I know why the caged bird sings – A Doll’s House

In the period before writing A Doll’s House Henrik Ibsen expressed his concern over “these women of the modern age, mistreated as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated in accordance with their talents, debarred from following their real mission, deprived of their inheritance, embittered in mind – these are the ones who supply the mothers for the next generation. What will result from this?” The introduction to my version of the play (Oxford World’s Classics) also says that he believed that men and women were different creatures, with completely different consciences, and “he pointed to the inevitable confusion over matters of right and wrong that inescapably follows when a woman is judged by man’s law, and when in consequence her natural instincts are brought into conflict with the notions of authority she has grown up with”. The play which emerged from his musings on the subject provoked heated sociological debates and ascribed didactic qualities to Ibsen as a playwright. A Doll’s House follows Nora and Torvald Helmer as they prepare for Christmas, with the reappearance of an old acquaintance (Mrs Linde) and Nora’s secret debt to Mr. Krogstad due to an illicit loan starting a quick chain of events that see Nora walking out on her family in the final scene. Thoughts about Nora’s departure from her doll’s house became the pivot around which 1890’s conversation revolved – so much so that dinner invitations often requested that the play was not mentioned. Leaving aside that the ‘shocking’ ending of the play is simply not so shocking to the modern audience, reading the play I was struck by how many clues to this ‘shock’ ending were lying around the stage even in Act 1. Granted, Ibsen did use melodramatic form and present what appears to be a perfect couple in Act 1, both of which work to subvert the naturalistic element of his drama; however the road to what is to come is signposted clearly in the marked dichotomy evolved between the couples words and their actions. I first read A Doll’s House as a teenager, and to be honest it made little impression on me, although I remember being shocked at how shocking the play was deemed to be on first performance. What a difference a decade makes – after rereading as part of A Year of Feminist Classics I can see the performative nature of gender roles and a dichotomy between words in actions shining through from the very beginning of the action.

Of the most fundamental importance to A Doll’s House are the onstage movements of the characters. In the body language of the Helmers we see the truth of their marriage played out while the Helmers pay lip service to happy families. The pathetically cutsie first interplay between the couple shows the male breadwinner, pen in hand, lecturing his picture perfect wife on the virtues of household economy. While the doll plays the role of a “little bird” with her speeches, the audience can see the first earmarks of the farcical element of her role. Nora does not want to hear what Torvald has to say (doubtless she has heard it all before anyway) and cuts off his speech by [putting her hand over his mouth]. Only a few moments later Nora stealthily manipulates Torvald into letting her have her way by use of sexual innuendo [toying with his coat buttons, and without looking at him]. The audience see before them a couple who have an entire conversation without ever actually talking to each other – Nora is self-consciously playing the role of ‘wife Torwald wants’, while hubby dearest is pleased to assert dominance and bestow favours on a child/bird/pet/doll but certainly not with a sentient woman! Within moments of first encountering Nora, we see how fundamental deception is to her performance as wife, as the stage directions tell us [she walks stealthily across] and within moments she is glibly lying to her husband. As Torvald refers to Nora as “his precious little singing bird”, it is hard not to to think of Wollstencraft’s gilded cage and Olive Schreiner’s question “if the bird does like its cage, and does like its sugar, and will not leave it, why keep the door so very carefully shut?”

The Helmers clearly do not have a marriage of equals, and the physical actions of the performers in Act 1 also reveal the complexities of the Helmers’ marital personas. Torvald is seen in Act 1 only in the context of his role as the dominant wage earning male. He is forever wielding his trusty phallic pen, gesturing with his deeply symbolic wallet, lurking behind stacks of papers, or sequestering himself away in his study. The audience is left in no doubt as to the role played by Torvald, and it is one he does not deviate from throughout the duration of the act, suggesting deep-rooted contentment on his part with the role he has secured in life’s drama. Nora is clearly consigned to a domestic role, one which, whether she enjoys it or not, she certainly draws on for strength. Nora is symbolically tied to the stove, and any threat to herself provokes a retreat to the stove; while a need to boast of her superior status as wife and mother leads to her tending the stove rather pointedly in front of Mrs. Linde. Torvald is shown to be attached to this mother/wife symbol as he settles himself down by the stove as it’s “nice and cosy here!” Unlike Torvald, Nora has, by the conclusion of the act, become discontent with her role. Suddenly feeling stifled, Nora is seen drawing as far away from the stove as is possible, exclaiming, “How hot it is in here!”.

Torvald himself unwittingly highlights for Nora the dangers of gender performance and the playing of roles in his dolls house – criticising Krogstad’s inability “to drop the mask” due to his shady dealings, he plants the seed of Nora’s belief that her willing participation in the charade of happy domesticity is harming her children: “A fog of lies like that in a household, and it spreads disease and infection to every part of it. Every breath the children take in that kind of house is reeking with evil germs”. To accentuate the symbolism of male dominance, Ibsen shows us Torvald reducing his wife to the status of a house pet. She is always “…my little…”, a term which manages to convey at once possession and inferiority, and the wealth of animal imagery he associates Nora with is degrading. He is only too willing to admit to the audience that this is how he regards her, commenting that “It’s incredible how expensive it is for a man to keep such a pet”. Nora, on the other hand, shows encouraging flashes of spirit which enhance the impression that she is tiring of her role-play; for instance, she expresses her desire to curse in front of Torvald, remarking “I would simply love to say: ‘Damn’”. Ibsen makes it blatantly obvious that the consequent action will not see Nora quite so willing to play house – Nora’s shock departure should not have been so shocking to its contemporary audience, but there are none so blind as those that will not see.

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One thought on “I know why the caged bird sings – A Doll’s House

  1. Pingback: Wrap Up: A Doll’s House « A Year of Feminist Classics

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