What Happens to Nora Helmer?

 

dolls house, nora helmer, searching for nora, henrik ibsen, theater, norway

Actress Betty Hennings in Copenhagen, 1879. National Library of Norway

When I went to Norway to research my novel Searching for Nora – a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s famous play A Doll’s House – I was curious to know what Norwegians thought of Nora Helmer. Nora, the character at the center of Ibsen’s drama, is a powerful but contradictory woman. She’s at turns silly, conniving, loving, manipulative, charming and desperate. She’s trying to avert a disaster but events slip from her control and, as the curtain falls, she walks out on her husband and family with a slam of the door. It’s one of the most famous moments in modern drama, known in theater circles as “the slam heard ’round the world.” And it leaves many questions.

My novel starts with Nora on the other side of that door. It’s very late on a frigid December night in 1879. She has no right to property or to her children, little money and no plan. So, what will happen to her?

In Norway I met with Ibsen scholars and Norwegian historians, and most of them had a theory about Nora. Several said she probably went back to her husband, Torvald; others thought she became an actress; some suggested she might have become a mistress to someone famous; others said perhaps she went to Denmark or Italy, where mores were looser, possibly remarrying or setting up with someone. One person thought she became a feminist activist. In my novel Nora explores many of these alternatives.

As Searching for Nora is fiction, I knew I could take Nora wherever I wanted –to hunt lions in Africa, to serve as a missionary in China, to stay in Kristiania living underground and rallying other feminist thinkers.

But when I looked at what was happening in Norway at that time, and at what Ibsen himself said about Nora, I realized it was more interesting to imagine her future within the parameters of both history and Ibsen’s vision. And when I did, several conclusions seemed inescapable.

First, I was pretty sure Nora would wake up the next morning and deeply regret leaving her three small children behind. Under the law at that time, Torvald would have had full responsibility for the children and could block her from seeing them. So she had few alternatives.  But I believed her choice would eat at her and become something she had to fix.

I also believed that few people in her world would have understood why she walked out. I knew this from reading about the reaction to Ibsen’s play when it first premiered. Men were deeply offended that Nora left her husband, and most women were horrified that she left her children.  (The women might have understood her leaving Torvald, but not the children.) This helped me imagine how Nora’s community might have ostracized her. She would have lost her place in society and been shunned. A woman so tainted by scandal would have been toxic.

The uncomfortable truth was that most of Nora’s contemporaries would have assumed she left Torvald for another man. That was almost invariably the case when a society woman left her husbands. Ibsen, writing and commenting about the play later, made it clear that Nora went alone – that was the radical step she took. But I was fairly sure many in her circle would not have believed it. Under the law at the time, the courts would have assumed she was an adulterer. That’s why she would have been blocked from seeing her children.

She also would have been in danger. By leaving Torvald, she had lost her protector and provider.  She had probably never been outside at night unaccompanied before, and would have been easy prey for nefarious men. If she didn’t partner up with another man, she would have had to learn how to be obscure, because that was the only way she would have been safe. It occurred to me that widowhood might have given her obscurity.

Most importantly, to keep a roof over her head she was going to have to earn money, somehow. Nora most likely had a finishing school education and would have been proficient at sewing, though probably mostly decorative work like embroidery and lace-making. Given her skills, Nora could have taught school or worked as a companion or governess, but with the cloud of scandal around her, it would have been hard for her to get such jobs. She might have done sewing as piece work, or copied documents for businesses, something Ibsen has her doing secretly in the play as she struggles to avert a financial crisis. She was probably too well-bred to be hired as a store clerk, a servant or a factory worker. In truth, her choices would have been very limited.

These constraints set up a grim picture: Nora would have to figure out how to survive on her own, with little more than her wit, her knowledge and her will. But she has quite a will.

I hope you will enjoy reading Searching for Nora and learning what happens to Nora.

 

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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