The Nora Syndrome

When Henrick Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House in 1879, he was reacting to the lack of human rights of women in his time. Their lives were so restricted by society that they could rarely rise to anything beyond being their husband’s plaything and property. Many of the key plot points are taken from the real life story of a woman Ibsen knew.  Laura Keiler (neé Laura Peterson) met Ibsen when she wrote what today would be called fanfic. She penned a story based on the characters in Ibsen’s play Brand.

Ibsen took a liking to Keiler (he called her “skylark”) and they kept in touch. A few years later, while visiting the Ibsen family, Keiler confessed to Ibsen’s wife Suzannah that she had secretly taken out a loan when her husband contracted tuberculosis. Keiler used the money to finance a trip to Italy where he eventually recovered. Some time after that, Laura Keiler sent Ibsen a novel she had written, asking for his support in publishing it. The novel didn’t meet Ibsen’s literary standards and he told her he couldn’t help.  What Ibsen was not aware of at the time, was that Keiler was having trouble paying back the loan. When she saw that there would be no income from the book, she forged a check. The forgery was discovered, and she was forced to tell her husband everything. Like Torvald in the play, Victor Keiler didn’t appreciate that his wife had kept him alive by taking out the loan, and instead turned on her, calling her a criminal and unfit to be  a mother. He demanded a separation. Laura Keiler suffered a breakdown and spent a month in a mental hospital. Real life diverged from the plot of A Doll’s House in that Victor and Laura eventually reconciled, but Ibsen recognized that Nora would never truly grow without being independent.

Fast forward to the present day: woman’s rights have advanced considerably, and even though equality is sadly still a dream rather than an actuality, there has been progress. A woman I know gets into a fight with her boyfriend. You don’t take things seriously, he accuses, you avoid it by acting girly and silly. Do you think that’s true, she asks me later. I have to confess it is. It seems to be a particular curse of pretty girls. At some point in their lives, they discover that their intelligence scares some men off, and they pretend not to be so intelligent in order to stay attractive to their love interest. Like Nora, they self-infantilize and rely on flirtation to get their way. But they can easily become trapped in this role, not growing intellectually, stuck as playthings for men.

Even women who don’t actively seek this role can become ensnared due to social convention. If men, for example, control the family finances, then the wife may remain ignorant about how insurance works, or get into credit card trouble not understanding the nature of compound interest. (To be sure, the latter has probably been the downfall of more men than women, but at least they had more of a chance to learn the dangers beforehand.)

For society to grow beyond the Nora Syndrome, it needs to teach that women have equal value and status as human beings, and to teach men that their job is not to “protect” women from the world’s unpleasantries and complexities. Two heads are better than one, let’s use them.

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