A Clue for Torvald

         Throughout the works we have studied this semester, we have encountered numerous characters with varying degrees of neediness. Catherine needs self esteem and courage in Henry James's Washington Square (1880) and its 1949 film adaptation, William Wyler's The Heiress. She may as well have been the cowardly lion from the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming. With age and misfortune, her wizard finally came, and she was able to rid herself of Morris Townsend for good. Eliza Doolittle needs an education in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1913) and George Cukor's My Fair Lady (1964). Fate, as planned by Shaw, caused her to cross paths with "'enry 'iggins" and an education on the "proper" way to be a "lady in a flower shop" was bestowed upon her. Unfortunately we encountered one character who never obtained what was really needed to make him whole. If I could help this character and give him one gift this Christmas, I would wrap it up in a big gift package and place it under his Christmas tree. On Christmas morning, Torvald Helmer would finally be able to unwrap his gift, and he would have a clue. In Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879), filmed twice in 1973 by Joseph Losey and Patrick Garland, respectively, Torvald lives in his house as if he were a king.

         Torvald and Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), filmed in 1951 by Elia Kazan, could have made quite a pair had they ever teamed up. They could have locked themselves up in Torvald's study and strutted about, saying, "Remember what Huey Long said--'Every man is a King." Nora (Jane Fonda/Claire Bloom) and Stella (Kim Hunter) could then go to a support group together. Perhaps Christine (Delphine Seyrig/Anna Massey) and Blanche (Vivien Leigh) could go for tea, and Christine could teach Blanche about reality. Even better, let Torvald spend a week with Blanche. Then he may appreciate Nora for the woman she is instead of the "squirrel" he makes her pretend to be.

         There are many instances of Torvald's acting supreme to Nora. Torvald has always had things closed tight or locked. At the very beginning of A Doll's House, Nora enters the house and is able to sneak one last macaroon because her husband's door is closed. It is left to be wondered what Torvald is hiding. We know that Nora is playing house in Torvald's home as a child plays house at his or her mother's home. The audience is given the sense of knowing all of Nora's secrets and indiscretions. However, we never learn any of Torvald's. The man must be hiding something from us. He keeps the mailbox locked and is the only one with a key. He goes to his study and shuts the door, shutting Nora out of his life. He should not be surprised when he learns Nora has been keeping secrets. She has learned how from living in the master's house.

         Torvald obviously knows the old saying, "Children should be seen and not heard," and carries it over to his wife as well. Throughout the play, we never see Torvald with his children. Anthony Hopkins, in the Patrick Garland production, is likewise never seen with his children. It seems that he uses his wife to make up for his phantom children. Torvald does not use typical terms of endearment for his wife such as "sweetheart," "lov," "honey," or even "Nora," which is common when addressing the mother of one's children. Torvald instead uses names such as "squirrel," "featherhead," "little lark," and "little person." Torvald seems only concerned with looking at Nora and showing her off. When they arrive home to find Christine waiting, Torvald comments, "I think she is worth looking at. Isn't she charming? It seems that to Torvald, all Nora is good for is looking at.

         Torvald's final act of cluelessness is his reaction when he learns of Nora's debt and then his reaction when he learns of Krogstad's forgiving the debt. First he looks the door, which shows that now that he needs to talk to her, he will lock her into his world. Could we finally learn his secret? Next he calls her names. Then he becomes melodramatic, claiming, "Now you have destroyed all my happiness." He resorts to badmouthing her father next when he states, "No fine speeches, please. Your father always had plenty of those ready too." Finally, we learn Torvald's secret: "From this moment [. . .] all that concerns us is [. . .] the appearance." Torvald has finally admitted that he did not care for Nora at all except for how she made him look. When Krogstad's letter arrived, his reaction was, "I am saved." Nora has to ask, "And I?" As an afterthought, Torvald says, "You too, of course."

         Torvald desperately needs a clue. He is a selfish tyrant in his own home. He is incredulous that Nora has kept secrets, yet he has not allowed Nora to be a part of his life beyond her physical presence. The crowning touch on Torvald's deep cluelessness comes when Nora prepares to leave. Torvald tells her that her duties "[b]efore all else [. . .] are [to be] a wife and a mother." This comes after he told her "I shall not allow you to bring up the children; I dare not trust them to you." Torvald never got a clue. The story ends with him sinking into his chair, calling her name and then "Empty! She is gone. The most wonderful of all." The most wonderful thing Torvald could get this Christmas is a clue.

Amanda Williams

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