Recently I had the chance to see a production of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. In many ways, it was looking at a time capsule, with the social conventions of Ibsen’s time being very different than our own, and yet the characters weren’t very dissimilar to people we know now. All the main characters give us fascinating personal stories and provide a lot of reflection material about the justice of human relationships.
The role of religion in A Doll’s House is understated and yet omnipresent. Norway of 1879, like most of Scandanavia, was predominantly Lutheran and this is the religious mindset behind the play. Nora and Torvald, shows a difference in attitude that goes beyond social expectations of man and wife, especially in their faith formation and how faith motivates them.
Nora hasn’t seemed to think much about her faith since her confirmation, as she reveals in the last scene. This would probably have been the memorization of the answers to the questions in Luther’s Lesser Catechism. Catechism done this way usually doesn’t leave room for the journey between the questions and the answers, or consider how to handle grey areas. The events of Nora’s life to date haven’t given her cause for further reflection up to the point she decides to leave Torvald, presumably with the anxiety over raising money for their trip to Italy and keeping her great secret while managing a struggling household with small children, she hasn’t taken time to explore her relationship with God. The death of a close relative frequently opens the question of God’s goodness, as does financial difficulties, but evidently her standardized role as wife and mother dominate her attention enough she never steps back, until the great crisis of the play.
Torvald is more educated: he’s described as a lawyer and there are a couple of hints he was going into the ministry. Managing a bank was a responsibility not given lightly in that time and place. This would have meant more depth study of theology, but not theological reflection connected to his personal life. Theological study in the mid 19th century was beginning to benefit from the application of scientific methodology in the interpretation of texts and increasing access to primary sources. It could also be preoccupied with theory and give almost no thought to application. Torvald knows what’s Right and Wrong, and he’s aware of his reputation and dignity: these are his main motivations. His reference to religion is a means to keep Nora in line could be called Orthopraxy, the need to do the right things to be seen. The concern about his children’s education is part of his role as father, and since he considers Nora his student, he’s embracing the role husband and father as teacher implied by 19th century Norwegian Christian culture.
Society of that time used Christianity as proof text for its standards. Forgiveness, generosity and concern are biblical standards present in that worldview, but the Bible was also used rationale to justify oppression without reference to the dignity of all human life in Christ. The notion that a wife was property of her husband predated Christianity in northern Europe, and just as Scripture was used to justify human slavery it was used to justify this system. Ephesians 5:25 says: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her. . .” For this culture, this understanding of Christ love and care would be in the mode of a contemporary monarch rather than the Savior who washed his Disciples’ feet and emptied himself for all, so men saw loving their wives as an exercise of monarchal authority rather than a call to unselfish service. He wouldn’t have thought of washing his wife’s feet, or putting her needs before his own; like most men of his time, it wouldn’t have hit his radar.
That’s the danger of using Faith to prop up who we think we should be: the house can disintegrate, and the support beams are useless. Religion may help support society values, but if society is the one setting the values, then religion is diminished and emptied. When the dollhouse burns the blackened frame can still be there, but it’s holding up nothing.
Faith values only have power if the individual or the society is willing to put them first and conform their wants and values accordingly. Faith values are about helping individuals and societies becomes their best selves, which human beings are ingenious in circumventing. Faith values also help us process crises in a manner that respects the dignity of all, rather than blindly reinforcing stereotypes.
The relationship Nora and Torvald have isn’t about love. Marital love happened in the context of this society and this kind of relationship, but it really hadn’t developed here. Torvald cares for Nora as he does a doll or other possession; Nora’s care of Torvald is out of loyalty to her provider and protector. There is no mutual trust, no real empathy, no mutual respect for each other’s feelings. There’s no real romance, either: that impulse seems to be a one way street which was condoned by that culture.
In the end, neither Nora or Torvald are able to process their issues through the eyes of faith because in many ways their faith is superficial, routine and ossified. Nora is able to give herself to the needs of her relationships with her men but refuses to process the moral consequences; Torvald is obsessed with the moral consequences of actions but refuses to process the nature of his relationships and how he should be committed to them. They have tragically complimentary blind spots, and both are lost in the superficial aspects of their lives until the threat of blackmail jars things apart. At a time they need deep understanding and insight, they are missing the tools a reflected faith can supply. Neither are able to seek for their answers in the life of Christ, because they have no experience looking there. They assumed their culture has told them everything about faith they needed to know, and that source was insufficient.
The fascinating aspect of A Doll’s House is the long term ending is unclear. It’s not likely the couple will reunite, although Nora is able to see the dim possibility if they’re each able to outgrow their limitations and start afresh. The play leaves them at the starting point of their self-discovery, and leaves us with the reminder that we are in the midst of ours. The play doesn’t need to give us answers: answers to deep issues of human existence have to be discovered within ourselves through our reflection on our lives, through how we connect theory and practice, faith and reason, and Ibsen is perceptive enough not to do that for us. Faith couldn’t help Nora or Torvald because they didn’t or couldn’t go deep enough; it can help us in our lives if we can go deeper. It can also teach us the real value of mutual sacrifice that 19th century culture reflected only dimly.