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Nora’s Exit/No Exit (Read 15224 times)
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Nora’s Exit/No Exit
12/28/11 at 14:28:35
 
Nora’s Exit/No Exit
A Sartrean Look Inside Ibsen’s Doll House
 
The three protagonists of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” are literary progeny of Henrik Ibsen’s Nora of “A Doll House.”  As 20th-century existentialism is both a response to and an intensification of 19th-century social realism, Sartre’s triumvirate of the condemned is both a response to and an intensification of Ibsen’s proto-feminist rebel.  Sartre’s characters are a distorted but illuminating counterpart of the stages of Nora’s journey from idealism through disillusionment to liberation.  The nature of this liberation is what Sartre leads us to call into question.  Was Nora’s liberation merely a step from one hell into another?
 
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Henrik Iben’s A Doll House (1879)  deserves to be noticed as a significant precursor text for Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (1944).   As 20th-century existentialism is both a response to and an intensification of 19th-century social realism, Sartre’s triumvirate of the condemned is both a response to and an intensification of Ibsen’s proto-feminist rebel.
     When Nora slammed the door, the sound that reverberated was a critical challenge to conventional views on the proper role of women and the nature of love and marriage.  How can human beings--women in particular--attain personal fulfillment within a society that encloses them within rigid roles and expectations that they themselves had no part in creating?  When Garcin exclaimed, “Hell is--other people,”  the gasp that was evoked from audiences signified the radical impasse between our fundamental human aspirations for love (or at least personal validation by others), and the self-directed, egoistic means we use to fulfill them.  How can human beings--women and men--attain an ideal of fulfillment when the very resources we can put to such use compel us by their very nature into alienating forms of behavior toward others?  The two questions are different, and yet somehow the same.
     Garcin, Estelle, and Inez are literary progeny of the self-liberated Nora Helmer.  Sartre’s characters, trapped in an endless cycle of bad faith and frustration, are a distorted but illuminating counterpart of the stages of Nora’s painful journey from self-deceptive idealism through despairing disillusionment to final liberation.  The nature of this liberation is what they lead us to call into question.  Just as beyond No Exit’s small room in Hell there lies only “more rooms, more passages, and stairs,”   beyond the Helmers’ house of Victorian confinement there lies only more houses of the same type, governed by the same repressive values.  And even when, three generations after Ibsen, most of the old social strictures have been dismantled, intimate human relationships can still appear as hopelessly oppressive to individuals.  Is Nora’s liberation, then, merely a step from one hell into another?
     The distinct forms of Sartrean bad faith manifested by Garcin, Estelle, and Inez can, in fact, all be seen in Nora.  Before her moment of awakening, she largely exhibits the type that Sartre delineated through the character of Estelle; during her struggle to tear herself free, she resembles the bad faith of Inez; and after her decision, when she explains herself and makes her exit, she resembles the bad faith of Garcin.  Ibsen’s final tone of hopefulness requires significant qualification--liberation is haunted throughout by questionability.
     It was Bernard Shaw, in 1913, who pointed out, in his The Quintessence of Ibsenism,  that Nora’s progress is one from happy idealism, through unhappy idealism, to disillusioned realism.  In the Helmer household, we at first have “the sweet home, the womanly woman, the happy family life of the idealist’s dream.”   After Nora perceives the consequences of her committing forgery in order to borrow enough money to send her husband on a life-saving vacation in the south, she falls into despair, and “resolves to kill herself rather than allow him to destroy his own career by taking the forgery on himself to save her reputation.”    But Torvald’s  self-serving rage in response to his discovery of Nora’s forgery leads Nora to an epiphany in which “she sees that their whole family life has been a fiction: their home a mere doll’s house in which they have been playing at ideal husband… and wife…  So she leaves him then and there and goes out into the real world to find out its reality for herself.”  
     The happy young wife and mother that Nora is in her first phase--the one Torvald likes to call “skylark” and “squirrel”--already has an unseen shadow self, the one who carries out a business arrangement and runs a domestic money-making enterprise intended to preserve that very carefree conventional surface.  Her young-wifely mannerisms are all literally an act, a performance.  This is in fact a woman in the throes of desperation; her private entrepreneurial activities and her contrasting public persona are both linked to a desperate attempt to preserve the all-important appearance of domestic respectability.  Individual initiative has been placed in the service of a classically “feminine” form of bad faith; this is what we will later see delineated from Sartre’s perspective in the character of Estelle.  The threatened destruction of the respectable surface then drives Nora into a despairing self-destructiveness that thinly conceals a will to destroy the institutions that are oppressing her; we will see this delineated in Sartre’s character of Inez.  ....
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