Channeling Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen, Nora's Creator

The very first word of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the play my book is built upon, is “hide.” Nora Helmer, the heroine, is talking about hiding the Christmas tree from the children. But that one word opens a door to how she prevaricates, shades the truth and masquerades as a silly, incompetent wife. Indeed, as the play unspools, it’s clear that all the main characters are hiding things from each other. This gap between appearance and what is actually true grows with each act, and finally splits the Helmer’s marriage apart. The entire disaster starts with that single command, as if Nora is talking to herself: Hide; hide what you are thinking, hide what you can do, hide your true self.

Henrik Ibsen, Nora's Creator

Henrik Ibsen

This clash between appearance and reality turns out to be just one of several themes Ibsen explores in A Doll’s House, and this thematic richness drew me in. As I wrote my novel about what happens to Nora after she leaves at the end of the play, I tapped these themes to add richness and complexity to my book. Over the course of the play, Ibsen raises thorny questions about six central problems:  the role of money and class, the tension between idealism/appearance and reality, the status of women (especially in marriage), the role of the individual in a repressive society, the nature of morality, and the specter of debt and ruin. In the next few months, I will write about each of these issues, talking about why they mattered to Ibsen and how I wove them into my book.

For now, let me just say that Ibsen does all this while writing in a purposefully natural way. There are no ponderous speeches, no stiff plot twists. It feels as if you are listening in through the mail slot of the Helmers’ apartment, eves-dropping on their flirtations and arguments. It’s one of the first truly modern plays, believable and realistic; yet, at the same time, presents a thick tapestry of thematic variation. The trick for me, as a novelist, was figuring out how to weave in Ibsen’s central themes while letting my story also unfold in a natural, believable way.

A Doll’s House is now included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, a listing of documentary heritage from around the world selected for its significance and outstanding universal value. In submitting A Doll’s House for the registery, the country of Norway said: “Ever since A Doll’s House was first published, it has raised debate and controversy, both because of its splendid dramatic structure and because of its broad ideological impact. The play revolutionized contemporary Western drama, both formally and thematically. More than anyone, Henrik Ibsen gave theatrical art a new vitality by bringing into European bourgeois drama an ethical gravity, a psychological depth, and a social significance which the theatre had lacked since the days of William Shakespeare.” Watch for my exploration of those deeper themes in upcoming blogs.

Wendy Swallow, Nov. 4 2019

About Wendy Swallow

Wendy Swallow writes about women’s challenges, now and in the tender past. She is the author of Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce and The Triumph of Love over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. Swallow became fascinated with Henrik Ibsen’s iconic character Nora Helmer after she left her first husband. Searching for Nora is her first historical novel.

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