Nora Helmer, the maddening charmer at the heart of the play A Doll’s House, is considered one of the iconic women of modern literature. Like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Nora bewitches and confounds generation after generation. Playwright Wade Bradford said of Nora in a 2019 review: “One of the most complex characters of 19th-century drama, Nora Helmer prances about in the first act, behaves desperately in the second, and gains a stark sense of reality during the finale of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.”
Nora’s many layers have challenged critics trying to describe her essence in words. She is silly and flirtatious, but also duplicitous and manipulative. She is nervous as a bird caught in a cage, and existentially troubled. She’s an actress playing the part of a powerless innocent, or she’s a vain narcissist, controlling the strings of her world. She is beautiful and naïve, self-dramatizing and loving. She lies to everyone and at the same time exposes the hypocrisy of her age. There is no denying the power of Nora’s character, even as she seems to be spinning apart when she dances the frantic tarantella halfway through the play. She is the molten, hungry, unstable center of Ibsen’s drama. And then she walks away from all she knows, out into a cruel, cold world.
How would such a woman fare trying to find work, food and shelter in 1880s Kristiania? The city (known today as Oslo) was – at that time – a dangerous place for women. Society had been disrupted by massive emigration of men to America, leaving many women unprotected and destitute. Honest opportunities for women were severely limited, and prostitution was on the rise. Where would someone like Nora go? How would she avoid being preyed on, or tempted into a questionable liaison? What fate awaited her?
In the course of writing Searching for Nora, I explored: Ibsen and his plays; Norway’s economy and society in the 1880s; Solvi’s 1918 world and how it differed from Nora’s Norway; the Norwegian diaspora in America; and the harsh conditions of the Midwestern prairie, where so many Norwegians settled. For those interested in retracing my steps, I’ve compiled this guide.
Click on a headline below, or the picture below it, to learn more about each of these topics.
– Wendy Swallow