Finding Nora in Norway

What does Nora Helmer look like? If you’ve seen Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, you may have an image in mind. But what was Ibsen’s vision of her? He tells us through Nora’s own words, and how men respond to her. She jokes about her “ravishing appeal” and uses her beauty to get what she wants. She’s clearly very attractive, vivacious and dynamic. She’s a woman men notice and women envy.

To develop Nora’s character in my novel, however, I needed concrete details. While researching in Norway, I looked for a woman who could serve as a model, because I wanted my Nora to be real. Everywhere I went, I looked into women’s faces — on buses, in the streets, shopping in stores, but to no avail. Day after day I was disappointed. Maybe it didn’t help that I had a strong image in mind already. I wanted my Nora to be a dark, honey-blonde, and vain about her tawny mane. But there were more brunettes in Norway than I expected (possibly attributable to the genetic diversity the Vikings brought home with them), and the blondes I spotted often didn’t fit the rest of my Nora vision. I wanted a woman who was tall and curvy, with a face full of character. Possibly a strong nose or chin, and eyes the dusky blue of the Norwegian sea. And for some reason I wanted her hair to be pinned up.

The last day in Norway, I began to despair. I considered abandoning my Nora vision because I didn’t want to create a Nora that didn’t exist. I started looking around for alternatives, but none was right — too short, hair too curly, eyes too grey, chin too weak. Perhaps my vision was too idealized.

Then, as I was riding the bus to the airport in Bergen, a woman climbed aboard. She was an airport officer of some kind, in a blue uniform. She had deeply set blue eyes, high cheekbones and smooth, burnished skin. She held her chin level, her shoulders back. She was a bit taller than me, with a lovely figure, strong but feminine. On her feet were smart black boots, and on her head a small blue cap. And under the cap was a knot of dark blonde hair.

I couldn’t stop staring, and I saw that others noticed her as well. Nora lived! Nora worked airport security in Bergen! She was perfect. It would have been rude to take her picture, but I can still see her, my Nora, swaying gently as she holds onto the overhead strap. She got off before me and I never saw her again, but it didn’t matter. I took her image home, dressed her in a gown with a bodice and bustle, and put her to work.

Wendy Swallow, Aug. 21, 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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