Nora’s 19th-Century World

Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House premiered in 1879, a time of upheaval in Norway. Many farmers and able-bodied workers were leaving for America, women were starting to work in factories, and social norms across the class structure were beginning to fray. What better setting for a novel? When I sat down to write Searching for Nora, I decided to start right where Ibsen left off – late on a winter’s night, shortly after Christmas 1879.

I choose to keep Nora’s story in its original context because I was interested in Ibsen’s challenge: Given the Norway of his day, where would Nora go? Where would she find work? How would she avoid being preyed upon without a man to protect her? Would she see her children again?

Opportunities for women were much more limited in 1879 then than they would be at the turn of the century just twenty years later. Nora would have had no right to her possessions or to the family’s money – everything belonged to her husband. By leaving the family home and her husband’s care, she was assumed under law to have gone off with another man, even if she had not. Under that cloud, Nora would have had no right to care for her children. A mother tainted by scandal was considered disgusting and evil; she would have been blocked from even seeing her children. Divorce was only permitted at the pleasure of the king, and was very rare.

Ibsen’s early audiences understood these realities. Instead of cheering as Nora slams the door at the end of the play, as our modern audiences might, Ibsen’s audiences would have gasped.

At that time, though, Norway was beginning to stir. Aasta Hansteen, a portrait painter and early feminist pictured on this page, was speaking out about women’s rights and haranguing legislators. Hansteen, a historical figure who appears in Searching for Nora, was the first woman to speak publicly in Norway about political and social issues. She was also a friend of Ibsen’s. Nora and the Norwegian women of the time would have read newspaper accounts of Hansteen’s talks. There was little widespread discussion of women’s suffrage, but working men were agitating to secure the vote. They were also striking for better working conditions in factories and shipyards.

While Nora had few rights, she did have her society-girl education: skills in writing, arts, music and a smattering of foreign language, an affectation of her social class but something that would prove useful. She also had a will to work, and a bit of experience copying documents for businesses and making lace collars.

On another page in this web site’s All About Nora Helmer section, I’ve listed some of the sequels that A Doll’s House spawned on stage, in print, and in moving pictures and still images. Not surprisingly, these treatments often reflect their creator’s values and life experiences.

Nora’s experience in A Doll’s House, and the sequel story that I’ve chosen to tell, speak to my own struggles as a once unhappily married mother of two young children, a woman who like Nora a century earlier left the family home to make a new life. That said, I hope readers of Searching for Nora will discover a tale faithful to the realities of Nora’s time, faithful to the remarkably strong and modern woman Ibsen created (a character who continues to fascinate audiences 140 years later), and faithful to the universal themes of love, family, self-determination, truthfulness and forgiveness that engaged Ibsen and resonated for me.

– Wendy Swallow

Aasta Hansteen in 1863 (photogaph by A. Moestue)

Karl Johan Gate, the main street in Kristiania (earlier spelled Christiania, later renamed Oslo). Slottet, the royal palace, sits on the hill in the distance. Picture taken in 1890s. Library of Congress.

The painting below is “Stortingsplass,” painted in 1881 by Frits Thaulow. The painting depicts a square located in central Kristiania near the Norwegian Parliament (Storting) and a short distance from Karl Johan Gate.

Articles, Books and Resources About Nora’s World, In Her Day

“More on Aasta Hansteen (1824-1908),” by Jone Salomonsen (professor of theology at the University of Oslo), 2017. In 2011, the university inaugurated an annual Aasta Hansteen Lecture of  Gender and Religion.

“Sociological Theories and the Great Emigration,” by B. Lindsay Lowell, a sociologist,demographer and expert in immigration. This article on the web site of the Norwegian-American Historical Association discusses sociological theories of migration out of Norway.

The Norwegian American Historical Association  houses a rich collection of scholarly and primary works about the Norwegian American experience and history.

Novels of Norway in the 1880s and 1890s

Constance Ring, by Norwegian author Amalie Skram, published 1885.

A novel about a young Norwegian woman who sets out to divorce her society husband after she discovers his adultery, only to run afoul of the restrictions of her time.

The District Governor’s Daughters, by Norwegian author Camilla Collette, published 1855.

Set in the kind of bourgeois society Nora Helmer might have grown up in, young Sophie fall is love but is not allowed to marry the man of her choice. As marriage to a man of the right class is the only respectable option, Sophie finds herself surrounded by women made cynical by this system – disappointed wives and strange, lonely spinsters.

Hunger, by Nobel Prize winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, published 1890.

A semi-autobiographical work about a destitute writer’s collapse into madness on the streets of 1880s Kristiania (today’s Oslo), as told from deep inside the young man’s mind. One of the first psychological novels, employing internal monologue and the voice of a disturbed and unreliable narrator.

Exploring ‘All About Nora Helmer’

Return to the main page of All About Nora Helmer. Or choose one of the other features of All About Nora Helmer: The Play; Ibsen, Nora’s Creator; Nora Reimagined; or My Search for Nora.

Are You a Teacher?

Click here to request curriculum ideas pairing Searching for Nora with Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House.

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