A Doll's House' - Actual Play In All Ages

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Times have changed. In 1879 a woman walks out on her husband when she is faced with the never-ending path in finding herself, and forty-eight years later another woman does the same thing. However, instead of walking out on your husband you bash his head in with a bottle full of rocks, but same thing, right? Nora and Helen are two different women raised in two different societies at two different times, however they have a lot more in common than you might think. These two women decided to step out of the ordinary when it comes to a woman’s place in society, both in their own unique way. In this essay, I will discuss these two women and their roles, their choices, their consequences, and if they were in the right.

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A Doll’s House is set in 1879 Norway. Nora, the protagonist, at first glance seems like a happy go-lucky woman, with a family and occasional spending money. When her husband enters, we find this is not true. Nora has a bit of a spending problem and takes her husband’s words harshly when he advises against them taking out a loan so they can buy more things they don’t need. Nora secretly in debt with someone, still begs for more and more money. When first reading I thought this was funny, because stereotypically women buy things they don’t need, especially with how easy it is to buy things in this century. Nowadays, its everyone. But it got me thinking, was Ibsen a little bit sexist? Saying that women make terrible decisions when it comes to money, and they should never be in charge? If you go with this theory it can be further backed up when Nora is confronted by Krogstad towards the end of Act 1, about how she doesn’t have a plan to pay him back, or any money now to even begin paying him back because she keeps spending it all. He also confronts a mistake she has made in her forgery, showing that he has leverage over her. Maybe this was Ibsen’s way of telling women to not try to do a man’s job and work with finances. Nora is a bit of a, for lack of a better term, a young naïve girl. She spends money she doesn’t have and keeps asking for more, when confronted about this from her husband she laughs it off and asks for money. When asked about it by a friend Ms. Linde, she makes excuses for it, saying she got the money from her father, and that they “needed” to go to Italy because Torvald was sick and that was the only way to make him feel better. And when confronted about it with Krogstad she bursts into tears the minute he leaves the room. I will say she never let her children see her cry, she semi-stood up for herself in front of Krogstad, and she didn’t cry until he left, so she has some strength in Act 1

This quote demonstrates the kind of woman Nora is in Act 1. On page 4 Torvald accuses Nora of not being able to save any money Nora responds, “You haven’t any idea how many expenses we skylarks and squirrels have, Torvald.” She makes excuses for her expensive style of living that her husband can’t afford, and instead of admitting her problem or apologizes, she basically tells him that he needs to suck it up, this is lifestyle she has chosen for herself and she has no intention of changing it.

Nora’s progression can definitely be seen as a slow one. At the beginning of Act 2 her maid brings in her dress and they being to cut it up, when Ms. Linde comes over and see’s it she goes and repairs it for her. I believe this was to convince Ms. Linde that Nora is someone who can save money and wear things more than once. Then later in the play we find out that she has bought yet another dress for herself, without telling her husband, even though she still owes Krogstad money. During the act she tries to convince her husband to not fire Krogstad, and although it may seem like she is doing something for someone else, she is clearly doing it to cover up her own mistakes. She spends the end of the act distracting her husband, hoping to get Krogstads letter, by dancing until Ms. Linde has retrieved it. In all that time she is stressing about herself, she leaves her own kids to the maid to take care of, doesn’t spend much time with her husband, and is asking her friend to do crazy things for her own selfish reasons. The only hope during act 2 is that she is taking such drastic steps because she is finally taking responsibility for her actions. Granted instead of just telling her husband, she is doing it the most secret way possible, but she isn’t just blowing it off anymore. At the end of Act 2 Nora says, “Thirty-one hours to live.” The race is on, the heart is pumping, Nora has to do something.

Act 3 Nora obviously has the biggest change. She gets Ms. Linde to confront Krogstad for her, as part of her plan, while she is at a ball. Before her husband reads the letter explaining Nora’s predicament, Nora finds herself alone and nearly runs away until her husband reenters the room, that is where her transformation begins. When all is revealed to her husband they get in this big argument until the issue is resolved itself by another letter sent by Krogstad. When Torvald tells her to leave the house and never see him or the children again, her realization of freedom comes to life. I don’t think that Act 3 was Nora’s first time thinking about running away from her issues. It might have been her first thought, but she quickly realized now she has a family and she can’t just leave them. Torvald gives her the impression that he is ok with her leaving, that he and the children do not need her in their lives. It quickly spirals to reveal to Nora that she has never been on her own. She was raised by her family and then handed over to Torvald by her father. She questions everything about who she is and recounts her life. She quickly takes her chance and leaves her family behind. She goes to find herself. Even though it was for her own selfish reasons, I like to think that Nora was one hundred percent truthful with her intentions to find herself. In the end, after she was confronted she didn’t make excuses she fessed up to what she had done and found ways she could better herself.

In the mid 1800’s women began to receive more and more rights and individualism in women began to build. This was one of Ibsen’s main themes in A Doll’s House. Nora had been raised and educated a certain way, to be a housewife. She didn’t fit in to this role, it first begins with her spending her husband’s money on fancy things, because she felt like she needed more with her life. Her idea of individualism then spreads when she contemplates running away from her issues, and then blossoms when she gets the permission she needs. “A Doll’s House’, where Ibsen took up the cause of modern humanism and individualism.”Ibsen wrote this play in the middle of all of this transition and controversy. What side you look at is completely up to you, as the actor, director, or reader. If you decide to play her as a snobby spoiled girl who wants to buy more and more things, you could be viewed as the side against women’s rights. However, if you play it sincerely where Nora is looking for something more in her life than what was laid out for her, you would be for it. Because of this never-ending theme you could set this story at any time. Nora is a woman who wants more for herself, she is very similar to a certain young woman named Helen.

Machinal is set in 1920s America. Helen is a very shy and quiet woman when the show begins. The play opens with clattering of typing machines as constant dialogue is chiming over Helen, letting the audience know that she is a woman who is never heard. This is further backed up in the second episode when she is talking to her mom about marrying her boss. “No- let me finish Ma.” Helen is asking her mom for advice on whether she should marry this man she barely knows. She wants to marry for love and not because he can support her and her mother. Her mother insists that love has nothing to do with it and that her own marriage wasn’t about love. Going against her better judgement she listens to her mother and marries her boss anyway. Episode three takes place on their honeymoon in a hotel room, Helen is filled with anxiety, as a reader I was feeling it for her, I was having trouble breathing while reading it. To me she felt like a helpless small child that had been kidnapped and forced to marry a man that she didn’t know.

During Episode four, she refuses to touch or look at her own child. This child conceived out of obligation instead of love is too painful for Helen to deal with at first. The nurse and doctor judge her for her decisions and skepticisms when dealing with her first born. She even gags when her husband walks in the room, at first, I thought she had been faking it to get him away. But I feel like the pressures and anxiety of expectations and motherhood just kept building up more and more until she couldn’t breathe. This moment does two things; when the doctors orders contradict everything the nurse has just told him, it shows that men don’t care what women think, and when the nurse and doctor judge Helen and tell her what is expected, it further indicates that Helen is not happy and that she is just being pulled along in her life being forced to do things because that is what is expected of her. Episode five and six are my personal favorites, it’s the first time that I felt Helen breathe, she finally met someone who doesn’t make her feel claustrophobic, she doesn’t flinch when she touches her. And then she gets the idea, “I filled a bottle with small stones- and let ‘em have it!” the interesting man Helen is talking to describes the way that he escaped from the bad men that trapped him. I don’t think Helen thought about it doing it at that point, but she asked him all sorts of questions about the smallest details of his escape.

When episode seven begins, we feel a change in Helen, she is more comfortable with her husband now she has let her guard down after some time. It isn’t down for long however, when he touches her, she flinches, “You haven’t done that in a long time.” What changed? Helen found her way out and she had been thinking about killing her husband ever since. Her anxiety acts up again when she talks about her abilities as a mother and she begins to feel like she can’t breathe again. This is where her thoughts start as thoughts, then progress into and idea, and then a plan. Episode eight, the court case. She tries to convince the jury that she did not kill her husband. When the truth is revealed she confesses that the only reason she did it was “To be free.” In episode eight she pays the consequences, but before she is killed, she cries that her life has been hell and she felt abandoned by God her entire life. Helen progression is a dramatic one, going from a quiet shy young girl who hides her anxiety, to one who wears her anxiety out on her sleeve, to a woman who kills her husband because it is the only way she can find solace.

In the 1920’s women were given a lot of rights, they had just gotten the right to vote, “Divorce was made easier and the number of divorces doubled”. Helen was surrounded by these women who were free to make their own choices, but her mother who was raised in a completely different time period told her what to do. Her whole life Helen was trapped to live a life that wasn’t her own and felt tortured because of it. In Episode Eight the Judge asks her “If you wanted to be free- Why didn’t you divorce him!” and she responds “Oh I couldn’t do that!! I couldn’t hurt him like that!” She knows that her husband is happy the way things are, and she has spent her whole life in the agony of being miserable with herself. She decided it is better to be dead than to live a life in misery.

Both Helen and Nora made drastic decisions so they could finally feel free and make their own decisions. They also both made these decisions with purely their futures in mind and not their children. Stereotypically, women are supposed to be the main care givers of children. They are supposed to put their life on hold until the child can live on its own. Nora and Helen as women had different rights, because of their different time periods, they each had different expectations for them. In Act Three of A Doll’s House Nora says “According to it (the law) a woman has no right to spare her old dying father or to save her husband’s life.” Nora wanted to help her family and did it regardless of society even though its not the family that she chose, but rather the ones she was born into and then later handed over to. Helen on the other hand doesn’t want to take care of the family that chose her and wants to live a life of her own choice.

Helen and Nora, were both trapped in a life that they did not choose. Nora saw Ms. Linde, her windowed friend, come and go as she pleased because she was no longer contractually obligated to anyone. Helen was surrounded in a society of new, single women getting to make their own choices from the birth of the new society. They both wanted out and did whatever they could to make it happen. I’m not saying what they did was right, nevertheless they had their reasons. Sadly today, women are still fighting for equal rights as men. Sure, a woman can marry and divorce who she wants for her own reasons, but women are still fighting to be heard and for equality. There are more and more Helen’s and Nora’s in this world then there were when these plays were written. And that’s what is so great about these plays and terrible about our society. You could show this play in any and every time period you want, and people will still connect with it, because people are still fighting to be heard and they are still fighting to live their own lives and make their own choices. 

29 April 2022

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