Monday, February 15, 2010

Finding Your Way Around A Doll's House

So, since we're all just students of French, I thought, oh, I don't know, maybe some of you would like to have a summary of the plot of A Doll's House before we see it transformed into Maison de Poupée by Audrey Tautou. Back in the day, right about the time you were all born, I used to have to buy Cliff's Notes to get a nice, concise summary like this, but luckily we now have Wikipedia. And if you want to get a really detailed overview, check out the Spark Notes. Seriously, with resources like this, I would have graduated college with honors.

No pressure though.

A Doll's House opens as Nora Helmer is telling Helene to hide the Christmas tree. Nora is treated as a silly, childish woman by her husband, Torvald. Her friend Kristine Linde, recently widowed and short of money, has heard about Torvald's recent promotion to head the bank and comes to ask Nora for help in persuading Torvald to give her (Kristine) a job. Nora promises to ask Torvald to give Kristine a position as secretary. Nora confides to Kristine that she once secretly borrowed money from a disgraced lawyer, Nils Krogstad, to save Torvald's life when he was very ill, but she has not told him in order to protect his pride. She then took secret jobs copying papers by hand, which she carried out secretly in her room, and learned to take pride in her ability to earn money "as if she were a man." Torvald's promotion promises to finally liberate her from having to scrimp and save in order to be able to pay off her debt. However, she has continued to play the part of the frivolous, scatter-brained child-wife for the benefit of her husband.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rank, a family friend, flirts with Nora before revealing that he is terminally ill with tuberculosis of the spine (a contemporary euphemism for congenital syphilis), with only a month to live, and that he has been secretly in love with her.

Frightened after being fired by Torvald from his minor position at the bank, Krogstad approaches Nora, declaring he no longer cares about the remaining balance of her loan but will preserve the associated bond in order to blackmail Torvald into not only keeping him employed, but giving him a promotion. Krogstad informs Nora that he has written a letter detailing her crime (forging her father's signature of surety on the bond) and puts it in Torvald's mailbox, which is locked.

Nora tells Kristine of her predicament. Kristine says that she and Krogstad were in love before she married, and promises she will convince him to relent.

Torvald tries to check his mail before he and Nora go to a Boxing Day party, but Nora distracts him by showing him the dance she has been rehearsing for the party. Torvald declares that he will postpone reading his mail until the evening. Alone, Nora contemplates suicide to save her husband from the shame of the revelation of her crime, and more important to pre-empt any gallant gesture on his part to "save" her.

Kristine tells Krogstad that she only married her husband because she had no other means to support her sick mother and young siblings, and that she has returned to offer him her love again. Krogstad is moved and offers to take back his letter to Torvald. However, Kristine decides that Torvald should know the truth for the sake of his and Nora's marriage.

Back from the party, Doctor Rank gives his letters of death to the Helmers, and Nora talks to him as if nothing is going to happen. Torvald goes to check the mail; Nora does everything to stop him but fails. Torvald goes to read his letters and Nora prepares to take her life. Before she has the opportunity, Torvald intercepts her, confronting her with Krogstad's letter. In his rage, he declares that he is now completely in Krogstad's power—he must yield to Krogstad's demands and keep quiet about the whole affair. He berates Nora, calling her a dishonest and immoral woman and telling her she is unfit to raise their children. He says that their marriage will be kept only to maintain appearances.

A maid enters, delivering a letter to Nora. Krogstad has returned the incriminating papers, saying that he regrets his actions. Torvald is jubilant, telling Nora he is saved as he burns the papers. He takes back his harsh words to his wife and tells her that he has forgiven her. He also explains to her that her mistake makes her all the more precious to him because it reveals an adorable helplessness, and that when a man has forgiven his wife it makes him love her all the more since she is the recipient of his generosity.

By now Nora has realized that her husband is not the man she thought he was, and that her whole existence has been a lie. Her fantasy of love is just that—a fantasy. Torvald's love is highly conditional. She has been treated like a plaything, first by her father and then by her husband. She decides that she must leave to find out who she is and what to make of her life. Torvald insists she must fulfill her duty as a wife and mother, but Nora believes she also has duties to herself. From Torvald's reaction to Krogstad's letters, Nora sees that she and Torvald are strangers to each other. When Torvald asks if there is still any chance for them to rebuild their marriage, she replies that it would take "the greatest miracle of all": they would have to change so much that their life together would become a real marriage.

The play ends with Nora leaving, marked by a famous door slam, while Torvald hopefully ponders the possibility of "the greatest miracle of all".

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