Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.
If you have a soft spot for drama (theatrical, not high school), then you’re probably familiar with Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll House. Written in the 1800s, this masterpiece was praised by audiences and critics alike. After studying it for my drama class in the last week, I noticed some points about Torvald Helmer—one of the characters—that I never really thought about before.
WARNING: Editorial of character contains major spoilers.
The story of A Doll House takes place in the Helmer household and centers on Torvald’s wife, Nora. When you watch the two in the beginning of the play, they appear very happy and playful on the surface. Their marriage works a lot like a system; she’s the little lark that patters around, entertains him, and boosts his ego, while he’s a vending machine who gives her whatever she wants as long as she hits his buttons just right. One day, Nils Krogstad—an employee of Torvald—drops by to visit and pleads for Nora to help him keep his job. He reminds her that she forged her father’s signature so that she could borrow money to save her husband’s life. Krogstad uses this information to blackmail her, saying that if he can’t keep his job, then he’ll tell Torvald that she’s guilty of forgery.
So naturally, Nora tries to convince Torvald not to fire Krogstad, which he ends up doing anyway. Krogstad leaves a letter for Torvald in response, explaining Nora’s deed. Nora tries to prevent Torvald from finding the letter, but eventually caves at the end of the play. Despite the fact that she only did it to save his life, Torvald criticizes her for having no morals and ruining his life and happiness. Torvald’s outburst following the truth coming out makes Nora realize how fractured her marriage is. And—even after Krogstad sends another letter promising to keep her secret, and even after Torvald is no longer angry at her—she leaves her husband for good. Since Torvald spent the entire play calling her a squirrel and implying that her supposed stupidity makes her attractive, naturally, audiences cheer when the slamming of the door signals the end of the play.
According to my professor, this play is a satire of a melodrama. A melodrama is essentially a damsel-in-distress story, complete with the everyday stereotypical characters that I’ve decided to nickname Count Rodolpho (the villain), Bella Swan (the woe-is-me leading lady), and Hercules (the boneheaded hero). Krogstad is the Count Rodolpho, Nora is the much more sympathetic—not to mention likeable—version of Bella Swan, and Torvald is supposed to be Hercules. I say ‘supposed to be’ because, as fans of the play know, Torvald is more of a jerk than Krogstad. He spends the entire play belittling Krogstad and Nora, while at the same time boosting his own ego. So his outburst at the end reveals that he’s nothing more than a one-dimensional sexist pig who deserved to be deserted.
Or…is he really? Is there more to Torvald’s character than what meets the eye?
To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a look at the climax—more specifically, what happens right before the climax. Torvald takes his mail out from the mailbox (including the letter from Krogstad) and among the other letters he finds one from his best friend, Dr. Rank, informing him that his sickness is going to kill him. Torvald turns to Nora for comfort, and then he says this: “You know what, Nora—time and again I’ve wished you were in some terrible danger, just so I could stake my life and soul and everything, for your sake.”
Wait a minute. If he’s mourning the coming death of his best friend, why in the world would he say that? It seems like such a line would be out of place under those circumstances, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, these are the last words out of his mouth before Nora tells him to read the rest of his mail—including Krogstad’s letter. And then we have Torvald’s outburst, where he accuses Nora of being a liar and a ‘featherbrained woman’ who ruined his happiness. Following his angry words is Krogstad’s second letter. When Torvald’s fright is over, he goes right back to treating Nora like a damsel-in-distress, telling her he would care for her “like a hunted dove he saved from a hawk’s claw” and a lot of other BS that—let’s face it, people—no self-respecting woman would hear from her significant other without rolling her eyes.
Now, maybe I’ve watched too much Dr. Phil, but I just find this really fascinating. He talks the talk of a hero, but never once has he walked the walk. I mean, here is a chance for him to be Nora’s knight in shining armor and support her, and he blows it faster than you can say “Bob’s your HMO, not your uncle.” Nora even tells Torvald when breaking up with him that she hoped he would’ve been willing to give up his honor for her. And in response to hearing what Nora had hoped for, Torvald says that no man would give up honor. But sometimes, being a hero involves sacrificing something dear to you for the sake of salvaging what’s important. I mean, think about it. The people we call heroes have been doing that in fiction and in real life since the dawn of time. Katniss Everdeen gave up her freedom for her sister. Fantine gave up her dignity to support her child. Martin Luther King Jr. gave up his life for the Civil Rights Movement. And God gave up his own son for us. Torvald gave up nothing. So if Torvald can’t be a hero for Nora, why does he constantly talk about it, like he would do it if he could?
Let’s take a look at the story again. Almost everything he says either brings himself up or tears someone else down. He vocally dehumanizes Nora—to her face, mind you—by calling her things like “my little lark” and “my little squirrel.” In fact, the only time I’ve seen him regard Nora as a human being before the climax is when he calls her “my darling wife,” and even then, the word ‘my’ is still attached. He criticizes Krogstad for having no morals—even though Torvald himself is “moralistic rather than moral.” Torvald even takes a jab at Nora’s childhood friend Mrs. Linde, saying “she’s a deadly bore, that creature.”
Now, you might be asking why I’m taking an interest in someone who seems like a one-dimensional bully. Well, here’s a crazy idea that more authors should think about: Maybe Torvald isn’t just a one-dimensional bully. Maybe there’s a psychological explanation to his behavior. In Samantha Anderson’s blog post “The Relationship Between Insecurity and Self-Righteousness,” the author brings this up:
“What often happens when we’re not okay with being ourselves is we try to make ourselves appear better than we feel. Either through our acts or our words or our physical appearance. Or all of those things. And sometimes we even couple that with making others look or feel worse than us. Or sometimes, we just do it in our minds. We judge people. We see ourselves as better than others.”
I think that’s what’s going on with Torvald. He’s only as confident as he is pathetic. He’s only as heroic as he is insecure. No one else—aside for Nora, as part of the system—is telling him that he’s worth anything, so he compensates for it by continually deflating other peoples’ ego balloons and inflating his own. Things don’t always go his way, so he has to control whatever he can, including his own family. Why doesn’t he divorce Nora when he’s so angry with her? He has no control over Krogstad, who can dangle the secret crime over his head, so he has to control Nora. He can’t save his best friend from dying, so he openly wishes that he had an opportunity to save Nora somehow. He can’t think positively of himself, so he has Nora doing that for him—until, as we know, she leaves him in the end. This doesn’t excuse anything he’s done; it just makes the character more sympathetic and more of a person.
The cause behind Torvald’s insecurities is a whole other argument. And if you see his character differently, who am I to stop you? For me, it makes Nora’s final words to him all the more significant: “you and I would both have to transform ourselves to the point where our coming together would be a true marriage.” They both have to change and grow in their own ways. Nora has a lot to figure out, and she knows that she has to do it on her own. For Torvald, I don’t think it’s enough to just stop treating Nora like a child and start treating her like an adult. He needs to learn for himself that it’s better to be concerned about others rather than himself. Because, as Mrs. Linde puts it perfectly in the third act, “to work only for yourself—there’s no joy in that.”
Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”
A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen
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