Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House may be 140 years old but this story of a failed marriage still commands our attention. According to the Center for Ibsen Studies in Oslo, it’s the second most-produced play in the world after Hamlet. A recent sequel play, Doll’s House Part Two, is now playing in regional theaters across the country, many of which are also staging revivals of Ibsen’s play, and several adaptations of A Doll’s House are currently in theaters around the world. What explains the power of this story?
I’ve spent the last decade writing my own sequel to A Doll’s House, a novel set in Ibsen’s Norway and 1880s America, and I can tell you this: Ibsen’s play resonates for audiences today because many modern women face the very same questions Nora confronted, questions of love, self-determination and family. Yes, we have more rights and opportunity than Nora, but we often grapple with the same difficult choices that Ibsen throws at Nora’s feet.
A Doll’s House is about the breakup of two people who thought they were in love. For modern society, the specter of divorce looms large, even for couples that stay together. Their friends divorce, their aging parents divorce – it seems like it can happen to anyone. Even the best marriages struggle between idealized perceptions and stark reality—one of Ibsen’s favorite themes. As we watch his play unfold, we recognize the Helmers’ games and vanities, as well as the corrosive power their individual secrets. And yet, like us, the Helmers are fairly normal people – admired by their neighbors, trying to do their best but stumbling over the vicissitudes of life. They are not evil or bad; they just want different things. In significant ways, we are all the Helmers.
We also understand Nora’s longing to be more than just a wife, her hunger to choose her own life instead of fitting into her husband’s. Women in oppressive partnerships often find ways of to develop their own agency, and when Nora breaks the law to save her husband’s life (against his wishes), we get it. And when she doesn’t get credit, and is treated as a criminal instead of a hero, we get that, too. Self-determination can be a minefield; most modern women know that and recognize Nora’s efforts as kindred to their own.
And when Nora must leave her children behind as she walks away from her marriage, we understand that as well, even as our hearts break. Those of us who have divorced often lose time with our children; that’s just a reality of gender-neutral custody law. In Nora’s day, she would have had no legal right to care for her children, and in some parts of the world that is still true for mothers. Nora must leave her children because her lifeboat is only big enough for her. In the end, she chooses her own survival over the needs of her children. Unfortunately, there are still many women among us who face this difficult choice, especially those who fear they will not survive if they stay in a troubled or abusive marriage.
I believe A Doll’s House still resonates with audiences for the simple reason that the revolution Ibsen started with Nora’s famous “slam heard ‘round the world” isn’t finished. In fact, there is much more work to do before all women are free to pursue their own self-determination while still caring for their children and getting a second chance at love. And we must recognize that all women today, despite our rights and opportunities, still stand on shifting ground. This is what Turkish writer Elif Shafak means when she says: “As societies slide backwards into authoritarianism, nationalism or religious fanaticism, women have much more to lose.” Go reread Ibsen’s famous play, or try my sequel novel Searching for Nora to see what Nora might have done with her independence. What Ibsen unleashed still echoes with potent themes.
By Wendy Swallow, March 8, 2020 (International Women’s Day 2020)
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