The Final Conversation in A Doll's House
Length: 1806 words (5.2 double-spaced pages)
The final scene of A Doll's House is one of the most famous and hotly debated moments in modern drama, endlessly argued about. I make no attempt here to account for all the complexities of this fascinating scene, but once again I'd like to offer some observations to fuel further discussion.
Torvald's behaviour once he reads Krogstad's letter totally demolishes the illusion Nora has taken refuge in, and the lectures he delivers to Nora at the start of the scene remind us unmistakably of what a total social prig he is, determined to salvage what he can by deception and very angry at Nora for what she has done. We are right to find what he says very offensive, especially since he makes no sympathetic attempt to talk to her, to explore her motivation, to share the crisis together as two individuals at a critical point in their lives together.
[Naturally, the staging of the first part of this scene is absolutely crucial for shaping our response to what happens later. If, for example, Torvald's angry abuse leads him to hit Nora, the impact of his tirade will be very different indeed from what it would be if we sense a genuine pain and panic under his insults, if it deflates him rather than energizing him to violence against her]
At the same time, we need to recognize that much of what Torvald says is right. If this gets out, he will be ruined. We know enough about his society to understand that the slightest accusation of criminal conduct will destroy them both (and that, we know, is so much more than just losing a job). And we have seen that for Torvald his social role is who he is, his entire identity. He has no conception of himself outside that role. So, in effect, Nora has, in his eyes, destroyed him. We may deplore the shallowness of his character, but we should not dismiss the intensity of his feelings or the accuracy of his perception of how society will react. Everything he believes in is in danger of being taken away. And that's why, once the danger has passed, he can instantly become himself again: his identity has been restored.
So when he utters (and keeps repeating) that line which so often earns a laugh in the modern theatre ("I forgive you everything") he is making (in his eyes) a sincere concession.
Since society won't know, things can remain the same, and he is prepared to interpret her actions as love for him combined with inexperience in the ways of the world, a situation he is prepared to assist her to overcome.
All this is clear enough (although we have to be careful here, I think, to listen carefully to what Torvald is saying and recognize his feelings--something not easy to do in these transformed times). The real challenge in this scene is Nora's conduct. Why does she reject Torvald so utterly? And how are we supposed to respond to her indictment of their former life together?
Prima facie, there are two ways we might initially approach Nora's conduct. We might see it as the awakening into a more mature understanding of herself, a sudden insight into the inherently unsatisfactory nature of her previous life, fuelled by an intense desire to get rid of the oppressive need to, as Nora puts it, do "tricks for you, Torvald." She accuses Torvald and her father of having done her a great wrong by not permitting her to achieve anything, and she is now determined to strike a blow to gain her own independence. Such a view commits us to a sudden transformation into a "new" woman, something many critics have found implausible (see Marker and Marker, Chapter 3).
Such an interpretation can easily become a celebration of Nora's newly found independence, an endorsement of her actions as demonstrating a valuable and necessary integrity in the face of an unacceptably conforming and compromising life. She wants her life to acquire significant value, and she has come to the realization that that can only occur outside the family, on her own.
Alternatively, we might see that Nora is being entirely intransigent here: she is doing what she has always done, performing to her own script with no attention to anyone else. She is, as it were, choosing another role. The indictment of her previous life, after all, may be more a justification for what she has decided to do now than a just assessment of what she and Torvald experienced together. That line Nora says about never being happy, only thinking she was happy, when she wasn't really, invites us to think that there is some hair-splitting chop logic going on. Nora has decided now that she wasn't happy, and so she wasn't. We need to bring to bear here our response to the opening of the play. The same point applies to her charge that her father and Torvald never loved her; they only thought it was nice to be in love with her, a fine and justified distinction or some special pleading?
In fact, we need to treat Nora's accusations with intelligent honesty. When she says, for example, that she and Torvald have never had a serious conversation together, we might want to ask why that should be the case. She brings the point up in the context of how much she has been wronged by the men in her life. But how much responsibility does she bear for what she is now desiderating? Why are Torvald and her father the only ones who bear responsibility for this? Surely if she had wanted a conversation she could have initiated one easily enough at some point in the eight years of their married life together?
But is Nora capable of a true conversation? Is she really able to bring to bear a sufficient interest in other people to listen to what they have to say, to share the conversational stage with them as equals, to make the concessions necessary if they are to enjoy some of the social space? There is very little evidence of that in the play, since Nora's idea of dealing with other people is, as I have mentioned, something different from conversation. And this final talk confirms the point. Nora and Torvald are not having a conversation, because she isn't willing to listen to him. She's made up her mind, and it doesn't really matter any more. The old game is over, and she's not willing to negotiate a new set of rules, for she's already determined what role she will now play.
And it's important also to recognize (just in case we don't) that to some extent Torvald and Nora are arguing at cross purposes. The complementary nature of their characters, something which worked so well in their marriage, here leaves them incapable of understanding one another: she cannot fathom why he must always defer to social rules, and he cannot grasp why she wants to challenge them so drastically. So there is no common ground in their understanding of the issue. This point emerges in an exchange that is probably the most quoted passage from the final scene:
TORVALD: Nobody sacrifices his honour for the one he loves.
NORA: Hundreds and thousands of women have.
This quotation has been appropriated for all sorts of ideological concerns to the point where its dramatic complexity may be overlooked. For what's evident here is that these two have radically different notions of what honour means. Torvald is saying, in effect, no man will abandon his earned social position, the public recognition he has attained, his identity in the eyes of his fellow citizens for a personal relationship. Nora's response says, in effect, hundreds and thousands of women have surrendered their integrity (their personal sense of identity, their self-generated sense of themselves) in the service of society, specifically in marriage. The impasse here points to something above and beyond the gendered vocabulary in which it is presented: the clash between different aspects of the human identity, an issue that Ibsen is not concerned to solve but which this scene serves to illuminate and explore.
In sorting our way through this final scene, we need to pay careful attention to the changes Torvald goes through. For he makes some very important offers, concessions at odds with his very conventional views of male and female roles and social rules. He travels a long way from the insufferably scared and angry prig at the beginning of the scene. He suggests they live together as brother and sister, he says he may have the capacity to change, he wants to maintain contact--he gives every indication that he loves Nora and will do anything to maintain their relationship in some form or another (and she can set the terms). Torvald is never more sympathetically presented than here. For the first time in the play he confronts his deepest feelings and tries to act on them without falling back on a shallow convention, revealing in the process an unexpected flexibility which suggests that, if Nora took him up on his offer, he might very well learn and change. And his motives here register as deeply felt feelings from within, not a concern for keeping up appearances.
Every offer is coldly denied. Nora has made up her mind: the role she is now set on playing has no room for Torvald, and that's all there is to it. She provides all sorts of reasons, but they are unconvincing as reasons (e.g., "I must try to discover who is right, society or me"). There is no rational plan at work here, no carefully thought out life direction. Nora is acting out of powerful emotional feelings about herself, shaping reasons to justify deeply irrational desires. In fact, the above remark reveals that, for all she has been through, Nora still thinks of herself apart from and, if necessary, in opposition to society, not as someone who might have to make some sort of compromise with society (of the sort Torvald is offering). Such a compromise would require her to surrender part of herself to society, and that Nora is not prepared to do, any more than she was prepared to do it when the question of committing the original forgery came up, not even if preserving total control of her life requires her to turn her back on the man who loves her and whom she loved (and on the passionate sex life they have had together) and on her children (who have never been a significant part of her sense of herself). On this view of the matter, Nora's exit serves no reasonable principle: it is a radical assertion of her own egocentricity, an ultimately selfish act.