Should I Read the Play First?

Because my novel Searching for Nora is a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, many people have asked me if they should read the play before they read my book.

It’s a good question, and I always tell them “it depends.” It depends on whether they have seen the play or read it in the past. It depends on what they remember. It depends on how much time they have, and how much patience.

In truth, readers don’t need to read A Doll’s House before reading Searching for Nora because I wove the play’s important plot points into my novel. But I don’t want to discourage anyone from spending an evening with Ibsen’s iconic work. Though published in 1879, the play feels modern and intimate, as if you were hiding in the Helmers’ coat closet, listening in on their flirtations and fights. It’s quite interesting to hear how these two talk to one another, and how Nora talks about herself.

The play is also studded with symbols and laced with ideas that are echoed in my novel. Ibsen takes on marriage, the role and perception of women, the constrictions of society, the power of the individual to make a difference, the responsibilities we have for one another. It’s a tight, audacious examination of a troubled couple teetering on the brink of a breakdown neither anticipates or understands. And it ends with “the slam heard round the world” – Nora’s exit.

But for those who have recently read or seen the play, reading Searching for Nora should prove a richer experience. Take Ibsen’s macaroons, for example. In A Doll’s House Nora hides them in the pocket of her dress as a secret indulgence, even fingering the package as she denies eating them. Her husband Torvald isn’t fooled; he berates her gently for ruining her teeth but seems to tolerate this little rebellion. And that is the point: married to Torvald, she is allowed small rebellions but not large ones. And yet, she will rebel.

Once she does and is suddenly living alone trying to make her way in the world of my book, Ibsen’s macaroons reappear with different shades of meaning. Nora can’t indulge in sweets anymore because she has too little money. Indeed, she’s reduced to eating porridge and nokkelost, the clove-flavored cheese so common and cheap. When Dr. Rank offers her a macaroon, her first taste is like a bolt from the past, a reminder of all she lost when she left the safety and security of her marriage.

If you don’t have time to read Ibsen’s play, you can find a summary of it on my website at On that page you will also find a link to the Project Gutenberg site, which has translations of the play available for download in various formats. On the page Nora Reimagined there’s a list of movies you could try. But if you’d rather just dive into my book, that works, too.

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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