Reading with a Broken Heart: The Only Way to Read Ibsen

A well-worn and well-loved copy of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House/Ghosts/Hedda Gabler/The Master Builder, straight from the motherland

Full disclosure, guys. I just experienced a break up right before New Year’s Eve.

Now, it wasn’t a very long relationship, only a few months. The commitment wasn’t very intense due to the relationship’s brevity.  But it was meaningful; it was fun. I’m naturally quite down about the split, but I think things are relatively peaceful and a friendship can be managed from the rubble. I learned a great deal in a brief period of time, and though I’m a tad bitter, such is the way of the world and the price of falling in love.

I hadn’t been in an exclusive relationship for quite some time, so it reminded me a lot about just what it means to be a woman in the year (now) 2016.  What, ultimately, is my role, not only as a partner in a relationship, but as an individual woman? What do I want on a personal level? How is this affected by societal norms? Do I even want these norms? Do I buy into or want to buy into those norms?

But out of all of these questions, what is this feminine experience I’ve been given, particularly when this experience exists alongside that of a male experience in a relationship?

Every January since my early college years, I read a straight-from-the-motherland, inherited copy of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. It’s pure tradition. January just seems to be the perfect time to read this play.  After all,  A Doll’s House takes place at Christmastime in Norway, and sometimes, even in the state of Pennsylvania, the weather can be very Norwayesque.  The holidays have since calmed down, and it becomes a bit easier to focus on OTHER people’s holidays, even if they are fictional. But most importantly, January is a great time to focus on reading Ibsen because I’ve exhausted myself from the butchering that I refer to as wrapping Christmas presents (it got ugly, I promise).

An original bookmark! Too bad I don’t know what it says.

The play, first published in 1879,  tells the saga of Nora, a young mother and wife of Torvald, an up-and-coming bank manager/social status climber in Norway. Torvald does not appear to readers as verbally or physically abusive toward his wife, but he clearly has a very controlling hand over the life of his giddy and seemingly simple wife, in addition to the already controlling nature that was 1879 in regards to women.

Without giving too much of the plot of the play away, Nora is not as innocent and simple as readers are meant to think originally. In order to save her husband’s life, she previously took on an incredibly large, personal, and secret debt from some sketchy characters in order to transport Torvald to Italy for treatment during a life-threatening illness. This secret comes back to bite her by the end of the play, leading her to a great deal of soul searching, an alarming amount of panic attacks and anxiety crises, and a rather surprising response to the aforementioned. Nora finds her freedom from the controlling men and societal norms in her life. Whether or not it was the right choice is up to you as a reader.

While I was reading this play, I was startled by the amount of similarities and differences that both Nora and I share during my current state of heartbroken forlorn. One similarity between Nora and I is, of course, the initial attack of anxiety when the understanding that everything is unraveling hits you smack dab in the stomach. Another similarity is the feeling of stupidity when one realizes how, as a woman, you previously fluttered about like Torvald’s “little sky lark,” trying to keep everyone and all the different compartments of your life pleased and happy. As a woman, particularly in the 1800s, there is tremendous amount of pressure to keep the household looking perfect and happy, and Nora, and I to some extent, attempted to do this to keep the peace.

Apparently Cat doesn't think much of Ibsen.

Apparently Cat doesn’t think much of Ibsen.

Unlike women today who are not only allowed but encouraged to take out as much debt as their little hearts desire, women in the 1800s were not permitted to take out a personal loan from the bank without their husbands’ or fathers’ permission, making Nora’s debt a scandalous and status-obliterating decision, regardless of the noble purpose behind her action. Nora is clearly a thoughtful, kind, and caring woman who loves her husband and children, but she has never existed as an independent woman, something I cannot even imagine. She has been passed down the line; first, she was her father’s, then her husband’s, now her children’s.  Her femininity and her entire existence are tied to these titles. She has a definite role, and any deviation from this role is destroying.

However, one thing I absolutely adore about Nora is how she handles this identity destruction. Her loss of identities as mother, daughter, and wife pushes her to find an independent spirit and strength that neither she, nor the readers, knew existed. She has lost everything because of her secret, but somehow, even in the destruction, a new identity emerges from the embers.

And even in my own destruction, a new identity emerges, despite the bitterness, the confusion, and the sadness.

What I took away from this year’s reading of A Doll’s House: if Nora can do it, I can do it too.



One thought on “Reading with a Broken Heart: The Only Way to Read Ibsen

  1. A very powerful and personal review, thank you. I taught ‘A Doll’s House’ for many years and it’s so good to read such a fresh and thoughtful response to a text that continues to teach me new things.


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