The Truth About Lies

Sir Walter Scott once wrote, "Oh what a tangled web we weave,/When first we practice to deceive!" A perfect example of this idea is illustrated in Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House, filmed twice in 1973 by Joseph Losey and Patrick Garland, respectively.

The first deceiver is Nora (Claire Bloom/Jane Fonda). Nora is a beautiful, frivolous young woman. She is married to Torvald (David Warner/Anthony Hopkins). Nora loves her children and appears to be a submissive wife according to the conventions of the day. After a bit of observation, it is very clear Nora knows how to manipulate Torvald and is not as obedient as she appears. Torvald does not want Nora to eat sweets, but she delights in hidden macaroons. Nora gushes and makes cute noises to get Torvald to do things her way. But these are common games played among couples. There is more to Nora beneath the surface. Just as a spider's web is a thing of intricate beauty but deadly to the unwary fly, Nora has a secret that is bound to cause pain.

We learn of this secret when Nora confesses to her friend Christine (Delphine Seyrig/Anna Massey). Nora had forged her father's signature in order to get money to take Torvald to a warmer climate. He was deathly ill but refused to borrow money to save his life. Nora is naïïve in the ways of business but was determined to save her husband's life. In her mind, it was worth the risk because Torvald recovered. Money is tight in their household, and Nora had learned that when one borrows money, she must make quarterly payments and pay interest. She had tried to stretch her household allowance as far as it would go, but it was not enough. Nora got work doing copying and lied to Torvald about how she spent her time in the evenings. But Nora has hope. She has almost finished paying the loan and believes she can forget the whole matter. Christine is shocked by Nora's confession and encourages Nora to tell Torvald. Nora's reply is "Maybe someday." The threads of her life are a little binding, but she thinks her can wiggle out unscathed.

Nora may have been able to pull it off, except that the man she had borrowed from had his own tangled web. Krogstad (Edward Fox/Denholm Elliot) is adesperate man, the reason he had had any dealings with Nora in the first place. Krogstad hadforged a document, but lack of evidence had kept him out of jail. He was disgraced in the community and is now a widower with two children to care for.

Now the web begins to tighten for Nora and Krogstad. Torvald is promoted to bank manager. Nora and Krogstad both see this as the answer to their problems. Nora anticipates more income and thus a bigger household budget. She would not have to get work anymore. Krogstad believes he can pressure Nora into talking Torvald into a better job for himself. Unfortunately for both of them, Torvald has a mind of his own.

Torvald is not nave about the business world. He knows his salary would increase but would not be paid until the end of the first quarter. He prefers to spend his money prudently. Torvald does not like Krogstad. He feels his old schoolmate has been too familiar and has not treated him with enough respect. Torvald intends to fire Krogstad, not promote him. When Nora pleads for Torvald to keep Krogstad, after being blackmailed by the latter, Torvald ignores her completely. One would think Torvald would wonder why Nora even cares about this man to go on about him.

In the end, one escapes the tangled web and one is destroyed by it. Christine comes to Krogstad's rescue. She has a job and professes her love for Krogstad and her desire to take care of him. However, Christine believes Nora must grow up and that she must be honest with her husband. Krogstad sends a letter to Torvald, telling him all about Nora and her forged loan paper. Christine believes it would be best for Nora if it were all out in the open.

But it is not that simple. There is one more web that is not so obvious. At least not until Torvald reads Krogstad's letter. This is the lie: Torvald tells Nora she is his "little squirrel" and that he loves her. He probably believes that he does love her and that he will always take care of her, but when he reads the letter, the lie becomes apparent. His main concern is for himself and his own reputation. He becomes enraged that Nora's actions have put his character and job in jeopardy. Torvald even becomes violent with Nora--in Patrick Garland's version, Torvald actually slaps Nora, though Torvald denies that he could ever strike a woman--without asking how she makes the payments or considering what a burden she had carried. Torvald is disgraced and might lose his job. To Torvald, the world revolves around Torvald. Even when he receives the second message from Krogstad with the loan note and a promise to never say anything more, Torvald still thinks only of himself.

The problem with lies is that they are so complicated and generally never fix the initial problem. Nora had other choices she could have made. When Torvald was so ill, she could have insisted they borrow the money to go to a warmer climate because if they did not, he would die and leave her alone, without family and uncared for. Even later, she had options. Once Torvald was well, she could have confessed, and together they could find a way to pay back the money. Nora could have done copy work freely in the daytime. Torvald might have worked harder and been promoted sooner. Nora still had options. She could have confessed to Dr. Rank (Trevor Howard/Ralph Richardson), and he probably would have helped her confess to Torvald. But instead, Nora did none of these things. Just like a child, Nora waited, hoping for a miracle to happen. As so often happens when caught up in a web of lies, instead of a miracle, she gets a catastrophe. But even then, Nora is still caught in a lie. She has convinces herself that she will be able to go out and get a job and take care of herself without any skills or resources.

Sir Walter Scott was correct. Deception turns into a web that can strangle and kill. Krogstad could have avoided a lifetime of shame if he had not forged a name. Nora could have had a true marriage with Torvald if she had told him the truth, at least when he was well enough to hear it. Torvald could have kept his marriage if he had not lied to himself about how important he was. The truth about lies is demonstrated well in the lives of Nora, Krogstad, and Torvald.

Lynne Gustafson

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