Henrik Ibsen’s brilliant “A Doll’s House” has arguably been one of the most influential plays in modern times. Though scandalous at the time of its production in 1879, the story depicting the dramatic undoing of a Scandinavian family quickly became a symbol for the feminist movement in the Western world. Born just five years earlier, G.K. Chesterton grew up in a world buzzing with debate over the play and its negative depiction of domesticity as narrow and confining. It should come as no surprise that references to Ibsen and his doll’s house appeared in many of Chesterton’s writings. In recent years, the buzz shows no sign of subsiding with “A Doll’s House” being the most performed play in 2006, the centennial of Ibsen’s death.[1] Below is an imagined encounter between its heroine, Nora, and Chesterton. The scene is a railway station in Norway, early in the morning, several days after Nora has left her husband and children.

 

His words rang in my ears as I stood alone on the train platform.

But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.[2]

A vast blanket of clouds stretched across the sky with a tent of impenetrable gray. Somewhere in the distance a clock tower sounded, the only evidence of dawn beneath the grim canopy. It was as if the sun lacked the strength to rise and run its course this bleak, mid-winter morning; the world would be deprived of its warmth today. Only a few specks of snow dared to enliven the dull surroundings.

I welcomed the cold and sullen setting; it was an appropriate companion to my heart’s icy resolve. My train wasn’t set to arrive for at least an hour but I remained outside, deliberately avoiding the warmth of the inner station’s hearth. This was my own sunless dawn.

As the chill penetrated my thin cloak and shawl, I thought of how these past eight years I had ‘bought the simplest and cheapest things’ for myself so that I could pay off the debt to Krogstad – the debt I incurred to save my dying husband.[3] These were my sole possessions now, along with the small bag I clutched as if my life depended upon it.

I spoke aloud to the lonely scene before me, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from your dream! No more husband. No more children. That doll’s house must be left behind; that door shut forever. Only then will I find myself.”

“Find myself,” a man’s voice from behind me repeated quietly, almost to himself, “Yet, ‘one may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself.’”[4]

Startled, I turned to see a bulk of fur as big as a bear sitting on the bench behind me.

“‘Ah, but he that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’” the cloaked figure continued.[5]

“Lose my life?” I asked, turning to him completely, “I’ve not had a life to lose. I have to find it first.”

“No life to lose?” the giant questioned, looking at me with a pair of piercing blue eyes, “You certainly seem alive to me, yet perhaps not for long on this frozen platform. Though a desolate train station in the dead of winter is surely an inconvenience just waiting to become an adventure, one can’t enjoy an adventure if they’ve been turned to ice! Come, let us wait inside and let me introduce myself. Mr. G.K. Chesterton at your service, and you must be Mrs. Helmer. I was hoping to meet you here.”

“I prefer to remain outside and I am no longer Mrs. Helmer. My name is Nora,” I replied coldly. “Mr. Chesterton, have we met?”

“Well, I have met you – or, at least, I am well acquainted with your story. You haven’t met me, but that is why I am here. I’m hoping to be of some help to you and to the many that will follow you.”

“Follow me?”

“Yes, the hundreds of thousands of women who have sacrificed their honour for the ones they love.”[6]

But those were my words! That is what I told Torvald when the awful truth came crashing in that the most wonderful thing of all would not happen this Christmastide.[7] My husband would not risk everything for me, as I had done for him. Our marriage was nothing to him when compared to his precious reputation.

“Did Torvald send you? You can tell him that I remain as resolved as ever to leave.”

“I am sorry,” Mr. Chesterton remarked, “This will be confusing, but your husband did not send me. I have never met him, though I know him as well as I know you. Years from now, a brilliant dramatist will transform these past few days of your life into a powerful play, and it will become a symbol of everything that is wrong with hearth and home. The culture will have a similar reaction as yours, too, and that is what I am here to prevent if I can.”

“Sir, I am not at all sure of what you are saying – it’s all so strange – but if true, then I am glad many will follow me,” I replied, adding with passion, “Hundreds of thousands of women will be set free from the role of domestic doll to distinguish themselves, free from the dominance of men.”

Rising from his seat, Mr. Chesterton said gently, “Come now, let us move inside to the warmth. I’ll ask the porter to add more logs to the fire.” Moving towards the door, he added, “Do you know that ‘Nora’ means ‘honour’?”

There’s that word again! Strange how I had not made the connection. Of all things for Torvald to prefer to me … but no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.[8]

Suddenly, “a great wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness, and tore eastward across” the platform, “trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea.”[9] The snow began to fall in real defiance of the gloom, brightening it with a blaze of white. My heart warmed slightly at the blast of freshness.

Mr. Chesterton began laughing uncontrollably. As I turned to see his laughter’s cause, the sight of the huge man struggling to enter the doorway made me laugh, too – something I had not done for days.

Good heavens, he was stuck!

“Mr. Chesterton, you might try entering sideways.”

“‘I have no sideways!’” he snorted.[10] Eventually, with the aid of the porter inside, we were able to maneuver the side-less man through the door.

Still laughing, he remarked, “Humor can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle.”[11]

Even so, I thought to myself with a smile, humor might need to shed a few pounds. Evidence of too many macaroons, perhaps?

Oh, the bitter thought of macaroons! That confection represented everything that was wrong with my marriage: Torvald’s incessant patronizing, as if I were but a simple child who needed the guidance of a wise superior. Sadness overtook me as I entered the waiting room. I sank into a seat by the hearth across from Mr. Chesterton as the porter tended to the fire. A spasm of exhaustion spread across my entire body, as if I’d been carrying a full washbasin that had frozen over after a long, cold night.

Mr. Chesterton was speaking to himself as he sat down across from me.

“‘If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.’[12]Yes, ‘the man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.’[13] Another paradox!” he clapped his hands with delight, ‘as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself.’[14]

His laughter stopped as he turned towards me. “Why are you leaving your family?”

“‘The most original modern thinkers,’”’ I solemnly replied, “the revolutionaries ‘say that what we want most is … to find ourselves in untrodden paths, and to do unprecedented things: to break with the past and belong to the future.’[15] I have decided to take their advice and break with the oppressive convention of marriage, to find a way in the world on my own terms and not on the terms that tradition has dictated.”

“Ah, tradition,” he said, “I have never been able to understand why we are taught to be suspicious of tradition, as if it was some sort of dictatorial system that was intrinsically ‘opposed to democracy. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary’ reaction or mood.”[16]

“I wrote a story once where the hero left his home,” he continued, “From all appearances, he seemed to be rejecting tradition, too. Do you know what he found? He discovered that ‘it is really wicked and dangerous for a man to run away from his wife.”[17]

“And why is it dangerous?” I inquired.

“‘Why, because nobody can find him,’” he answered, “‘and we all want to be found.’[18] Those modern thinkers talk of revolution as if it’s merely a breaking out, but they forget that word contains a very important idea – revolve. When something revolves, it eventually returns. ‘Every revolution, like a repentance, is a return … Don’t you see that all these real leaps and destructions and escapes are only attempts to get back to Eden— to something we have had, to something we at least have heard of? Don’t you see that one only breaks the fence or shoots the moon in order to get home?’”[19],[20]

“Mr. Chesterton, at home I was nothing more than a doll playing a game. I do not want to return to that! I was a doll-wife to Torvald, just as I had been a doll-child to my father. I treated my children as doll-children, too. We were playing house just as we had been taught by tradition.”[21]

“And now that you have outgrown dolls, they must be discarded so that you can find yourself,” he replied with a sadness that stabbed my heart.

“But I am not ready to be a real wife and mother!” I replied in my defense. “I really had no choice in the matter, too. I was just doing what was expected of me.”

“Ready? Why, you are already a wife and mother. Choice aside, it’s a strange superstition that believes the act of shutting the door on one’s family will break its bonds.[22] It’s more superstitious than the tradition of sacramental marriage, in fact. Abandoning your children in their beds does not make them less yours. Yours is a dangerous reaction, too, for its brutal logic will be worked out in future generations. Years from now, children will not only be abandoned in their beds, but in the womb as well – inspired by your vision of self-determination.”

“But how can a childish person such as myself, who is so unacquainted with the world, raise children?” I asked. This was precisely what Torvald had concluded, after all.

“By becoming more child-like, actually!” he exclaimed, and at this, his eyes brightened and he leaped from his seat with excitement.[23] He continued, moving about the room with a lightness that was surprising given his vastness.

“What is wrong with regarding your house like a doll’s house?’ he asked. “‘The whole aim of a house is to be a doll’s house. Don’t you remember, when you were a child, how those little windows WERE windows, while the big windows weren’t? A child has a doll’s house, and shrieks when a front door opens inwards. A banker has a real house, yet how numerous are the bankers who fail to emit the faintest shriek when their real front doors open inwards.’”[24]

I could not imagine Torvald shrieking with child-like delight.

“We only run from our houses because we have grown too dull for them – like the man in my story. In fact, we aren’t really running at all. Because the house is so much more alive than us, it runs, and we can’t keep up! All have sinned and have grown old and too weak to run,”[25] he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

Try as I may, I could not help but chuckle at the mental picture of the elephantine man chasing a miniature house.

“‘The doll’s house is that happy home to which we are all faring,’” he laughed along with me, “‘if it looks small it is because it is far away.’”[26]

His words were very strange, yet oddly pleasing, for he delivered them with such eager delight. This was not at all like Torvald’s solemn moralizing that had annoyed me so much. Mr. Chesterton made virtue look positively inviting.

Would Torvald have understood him? Probably not. Though he held to the same traditions, Torvald took himself far too seriously to resonate with Mr. Chesterton’s child-like joy. Torvald was quite an honorable man, yes, but he was all honour and no happiness. He cared only for truth, and his truth was as pitiless as one of his banking calculations.[27] He would have regarded Mr. Chesterton as rather unserious, I’m afraid. The thought of this made me angry.

“So I must honour my marriage vows, even though I do not know what marriage is or who it is that I married?”

“What is marriage?” Mr. Chesterton asked, coming to a sudden standstill and gazing out the window as if to some faraway place. “The wisest Man that ever walked the earth was asked this question by the religious leaders of His day. They had lost its meaning, too. His reply indicated that marriage ‘is an ideal altogether outside time; difficult at any period; impossible at no period.’”[28]

“You say this man spoke of marriage as something difficult and I can agree, but marriage as an ideal? Are there really such things as ideals? I’m not at all sure anymore,” I sighed.

“Difficult marriages to run from and no ideal marriage to run towards … Ah, this is the real problem with today’s revolutions, isn’t it?” he continued, his sight remaining fixed on the window and the rapidly falling snow beyond. “Revolutionists can rail against imperfection, but they have no perfection towards which to aim. They have all ‘definite images of evil, and … no definite image of good. To us light must be henceforward the dark thing – the thing of which we cannot speak. To us, as to Milton’s devils in Pandemonium, it is darkness that is visible. The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained knowledge of good and of evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.’”[29]

Turning to me, he continued, “With regards to your vows, we live in an age that has kept the conventions but has forgotten the commandments – the ideals – from which they spring. Indeed, like you, it doubts that there are ideals, and this is a perilous predicament. The moment the convention gets hard, as all the best conventions do, we destroy them. But there is no Eden to return to in this age that is haunted by such a negative spirit.[30] It’s all darkness and no light. Nothing can fill the gap but the lonely philosophy of finding one’s self.”

“You see, the truth is that the ideal of marriage is too alive for you and Torvald – it’s running from you both. That’s why you can’t see it, so you doubt its existence. Chase it! Start by honouring your vow, Nora. That’s the path to take to find it.”

“There is hope for Torvald, too,” he continued gently as he saw my face fall, “Now that he has experienced what the wise, old poets called the ‘coldness of Chloe,’ which he very well deserved given his ignorance of your dignity as a woman (another ideal that is especially Christian).[31] I have often observed that ‘the way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.’[32] I believe he fears losing his Nora, now, more than his honour.”

“But Torvald and I are completely incompatible!” I cried, unable to countenance the thought of returning to him.

“I have known many happy marriages,” Mr. Chesterton laughed heartily, “but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.”[33]

“But what about my duty to myself? My education?” I sulked, perturbed by his laughter.

“Ah, yes, breaking out into the world to find yourself. Tell me, what has the world taught your husband? Torvald might have been instructed in the narrow domains of politics and economics, but he wasn’t taught to value the vast universe inside his own home where the most costly transactions occur. He learned to view the domestic cosmos as a plaything – the easier lesson by far. Yet, ‘the place where babies are born, where men die, where the drama of mortal life is acted, is not an office or a shop or a bureau. It is something much smaller in size and much larger in scope.”[34]

“Yes, Torvald always underestimated the difficulty of running a house,” I remarked angrily. “He merely returned home to pet his captive bird – his Sky-Lark as he called me– to play house with her as long as she kept out of his more important business. The outer world was more real for him. We had ‘never exchanged so much as one serious word about serious things’ from the moment we met.”[35]

“Hm. Serious things,” he remarked. “Torvald referred to you as his little Sky-Lark not knowing that all his world turned upon such a serious lark. That lark saved his life when the world of work would have him perish.[36]  Yours were not the actions of an unknowing doll. They were those of a domestic empress doing her best to protect her family for, unlike the happy doll’s house, death lurks at the doors of our lesser abodes.”

This was too much for me. As tears began to flood my eyes, I fought them off angrily.

“Torvald cares more for his honour than me! When I was willing to die for him! No man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves, he said.”

“Terrible, terrible words, yes,” he said sadly, “They say more about his own childishness than anything else.”

Turning to gaze out the window once again, he continued, “Yes, few men would be willing to sacrifice their honour for the ones they love. But there is a God-Man that did. Not a son of Thor but the Son of God.[37] He gave Himself up for us. He is the most wonderful thing of all that you were waiting for – the salvation that you hoped for this Christmastide.”

“That’s what I’ve been told all my life,” I sighed, “But what does it mean?”

“Mean?” Mr. Chesterton said quietly, continuing to stare out the window that had become heavy laden with frost. “Why, we are all in need of being saved for we cannot find ourselves. We are all lost sheep without a shepherd.”

With this, he squeezed himself out the door, disappearing into the silent fury of snow. As the door shut behind him I could hear him say,

“…at night we win to the ancient inn

Where the child in the frost is furled,

We follow the feet where all souls meet

At the inn at the end of the world.”[38]

 

Sinking lower in the chair, I buried my face in my hands. “Think, Nora! Think, Nora!” I told myself, but my mind was spent. Mr. Chesterton seemed to turn all my thoughts on their heads so that they appeared “upside down as one sees a house in a puddle.”[39]

Or, has he simply turned them right side up-?

A hope flashed across my mind. The most wonderful thing of all

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Citation Information

Rebekah Valerius. “The Happy Home to Which We Are All Faring.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 2. (Advent 2019): 75-94.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/the-happy-home-to-which-we-are-all-faring/


Endnotes

[1] It has now been translated into over seventy-eight languages and made into countless film adaptations (click here for one starring a young Sir Anthony Hopkins).

[2] Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House (Seattle: Amazon Classics, 2018), 84.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Open Roads Media, 2015), 58.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Ibsen, 84.

[7] Ibid., 86.

[8] Ibid.,84.

[9] G.K. Chesterton, Manalive (Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2012), 1.

[10] G.K. Chesterton as quoted in “G.K. Chesterton,” Christianity Today, accessed October 9, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/musiciansartistsandwriters/g-k-chesterton.html,

[11] Darin Moore, “A Chestertonian Thanksgiving,” The Imaginative Conservative, November 22, 2012, Accessed October 1, 2019, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2012/11/a-chestertonian-thanksgiving.html,

[12] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (New York City: John Lane Co., 1919), 78.

[13] Ibid.

[14] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2013), 26.

[15] Chesterton, Manalive, 93.

[16] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 129.

[17] Chesterton, Manalive, 93.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 90.

[20] Ibid., 93.

[21] Ibsen, 80.

[22] “While free love seems to me a heresy, divorce does really seem to me a superstition. It is not only more of a superstition than free love, but much more of a superstition than strict sacramental marriage; and this point can hardly be made too plain.” G.K. Chesterton. The Superstition of Divorce (Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2010), 6.

[23] See “A Second Childhood” by G.K. Chesterton, from the The Ballad of Saint Barbara and Other Verses. https://alongthebeam.com/2019/08/29/a-second-childhood/

[24] Chesterton, Manalive, 92.

[25] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 67.

[26] G.K. Chesterton, “What a Home Means: Wildness of Domesticity” The Guyra Argus, November 11, 1909, accessed October 1, 2019, ahttps://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/174452086/20572707,

[27] “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.” Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 28-29.

[28] Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 169.

[29] Chesterton, Heretics, 10.

[30] Ibid., 7.

[31] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 65.

[32] G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, (Jersey City: Start Publishing, 2013), Location 403.

[33] Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, 24.

[34] G.K. Chesterton “Women in the Workplace—and at Home” Illustrated London News December 18, 1926.

[35] Ibsen, A Doll’s House, 79.

[36] It is indicated that Torvald’s previous illness was a result of being overworked.

[37] Torvald means “Thor’s ruler”.

[38] G.K. Chesterton, “A Child of the Snows,” The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, accessed November 27, 2019, https://www.chesterton.org/a-child-of-the-snows/

[39] Chesterton, Manalive, 59.

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