating the website almost from the ground up. Over the course of the next year, you’ll see a number of changes in both appearance and function that include a dynamic visual style, easy-to-use interface, and tools to help make our members’ connection to MAPACA one that does not begin and end with the conference. We’ll be publishing our online magazine The Gazette on a more regular basis, as well as making previous articles from The Gazette and our annual peer-reviewed publication, the Mid Atlantic Almanack more available and accessible; a new members-only section will include conference presentation tips, message boards for ride and room sharing, and other notices of special events and activities; and our interactive submission and registration programs (to be fully in place in time for the 2013 conference) will allow presenters, area chairs, and conference planners alike to more effectively and efficiently organize and schedule our conference. We’ve also increased our commitment to social media—please be sure you like our Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter so that you can remain informed of the latest news and information.

MAPACA’s strength comes from the many people who volunteer as board members, area chairs, publication editors, and conference planners in order to create a space where we can share our work in an open and friendly environment. I joined MAPACA as a graduate student just five years ago, and my role as area chair, conference chair, and now board member has allowed me to make connections with great thinkers and good friends, as well as helping me establish credibility as a scholar and academic professional. We encourage anyone—from anywhere in the world—to submit their work for our annual conference and become a member of our organization. Our continued success will be a product of what we can do together to sustain ongoing interest in the field of popular culture in all of its glorious diversity and complexity. I look forward to seeing everyone in Pittsburgh!

Jason Davids Scott, PhD
President, Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association

The all-new Mid-Atlantic Gazette

The Mid-Atlantic Gazette is the on-line magazine of the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association. Inspired by MAPACA’s mission, it features articles, essays, and columns by board members, area chairs, and affiliated scholars on various aspects of popular and American culture. In addition, the Gazette contains news about the annual conference, member activities, and on organizational governance.

Founded by Loretta Lorance as a quarterly newsletter containing creative and scholarly works, the Gazette has grown to be the official digital magazine of MAPACA.


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