Hating Nora Helmer

helmers

Sir Anthony Hopkins as Torvald and Claire Bloom as Nora in “A Doll’s House.”

In the great struggle for English class to remain relevant, I am sure that there are plenty of teachers who are looking to have their students read what interests them instead of required texts that we tend to refer to as “the classics”. I see the point in that; however, I have to say that I am pretty old school, meaning that I don’t want the classics to die just because they were written centuries ago and don’t feature vampires or post-apocalyptic murder contests (unless, yunno, they do). So the struggle therefore turns to not just teaching “the classics” (and yes, we can have an argument over what defines “the classics” but that’s a whole other post entirely so just go with me here), but making them relevant as well.

Like I said about Shakespeare, there has to be a reason we’re reading him 400 years after the fact or still working through The Odyssey and Beowulf even though we have a good millennium on each of those, right? Enter Henrik Ibsen and A Doll’s House. Half the audience just groaned. In fact, when I told my assistant principal that’s what we were studying when he popped into my room he said, “Yeah, that’s one I never liked.” It’s okay.

Before I started teaching it a few years ago, I hadn’t really liked it and I had read it twice. Why did I start teaching it, then? Well, it was my first year of teaching sophomores, I was in a bind as to fill up a month’s worth of classes, and the entire play happened to be in the textbook. Hold on a sec, the doorbell just rang and I think it’s an angry crowd of innovative educators carrying iPhones and iPads that are displaying pitchforks and torches. Pithy comments aside, I can understand the groaning. I mean, Henrik Ibsen isn’t exactly the type of writer who gets your blood pumping. He’s Norwegian, sure, but he lived about 800 years after the days of the vikings; his characters tend to be the uptight middle-class sorts we’ve come to expect from boring-assed 19th Century literature; and his stage directions remind us that anal-retentive does, indeed, have a hyphen. Plus the story, which was revolutionary for its time, seems pretty run-of-the-mill for modern audiences. The realism in the portrayal of the Helmers and their marriage is taken for granted by generations of people who have watched television dramas that are designed to reflect real life and real people. But as I point out, there has to be a reason that we keep reading it … and with the case of A Doll’s House, it’s two things: the main character, and the ending.

If you’re unfamiliar with the end of A Doll’s House, Nora leaves her husband, Torvald after she comes to the realization that she doesn’t really love him; and that because her father and her husband treated her like their “doll” (hence the title), she doesn’t know who she really is, only what they had molded her to be. For its time, it was controversial and I relate as much to my students, noting that the public was scandalized by the ending because women did not leave their husbands back in 1879 and if they did, they had no rights. So I pose the question: did she do the right thing?

Most of my students start the play not liking Nora very much–and they have a right to feel that way because she’s a kind of a twit at first. But as Ibsen peels away to reveal more and more about her true personality, she becomes more sympathetic and he obviously wants you to be rooting for her, especially as she shows that she obviously has the courage to stand up to Krogstad and then eventually has that moment where she can speak honestly and openly with her husband. Of course, she leaves him and for many of the kids, that’s a dealbreaker. How, they ask, could she do that, to her kids? That’s the sticking point and where the really good argument comes from. Very often, they see a reason for Nora leaving a husband whose treatment borders on–if not is–emotional/psychological abuse, they don’t understand why she left her children. I play Devil’s Advocate here and tell them that they have to wonder if she is a parent and not just their mother, epsecially since we never actually see her behave like a parent when she is around them (in fact, the most time she spends with the children in the play, she’s playing hide and seek).

This very often leads to a persuasive essay where students have to argue their opinions on whether or not she did the right thing and why. Why, of course, being the important word here–if you’re teaching the art of argument, being able to back up all of your claims with specific proof is just as important as being passionate about your point. The is significant proof on either side of the issue (and as some of my students in the past have shown, the middle) that you can get something “meaty” out of all of this. Plus, it’s relevant. It’s relevant to conversations about women’s rights, it’s relevant to conversations about divorce and its effects on a family, it’s relevant to conversations about how to tell a story that is mainly about a relationship and is far more character driven than most of the other stories or plays that my students have read. It makes drama slightly less painful and really shows the connection that what seems like a stuffy old play has to our current world.

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