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Literature Spotlight: Nora Grows Up

Since I've been tutoring English literature students, I've noticed a pattern: every time we read a book that I remember reading in my high school classes, I enjoy it far more as an adult than I ever did as a teenager. Time and time again I pick up a book I remember hating in class, resigned to slog through it and discuss metaphor and symbolism with my student, only to find that I thoroughly enjoy it. Each time I come out of the unit with a fresh new appreciation for the work in question. As this happens more and more I've come to the conclusion that there are whole worlds of theme and subtext in many novels that are only apparent to a reader who has reached adulthood, because they require the reader to have experiences beyond those of an average high-school student. In today's Literature Spotlight I'd like to illustrate this point using a recently-transformed work for me, A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. One of the main themes in A Doll's House is the idea of Nora's reluctance to grow up. This theme and all of its associated points are much more clearly apparent if the reader has already had the experience that Nora is undergoing.

One main point associated with this theme of growing up is the idea that actions have consequences. Specifically, that borrowing money creates a responsibility to the lender. A healthy borrowing relationship relies on a level of respect for the lender. Early in the play, while talking obliquely about the idea of borrowing money, Nora and her husband Torvald have this exchange:


Torvald: Yes, but what about the people who had lent it?
Nora: They? Who would bother about them? I should not know who they were. (P. 6)


This idea that she does not even care who is lending her the money is troubling, and indicates that she is only concerned about being able to maintain her perfect home. If that means she needs more money for fancy clothing or Christmas presents, then she'll simply borrow it from next month's paycheck. When questioned about what she would do if he suddenly dropped dead and there was no next month's paycheck, her response is simply “If that were to happen, I don't suppose I should care whether I owed money or not.” (P. 6) The hypothetical becomes real when Nora borrows money from Krogstad. As expected, she has no respect for him at all, even though she knows exactly who is lending her the money. When he challenges her to think of his family, she waves the issue aside. This resistance to thinking about money realistically is just one illustration of Nora's reluctance to accept the responsibilities of being an adult.

In many households, teenagers are given an allowance or allowed to use their parents' credit card and very little consequences are present for wild spending. Teenagers do not have to pay bills or make mortgage or car payments, and so the idea that borrowing money is a responsibility is harder for them to understand. By and large, they are not as aware of the lender/borrower dynamic because their primary lender is the “bank of Dad” and he is likely to forgive them rather than insist on consequences. Compare Nora in Act 1 to the average teenager. When Nora begs Torvald for money at the beginning of the play, her dialogue is very reminiscent of a child begging for an advance on their allowance. The relationship between Torvald and Nora at this point is far more parent and child than it is husband and wife, which ties back in to the central idea that Nora is Torvald's plaything. But this relationship is difficult for teenagers to recognize as unusual, since the play is primarily from Nora's point of view and Nora's part of the relationship is the part that teenagers tend to inhabit with their parents. Only with a bit of distance does it become apparent how strange it is that a married couple would have such a dynamic.

A second point associated with the main theme of growing up is the idea that life is complicated and messy. At the start of the play, Nora has been relatively successful at maintaining her idyllic life. She twitters about, singing like a skylark, and when problems begin to arise, she tries desperately to cling to her carefree life. Two symbols used in the expression of this theme are the Christmas tree and the fancy dress-ball. When confronted with impending problems Nora fusses over the tree, the dress, and the tarantella to distract her from dealing with them. She believes if she can just get the tree to look perfect, everything will be fine, and clings desperately to that belief even as her mountain of secrets and lies begins to crumble down around her.

Nora often talks about how wonderful it would be to have lots of money and not have to worry about anything. Clearly, she is aware on some level that she's not approaching these issues in a useful way, but she resists changing because that would mean acknowledging the possibility that her life is not really as happy as she believes it to be. She wants everything to work itself out so she can go back to playing with the children and being carefree, but life doesn't work that way, and sooner or later you have to confront the hard problems. This concept probably goes over most teenagers' heads because they are still living at home with their parents. Most parents try very hard to give their children an idyllic life; they'll conceal financial realities from their kids and try their hardest to give off a carefree appearance. Parents want to shelter their kids from the harsh reality of life – but those kids will be adults soon and they will have to learn the truth one way or another. At some point, everyone has to come to the realization that their life is not as perfect as they once thought it to be. For most high-school readers, however, this realization won't happen for several more years, and the theme is more easily apparent to a reader who has already gone through the process.

In Act 3, Nora forces Torvald to have a hard conversation, and then decides that she needs to leave him, if only for now. This is Nora having that realization – life is messy, and marriage is more than just flitting around like a songbird dressing the Christmas tree and playing hide-and-seek with the children. Two statements in her conversation with Torvald illustrate the thoroughness of her realization. The first is when she states, “You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.” (P. 191) Couldn't that sum up an incredible number of high-school romances! This statement shows a maturity of thought and emotion on Nora's part that is rare in the still-developing brain of a teenage high-school student. Loving someone is more than just being in love with them. It's about accepting another person into your life, faults and all, and working continually to improve each other in an equal and fair relationship. Nora received none of this from Torvald, nor did she give it. Teenagers having little or no experience with deep and loving relationships may be confused by her statement, but to the married adult, who understands that marriage is more about standing in line at Home Depot than it is about grand and romantic gestures, her comment makes a great deal of sense.

The second statement comes when she tells Torvald, “No, I have never been happy...only merry.” (P. 192) She has realized that flitting around like a songbird is not the same as being truly content with her life. Real happiness is the conscious knowledge that you are being true to yourself and are in the place you would like to be, professionally and personally. Nora realizes that she's been nothing but a doll to her husband, and her father before him, and that she needs to go off on her own and find out who she is. This is Ibsen's brilliant depiction of the experience of waking up one morning realizing you're unhappy with your life and you need to make a change – quit your job, travel the world, and figure out what things and people you need in your life to be happy. This sort of soul-searching happens a lot in college and the years soon after, so once again, the average high-school student would not have had this experience.

Nora through the course of this play displays a process of emotional maturing reminiscent of a young adult going through college and a first job, figuring out what they want to do with their life and who they are as a person. High-school students have not yet gone through that process, so it's harder for them to see the significance of those moments in the context of the play. This is just one example; many novels have themes that share similar qualities of life experience, and are better appreciated as adults than as teenagers. We tend to forget that a teenager's brain, physiologically, is not finished developing yet, and new connections and pathways will continue to emerge until well into adulthood. Other novels that have given me this experience upon rereading with students include The Good Earth and The Scarlet Letter. So a final note to all my adult readers: give those old high-school novels another shot. You just might find that you thoroughly enjoy them as adults.

Comments

Ellen, what a great blog entry. I, too, have experiences the same thing! Also, many of my students have introduced me to new works, and classics I had not yet read. What a wonderful experience to use the literary analysis skills gained during my academic career to guide them through whole new wonderlands! Sometimes, I feel that we were given the experience of these novels to teach us the template for analysing literature, not as a way to understand it at the moment, but as a sort of time-release capsule that needed life experiences and personal hardships to bring it to bloom. Again, kudos on your amazing insights!
Thanks!  Glad you enjoyed it!  I appreciate your comments about learning how to analyze literature - I definitely agree.
On one level, I agree with all your statements about Nora, and your insights about teens and adult experiences is very helpful, but, for me, Nora was a tragic figure. She was trapped by the social constraints of a her world, where women had no money, no power except that which was given by men. Yes, she lied, and she committed a crime, but she was a victim, not the flitting, mindless creature that she seemed. Ibsen portrayed her in an  unsympathetic light, I believe, to showcase the inequalities that all women of the times suffered.
 
Some suffered more than others, and to be sure, Nora's life seemed comfortable as it was portrayed in the beginning, but a caged bird can never feel free. She was a materialistic being, but she was forced to be so. Think of Jane Austen's women characters, always scheming about money because they had no power, no control over their futures except through men.
 
Also, I never believed that she "left" Torvald. I believe she killed herself; the shame she brought upon her husband and her family was too much to bear. 

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