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A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen

September 19, 2022

The wonderful thing

In Act III, near its end, Nora used for the first time the term “the wonderful thing”, which shall be repeated several times till the end:

And can you tell me what I have done to forfeit your love?
Yes, indeed I can. It was tonight, when the wonderful thing did not happen; then I saw you were not the man I had thought you were.

Throughout the play, a secret maintains its tension. In order to save her husband Helmer, Nora has obtained a loan by forging her father’s signature. Helmer doesn’t know. His self-respect wouldn’t permit. It’s impossible for Nora to tell him the truth, and the impossible weight of secret and guilt weights on her.

Nora’s knowledge is secret. She knows, besides the loan, something more about the character of Helmer. However, she cannot face nor accept this knowledge. And it’s exactly in face of this secret knowledge “the wonderful thing” becomes necessary:

When that was done, I was so absolutely certain, you would come forward and take everything upon yourself, and say: I am the guilty one.
You mean that I would never have accepted such a sacrifice on your part? No, of course not. But what would my assurances have been worth against yours? That was the wonderful thing which I hoped for and feared; and it was to prevent that, that I wanted to kill myself.

Helmer has always told Nora that he is willing to sacrifice all, all his life, his fortune and status for her sake. Yet, when the secret loan becomes known, he becomes furious and blames Nora. The opposite of what he has promised.

Nora has hoped for the wonderful thing that Helmer would in the end be willing to make a sacrifice for her. At the same time she knows that this is impossible, as she said “I knew very well that wonderful things don’t happen every day”. She fears the moment of truth: That was the wonderful thing which I hoped for and feared; and it was to prevent that, that I wanted to kill myself.

One who knows all, one who knows too much

For me, this asymmetry in knowledge is the key element of conflict of the play. We see Helmer as a man sure of himself, acting as a loving husband, an authoritative father, calling Nora by all sorts of affectionate names, my little singing-bird, etc. He believes that he knows everything useful to be known, that he is always correct, the adult, the man, the father in their relationship, the good citizen in the society, even when Nora points out the absurdities of the world:

I assure you, Torvald, that is not an easy question to answer. I really don’t know. The thing perplexes me altogether. I only know that you and I look at it in quite a different light. I am learning, too, that the law is quite another thing from what I supposed; but I find it impossible to convince myself that the law is right. According to it a woman has no right to spare her old dying father, or to save her husband’s life. I can’t believe that.
You talk like a child. You don’t understand the conditions of the world in which you live.

Helmer accuses Nora of talking like a child when it is he himself that cannot understand her conditions.

As readers, we shared the view, the knowledge of Nora. We know that she knows more than her husband. But it’s exactly her knowledge that makes her doubt. The thing perplexes me altogether.

Helmer is all too knowing, while Nora knows too much. The “shallow absoluteness of men” of Helmer makes him ignorant and innocent. While Nora suffers from her perception and insight, from the weight of her conscience. The saved is savagely ignorant and paternal. The saviour is always self-doubting and feels guilty.

As shown wonderfully in this dialogue:

No, only merry. And you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.
There is some truth in what you say—exaggerated and strained as your view of it is. But for the future it shall be different. Playtime shall be over, and lesson-time shall begin.
Whose lessons? Mine, or the children’s?
Both yours and the children’s, my darling Nora.

Figures of all-knowing: fathers, men, God, the super-ego. Helmer or King Lear. Who knows not only who they are, but what the other should do to satisfy them. The authority of all-knowing is perverse, it could never tolerate other’s independence, existence nor desires:

Better thou hadst not been born than not t’have pleased me better.

Those who knows too much: children, women, the “true self”. Nora or Cordelia. Who are suppressed for no reason other than their knowledge. Knowledge that comes from loss, injustice, violence and oppression. Knowledge that can be transformed into resistance, a liberating force, into doubts that create and answer. Knowledge being the source of courage and self-reliance.

One of my favorite passages in the play:

I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are—or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.