There’s a seaside bookshop in Suffolk that always has several cardboard boxes of cheap books outside. I always stop to have a nose. The other week I found a 1914 edition of three of Henrik Ibsen’s plays one of which was A Doll’s House. I’d read the play several times about twenty years ago, but I could only remember that the play touched me…not what happens in the play or how it ended. My memory of the story seemed to remain with my last copy which most likely ended up in an Oregon seaside dump along with most of my other books and childhood treasures. In my minds eye, I can see the mountain of garbage. Screaming seagulls, white against the gray sky, fighting over scraps of discarded food while deep underneath never to be seen again are my precious memories.
Have you ever noticed how objects seem to magically store our memories? Lose the object that reminds you of the memory and the memory can fade until its lost in the mists of never-happened-land. There’s something powerful about objects we imbue with a memory. I’ve always valued memorabilia. As a child of about eight or nine, I found the school memories book my mother had bought for me when I was five, and finding it empty I collected the important papers I’d kept from my previous school years and put them in my book. Over the years I continued collecting. I still have the contents of that memory book. My diaries and other important paperwork went home in a special box. My regular diary along with my early stories and drawings survived, but my Literary Diary (which I’d kept from 12-26) had no obvious value to my mother so it went into the trash. My Literary Diary was an important list of memories I’d attached to books. Now the only books I can remember reading before 27 (when I started a new diary) are the ones that really stood out. This is probably not a bad thing. If I can’t remember reading the book, then it probably wasn’t part of a significant moment in my life…or was it? I’ve no idea. I can’t remember.
Perhaps I collected memorabilia as a child because I sensed lapses in my memory. I like to joke my brain was damaged falling down a flight of cement stairs as a small child, but as there were photos of me with two black eyes after the incident (a sign of concussion) there’s a chance it did. However, it could be my faulty memory is normal and I’m just paranoid (undoubtedly). Either way, I seem to have a small black hole in my head where information is randomly sucked into oblivion. I usually have to read a book three or more times before I can permanently remember the plot. Over the years a number of people have said to me, “Why buy books? You read them once and then you know the story!” To that I always think, “Lucky you!” If I leave a couple years between readings there’s a good chance I won’t remember who killed who or how it ends.
Inspired by the memory of enjoying A Doll’s House, I read the first and third acts and found my younger self was right, it is powerful. After Torvald reads the letter revealing Nora’s illegal loan (that she took out to save his life and has been secretly paying off for years) his explosive rant gets you in the heart. You know he’s shot himself in the foot, but he can’t see it until she leaves him, refusing to remain his doll. This ending was truly shocking to the audience of his day. All the focus ends up on the woman feeling a need to develop herself, but Nora knows who she is. The problem is that she thought she knew her husband…
(extract from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
Nora- I have waited so patiently for eight years; for goodness knows, I knew very well that wonderful things don’t happen every day. Then this horrible misfortune came upon me; and then I felt quite certain that the wonderful thing was going to happen at last. When Krogstad’s letter was lying out there, never for a moment did I imagine that you would consent to accept this man’s conditions. I was so absolutely certain that you would say to him: Publish the thing to the whole world. And when that was done…”
Torvald- Yes, what then? When I had exposed my wife to shame and disgrace?
Nora- 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.
Nora- 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.
Torvald- I would gladly work night and day for you. Nora, bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.
Nora- It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done.
Torvald- Oh, you think and talk like a heedless child.
Nora- Maybe. But you neither think nor talk like the man I could bind myself to. As soon as your fear was over and it was not fear for what threatened me, but for what might happen to you, when the whole thing was past, as far as you were concerned it was exactly as if nothing at all had happened. Exactly as before, I was your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile. Torvald, it was then it dawned upon me that for eight years I had been living here with a strange man, and had borne him three children. Oh I can’t bear to think of it! I could tear myself into little bits!”
Torvald- I see, I see. An abyss has opened between us, there is no denying it. But, Nora, would it not be possible to fill it up?
Nora- As I am now, I am no wife for you.
Torvald- I have it in me to become a different man.
Nora- Perhaps, if your doll is taken away from you.
Torvald- But to part…to part from you! No, no, Nora, I can’t understand that idea.
Nora- That makes it all the more certain that it must be done.
When I was young I read the play as a story. I wanted to read something that might illuminate my Scandinavian ancestors. Twenty years on, I see I was blind. Nora’s heart was broken on finding the man she thought she married didn’t exist. She could see that he was her doll, as much as she was his. Did the Victorian men sitting in the audience listening to those words understand what Ibsen was telling them? Did Ibsen understand what he’d written? Critics ranted on Ibsen’s apparent support for female individuality at the expense of her wifely duty, but I suspect that was only white noise to drown out the fear that they too were all dolls being played with by their own wives and lovers.
This evening I came across a quote by Jackie Malton. “Most people are not who they say they are. They live their lives wearing a false mask. In the police, you unmask people, and so do dramatists.”
Ibsen tore the mask off his own society and they hated him for it. It wasn’t until he was a success outside Norway that his own country decided his plays were worth watching.
Part of me misses my lost rememorabilia, but there’s a clarification that comes with losing unimportant memories. Memories that don’t get washed down the mental garbage disposal are too important, too big to fit into the black hole. Like Ibsen’s ‘A Doll House’, they demand to be re-read or re-examined with wiser eyes because they’re not just things that happened to us. They’re an emotional collage of the person we hide under our mask. As for the memories that end up in the darkest cupboard of the mind, too big to forget, too painful to remember…they’re a different story.