Holiest Duties

by Elena Lagon

According to Emma Goldman, the degree to which Nora is devoted to her husband is almost infinite until the end of the play: “When a woman loves as Nora does, nothing else matters”. She “works hard” to “serve her husband,” yet her purpose is solely to be happy for her family, according to Goldman. Indeed, Torvald says that Nora’s “holiest duties” are to her husband and children and if she is neither the breadwinner, nor a nanny, nor a housekeeper, her only duty may be to be light-hearted.

So which is it? Does Nora take care of her family as a mother should, or is she freed by being cared for so she can be happy for her family? Are her jobs, like the Real Housewives Jules mentioned (a guilty pleasure of mine…), to pleasure her husband, dress her children and beautify herself? I think for Nora, the caring for and being cared for are one in the same.  When she raises her concerns with Torvald, perhaps he is angry at her disruption of the peace more than anything. Nora rips off the facade of happiness put on by many women of the time, and with it, what Torvald sees as her only duty is neglected.


  • Jules Odendahl-James says:

    Elena–Interesting points. I agree that for the Nora caring for and *being* cared for are one in the same and as I’ve tried to watch The Real Housewives carefully, critically I’ve seen some of this same kind of rhetoric espoused by the women even amidst all the unbelievably crash consumerism and crude catfighting. The very title of “housewife” is being enshrined as a kind of place of power and reverence at the same time it’s very easy to see it, at least as performed by these casts, as rather superficial and empty existence.

    Nora’s complete devotion to her “role” is one reason why her faith is so strong in believing that Torvald will take the shame of the fraud upon himself and save her from public humiliation. She loves him with such commitment and has risked all to save him and has convinced herself that he would do the same for her. When she sees that he immediately only thinks of himself, the depth of the illusion of this “doll’s house” is revealed and she must sever her ties with him and with the family. I think the facade of happiness (as we’ll see tonight if we get to watch an episode of *Mad Men*) is something that married heterosexual women are absolutely encouraged to put on today (in Real Housewives’ land they bedazzle that facade with diamonds and designer clothes).

    This world of domestic idealism isn’t required in the same way because women have greater choice in when, if and who they marry *but* the pressures of perfection, the ideal of a particularly kind of beautiful home and family, and the social and public support for a particular kind of domestic life … these things endure.

  • Jenny Sherman says:

    Just a quick comment on your idea about the conflation of being cared for/caring for in Nora’s case. When you put it like that, the whole idea of Nora being a doll feels a lot clearer to me. If you imagine a doll as a sentient being for a minute (a la Toy Story), the job of a doll is to care for her owner simply by allowing the owner to care for her. The doll provides the comfort of a great listener who always agrees with you and is always rapturously interested. The doll is an inanimate canvas for the child (or adult) to project his/her own ideas upon her in order to create the perfect companion. If you’re a doll (hypothetically), you just hold still, look lovely and let the child to whom you belong play out his/her fantasy and take comfort from your constancy. Although it always made sense to me that Nora would call herself a “doll”, I’ve only just understood how her duty to Torvald and her society in general are so concerned with doll-like ideas of lack of agency and being a plaything.