Ibsen's Nora & Ours
Occasionally life provides complementary moments of experience, making it seem as though existence were not after all simply a collection of random events upon which only an unsettled mind would think of imposing order. And when one such moment takes place in the theater and the other in the serious world of political ideology, it is, at least to me, doubly pleasing; for, like all drama critics, I have sometimes wondered if there is any real interplay between the art I spend so much time thinking about and the society I spend so much effort living in.
The events I am referring to took place during April of this year. The first was a performance I attended of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; the second was a meeting, to which I had been invited, of the Theatre for Ideas, an organization that, every so often, sends out a call for intellectuals to gather and discuss the timely and timeless questions from which, for the most part, they earn their livings. Thus one night I could watch Nora set out from the Helmer household in search of experience that would allow her, as a woman, to form an identity independent of that which men had made for her, and then, hardly twenty-four hours later, I could witness the embodiment of the difficulties she must have encountered in doing so. For the subject of that particular meeting of the Theatre for Ideas was Women’s Liberation, and one definitely felt the presence of Nora’s ghost in the room as her present-day sisters insisted that not only should the doll’s house be fled but that it should also be razed and the bric-a-brac contained therein indiscriminately smashed.
Before we proceed, however, to the Noras of our time, it is best first to look closely at Ibsen’s heroine in her original setting. And here, it seems, the most important thing that one must say about her, although it may not be politic to behave as a literary historian toward a conception that can still draw cheers from an audience a century or so after her debut, is that she was not unique. One need not be tendentious in one’s reading of the literature of the 19th century to see that the abuse and misdirection of female energy concerned the best writers of the age. No one who had enough intelligence and perception to write a first-rate novel could have overlooked the discrepancies between what social custom decreed a woman should be and what, in fact, she was. Again and again male writers, who as political beings would never have tolerated John Stuart Mill’s femininist proposals, had to report, as artists, that something indeed was very much amiss with half of their society’s population. It was, after all, a Dickens character, Bella Wilfer, in Our Mutual Friend, who declared about her marriage, “I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house”; and it is apparent that David Copperfield, Dickens’s masterpiece, is mainly concerned with the search by a reasonably sensitive man for a woman with whom he can live—for a woman, that is, who has a deeper being than that which a proper English gentleman had been taught to think admirable in his bride. Then, of course, there are Thackeray, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, James—but why name every novelist of the time? It is sufficient simply to recall, in general, all those baffled and baffling child brides, all those psychologically justified adulteries, all those flights from the middle-class parlor into desperate romance, to understand that there was then a deep awareness that women and community mores were often in disastrous conflict with each other.
Now Ibsen did three things with this theme that made his work unsettling even to his sophisticated contemporaries. First, of course, he presented it from a woman’s point of view: Nora is the spokesman for her problem, not simply the effective cause of a husband’s puzzlement or society’s retribution. Second, there was no romance connected with Nora’s decision to leave husband, home, and children. She did not abandon one man for another, or even one world for a more exciting one. In fact, she had no vision of an alternative life to sustain her, and her third-act exit is deduced calmly from the injustices and degradations she has experienced as a woman in her society. In short, her decision was, for Ibsen’s time, disquietingly un-feminine and created a climate of intellectual argument rather than a feeling of sympathy for a woman’s passions. Third, she does not suffer, at least within the confines of the play, any dire consequences for this act. No judgment, artistic or moral, is passed on her, and she walks out of our view into a future that may very well be rich and happy.
It must be said, however, that for all the firmness she suddenly demonstrates in the last twenty minutes of the play, Nora is really not a person acting mainly from a general conviction. To have made her renunciation of a domestic fate a symbol for all women, Ibsen would have had to present us with a household much less biased in her favor. Had her husband, Tolvald, been something more than the pettiest of petit-bourgeois, had he been a man who loved his wife more than he did his position in society, had he, even while perpetuating a world of tarantellas and animal nicknames, stood by Nora when his authority as bank manager was threatened by the possible disclosure of her humane act of forgery—had he done these things, then, even though he did not grace Nora’s intelligence with serious talks about their lives or cease to make her imitate a squirrel each time she wanted money, Nora’s quarrel would have been clearly with society and not with a boorish intermediary. For her to earn the right to much of her farewell rhetoric, Tolvald would have to be a decent man, a man who honestly loves in the way society has trained him to. Nora’s rejection of such a man would then become the deep denunciation of tribal custom that Ibsen intended.
Both Ibsen and Nora knew that this was a problem. For Nora to have left her husband simply because he treated her with an affection she found dehumanizing, would have made her seem monstrous even in her own eyes. When she knows that the fact of her forgery is about to be revealed and that Tolvald’s love for her is going to be tested, she waits with mixed feelings for his reaction. It will be, as she says, a miracle she both dreads and hopes for, a miracle, that is, which will force upon her either a new, uncharted life or a resignation to her status as a husband’s diversion. If Tolvald stands by her, she will have no handy impetus for her departure; she will have to accept the consequences of the “miracle” and pay honor to his love for her. If, as indeed he does, he proves himself to be an example of self-centered hysteria, then she will have the justification that she needs to turn her rebellious feelings into action. Thus she and Ibsen have it both ways: a heroic finale without the unpalatable disciplines and sacrifices that generally attend such highminded moments.
Now I am not here faulting Ibsen for having written one play and not another. Indeed, the different loyalties that act upon Nora and make her treat the responsibility of being loved with ambivalence, create human subtleties that no amount of intellectual rigor could compensate for, at least in terms of effective drama. However, it is an important point to remember that in order to get Nora out of the door and into the beginnings of an emancipated life, Ibsen had to create a Tolvald, a typical 19th-century personification of sexual insensitivity and self-righteous ethics. Subtler reasons may have urged Nora on, but without Tolvald’s lamentable personality, she could never have swept off the stage so dramatically sure of herself.
Well now, a good amount of time has passed since Nora gave back her wedding ring, and we have all come to know something of what her future was like. We know of her battles to enter the political life of her society, to become part of its respected professions, to seek the knowledge contained in its universities, and to use that knowledge in ways that would be disinterestedly respected and recompensed. We have also watched her liberate whole areas of her being from constricting taboos and establish a sometimes tyrannical sovereignty over her body that often made it as much an item of politics as the minimum wage or public housing. In extreme moments, she has even dreamed of alternatives to nature itself, glimpsing a world in which men were not needed or desired, where the feminine spirit could create a new order of things, an order free of the old stultifying hierarchies, aggressions, fears, and philosophies that male-dominated history had created. And in more lucid moments, from the very depth of her intelligence, she lamented the lack of myths in her culture that offered her something other than a quietistic future, that allowed her the romance of active adventure rather than that of bedroom intrigues.
However, while Nora was expanding the vision of her self, she was also extending the memory of Tolvald, making him a universal symbol of maleness so that her cause would always have a villain on hand to lend it the drama of direct confrontation that it had in the last act of her play. Tolvaldism, she maintained, lurked within the most enlightened men, and soon she seemed to be addressing herself to little else but the dour memory of Tolvald, as though she were haunted by the simplicity in the decision he had forced her to make and wanted to perpetuate its primitive environment.
Which brings us to Town Hall and “A Dialogue of Women’s Liberation.” The announced participants for the evening were Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling, and Norman Mailer; but it is understood at these meetings that there is always another participant on hand in addition to those announced on the program: namely, the intellectual community, many of whom are expressly invited to question and probe the speakers.
This, then, was the cast for the evening, and a practiced eye should have been able to tell immediately that, given such an assembly, one would be treated to theater, perhaps, but to very few ideas. First of all, it was a bad omen to see Mailer, in the capacity of moderator, as the lone male figure on stage. Not that he hasn’t written with a certain brilliance about women and their present political movement; but his views on the subject are extremely personal and full of crotchets, making them useful only in terms of a literary sensibility in pursuit of apposite and memorable metaphors. A man, for example, who has taken a public stand against birth control, for whatever life-enhancing reasons, is in a fragile position at such a gathering. A man who, in print, has referred to his sexual member as the “retaliator” has hardly any position at all. Most men, after all, go through life with penises unburdened by such Homeric epithets, and it would have been better, in the spirit of frank dialogue, to have found a phallic neutralist to moderate the proceedings so that, from the very beginning, a great deal of glib hostility could have been done away with.
But the evening had been pointedly arranged for squabbling. Even the women on stage had been especially chosen for the differences among them that might prove abrasive. There was the movement’s liberal wing, for example, represented by Jacqueline Ceballos; Germaine Greer was present for the more radical tastes; Jill Johnston stood up for the lesbians’ splinter party; and Diana Trilling maintained the conservative balance. With so much internecine warfare possible, it was unlikely that anything approaching a dialogue would result.
However, all might have been forgiven in the name of theatrical excitement, had the theatricality not smacked of last century’s melodrama. For all the racy modernism that some of the speakers affected in their language and attitudes, one still had the feeling that they considered themselves saucy gadflies in a Victorian drawing room. Their arguments and social proposals were directed at imaginations bound as firmly by convention as Nora’s abandoned husband’s, and the details of their polemics produced propositions and images which only that benighted paterfamilias could have, in his untutored guilt, considered true, or, in his Nordic provincialism, found shocking.
I will begin an account of the evening with the one exception to the above judgment: Diana Trilling, referring to Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex1 tried valiantly to set up an area of discussion that would investigate the tension between the demands of the body and those of the spirit. Her thesis, that a realistic balance must be maintained between biology and political aspiration, while not startlingly original, nevertheless did have the advantage of dealing with reality. Also, it was good to hear her attack some of the more meretricious propaganda connected with Women’s Lib—e.g., the denial of the existence of the vaginal orgasm—and chastise the movement for taking advantage of the sexual ignorance that, she rightly stated, was still too prevalent in our supposedly enlightened age. But Mrs. Trilling was, unfortunately, no match for the flashy showmanship of her fellow panelists and the emotional fundamentalism of that part of the audience to which they catered. For example, Mrs. Trilling had stated that though she respected Freud, she did not venerate him and took from his works only what her own experience had taught her was correct. Later Germaine Greer, justifying some Freudian borrowings in her book, The Female Eunuch, to which Diana Trilling had made reference, stated that she, too, “took what was useful from Freud and left the rest.” “I never said that,” countered Mrs. Trilling, who then tried to make a distinction between appropriating what is politically useful and accepting that which seems intellectually valid. But she had no chance. Miss Greer’s followers were already shouting their approval of their leader’s turn of phrase and shallow honesty.
The evening’s first speaker, Jacqueline Ceballos, more or less set the intellectual tone for what was to come. Bubbling with facts and visions everyone present must have heard a thousand times before, she began, in the manner of a country-club committee woman presenting an agenda for a really different costume party, to outline the world that would come with full female liberation. It would contain bright, ebullient young women, who had never played with dolls or accepted the virtues of passivity, going out to take their rightful place in the society’s bureaucracy—having, of course, along the way, dropped off their sons and daughters at a child-care center. It would be a world of paid vacations for housewives, and salaries, not doles, for their smoothly maintaining the domestic rhythms of the home. It would be a world, in short, where precise calculation would be given to all activity and a price fixed accordingly.
Now even Tolvald was willing to give women responsible jobs at his bank, and I’m sure that he would have found Miss Ceballos’s predictions not at all disquieting. After all, they more or less perpetuate a world he was very much at home in, a world of work and economic bickering that could easily be persuaded, in the names of profit and progress, to eradicate all sexual distinctions. Mailer addressed his best question of the night to this problem when he asked Miss Ceballos what there was in her New Jerusalem that would make it any less boring than our present workaday world. But such basically human queries seem as alien to the mind of a Jacqueline Ceballos as they would have been to Tolvald’s, and her response was simply that it was men who made the world tedious.
If there was tedium about in the hall, it was definitely Jill Johnston’s objective to harry it. For well more than her allotted ten minutes, she read a list of freely-associated images designed to extol the state of lesbianism and to prove that, to varying degrees, we are all homosexuals. And if the text of her speech was not shocking enough to discomfit Tolvald, or if his morally-cramped brain wasn’t up to picturing just what it was she had in mind, Miss Johnston then went on to provide an ostensive definition of homosexual practice. Joined by a pretty girl and a morose-looking tertium quid from the audience, she treated us to some minutes of á trois tumblings on the floor and then to a wordless, beatific exit. Tolvald, I’m sure, might have experienced an occasional lascivious frisson watching the scene, but then he didn’t live when such affectionate behavior might be glimpsed for a quarter on any one of a thousand bookstore movieolas.
If Jill Johnston and Jacqueline Ceballos were less than flattering in their estimates of what an impartial mind could assimilate that evening, Germaine Greer was downright insulting. She began her talk on a high level by questioning our civilization’s image of the artist and its attitudes toward his work. In place of the self-consumed Faustian ego of the West’s traditional creator, she posited the modest anonymity of those artisans who erected Chartres, and she looked forward to the day when men and women could selflessly create, without hurting one another by their aspirations, the forms and symbols of their society.
With this, there is no quarrel. One can only wonder what faith will sustain these self-effacing artists that has a force equivalent to that which elicited anonymous offerings from geniuses of the Middle Ages. However, what followed this questioning of the relation of the artist to his society was truly remarkable. Suddenly, we were being told that the image which men throughout history had created of woman was either that of a goddess or that of an aproned scullion, and because of this conception, it was difficult for women to believe themselves capable of creating a work of art.
Now is it possible that someone of Miss Greer’s intelligence and scholarship could really believe, after studying the art, plays, poetry, and novels of her culture, something so crude? Is the scullion/ goddess image all that she has honestly been able to glean from Catullus’s Lesbia to Joyce’s Molly Bloom? I cannot believe that any more than 1 can believe that she really cared to whom she was speaking. She had her party line and she was determined to deliver it, even if this meant equating Tolvaldism with the collective mind of Western civilization.
Finally, what one really learned from the meeting in Town Hall was that, though they protest the doll’s house, most of the Women’s Lib leaders want to continue living in it, at least for the purposes of debate. They envy the original Nora’s clear and distinct choices and her simpleminded adversary. They want a Tolvald to excoriate and argue with, so they make a Tolvald of all men. Of the deep complexities of passion, of the forces of instinct, of the bondage to nature, of the shadings of desire—of all the joyful and terrible realities with which human beings deal when their consciousnesses have truly been raised, there is no mention at all in official feminist programs. What one seems to be getting instead, and what one certainly got that evening at the Theatre for Ideas, was dogma of such superficiality that, should it encounter the Marquis de Sade, it could do no more than classify him a male chauvinist. Even Nora, a century ago, would have known better than that.
1 Little, Brown, 240 pp., $5.95.