Friday, 26 April 2013

A Boy's House

I saw Ibsen's A Doll's House on the stage yesterday evening and feel wrung out. I had read the play and heard all about it in one or more of my university courses, but I had never seen it staged. I hadn't realized how incredibly offensive Torvald is. Of course, I had never been married when I studied the play.

The version I saw was set in Edwardian London, and it was only incidentally amusing that Edwardian London seems to have been populated by Scots. Torvald had been renamed Thomas and given the post of a Cabinet Minister. I'm not sure about renaming one of the most famously pompous husbands in world literature, but it made sense to put him in the Cabinet. I'm a little vague on the restrictions placed upon women who wanted to borrow money (essential to the plot) in Edwardian Britain, but I am willing to imagine they were not so different from those of Ibsen's Norway of 1879.

Ibsen was a genius, of course, and part of his genius was seeing things from women's point of view at a time when most men seemed psychologically incapable of doing that. Ibsen shook off any accusations (or praise) of feminism by saying that in Nora he was describing humanity. (Or so says wikipedia.) Well, good on Ibsen for noticing that a woman is a human being before she is anything else.  One can imagine Ibsen listening to a man roguishly teasing his wife about how much of his money she must have spent on Christmas tree decorations and wondering how the wife must feel. ("If it were me," I imagine Ibsen imagining, "I would want to punch him.")

Torvald (or, in this version, Thomas) is exactly the kind of man who gives his wife a hard time about how much money she has spent on Christmas tree decorations. He has no clue that his wife is actually an extraordinary good saver because (for reasons of the plot) she cannot tell him this. And because she knows what she knows, she puts up with his tsk-tsking with very good grace.

In fact, Nora spends her marriage pretending to be something she is not and is assisted in this by Torvald, who is happy to strut about, talk down to her and say such things as "You have no idea how important I really am" and "I own you." It is very important to Torvald that his wife be a sexy simpleton, and loyal Nora does her best to look like one. And, indeed, she is indeed simple in some ways: you become what you do, after all. She believes her husband loves her--after all, he keeps telling her he does--and he certainly finds her sexually attractive, and she has a gift for pretending and hiding, so she copes. And if she couldn't cope, every women in her society would assure her that of course she's not as stupid as her husband makes her out to be.

I'm trying not to put plot spoilers in here, so I will just say that Nora's big mistake is taking Torvald at his own estimation. Their family friend Doctor Rank tells her that Torvald is just a little boy at heart, and I think this is true. There is something stunted about Torvald--instead of acting like an intelligent, adult man, he acts like a boy pretending to be a man: lording it over his wife in a pompous way while completely wrapped up in his own interests, his own problems, his own friends, his own desires, and his own importance. He is also, as we discover, childishly spiteful.

Men so often exasperate women that I have counselled before that when we feel deeply resentful of them, we should try to imagine what they were like as babies or little boys. This is a variation on the "Bless their little hearts" strategy, and it's meant to get us in touch with that compassionate part of us that is also our greatest strength: motherhood. No-one on earth has as much power, emotional or physical, than a mother over her child. And no doubt that is why men really hate it when the wrong women attempt to "mother" them.

Still, I suppose it is hard to see men your own age as boys, and it is frustrating to find yourself stuck with a boy when you would rather be with a man. One of the good things about getting older is that the men my own age have had more time to grow up. Another good thing is that I see twenty-somethings from a completely different perspective. It is easier to see and remember that under the protective shell of adult masculinity, many of them are still boys with a lot to learn. And it is easier to love them for it. Twenty-something girls want twenty-something boys to be great husband-and-boyfriend material. Forty-something women just want twenty-somethings to have good manners and be reasonably amusing. Thank heavens young men are usually attracted to young women; if they weren't cougars would corner the market.

Plot spoilers ahead:

Nora's tragedy was that she was not mature enough to forgive Torvald  and accept him for the boy he still was. Her ultimate attitude was that of the teacher who flees the nastiest child in her classroom when the bell rings. Torvald's tragedy is that he did his utmost to treat Nora as a child, which prevented her from growing up enough to help him grow up. And as I once was Nora, I know what I'm talking about. The great mercy is that when I slammed the door, there weren't any real children on the other side of it.

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