About the Play

"A Tragedy of To-Day"

An Interpretation by Kelly Lapczynski

First and foremost, as he tells us in his own notes on the play,  Ibsen wrote a tragedy.  The story of Nora and Torvald Helmer is based on a the true life events of one of Ibsen's friends, author Laura Smith Petersen.   When Laura's husband, Victor, contracted tuberculosis, doctors advised that he go south to recuperate and Laura participated in a forgery to acquire money for the trip.  When Victor discovered the forgery, he divorced Laura and threw her out of the house, forbidding her from seeing their children.  Within a few years, Laura was sent to a mental hospital and Ibsen began to write A DOLL'S HOUSE. 

In Ibsen's version, though, his friend (now "Nora") is only threatened with Laura's fate; after the forgery is revealed and the first domestic storm passes, Nora might remain in the Helmer household, a mother and a wife.   Instead, she makes a decision to leave.   That action alone has long subjected the play to a feminist interpretation -- as though an obstinate woman who puts her "duties to herself" before her duties to her husband and children in a patriarchal society should be lauded -- but Nora has proven throughout the play that she is ill-equipped to survive in the world she's entering.  That world has already bested her better-equipped friend, Christine; and Christine's struggle reminds us that there is little satisfaction waiting for Nora there, economically or emotionally.

Rather, it seems, this is Torvald's story.   After all, a tragedy requires a heroic individual of high standards to be destined to downfall or destruction by some flaw of character, and Torvald is a man of good social standing and influence, a man of strict morals, religion, and propriety.  He is proud, and hubris is perhaps the most familiar of all fatal flaws.

With A DOLL'S HOUSE, Ibsen took tragedy out of the then-familiar hands of princes, kings, and noblemen and placed it squarely in the middle class living room; but the familiar tragic arc remains evident as Torvald repeatedly ignores the warnings of his wife, assuring that the revelation she's working to prevent will come.   Where Shakespearean tragedy might require a heedless husband to die at the hands of his senate, Ibsen dooms his tragic hero to a stabbing of the heart rather than of the flesh.  He does not re-write history to spare his friend, but rather to make her husband (now "Torvald") suffer for his too-easy dismissal of his wife and her motives. 

Upon his appointment to manager of the Bank, Torvald sets in motion the action of the play with his decision to dismiss a good worker, Nils Krogstad, for his singular fault of using Helmer's Christian name in the work environment (Krogstad's other indiscretions Torvald says he could forgive).  Forced to fight to keep his position, Krogstad uses an outstanding loan -- one Nora secretly acquired years earlier by means of forgery -- as leverage to convince Nora to plead with Torvald on his behalf.   Duly afraid that the forgery will be revealed, Nora makes the plea; Torvald, however, will not be swayed.  In fact, for fear of appearing cuckolded by a woman who has just called him "petty," Torvald hastens Krogstad's dismissal. 

Newly unemployed and doubly desperate, Krogstad ups the ante.  He writes a letter informing Torvald of the forgery, knowing that the prideful Mr. Helmer will behave exactly as required to avoid public scandal.  Nora, however, does not seem to know her husband quite so well as Krogstad does.  She clings to a romantic notion that Torvald will ignore Krogstad's demands and perform a long-awaited "miracle" to protect her -- the miracle of taking all the blame upon himself.   Feeling that such a miracle would be both wonderful and terrible, Nora explores another romantic notion: that causing her own death would somehow shield her husband from the shame of her forgery.  

Not eager for any such desperate resolution, Nora tries first to prevent Torvald from receiving the letter at all, picking at the lock on the letterbox and enlisting Christine's help in asking Krogstad for the letter's recall.  However, it soon becomes clear that its delivery is unavoidable, and Nora plans to make her final exit after the fancy dress ball where she is to perform, knowing that Torvald's reading can not be delayed any longer.

When Torvald does read the letter, he catches Nora on her way out.  To prevent Torvald's sure and noble gesture, Nora is prepared to kill herself; but when Torvald fails to make the gesture at all, Nora is struck with the realization that she was the one prepared to take the nobler action; that Torvald is not the man she believed he was.  Instead, he is a substitute for her father -- a caregiver and provider whom she longs to please but does not love.   Torvald has always been kind to her, but she has always preferred the companionship of his friend Dr. Rank, who the same evening has confirmed he is lost to the "final horrors" of his degenerative disease.  With the dream of Torvald as a romantic hero dead and Dr. Rank dying, there is little to keep Nora in the Helmer house.  

Torvald, too, is struck with the realization that he is not the man he believes he is.  For all his bold talk of risking body and soul for his wife's sake, when he is presented with the opportunity to shield her, he threatens instead to disown her.   The threat passes almost immediately as a changed Krogstad returns the forged note, but the damage is done.   Though Torvald's rage at his ruination is as correct for its time as it is cruel, it is not the response to a threat he had promised for years, shaping the romantic notions just shattered.  While he attempts to pick up the pieces, a disappointed Nora suggests that they have never truly had a marriage. 

However poorly the relationship may have been managed, though, there is no doubt that Torvald truly loves his wife. Faced with losing her, he suggests changes and offers compromises which would have been unimaginable to him under any other circumstance.  When Nora refuses all of them, he is broken. 

But Nora might have stayed.  Had Torvald not been exactly so petty as she'd suggested, her leaving might have been prevented.  Had Torvald not petulantly met the pleas of his wife on Krogstad's behalf with Krogstad's immediate dismissal, had he instead taken her advice, he would never have discovered the forgery.  He would never have lashed out in anger to shed her of her romantic notions.  But more than discovering the forgery could have been prevented; had Torvald taken heed of his wife seven years earlier when her pleas were not for Krogstad but for a trip to Italy -- the trip which would save his life -- Nora would not have committed the forgery at all.

A DOLL'S HOUSE begins with delight and happiness, promotion and gain, set against the glittering backdrop of Christmas Eve; it lingers in menace and fear of ruin as the Christmas lights dim; and finally it ends in gloom and despair, abandonment and loss, against the rubble of Boxing Day.  Throughout, it steers its audience through a gamut of emotion, extreme to extreme. Though times have changed and Nora's leaving her husband, home, and children is not as shocking as it once would have been, the play endures as the story of a relationship destroyed by pride.  And that story, it seems sure, is timeless.