How To Love Lit Podcast
Shirley Jackson - The Haunting Of Hill House - Episode 1 - Meet The Author And The Personal Issues That Created One Of The Best Horror Genre Books Of All Time!

Shirley Jackson - The Haunting Of Hill House - Episode 1 - Meet The Author And The Personal Issues That Created One Of The Best Horror Genre Books Of All Time!

October 23, 2021

Shirley Jackson - The Haunting Of Hill House - Episode 1 - MeetThe Author And The Personal Issues That Created One Of The Best Horror Genre Books Of All Time!


`Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


And I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  If you are listening to this in real time, we are well into the month of October and in the United States, the month of October means Halloween.  Halloween, as we’ve discussed before, is not Christy’s favorite holiday.  Christy, why is that? 


Because it’s horrifying.  It’s about death.  It’s about being scared.  It’s about demons.  I don’t understand why we’re celebrating these things.   


And yet, I have seen you dress up as Wilma Flintstone; answer a door bell to a slew of terrifyingly dressed children, hand out candy and enjoy every minute of it.  For those of you who live in other parts of the world- that is what we do here in the United States on October 31st.  My son, Ben, and his wife Rachel live in a part of Memphis which is particularly serious about Halloween, so we, if we can, love to go down there on Halloween and get in on the party.   


That’s true- and it is wild. They have a neighbor whose yard literally looks like the set of a horror movie with graves, and ghosts and witches and everything.  It spooks me, but on the other hand,  I do love dressing up, and I love seeing all the kids dress up.  That part I’m cool with. 


And yet, here we are reading a classic work described as Female Gothic or horror fiction- the work of the celebrated Shirley Jackson, perhaps her most famous novel The Haunting of Hill House.   


True.  But I will say that Literary Horror is slightly different than Nightmare on Elm street.  Here’s a little story about myself, so I had never watched a horror movie growing up.  My mother didn’t allow it in our home, and back then these movies were rated R and the people at movie theaters really policed that sort of thing- so if you were a young child, obviously you could watch a rated R movie, but they didn’t make it easy for you.  Well, anyway, when I was a sophomore in high school, this little school that I attended at the time took an overnight trip out of town to hike up this mountain, Pico da Bandeira.   After the hike, somebody pulled out the VHS of this move and we were going to watch it (I’m pretty sure it was a bootleg).  Anyway, I was so excited- most everyone in Brazil loves horror movies and Nightmare on Elmstreet was one of the most populat at the time.    


Well, how did that go for you? 


Not well, I’m not sure I got through 15 minutes.  I spent the rest of the night under the covers and with my hands in my ears.  I didn’t even want to hear it.   


HA!!  Well, what I find fascinating about Literary fiction is that it’s scary for all kinds of different reasons, not the idea of someone jumping out and stabbing an unsuspecting girl.   


Exactly. It’s not some obvious caricature of a gore covered mummy walking around with a hatchet that defines it.  It’s metaphorical; it’s about the cost of seduction; it’s about psychological disorders and it’s very much about anxiety.   


Well, you know I love it when we get psychological.  One thing I found interesting, and this is coming from the perspective that we just did an entire series kind of around women’s issue with A Doll’s House, but I expected Shirley Jackson’s work to be more feminist than it is.  Also, the book has all this mother/daughter stuff in it.  I wasn’t expecting that. 


Yes- it very much has everything to do with mother/daughter relationships.  That motif starts on the first page and never lets up.  I got tired of counting mother references, and I never found an article that did the math, but there are reference to mothers endlessly- and something that drew my immediate attention- especially the first time Eleanor wakes up terrified in the middle the night yelling for her mother.  But that is just one way of looking at the book- although that’s a great place to start and where we will start our discussion today as we attempt to make it all the way through chapter 1 of the book.    But in a more general sense, what Jackson was looking at was this imbalance of power that can exist in relationships between any two people.  She wants to express the seduction and betrayal of the powerless by the powerful. She expresses how one person uses the power in the relationship basically to crush another person.  And unfortunately, she understood this problem so well because it was her entire life story.  She had that experience with her mother, and then she turned around and had it again with her husband, and really she had it within the community at large of the 1950s.   


And, of course, being written in the 1950s, many women of her generation quickly related to it.  In fact, in some ways, it reminds me a little bit of that very famous work by Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, that became so important in American history but wasn’t even going to be written for another ten years. 


Yeah, I’ve heard of that book, but honestly, I don’t know much about it.  What is the premise and why does it connect, in your mind to Shirley Jackson. 


Well, I’ll be upfront and tell you I have never read the book, so I’m speaking from second hand knowledge.  But, what I know about it from teaching and studying history is the impact it had on American culture because of the power of the argument Friedan makes in the book.  


First of all I would like to point out she’s interviewing women that attended Smith College, which is a very well to do private school in Massachusetts.  survey sample was not very scientific 


 Friedan, at her 15th college reunion, took a survey from her fellow colleagues, about how they felt about their lives.  The basic premise of her book is that society had created a myth that women were most fulfilled if they were taking care of children, staying at home,  supporting their husbands, and staying away from politics and business.  In the book, she claims that entire worldview for women is a myth- at least for many women.  I will never assume to speak for women and I certainly won’t speak for all women.  But Friedan will, and she went after the 1950s stereotypical Leave it To Beaver kind of mom that had been the socially accepted lifestyle.  She said many women were absolutely miserable.  She claimed that society’s pressure on women for women to succumb to what amounted to in many cases mindnumbing non-stimulating existences was causing depression.  She famously said it was a “problem that has no name”.   And whether you want to challenge her or agree with her, you have to respect that her idea absolutely resonated across America and really the entire world.  Her book was a best seller, selling over 3 million in her lifetime and has been translated into at least a dozen major languages around the world.  Many textbooks credit Friedan for sparking the second wave of feminism that was a key feature of the 60s, the kind of thing we see portrayed in movies like Forrest Gump in the character of Jenny.  This women’s rights movement was not interested in voting rights; it was moving forward to the next level.  It was pushing for workplace equality, birth control, abortion rights, breaking the glass ceiling in academia and business.  Where I see it aligning with Jackson, who came much earlier, is that this book, The Haunting of Hill House is a metaphorical expression of everything Friedan wanted to say about women in the 1960s- the house is haunted, so to speak.  The house was crushing women.  It was making women crazy.  


Well, you’re starting to steal a little bit of my thunder –next week we are going to spend almost the entire episode discussing the house itself, but you are dead on about what Jackson is doing in her work…pardon the pun.  But, I want to say before all the men moan and groan and say, I’m turning this off if this is going to be another one of those feminist books- the book really is much more than a political commentary- in fact that’s just one way of relating to it.  The metaphor most definitely can be read exactly as you have connected to the femininist movement of the 1960s, and many many people have read it just that way, but I’m not sure Jackson herself really did, although there’s no doubt she was an advocate for many of the things you just enumerated. She, like Ibsen, would say her work is art and not a piece of political propaganda.  She would also likely claim, and I know I’m being presumptuous to speak for her, but I do think she would claim, that would be a very small way to understand her body of work, if that’s all you thought it was. She was writing the emotions and then the reader found themselves in them.  


I was also interested to see that Jackson, very much like Elizabeth Barrett Browning struggled fighting critics over the years.  Stanley Hyman, her husband and literary critic during their lives, in the preface for a book he published of her yet unpublished work after her death famously wrote, “For all her popularity, Shirley Jackson won surprisingly little recognition.  She received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships; her name was often omitted from lists on which it clearly belonged, or which it should have led.  She saw these honors go to inferior writers.” 


True, and Hyman, although I have trouble giving him credit for anything because of his and Shirley’s relationship which we’ll talk about in a different episode, but he predicted that Jackson’s “powerful visions of suffering and inhumanity” and would be found “increasingly significant and meaningful.”  He truly always understood that her long form or serious work was more than pop fiction, or gory horror, and yet that was not the majority view of that time. 


And part of that is somewhat understandable.  One thing I didn’t know about her until we started reading up on her for this podcast series was that her acclaim during her day really came from two places- one was for the short story, “The Lottery”, but the other and this is what I didn’t know- was her best-selling essay collection on domestic life titled Life Among the Savages.  I haven’t read much of that, to be honest, but what I did read is really truly funny stuff stuff.  She was Erma Bombeck before Erma Bombeck. 


Yes- and she was funny, and she was writing about her kids, house cleaning, being a mom, a member of a local community and all the craziness of middle-class life.  It was the stuff that people were living in their world, and she made it funny.  People didn’t take seriously the psychological insights into issues of emotional isolation, rage, paranoia, and the fragmentation of the human mind- from a person who was a regular contributor to magazines like Good Housekeeping, Mademoiselle, McCall’s and Ladies Home Journal. 


No, it was just too different, and of course, you can’t discount the condescension from the serious art community- I mean here was a woman writing in a genre that nobody took seriously about female protagonists- which was often not taken seriously- and was famous for cute anecdotes about the comedy of errors which is life as a house-mom raising four children in a small town.We must remember also, as a general rule, the 1950s are not that far removed from the time period where women didn’t read literature at all- there was a thing called “ladies reading material” That’s what women read.  Men read literature, but women writing for women was not elevated enough to actually be called “literature”- it was simply reading material for women.    


Oh- well – I guess we shall make that distinction- although I will say, as a woman writing “ladies reading material” for money she did fairly well for herself.  Shirley Jackson made serious cash off of these stories- in fact, she outearned her husband- and it was the essays that were funding their lifestyles, not her novels. Her biographer Ruth Franklin, commented in an interview that she could make  over $2000 per essay which at the time was enough to fun to fund her Morris Minor collection. 


Nice- well British Sports cars are always a fun thing to keep around the house.  


I’ll say.  But back to her legacy for a second, Jackson is like Elizabeth Barrett Browning in that her work, well after her death, found it’s way into the canon and today is very much taken seriously.  In fact, we’re teaching her right now to all the 11th graders at Bartlett High School, and almost all American students will at some point read  her short story “The Lottery”, the  famous short story that triggered more public outrage  in 1948 than anything published before or since by the magazine the New Yorker.  Hundreds of people cancelled their subscriptions and even more wrote the magazine totally exasperated.   


Well, it’s political and psychological and really even religious as well.  But back to the 11th graders at Bartlett, do you think your kids will be able to appreciate or enjoy the depth of the psychological analysis in her novel that today is the central hallmark of her work? 


Yeah, I think many of them will get it.  I look forward to how they understand what she’s talking about.  You know, students today live in such a different world and the ghosts and houses that haunt them look so differently than the ghosts and houses that haunted our generation or much less Shirley Jackson’s.     I look forward to discussing some of these issues with them and see what fascinates them the most.  


 One of the things that fascinates me the most and I’m expecting to come out is Jackson’s multiple direct and indirect references to the relationship between mothers and daughters.  It’s clear in this book that whatever is going wrong in Eleanor’s mind has something to do with her dead mother.  I have two daughters, and I really pray, I am not the kind of mother Shirley Jackson had or that my daughters ever express any of the feelings she expresses about mother/daughter relationships- nothing that would haunt and torment my children after I’m dead.   


No, I’m sure none of us want to have that kind of legacy with our children.   


And yet, there are women like Geraldine Jackson, Shirley’s mother.  Geraldine was truly relentless in her cruelty towards her daughter.  She was cruel to her as a child and her passive aggressive disapproval was something she perpetuated all throughout Shirley’s life right to her untimely death at age 48.   


Yes and I think understanding Geraldine’ cruelty really helps me see some of the things in Jackson’s writing that I may have overlooked before.  And I know that an author’s life cannot be used uncritically to explain an artist’s work; obviously art speaks for itself, but maybe more than any other writer we’ve read together, Jackson uses her writings to express pain in artistic ways that were personal to her, but universal to many of us.  Geraldine’s ruthless subtle and sometimes not so subtle demoralizing was something Jackson could not get out of her mind.  . 

Geraldine’s own personality disorder took a heavy toll on Shirley. 


And it was always expressed with all the best of intentions- she was always so concerned. 


Let’s tell a little about their story and then people will know what you’re talking about.  


Okay, well the story starts when  Jackson was born in 1916 (although she lied about her age and claimed to have been born in 1919- which I think is funny), but anyway, she was born into an affluent family and up until she was 16 they lived in Burlingame, California.  


Let me interrupt, just for context, Burlingame, to this day is one of the most expensive cities in the United States.  The median house in Burlingame costs over 2 million dollars- and I’m not talking mansions- this is the price range for what would be an average home that would cost a tenth of that in other parts of the US.  Every review on talks about how unaffordable it is for most people to live in this Burlingame.  


Yep, and Geraldine, Shirley’s mom and her father Leslie, cultivated that cliché’d vision of the upper class  country club lifestyle.  They were into the production of this very sophisticated appearance of success and wealth, what was important was the appearance of things.   They were into competitive living, and that,  of course, still includes having perfect children.  Shirley’s brother, I might add, was beautiful and competitive and made them proud, but unfortunately for Shirley, she was not- and this was just a huge disappointment for Geraldine.  She could not nor did she want to fit the mold.  Shirley was heavier than the other girls.  She didn’t enjoy the same kinds of things as the other girls.  She didn’t have that “All-American” barbie doll look like the other girls.  She wasn’t into the deputante thing, and if she had been wasn’t cute enough. 


Yes, I read a couple of articles that called Jackson morbidly obese, so I googled images of her, it was true that she was heavier , but, in my mind, she falls way short of the criteria for morbidly obese by today’s definition, especially in her youth. And I want to say something else about this 1950’s lifestyle we’ve been discussing. After WW 2 there was a huge economic boom that doubled family incomes in the decade. It was the first decade of widespread middle class wealth. And one sign of that new middle class wealth was the ability to live on one income. Wives staying at home were a sign of wealth and prestige.  


Maybe not, but she certainly wasn’t the daughter Geraldine wanted nor could be proud of at a deputant ball.  In fact, truth be told, Geraldine was actually disappointed when she found out she was pregnant because she didn’t want a child at that time.  But Geraldine’s largest problem and obsession was with Shirley’s weight- and her obsession with Shirley’s weight never ended.  She made comments about her weight- all of the time.  They were gratuitous, just dropped in to remind her that she was fat.   Here are some quotes from a couple of Geraldine’s letters to her daughter just to show you what I’m talking about. “Glad you’re dieting.” “Excess weight is hard on the heart.” “You should get down to normal weight. Try non-fat milk.”  Even after the publication of what would be Jackson’s final novel, Geraldine could be relied on to bring up her weight, “Why oh why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you?...I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like.”   


Yes, let me read the full quote for context.  


If you don’t care what you look like or care about your appearance why don’t you do something about it for your children’s sake— and your husband’s. . . . I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like. . . . You were and I guess still are a very wilful child and one who insisted on her own way in everything— good or bad. 


This is a straight up narcissistic rant.  


There was always the subtext that was no matter what Shirley did with her life, she could never live up to her mother’s expectations- even if she was famous- Jackson wanted acceptance of who she was- but she wanted it on her terms, and she and wanted to prove to her mom that the way she was was a good way, and she could be good at life just by being herself- but that was never going to happen.  In fact, at one low moment, Geraldine actually told her daughter that she was a failed abortion.   


Wow.  That is just hateful.  Geraldine wanted a girl in the image of what she wanted, and she was never going to compromise.  This is classically what people call today a “toxic mother”,  And this plays a terrible toll on girls who have toxic mothers.  These behaviors can destroy women’s images of themselves.   And this is what seems to have happened with Jackson and her mother.   



Let me just back  up and say, it’s absolutely natural and healthy for a girl to look up to her mother; a mom is the original ideal of what a woman should be.  That’s how we all learn to navigate in this world, and likely a mom and a daughter will have a lot in common for obvious reasons.  There is a lot of joy in that.  There is a special bond in that.  Over the years, though, as a little girl develops into a teenager, although at first she wants to be exactly like her mom, that desire kind of separates out.  In a normal relationship, as a girl transitions into a woman, she individuates.   She becomes her own person.  Some things of her mother she will keep; others she’ll discard.  And healthy moms respect and encourage their daughters individuality.  A normal mom will do whatever she can to equip her daughter, make her bolder and stronger.  But as painful as it may be from a mom’s perspective, healthy mom’s accept daughter’s choices- even the ones they think are mistakes.  That’s just what they do, and if they end up being mistakes, it’s okay.  We all get to live our own lives.  But in Geraldine’s life, what Shirley did was a reflection on her, so she couldn’t let the fact that her daughter was overweight go.   


Well, how do you think she took it when Shirley told her mom she was marrying a Jew in 1940- or I should say that she had already married a Jew, she didn’t even tell them she got married until several months later because they were anti-Semitic people,  I can imagine that didn’t go well?   



No, I’d say it probably didn’t, but I really don’t know.   I do want to say one other thing, Christy, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty well-established that motherhood is by definition a lose/lose proposition- moms just can’t win.  It’s impossible to raise a perfect child, just like it’s impossible to be a perfect person, so of course we can’t raise a person in the most perfect of emotional environments.  


 Mom’s will unrealistically be blamed for things that may or may not be their fault- the reality is no one can be perfect, we will hurt each other and there will insecurities that spring up because of the way we are raised, and that’s kind of normal too- it’s normal for dads; it’s normal for moms.  But, that is not the same as being a toxic mom.  Geraldine was toxic.  Nothing was ever going to be good enough for Geraldine.  She was perpetually disapproving, and Shirley was never going to meet her standards.  Geraldine was also always very controlling- I read somewhere she made Shirley wear garters and high heels as a little girl.  She was constantly guilt-tripping Shirley.  She constantly made negative comments; she manipulated her emotions, and most of the time she did it passive-aggressively.  She did it under the guise of love.   


And that seems to be in one sense what Jackson expresses in her writing- it’s at least what lots of people have identified with in Hill House.   There is this sense that Shirley could never get her mom out of her head, and of course, she’s not the only one who struggles with these kinds of things.  In Hill House,  the main character is a 32 year old young woman named Eleanor Vance. I want to add that 32 is not a young age.  She’s not telling the story of a child and the abuses of a mother on a small child.  Eleanor is a fully grown adult who should be living her own independent life for quite some time.  But she hasn’t.  She hasn’t even had an opportunity to do so.  Eleanor has no friends and is alone. That’s what we’re told at the beginning and we will see all the way through to the end of the book when she tells Theo she has never been wanted, it’s been how she’s felt always.  We’re also told Eleanor’s mother is dead right here at the beginning, and that Eleanor has been taking care of her relentlessly since she was twenty years old.   Eleanor’s mom is a constant presence in Eleanor’s psyche, even beyond the grave.  She even buys clothes that she knows her mother hates- pants- just because her mom is dead and can’t do anything about it.   Eleanor is being haunted before she ever gets to Hill House. 


True, and this lack of self-esteem and then loneliness is what has resonated with so many women and men who read Jackson’s stories.  It also is what directly led to a lot of the suffering Jackson experienced in her marriage to Stanley.   


Stanley Hyman, there’s a character.  Before I smear him, I guess I will say right off that bat that he, in many ways, was very supportive of Shirley professionally and admired her intellectually.  My problem with him is that he degraded her sexually- and that is the cruelest and most intimate and demeaning forms of degradation that there is.    For one thing he absolutely did not respect the sexual boundaries Shirley wanted in their marriage.  Besides having so many affairs with students at the school he taught but also really just anyone—he seemed to enjoy telling Jackson all about these trysts.  I’ve read a few of the letters he wrote about women he was sleeping with on various business trips, and I got the feeling it’s almost like he was bragging a little bit.  I’d read a few quotes, but they’re vulgar.  He talked about groping girls- giving details about what he had done. It’s gross never mind hurtful.  And Shirley would get upset.  Although she was a free spirit and Bohemian in some ways, this was not okay with her.  She didn’t want a open marriage where everyone just slept with whoever they wanted.  There are letters where she writes him and expresses how this behavior made her feel, but she never mailed these letters.  I don’t even know why.  Maybe she didn’t have the nerve.  Maybe she knew it made no difference.  Maybe she wanted her family and that was a price she was willing to pay.  I’m speculating.  We only know that  she just took it.  She wouldn’t confront him, at least that there isa record of.  She just forced herself to accept it and moved on with her life.   


And that is an indication of low self-esteem, obviously.  Jackson wouldn’t have put up with that sort of thing like she did, if she didn’t think, at some level, it was her fault or that she didn’t deserve to be treated any better than that.  This is the legacy of a toxic parent.  Allowing people to treat you in a way that is lesser and that is not how you treat them is a direct result of low self-esteem, but I want to add that future abusive relationships is not the only symptom of low self-esteem and it isn’t the only symptom of low-esteem we see in Jackson’s life.   Behaviors that provoke self-harm  like over-eating, over-drinking, and pill-popping- all things Jackson did- are also a result of low esteem and indicate high levels of anxiety.  Feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, shame and guilt- are also things we see in Jackson’s life.  She seems to have truly struggled emotionally.  


True, but before we get too dark, Shirley was all of that, but she wasn’t ONLY that.  She had a happy side too- an apparently tremendously happy side.  I say that from interviews I read that people did with her children.  When her kids write or talk about their homelife, the reports are glowing.  Her home was a happy place.  It was chaotic and topsy turvey at times, the kind of crazy that people love.  They didn’t even see any tension between their parents.  For one thing, Stanley didn’t have a whole lot to do with the family- lots of men didn’t in the 50s, that was the mother’s domain, but from the perspective of her children, her marriage to Stanley was a happy one, as was their home.  So, we see all of that going on.  Back to her biographer, Ruth Franklin, Franklin titled her biography about Jackson, “A Rather Haunted Life” kind of to reflect that idea- that she was haunted, but not entirely, just rather haunted.   


Yes, and it was that dichotomy that leads to all kinds of cognitive dissonance.  I read in another article by a different biographer that Shirley, as a mother was deeply involved but also emotionally erratic.  “Her moods and anxieties colored her children’s days.  No one could be more loving; no one could be meaner.”   


Which brings me back to her as a writer.  One critic observed that out of over 110 different stories that Jackson wrote in her lifetime, most of them are about imperiled, divided or anxious women- and that is including both her scary and her funny stories.  And when we get to her final three novels- they are gothic completely about anxiety, entrapment and in the case of Hill House, a deeply troubled female with an inability to differentiate well between illusion and reality.   


Understanding that really makes the famous first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House  meaningful in a deeper way, at least it does to me. And I do want to emphasize this first paragraph is one of the most famous paragraphs in all of Jackson’s writings: 


No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.  Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might stand for eighty more.  Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” 


And what do you always say, when we start these books, that great writers will give their story away in the first sentence or two. 


They almost always do.  This one in particular invites us to think about so much.  First of all, it starts with a negation- “no” but there are a lot of negative words here.  It’s hard to understand, but something is telling us no- and when we get to the end of the book, that prophecy is fulfilled, although I won’t spoil that just yet and tell you how.  But there’s so much more.   


Listen to the ideas she introduces-  there is the idea of being alive- of being sane- or not sane- another negative word- of standing in the darkness-in the silence- of being alone.  Of being in a house, but yet…being alone.   The alliteration highlights and brings together her key ideas- within walls- drawing attention to the idea of claustrophobia- sensibly shut; silence lay steadily I might add brings the silence and the claustrophobia together.  Then of course- whatever walked- walked alone- the w sound kind of swoshes in her head and haunts the end of that sentence.   


All of her personal demons in one sentence. 


Yes- and all of her personal demons getting ready to flesh themselves out metaphorically for all of us to understand and experience with her.   


This assertion that she makes about absolute reality, of course is a religious or philosophical statement.  This idea that we absolutely just cannot know what is real, and if we did know what is real we would go crazy.  She’s going to say that even little bird or crickets (a katydid is a cricket if you haven’t heard that word yet, it’s not very common)- Not even the simpliest organisms can handle a world without illusions.  We need them to protect our own sanity. 


Yes- and the subtext here suggests because reality is dark; and the reality is you are alone in this world.  You can live – but perhaps you must accept a dream, perhaps an illusion that people have your back, people love you and will support you, but in reality- you are alone.  Perhaps you have to even create an entire fairyland- something to give you an escape from what you know to be true- the betrayal which is coming.  I’m speculating, obviously because I’m fleshing out what is implied with the subtext, at least implied to me-  but there is a sense that that is the direction she’s leading us, and it certainly seems to be something we find in her personal story.  


It’s also kind of a religious statement because it speaks to the nature of reality and that is the essence of faith and walking through life not-alone.  Christy, what was her religious background.   


Well, that’s a very interesting question.  She was raised by members of the the Christian Science church, but later on she developed a real fascination with the occult and was even accused of being a witch.  Garry, what makes Christian scientists different from main stream Christianity? 


Christian scientists, for those who are not familiar with Christianity, adopt many tenents of traditional Christianity but they break from it in a couple of ways that are obvious.  For one,  they do not accept the diety of Jesus Christ in the way traditional versions of Christianity do.  But the second is What most people know and that is the tension is the between The teachings of the Christian science church and their complicated relationship with the medical community.  They  encourage their members to pray for divine healings often perhaps instead of going to doctors.  And this has been controversial in some cases especially for family members outside of the faith.  


That was certainly true for Jackson.  One time she and her brother were horsing around and her brother broke his arm, instead of going to the doctor Geraldine and her mother stayed up all night and prayed for his broken arm.  Her grandmother was a faith healer in the church and Jackson did not approve of this. So, she had this side of her, that would seem more secular- but then Jackson had her own sense of the spiritual.  She carried around tarot cards, tried to communicate with spirits later in her life, and flirted with all kinds of spiritual practices, like I said before, many accusing her of actually practicing witchcraft, ahtough I never found anything that really verified how serious she was about that.  


 So I can see why she might say something about absolute reality being somewhat unknowable or even a dark and lonely thing.   


True, and at least in this book what we see in the the relationships that populate the lives  of the characters is that they are contrived.  In chapter 1 of The Haunting of Hill House, Dr. Montague, a title that is somewhat meant to mislead since he’s really a ghost hunter, assembles a very select group of people to live with him for three months in a house that he thinks is probably haunted.  There are only four people that will be in this house- Dr. Montague himself, Luke, who is a member of the family who will own the house, Theodora who is selected because she may have extra-sensesory perspection abilities and Eleanor who as a child appeared to bring down a shower of rocks.   


We will follow what happens to them from the point of view of Eleanor.  This story is written in the third person omniscient style, but it’s way more akin to the free indirect discourse we saw Jane Austen create in Emma.  Laura Miller in the introduction to the book put it this way, readers "experience the novel from within Eleanor's consciousness, and however unreliable we know her to be, we are wedded to her".  And of course the farther into the novel you get, the more you understand how true this statement really is.  Most of the first chapter is really kind of a way to introduce us to Eleanor, and what we find out about her first is that she is 32, she genuinely and for good reason hated her mother until she died and now genuinely hates her sister.  Let’s read this part… 


Page 3 


She’s clearly alone and exploited by people who are supposed to be protect her.  This is further developed through the anecdote about her sister and their car.  Apparently they bought a car together but her sister never lets her drive it.  So, when Dr. Montague invites her to come to Hill House, she just takes the car and goes.  And while she’s driving to Hill House, she imagines all sorts of things.  She imagines things that could never be real, like the road being an intimate friend or living in a house with a pair of stone lions and people bowing to her on the street because of these lions.  It’s gives you kind of this crazy feeling- like how you would feel if you finally had escaped. 


Yes, and that crazy feeling is going to intensify as the book progresses.  She’s escaped her mother only to land sleeping on a cot in the nursery of a terrible sister.  She’s not escaped her sister, but to go where.  At one point on her drive to Hill House she stops to admire a quarter of a mile of Oleanders.  Oleanders are beautiful flowers but they are also poisonous flowers.  She fantasizes about them about a castle with oleanders …then she gets back in her car and drives to a diner where she’s going to watch a mother try to coax her daughter into drinking a cup of milk- and let me tell you know- these very same images that she sees on her drive in come back towards the end of the book as we, as readers, feel we are losing our grasp of reality.   


But here in chapter 1, when she finally gets to the mansion, the care taker, Mr. Dudley flat out tells her, “You won’t like it.  You’ll be sorry I ever opened that gate.”    She looks at him and asks him to get away from her car…then she proceeds forward.  At the end of the chapter, we see her looking at this house and this is what she says, “The house was vile.  She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseases, get away from here at once.”   


But of course she doesn’t. 


No, she doesn’t.  That’s the thing about haunting houses- they are dangerously tantalizing.  She was invited here by Mr. Montague and for better or for worse, she wants to be here.   I don’t know if the Haunting of Hill House is the best example of this, but Jackson was absolutely fascinated with this- Jackson was fascinated with man’s obsession with what Poe called the “imp of the perverse.” 


Oh yes,  the urge to do something awful to someone and have pleasure in it.  I’ve seen this in kids, a kid just trips a stranger in the hall just because he can.  Paul Salkovskis, a psychology professor, suggests that it’s evolutionary to have these kinds of intrusive thoughts as part of our way of problem solving for future problems.  But this idea that people have impulses to do mean things  or at least things we know we shouldn’t and get joy from them.  Jackson was very interested in this idea.  So, are you saying that Dr. Montague is deliberately doing something mean.  Or that Dudley is?  Or Eleanor is? 


Not really, in other stories she really demonstrates this much more poignantly, but the reason it comes to mind, besides the fact that I’ve been told to look for it in her writings, is that we are setting up relationships where we really can’t trust each other to be there for each other.  Hill House looks like a place where you are really going to feel alone and exposed and that’s where the terror comes from, but we will also see that it’s soft and motherly and the people here at the beginning seem kind of exciting- it’s seductive.   


And I guess it does and has for many readers.  Let me just add one thing I didn’t know until we started studying this book. claims that The Haunting of Hill House is the 8th scariest novel of all time.  And Paste magazine puts it into the unsorted top 30.   


And so we open the gates to this terrifying place- Hill House- next episode we will look at the house itself, we’ll look at the places where biographers think she got her inspiration for the house, we’ll meet the other residents, explore the history of the house and begin to experience the ghosts- if that’s what they are- as they manifest themselves to us through the eyes of Eleanor.   











Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Sonnets Of The Portuguese - Plus A Great Love Story!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Sonnets Of The Portuguese - Plus A Great Love Story!

October 16, 2021

Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Sonnets Of The Portuguese - Plus A Great Love Story!


Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


And I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is our second week in a two part series discussing one of English Language literature’s most romantic couples- the poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Last week, we introduced Robert Browning and his notable dramatic monologue My Last Duchess which gives voice to a twisted psychopath.  We talked a little bit about Robert Browning’s life, but not too much.  This week we’ll return to his story as well as introduce his remarkable wife and her poetry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Christy, am I correct when I say that during their lifetimes, she was famous and he was the Mr. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so to speak?  Also, am I also correct that the man who wrote about the most twisted love relationship in British poetry also arguably had one of the most famous personal love stories!   


You are correct on both accounts- although, in his defense, in regard to the second fiddle Robert played to Elizabeth during her life, history has elevated him over the years.   


And been less kind to her, am I right about that? 



For a while-you’re right- the world turned on  Elizabeth, or EBB, as she signed her things.   


Wait= stop there- EBB for Elizabeth Barrett Browning?  She went by that?   


Well, she had a family nickname BA, but in her professional life-Yes- she signed everything EBB but there is a story.  When she was single she was Elizabeth Barrett Barrett- so, she started that before she got married.  When she got married, she kept up the EBB- it avoided all the normal name confusion women deal with when they marry later in life and have the hassle of changing identities.  In her case, sticking with thethe initials  just made it easy. 


That worked out.   


I agree- Anyway- back to your point that history was RUDE to her.  There was a period of about 100 years where people really criticized put her down.  Virginia Wolfe, specifically, wrote what to me is a cruel essay about EBB’s most accomplished piece of poetry, a long epic novel in poem form called Aurora Leigh.  Wolfe is very condescending for many reasons, but from my perspective, Wolfe just didn’t like poetry very much, and Aurora leigh is an epic poem.   So, EBB, for about a 100 years drifted along on the coat tails of her husband, ironically, whose reputation gained ground over that same period of time.  It was this giant reversal after death.   


Huh- I guess it’s a good thing they were both gone- that could have brought some marital complications!   


So true, but maybe they would have laughed.  When they were alive, Robert Browning once said that the only way he could get a publisher to look at his work was if he promised he’d get Elizabeth to print something with them.   Today, though, over two hundred years later, we can all be relieved to know, history has decided to let them rest together in peace. They are both viewed in high regard in their own rights.  The Wolfe crowd has settled down, and we can see EBB with a more balanced perspective, especially her work Aurora Leigh- something notable but more than we can really handle in one episode-  I did want to mention because it was EBB’s masterpiece- and something that is quite original- if you like her stuff or if you like epic poetry, you should check it out.  No one has really done an epic poem about a female hero like her either before or since, at least that I know anything about. When it came out It was extremely popular, as well as quite scandalous. It’s a plot driven story, and Marian Erle, a heroine in the stories, gets raped, has a child, refuses to hide the fact that it was a product of rape and does not take a proposal in marriage that would redeem her reputation as a fallen woman, so to speak.  It has been said that women read it secretly under their sheets so as not to be discovered, and EBB loved that.   


Let me just tell you, that might scandalize readers even todayOh my, I’d say that’s a very different hero than Odysseus or Gilgamesh, and I can see why Aurora Leigh was so popular so quickly not just in Britain but in America- in fact,. I read it hadsomewhere that they printed over 20 editions before the end of the 19th century.  But, let’s back up and get a little of the back story on this scandalous Victorian celebrity.   


Okay- boring stuff first.  EBB was born on March 6, 1806, the eldest of TWELVE children to very prominent people.  Her father’s family, the Barrett’s owned thousands of acres of sugar plantation in Jamaica plus all the slaves that went with that.  The Barrett’s had gobs of money.  Her early years were happy, and for a while she lived in a fairy land.  Her father built this incredibly lavish estate, and she had free reign to roam at will, and that’s exactly what she did.  In one sense, her family was progressive.  They encouraged and even supported her studying, and she did and loved it.  She had an excellent private tutor and she worked hard- even though at the time for a woman there wasn’t much point in it.  She received a very good classical education becoming proficient in both Greek and Latin.  She read all of the time and anything she could get her hands on- which was a lot.  She also got into poetry writing pretty early on. She wrote for everyone and all the time.  Her father called her the Poet Laureate of Hope End (that was the name of their estate).  He even sponsored the publication of her first epic poem she was only 13.   


Can you imagine a proud father publishing his teenage daughter’s epic poem- that’s definitely a rich kid thing to do. 


Well, it certainly was and an indication that her life was all just dreamy…until it wasn’t.  First, The Barrett’s, as in the extended family, had some sort of squabble about the sugar plantation money and somehow, I’m not sure how, Elizabeth’s dad, lost a big chunk of it.  They lost the big fancy estate and had to move into some sort of temporary housing. 


Then, and this is even worse although, it seems what I’m about to describe happened to a lot of women during this time period, at age 15, she started getting really sick with no commensurate explanation.  To this day, her illness is undiagnosed, but she had all kinds of symptoms that left her weak to the point of literally being physically disabled.   


What did they say it was at the time?  And as historians have looked back through the record is there an idea today about what made her sick? 


Two good questions.  Well, of course, her family tried everything, including moving to live by the seaside- which we’ve seen in a lot of British literature- that came up even in Emma.  But in her case her health never really improved. By the time she was 25, her family was living in London,but that place wasn’t really known at the time for its fresh air- think the chimney sweeper or Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.  What happened to poor Elizabeth is that she ended up spending all of her time confined in a bedroom in that famous address associated with her today- 50 Wimpole Street.    


Well, I’m not sure about 50 Wimpole street, but isn’t 57 Wimpole street the famous home of Paul McCartney- the place where he and John Lennon wrote “I want to Hold your Hand” and then later “Yesterday”.   


Yes- that’s a little bit after EBB’s time there, though.  HA.  But actually, they did make a fairly famous movie called The Barretts at Wimpole Street about Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  So, there’s that too. 


Anyway, back to EBB’s health-  Victorian London, in general,  was dirty and smoggy, and so Elizabeth ended up basically being locked up in her room theoretically for her own good.  There is a school of thought that suggests that Some of her problems were connected to an issue with her spine from an injury she got from falling off a horse.  We also know for a fact she  had a lot of trouble with her lungs.  I think the most trustworthy sources say she probably had spinal tuberculosis. Honestly, I really don’t really know what was wrong with her except to say that by the time she was twenty-five, it seems she was pretty much disabled.  And, if that wasn’t enough, she has another issue- again fairly common for the time period.   Her doctors- proscribed to her meds- and you can probably guess where I’m going with this- that were addictive- and like so many back then as well as today- she became an opium addict, of course, all under her doctor’s care.  This seems a little horrifying to me, partly because we just finished watching the Netflix series The Pharmacist which was an expose on the opium problem in the United States connected to Oxycotin and the ensuing 400,000 overdoses directedly related to that drug.  But Garry, clearly, opium addiction is not a 21st century phenomenon, we talked about it a little bit with Frankenstein because it surfaced a little in that book, and even though this is a little tangential, it’s interesting to me, so tell us about what opium addiction looked like in the 19th century and why would a little doted on homeschool girl wind up addicted to it? 


 Sure, wellFirst let’s establish what it was she was taking.  It was a common drug called laudanum is what Elizabeth Barrett Browning was addicted to..  She wasn’t popping pills or shooting up. anything.   Laudanum was an alcoholic herbal preparation thatand was 10% opium.  It was prescribed pretty much for everything: it was used as a pain reliever, a cough suppressant, it was used to control depression, heart palpitations.  It was given as a sleeping pill, menstrual cramps were treated with laudanum.  Just likeEven worse than oxycotin in the early days of the opioid epidemic today, itlaudanum was an entirely uncontrolled substance. Almost no one took the side effects of the drug seriously- and there were a lot of them- But another point to understand, and again this is just like opioids today- there was that associated euphoria people experienced from taking the drug that encouraged it’s people to use it.  Why not, right?  It’s not hurting anything, and it makes me feel good.    


.  However, as we all know, thatdrug euphoria comes at a cost and the cost was depression, the slurred speech, the restlessness, poor concentration, and of course, theif you ever wanted to get off, terrible withdrawal symptoms.  Here’s one crazy fun fact that might blow your mind- Itlaudanum was even spoon fed to infants, if you can believe that.   


No way! 


But before we judge too quickly with the arrogance of the present, we have to remember, that it wasn’t until 1899 that aspirin was invented.  These were days when there were no antibiotics,  no mild tranquiliers;  not much of anything and people needed help- not just pain relief, but with all kinds of things, and this is what they had.   


Do you think Barrett’s prolonged disabilities could be connected with her drug use? 


I’m sure it’s possible, but I really don’t know.  Laudanum has no curative properties. After they got married, Robert Browning did help her reduce her drug use significantly,  and in fact, she reduced her dosage to where she was finally able to get pregnant after two miscarriages related to laudanum.  After marrying him, her entire health condition improved actually.  She even got to where she could walk again, but I’m not sure what all the factors were that contributed to her general improved health.  She was definitely in a better climate and presumably happy.   I do want to be clear, there was no stigma at that time in using laudanum, so we don’t need to see her as dark or even unconventional because she was a laudanum user.  Lots and lots of people used it for all kinds of things and lots were addicted- including names we recognize like Charles Dickens.   


Okay-moving on to the love story- so Elizabeth was pretty much locked up in her room, disabled but otherwise living a fairly engaging intellectual life.  She was writing poetry, writing letters and basically building a literary career out of that bedroom, even in her disabled state.  In 1838, she published a book of poetry called The Seraphim and Other Poems and that one was met with a lot of critical success- oh and let me note- Elizabeth Barrett Browning published her work under her own name!!!  That wasn’t what a lot of women writers were doing.  But, because her work was well received and NOT anonymous, this led to her corresponding via the mail and making friends with important literary figures of her day- some we’ve even heard of today- famous people like William Wordsworth and Edgar Allan Poe.  In 1844, she published another book of poetry, and it met even more success- and it was the publication of this book that changed her personal life completely.  In one of the poems in this collection,  the poem’s name, btw, was  “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, If you’re interested, but in this poem she references the poetry of another  fairly obscure British poet,  a man by the name of Robert Browning.  Well, this obscure poet, Robert, was highly flattered to be noticed by someone who was now quite famous, and wrote her a letter thanking her for the shout out.  However, this was not your run of the mill thank you note.  In his thank you letter he very forwardly and now famously said this, “I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett”…”, I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart- and I love you too.”   


Ha!  That is forward.  Robert Browning was very much a very bold suitor- no doubt.  He pursued Elizabeth and all throughvia the mail. I was amazed to read there are over 573 letters between these two, and these letters pretty much document the story of two people falling in love.  Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s email drama has nothing on these two!!  They wrote each other every day and seemingly pretty much about everything  in the world.  These were not check in texts.  These were not Joey Tribiani lines like “what’s up!”- they were full on epistles.  


So true, and these letters have been popular reading material ever since- for those of us who want to take stalking to the next level and stalk the love lives of the dead.  You really get an intimate look at two people falling in love.  Elizabeth said they were “talking upon paper”.   When you read the letters, you literally feel like you are injecting yourself into their private world.   


Mostly because you are.   


I guess that’s true, but it is sweet.  Here’s a clip for you to see what I mean.  “You’ve come to me as a dream comes, as the best of dreams comes.”  That’s Elizabeth to Robert. And Robert Browning responds in the same sorts of ways, “I have loved you all my Life unawares- that is the idea of you.”      


It’s a very special back and forth that has been preserved, and they were clearly falling in love now before the eyes of the world and posterity- but we also see that Elizabeth was not totally sure marriage was the path for her.   


 No, she had a couple of serious hesitations.  Not the least of these was her father.  He absolutely did not believe in allowing his children to get married- especially Elizabeth, and by that I mean not ever.  They were a close family, and that put her in a terrible position.  To marry Robert would be to cut off her father.  Her relationship with her father otherwise was good- if you take out the tyrannical controlling thing- I know that kind of fails the say out loud test.    


And of course we see in the letters that Robert, obviously was totally against this kind control over her.     


That was one big problem, but she was also concerned about her disability and her age.  She was six years older.  Would this really work? By the time, they got married she was 40- today 40 is the new 20, but she didn’t feel that way.   She felt past her prime.  These are some of the insecurities, we will see her write about in her love sonnets.  But, at the end of the day, Robert did love her.  He wanted the relationship to work.  And despite her father’s objections, he visited her home 91 times unrelenting in wanting a relationship with Elizabeth.  Garry, do you have a theory as to what Mr. Barrett had against Robert or marriage in general? 


Well, for one thing, he thought Robert might be trying to use Elizabeth’s fame for his own career- and that would be understandable, I guess, although for a 40 year old, today that seems her problem not his.  But the bigger problem was sex in general.  From everything I’ve read he was a good father and loved his daughter.  Elizabeth, who they calledhis Ba- in many ways she his pride and joy.  He struggled with his daughter having her own sexual identity- he had idealized her.  It seems that as he got older, the sex piece was just more than he could handle.  This sort of thing happens even today. 


Well, the locking the daughter up in the room plan failed.   


I will say those plans usually do. 


Robert and Elizabeth were in love, and on September 12 1846, with the help of her maid, Elizabeth sneaks out of the house and marries Robert.  One oddity is that after they get married, she had to sneak back into her father’s house and live there secretly married for another week before they could work out their train tickets to Italy.  But they did ran away together and eventually settled in Florence and where they lived for the rest of Elizabeth’s life.  


One unfortunate fall out is that her father never got over the elopement.  He disowned her; cut her off financially and never spoke to her again.  He would die never to see his daughter again.  That’s sad.  


I suspect she knew that was a possibility, and the reason for her hesitation.  I’m also sure that really hurt, but she didn’t seem to regret her decision.  Italy was her choice.  She’d loved it from her classical studies.  The doctors insisted it would significantly improve her health- which it did.   She also wanted Robert and a life with Robert, so Italy was the plan.  After three miscarriages, they had a son, she began walking again; she got involved with European politics, supported the the Unification of Italy, took stands on women’s rights issues.  She was fully engaged in a life there.  In 1850, she would publish another collection of poetry- this one contained what she is most famous for- her “Sonnets from the Portuguese”.  Selections from this work is what we’re going to read.  These were poems she had written to Robert during those days when she was living locked up in that room on Wimpole street.  She wrote 44 love sonnets to Robert,  but she didn’t give them to Robert until after they were married.   


What’s the connection with the Portuguese?   


Well, when they were dating, Elizabeth wrote a poem about a Portuguese girl named Catarina who was beloved.  Robert loved it and always connected Elizabeth to this fictional girl Catarina from the poem.  When Elizabeth published these love sonnets it was kind of an inside joke- the speaker is the Portuguese (her) and the poems are all love poems to her husband.  Sonnets from the Portuguese. 


Also, you may remember from Robert’s life- he had kind of a bad experience with writing personal confessional poems, so when it came to publishing truly personal poems, he wanted her to create some distance between the speaker of the poem.  So, they basically pretended she translated the sonnets. I like the idea- although, I will say, it’s not super-well disguised.   


So, why are these love sonnets so popular? 


For one, there’s just the idea that they are so so sweet.  And since their love life is so well documented with their letters, the personal story makes the sentiments in the sonnets charming.   Elizabeth was 39 years old.  She considers herself past her prime when they met.  She was disabled.  She expresses what to me seems like a disbelief someone she found to be as amazing as this man she admired really truly loved her.  On his part, it’s kind of a female fantasy- it’s sweet- against a lot of big obstacles,he made her believe he loved her because he did.  He really did.  He was equally enamoured with her.  He admired her.  He wondered how could a woman as brilliant as this woman love me?  


And there we have something special- a mutual admiration- it is this mutual admiration that led to a real intellectual exchange.  In these letters we watch this intellectual exchange develop into a reciprocity of respect and from this respect we see trust and then intimacy. All of this, of course, is exactly the kind of thing Ibsen advocates for in A Doll’s House.  The Browning’s relationship is the exact opposite of the Helmer marriage.  The BrownsingsThe Brownings started  as intellectual equals but then emotionally connect.  After many months of back and forth, after many doubts, we finally land on those famous lines most of us recognize from grocery store valentine cards that young boys glue boxes of chocolates or put in the arms of teddy bears. “How do I love thee, let me count the ways?”  


 I really like Elizabeth; but I also like Robert.  He loved her for who she was.  He was bold; he took risks.  This is something young men aren’t often encouraged to do. For whatever reason, Robert demonstrated leadership, and Elizabeth absolutely reciprocated this strength back to him.  Sonnets from the Portuguese take us on her journey. And because we know the true story of their real-life romance- the sonnets just seem sweet, romantic and precious. 


You seem smitten, Christy, should I be concerned?  Or should I write sonnets? 


Oh, you should definitely write sonnets, But let me say, there is more to appreciate about these love sonnets than just the love confession.  EBB was a rhetorician- and you know I love rhetoric- persuasion.  These poems don’t just express emotion.  They are making an articulate argument- she’s making a statement one I find interesting and relevant. Because Elizabeth was a product of the Victorian era, she had a very specific understanding of the view of the ideal woman of her day.  However, she was an intellectual, her father had done her the disservice of introducing her to Greek and Latin philosophy.  She was enamored with the female poet Sapphos- so as she sat in the confining room on Wimpole street, receiving letters from Robert- she found herself thinking- what does something like romantic love mean for someone like me?  I don’t need a man for money?  I don’t need a man for a career?  I don’t even need a man for love- my father loves me.  What is romance?  What is love?  What is a relationship between a man and a roman?  She sat around her room a thought about those sort of things and she draws conclusions.  


For one thing, she  defines female love in a different way- it doesn’t have to be the same thing as masculine love- but it also doesn’t have to be this frail Victorian helpless type she found typical of the age- she defines feminine love in a stronger way.  For EBB love comes from confidence and fills the lover with confidence. In the beginning we see a woman who was confident in her intelligence; confident in her work, confidenr in her family,  but not necessarily confident in any romantic sense.  And how many of us can relate to that?  This was exactly me as a high school and college student- if I’m being honest.   


 One thing that stands out to me is this idea the frail female.  This WAS the ideal female for a lot of men at this time period.  Of course, most men, even today, want to be strong for a significant lover or the love of women in general,  but this dramatic idea of the sickly and frail woman is very typical of the Victorian period.   I can see that a woman expressing powerful confidence was not something people expected from a female in a romantic relationship and certainly not in a female romantic figure.   


Exactly, and EBB, who ironically was sickly, didn’t want that to be the reason someone loved her.  She ran from that.  In fact, she even ran from being appreciated for being a woman in general.  When Wordsworth died, England needed a new poet Laureate, Elizabeth’s name was recommended to succeed him.  The argument was that there should be a woman poet Laureate for the nation because there was a woman monarch.  Barrett took issue with this- she made the statement that she was not a poetess but a poet and she thought poetry should be judged by its merits not by the sex of its writers. 


HA!!  19th century cross-sectional politics. 


I know, right, but here’s why I bring it up.  When it came to her poetry, she didn’t want to be looked at as a woman-as in a hyphenated sub-group.  She saw this kind of thing as patronizing like how I heard boys talk about girl athletes when I was a kid- phrases like, “she’s pretty fast- for a girl.” That was not Elizabeth’s thing.  It’s why didn’t use a pseudonym like George Eliot or Emily Bronte who went by Ellis Bell.  Hiding your gender professionally  was totally acceptable.  But it seems to me that for EBB she wanted to say- I am a woman- know that-, I have the feelings and desires define me as a woman.   I will write about women and what women care about.  I will show how I as a woman see the world and I will stand confidently this.  This is an important thing to do.   Don’t patronize me by qualifying me by gender; I define my femininity for myself.    But all of that only applies to outside relationships. n 


So, how does it apply to personal relationships?  


It seems crazy, and unljikely but somehow, she and Robert were on the same page in their understanding of how men and women should relate.  He was not intimated by her professional success at all, and he really should have been.  She was very well known; he was not.  Their personal relationship was all theirs.  She was a woman who wanted to be desired, to be cherished, to be loved and adored- and he wanted very much to do all those things for her.  That is a very traditional relationship, and maybe Victorian in nature- but I have to be honest, I love all those very same things.  


As we read these poems, I see a powerful writer but also a dreamy love-struck woman.   “As the prisoners think of liberty, as the dying think of heaven so I think of you.”  That is another quote from one of her letters to Robert- but in this line we see a brave but smitten female voice.   


So, you’re saying, she’s not writing as someone trying to be coy or silently waiting to be seduced.   


 Exactly, she does want to be seduced; she’s just dropping the silent part.  Sonnets from the Portuguese are in sequence; they take us through her evolution of thinking and her emotions on this experience of falling in love.  In sonnets 1-2 we see the woman speaker as object of man- she is not the creator of her own poetic voice yet.  And this of course is what we think of when we think of traditional love poetry- man loves woman- man speaks- woman stays silent- just think about the convention of the sonnets in particular- especially Petrarchan sonnets.  That’s what they were all about. 


Now, we don’t need to rehash our entire episode on Petrarch- although he’s worth listening to if you haven’t listened to that podcast- or at least not in a while- but, by way of reminder, Petrarch wrote sonnets to a woman named Laura who did not return his affection- the entire genre of the Petrarchan sonnet is about objectifying women.    In fact, I’m pretty sure Petrarch never really even refers to Laura as a whole human being- it’s always her hair, or her breasts, her voice, her smile- even the name Laura- some people think just stands in for the word Laurel.   


You’re right.  Laura is distant- impersonal- an ideal.  The sonnets are mostly about Petrarch- the man- not the woman at all. Elizabeth is to not just going to reverse this- she’s going to redefine the sonnet genre entirely.  She’s going to say, I’m the object- yes- I want to be the object, but I’m also the speaker- I am not silent.  I am a recipient of a love that empowers, but I am also the giver of a love that emboldens.  The poetic relationship in these sonnets is reciprocal- His love calls for her poems- SHE writes them.  In a sense, he is a magic prince who kisses and restores her- she sees him like this- but she is not weak, she is not powerless- even in her physical fraility- even in her age- and she did see herself as kind of past her prime maybe physically but definitely not creatively or professionally.    SHE is the creator of the art here- she is creating this new idea that I can be a the muse for love and the creator of its art.   


I also want to point out that their relationship, although it is intellectual,  it is not platonic.  It’s very romantic and there is a lot that is physical here… and some of this is erotic to be honest… He was bold towards her, but now she reciprocates with boldness of her own…. 


Well, that could get interesting.   


I think so, but we’ll let you read those on your own, though.  


Okay- so, we’re going to read three of her sonnets?  


Yes, I want to.   I think it’s nice to try to see a little bit of the progression we’ve been talking about- how they kind of show her evolving into her own understanding of her relationship.  We won’t overdo the analysis thing because there are three of them- and we’ll just try to enjoy them more holistically.  We’ll start with 14, move to 22 and then finish with the famous 43- the one most people know.   



Sonnet 14 


If thou must love me, let it be for nought 
Except for love's sake only. Do not say, 
"I love her for her smile—her look—her way 
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought 
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought 
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day"— 
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may 
Be changed, or change for thee—and love, so wrought, 
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for 
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry: 
A creature might forget to weep, who bore 
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby! 
But love me for love's sake, that evermore 
Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity. 



It seems very straightforward and easy to understand for me.   


It really is.  Just to give a little introduction to the form, notice that it is in iambic pentamenter, that means there are five strong beats in every line- just like in most every other sonnet in the world. Also, just like Petrarch, there is a rhyme scheme abba abba cdcdcd. But, that’s as far as she will follow Petrarch’s model.  In fact, she’s almost responding to Petrarch- don’t love me like Petrarch loved Laura.   He loved her for stuff- for her smile, her look, her way… all that garbage… don’t even love me for any cute thing I say, or even what you do for me and how it makes you feel to do stuff for me, like wipe tears from my cheeks- nonsense like that…I’m just not interested.  If we’re going to do this love thing, we need to get past all that and figure out something much deeper …the smile and tears stuff isn’t enough.    “Love me for love’s sake, that evermore though mayst love, on, through love’s eternity.”   


Well, it’s a very ornate style- and it’s understandable in light of what we know about her own personal underconfidences that she would talk like this, but like I said before, I really enjoy seeing a mature woman experience a deep and intimate love- she’s allowing herself to enjoy all the emotions of love like most people associate with you, but it’s not immature love, it establishs reciprocal terms.  



Another point I want to make before we read the next one, and this may be one of the reasons her poetry was so ill-received in the 20th century, EBB has no trouble exploring her doubts and underconfidences in her romantic relationship.  And we see that a little here, although the earlier ones had more of it.  She seems slightly concerned that if the love relies too much on the physical, it might be a bust.  Feminist critics of the 20th century didn’t like that.  They said things like, she’s lowering herself in the relationship when she should be promoting herself.  And there is a real sense that that is true- she clearly submits to Robert in these sonnets- on purpose- but here is the difference that I think has since redeemed her- it’s a reciprocated submission- it’s not something that Robert himself was not doing.  Today, as we read her poems, we aren’t really offended by her vulnerability.  In fact, the honesty has been reinterpreted as confidence.  It takes quite a bit of sincerity and confidence to be openly underconfident and dependent- as paradoxical as it sounds.   


Well, of course, I agree with that.  And I have to think, from a psychological point of view, that being in love and writing about how it makes you feel at age 39 as opposed to 19 is probably why she can be vulnerable about her self-doubts without coming across as weak and pitiful.  She’s already been through the adolescent stuff as a totally separate issue, so as she tries to understand what about love is overwhelming her and making her feel so differently- she can separate what is unique about this particular love relationship from regular developmental issues of underconfidence or even the loving relationships she’s already experienced from her family- which we have to remember- she’d been adored her entire life.   


Let’s read 22- we can see the tone has shifted.  There’s been a progression from love me for love’s sake to now WHEN we stand erect…the posture is very different.  Let’s read it.     


When our two souls stand up erect and strong,   

Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,   

Until the lengthening wings break into fire   

At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong   

Can the earth do to us, that we should not long  

Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,   

The angels would press on us and aspire   

To drop some golden orb of perfect song   

Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay   

Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit  

Contrarious moods of men recoil away   

And isolate pure spirits, and permit   

A place to stand and love in for a day,   

With darkness and the death-hour rounding it. 


Again, we have the same iambic pentameter- five strong beats in every line.  We have the rhyme scheme Abba Abba cdcdcd.  But what we notice more than the rhyme change is the tone change.  Traditionally in the Petrarchean sonnet the first eight lines set up a question and then the second six lines answer it.  There’s a turn.  In this one, the first eight lines or the octave are going to define the status of their love as it is now.  The last six will argue- quite untraditionally that they need to stop time and just stay in the present moment.   


HA!!  Wouldn’t that be nice to be able to do.   


Yeah- but I guess it’s a nice sentiment even if a bit unrealistic.  I guess that’s why she can enjoy it.  I want to point out how much religious imagery she throws in here.  It’s not two bodies- it’s two souls- they are not constrained by physical restraints anymore- something she was all too familiar with.   I also want to point at how equal the two people in this poem are.  They are two souls- erect and strong- face to face- with wings breaking into fire- that’s pretty cool imagery.- kind of like some mythical phoenix full of power and energy. 


And yet, as cool as they would be, I would prefer to just stay here in this moment with you.  It’s sweet.  Okay, ready for the last one…the famous sonnet 43, the second to last poem in the series- in many ways the concluding one.  In this one, she is going to summarize some of the arguments she’s made throughout the other sonnets.  She is going to catalogue the eight ways of loving that she’s been making for the last 42.  Let’s read it and then we’ll see how this famous love story ends.   


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. 
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height 
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight 
For the ends of being and ideal grace. 
I love thee to the level of every day's 
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. 
I love thee freely, as men strive for right. 
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. 
I love thee with the passion put to use 
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith. 
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose 
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, 
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, 
I shall but love thee better after death. 


By the end of EBB’s sonnet sequence she has reshaped her understanding of love.  She has allowed herself to express her initial insecurities, walked us through her doubts and developed before us a full and complete discovery of what her romantic relationship means.   Again, she is using the same iambic pentameter- and the same abba abba cdcdcd.  It’s simple.  It’s obvious.  It’s confident. Where in the first one we read, there was a lot of insecurity, the second a very confident equality, here she is asserting her own leadership.  I think she’s ready to elope!!! 


HA!!  I guess she is.  Again there is a lot of religious and Christian imagery- it even alludes to the Bible.  The languages borrows from St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians where he describes Christ’s love for humanity.   


Exactly, she’s expressing a completeness here- in every line she’s showing us this cycle.  There’s spiritual love, every day love, free and society love, virtuous love, passionate love, permanent love and finally eternal love- after death. 


Well, how does their story end.   


It’s nice.  First of all, I forgot to tell you, they nicknamed their son, Pen.  That’s cute.  After the elopement and the move to Italy, they had 15 years before Elizabeth’s health finally gave out.  The story goes that on the day Elizabeth died, Robert lifted her up towards him and she kissed him repeatedly, even kissing the air after he put her back on her bed.  Robert was heard saying, “Beautiful, beautiful.”  After she breathed her last breath, he looked at her and said, “How she looks now, how perfectly beautiful.”  This was on June 29, 1861.  That autumn, Robert and Pen left Florence never to return.  He prepared and published her last works that he titled, “Last Poems”.  He was unselfishly pleased that even after her death, sales of her work exceeded his.   


Browning stayed in England, gradually establishing a place in London society.  He did propose again to a woman named Louisa, Lady Ashburton, a rich and attractive widow in 1869.  However, he blew the proposal so badly that she turned him down.  


You know bad proposals are some of the things America’s Funniest Home Videos really taught us all to enjoy.  But how was his so bad.  I mean, he was a poet.  You’d think he could turn a line.    


Oh, he turned a line for sure, but this stands out- even in a long list of bad proposals.   He literally told her that his heart lay buried with his wife in Florence and he really just wanted to marry her for the advantages it would give Pen.   


Well, at least he was honest.   


Yes, he was that- just honest and single.  He continued to write and to publish all the way until his death.  And he died in the same country as his wife.  He and his sister were vacationing in Venice, Italy.  He had bought a house there for Pen.  While in Venice, he caught a cold and died on December 12, 1878 there.  Today, EBB is buried in Florence, but ironically they did not ship Robert Brownings down to Florence to be buried with her.  He actually got a very prestigious placement.  Today Robert Browning’s body rests in Westminster Abbey. 


Wow, that’s impressive and an interesting ending to this very famous romance. 


Unless  it doesn’t end the romance…according to Elizabeth, she was going to love him better after death. 


Ha!!!  Well, there you go, perhaps she’s set those wings on fire!! 


Oh my, we’ve read way too many sonnets this week.  Next week, we are changing gears entirely.  If you’re listening to this in real time, it’s October 2021, Halloween season and we are starting The Haunting of Hill House by the American Shirley Jackson.  It’s not my favorite sub-genre, but here we go…into the scary stuff!!! 


Thanks for listening, please know we appreciate you spending time with us each week.  We hope you are enjoying exploring the classics with us.  If so, please help us by tweeting an episode, posting a link on Facebook or LinkedIn or simply texting an episode to a friend.  And if you’re a teacher, Visit our website for teaching support. 


Peace Out. 



Robert Browning - The Last Duchess - Poetry Supplement

Robert Browning - The Last Duchess - Poetry Supplement

October 9, 2021

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


And I am Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This week and next we will have two poetry supplements.  After talking about one of the worst romances in literature- we will switch to one of literature’s greatest love stories- the romance of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning- although you would never guess it after reading the poem we are doing today- My Last Duchess- a very twisted poem.  You know, Christy, now that I think about it, there’s not really a lot of great love stories that we’ve read.  So many of them end poorly- Romeo and Juliet comes to mind- but even the real life stories aren’t all that awesome.  I can’t say I’m all that impressed with the love story of Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley.   


No, I should think not.  I wouldn’t think Petrarch or Lauuuura define true love either- although Petrarch sure got a lot of mileage out of their non-relationship. 


No, Hester and Dimmesdale didn’t end well. 


Or William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne 


Now that you mention it, whether we’re talking about characters or writers- there’s quite a bit of tragedy involved. 


You’re right- but of course, doesn’t great love tragedies produce great art- look no farther than the new hit song by Selena Gomez about her disasterous relationship with Justin Bieber.  “Lose You to Love Me” debuted at number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 23 weeks- hittint it number one.   


And it was number 1 on Itunes as well.  Of course, Justin Bieber has milked that relationship or should I say, all of their break ups over the years, as well.   


Well, xometimes things do go right- there’s hope for the Noras and Torvalds out there.  HA!  So, let’s introduce at least one love story that went right…Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Except, if you want to know the love-story part, you’ll have to stick around for one more episode.  We’re going to start with this episode by discussing Robert Browning and his most nefarious villiian in “My Last Duchess” and then we’ll look at Elizabeth and her infectious love sonnets- and that’s when we’ll get into their personal story. 


Great, so Robert Browning, what I find unusual about Robert Browning is that there is nothing unusual about Robert Browning.  I’m so used to all of these British poets and their colorful lives, but he’s kind of a non-scandalous person, well- if you don’t count the part about his elopement with Elizabeth, of course. 


Indeed, and that is just how he liked it- perhaps a man of his time.  Let me back us by introducing him as part of the Victorian Age- that glorious period of English history where Britain held the position of world leadership- I guess somewhat like we think of as belonging to the United States today.   


Just for clarification- The Victorian period is considered somewhere around 1837-1900. 


Oh yes- I should have said that.  Not talking about literature, Garry, what stands out about this period of time.   


Well, there’s a lot- it was an incredible period and Queen Victoria was incredibly popular.  When you say Victorian England, a lot comes to mind- both good and bad- but the first thing that comes to my mind, and please bear in mind that I’m American, so there’s the disclaimer- we’re always talking about impressions from this side of the Atlantic, but the first thing that comes to mind is just the incredible amount of material progress- there was unequaled production of goods- England was well on the front end of the Industrial Revolution.  There was a lot of innovation, a growing middle class- but then again on the flip side- with that there’s all the social problems that go with material progress.  Things that we think of Charles Dickens writing novels about- street children, dirty pollution from coal- the sort of things we’ve talking about in other episodes like when we talked about where the Bronte sisters grew up or William Blake’s Chimney Sweepers- and these problems are the things that lots of people but specifically a lot of writers were concerned about and commenting on.  John Ruskin famously said, “that the real test of a community is not how much wealth it is producing but what kind of people it is producing” and of course he’s right about that.  It was something that would take years to sort out- finding the moral balance between production and exploitation- something every society wrestles with and always will.   


Well, the Brownings, surprisingly, weren’t really a part of that protest movement, to be honest- and the reason I say that is because for a big chunk of time, in fact, their entire married life, they lived in Italy. 


Didn’t Ibsen live in Italy, and Keats lived in Italy- Italy seems to be responsible for a lot of great English language writing. 


Ironically, that’s true.  Well, getting to the Brownings, Robert Browning grew up in Camberwell, at the time, a suburb of London. He was the only son of a fairly affluent family.  He was the product private tutoring, world travel, and a lot of what today we would call privilege.  None of this made him a famous poet though.   


It wasn’t for lack of trying.  I was impressed to see how supportive his family was to the point of paying for his work to get published.  I was also impressed by how bumpy his start was.  It seems his work was not well-received initially, and in fact was met with a bit  of mean-spirited extremely embarrassing criticism.  John Stuart Mill said that Browning was parading and I quote a “morbid state” of self-worship after he published his first poem named “Pauline” when he was 21.   


Yeah- that seems meat to me, and maybe would have wiped me out too, but in his case, Browning reacted to those criticisms of his early work in a positive kind of way.  I find it clever, actually,  and this stylistic change altered the course of his career.  He swore off confessional writing- the kind that’spersonal-  and instead modified from the kind of writing he had done in the poem “Pauline” and turned to what today, he is has become famous for- the dramatic monologue. 


Exactly- now Christy, I think we’ve mentioned these before, but what is a dramatic monologue and more importantly, why should we care? 


Thank you for asking exactly the question I wanted to answer! 


Ha!  It’s like you didn’t ask me to ask you. 


Well, there is that- hahaha- anyway, let me start by saying that the reason most people don’t like poetry in general is because they think it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It doesn’t SAY anything. And I realize, we high school English teachers, likely share part of the blame for this dislike of the genre.  More than one teacher, myself included I’m sure, have droned on and on about things that are fairly boring.  I remember a few years ago, and this is a tangent, but it’s stayed with me.  Anyway, it was a junior English class and I started the class by saying something like, “Today, students, we are going to explore some of the key features of American Romanticism and then some of the greatest hits”- to which a kid from the back row rapid fire responded- with “And that is why I got up and came to school this morning”.   It made me laugh because this particular boy, an athlete, could not think of an introduction to anything more boring than what I had just described…although, in fairness, American Romanticism is NOT boring…but I digress. 


Ha!!  I’m sure you changed his mind about the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman.   



 Well, of course I did.  HA!   But where I’m heading is that- when we think of poietry as being  boring.  We often are thinking about confessionals – people whining about their lives, their loves, getting in their feelings for the wrongs life has brought upon them- that sort of thing.   


For most of us- that is not the purpose of reading.  We think of writing as a form of communicating information, and reading as a form of gathering information.  The problem with a poem is that it has no information.  And so the natural reaction to it is the very honest question- why am I reading this?  But we shouldn’t read poetry like we would read an article on Snap Chap or a newspaper editorial.   Instead, we should judge it with a very intuitive criteria- did I learn something, did it make me laugh or cry, was it unexpected, did it change my mind?  That sort of thing? 


 But isn’t learning or gathering information a large part of what writing is about? 


Well, of course that’s true- but it isn’t a very good way to read poetry because if you do it that way you just can’t enjoy it-  what makes great poetry is not the transmission of information at all.  What makes great poetry is the exact same thing as what makes great plays or great novels or great music- they voice ideas about the world- they spotlight things we experience, things we’ve seen but have not articulated, things we’ve noticed but have not thought.  Great poems are not about the poet at all- they are about us- the reader.  They are about our experiences in the world- they are about understanding the people and the emotions that populate our world. And then we are no longer alone in our world- even from 100 years ago, there was a guy who knows somebody like I know.   And Robert Browning did this sort of thing extremely well.  And I want to explain how all of this works.   


Sounds good.   


One thing we have to always keep in our minds about a poem is that the speaker is not the author.  In other words the poem may be in the first person, but that doesn’t mean we are to understand that the speaker is writing about himself.  Example, a poem may say “I love chopped onions” and the poet actually hates them, but the speaker of the poem can say I love chopped onions because this speaker is his own separate character totally apart from the poet. And in this world that has been created, the speaker likes chopped onions.    This is, of course, true for plays as well, we know that Nora is not Ibsen , nor is Torvald.  But when we read poetry, we slip into the habit of thinking the poet is writing about his or her own life- that it’s ocnfessional.  And although, that’s sometimes true, and it was true for the poems we’re going to read by Elizabeth next-  it’s not necessarily true- in fact, I would argue- it’s mostly not true.  So, that brings us to dramatic monologues.  In the dramatic monologue, especially Browning’s,  it is extremely apparent that the speaker is NOT the poet.   Browning wants to make it very clear he is not using dramatic monologues as a masking technique to talk about himself.   


Instead, he uses this poem, My Last Duchess,  to explore something really twisted in humanity- and although, I doubt many of us know a guy as twisted as this guy from this poem- he doesn’t sound unrelatable.  As we read the monologue, Browning pushes forth a really aggressive commentary on how people treat each other, but he does it with a sort of ironic detachment.  He can entertain us as well as comment on how humans behave towards each other because he’s not talking at all.  He will allow the twisted character to just talk and through this guy’s, own confessions, he tell us information about himself, his view of the world, his behaviors and from there we are enabled to actually judge for ourselves how nuts this guy is, and then we can extrapolate people we may have met who are kind of like this, or maybe even really like this.   


Well, I have to say, as a student of psychology, My Last Duschess, is one of the more psychologically twisted characters and fascinating characters I’ve read about since we’ve started this podcast.  The inordinate level of hubris Browning expresses through this duke makes most egomaniacs we know look small time.   


True- but although none of us go to dinner parties expecting to see pictures of dead wives behind curtains, we may know someone we also find to have an absurd level of vanity disproportionate to their accomplishments or essence- that hints at this level of hubris. That to me is how this poem connects to A Doll’s House, Torvald Helmer, but in his middle class suburban way expresses this  unusual degree of possessiveness that we see blown up in a Renaissance setting.  Torvald doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would murder his wife, but he most certainly has reduced her to a work of art, a treasure- something comparable to a portrait on a wall to be brought out and admired, but then put back on the shelf- that portrait better not exercise any sort of will of her own- and if she knows what’s best- try to stay mostly quiet and unsmiling towards strangers.   


So, in case, you are unfamiliar with the poem and I’ve confused you, let me introduce you to the speaker of Browning’s poem.  The speaker in this poem is an Renaissance Italian Duke- a extremely wealthy man, who’s pedigree includes a 900 year old name.   


Garry, was the guy in the poem a real person or totally something Browning made up entirely in his head.   


Interesting you should ask that because as you know, I’ve always thought that writers write from their experience or what they know- but in the case of this particular poem- if this is an actual person- I’m not really sure we can say that it is.  We do know that Browning was well traveled and in 1838 spent two months in Northern Italy studying Italian history and legends.  This poem seems to be set somewhere in that area- there’s a lot of scholarship to say maybe the town of Ferrara which, for those of us less familiar with Northern Italy, think of it as North of Florence but South of Verona or Venice.  This may or may not be the right town or the right Duke, but it’s an interesting hypothesis that the Duchess in the story could be Lucrezia, Cosimo de Medici’s younger daughter who was married to Alfonso of the Este family.  She supposedly died of tuberculosis, but Alfonso showed no interest in her as a wife- to the point that he left three days after their wedding in Florence without his new bride for France.  He didn’t even see Lucretia for the next two years.  When he did come back to Ferrara, he sent for his wife, she moved to Ferrara and a year later, barely 17 was found dead.  It could have been tuberculosis, it could have been poisoning, we all know the Renaissance is famous for a disproportionate share of people being poisoned to death including a few members of the DE Medici family, and of course, Catherine de Medici was famous herself for poisoning people. 


I saw that in the tv series, Reign.  Well, getting back to our Duke, what about this Duke from Ferraro, Alfonso the Second,  what kind of guy he- does he match the profile of someone who might poison his wife?   


That’s a good question.  It seems he was something of a jerk.  Historians, and let me quote one, called him an “immoderately arrogant and conceited, and prided himself beyond measure upon his bravery, intelligence, and ancient descent.  With all that he was vengeful and ever ready to pursue a feud.”  So, there you have that commentary, it seems a possibility-  but of course, as we will see as we read the poem, Christy, are we even sure the Duke in the Last Duchess murders his wife?  Renaissance murderers were kind of mysterious like that- you just never knew.   


I guess so, before we get out of the history part and start reading the poem, let me ask one more question.  In this poem, the Duke keeps a portrait of his murdered wife behind a curtain so he can admire her and show her off when he wants to, is there a portrait of Lucrecia that we know of today that might have inspired this poem?  Or is there a painter called Fra Pandolf- the name of the painter in the poem?  Do we know of any  emissaries that would have been representing the would be the next duchess- the one to follow the Last Duchess?  Is there any historical evidence based on the clues from the poem that any of the other characters were real people? 


Well yes and no- the first hurdle in definitely declaring this poem to be about Lucretia de Medici- is that  There is no such painting that we know of, and there is no such famous painter as Frau Pandolf.  But, if we just assume that there might have been but it’s just gone to history, and we work on the assumption that the Last Duchess is Lucrezia de medici, that means the second wife would have to be Barbara of Austria.  There’s a long story there, their marriage only lasted 8 years before she died.  She was most famous for her work with destitute young girls and even founded a house for them.  After she died, Alfonso married a third time, this time to Margherita, the 15 year old  niece of  his wife Barbara of Austria. 


Well, whether this is the guy or not, he does seem to be creepy enough to fit the bill. 


I think so.  And honestly, it doesn’t matter.  This stuff is just interesting stuff to discuss at Trivia night. 


I agree, I’ve read enough Machiavelli to know that the Renaissance boys were not above poisoning people for most anything- and that isn’t even the point.  Browning doesn’t tell us who it is maybe because it’s a composite of a couple of people, maybe it’s because it’s a totally made up person, but I think because in a more important sense, this is metaphorical- this Duke is a metaphor of a familiar ego- one a reader of Ibsen might latched on to, one we can all latch on to.  And yes, this is a poem about objectifying women again, and this is why we chose to feature it this week, but honestly, if you think about it= the metaphor of the ultimate egoist s person so stupid and delusional that he sees himself as the Neptune in his world is not far fetched. 


Ah- no- I’d say- look no farther than a twitter feed.  Shall we read, Christy- as this is a dramatic monologue- to what degree should we bring a dramatic reading to the text. 


I think we should bring a very dramatic reading to it.  Do you want to give it a go. Let’s read break it up, and then we can put it all back together and see if we can understand it.   


Sure, let me read it…. 



Okay, there’s a lot to say, but I want to break everything down so that the poem can be fun- and it is fun.  The way to read poems, and I know I’ve said this before, and not just me, but everyone, is read them slowly.  It’s about enjoying the details.  It’s not about rushing to the end, so let’s do that… 


That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, 

Looking as if she were alive.  


Sentence one- we are to see that the duchess is painted on the wall- we’ll understand in a minute that that’s probably a fresco, but that doesn’t necessarily matter.  She looks as if she were alive, implying she’s dead.  We also know that the belonged to the Duke- it’s his duchess and we know it’s the last one whe had.  We should also be alarmed that the tone here is quite detached.  Garry, I hope if something bad happens to me, you don’t talk about me like this.  There is no tenderness here- there’s pride, perhaps, but no tenderness.   


Let’s keep going…. 


I call 

That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands 

Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 

Will’t please you sit and look at her? 


Sentence 2- 3The piece is a wonder- not the woman- again-the PIECE is the wonder- be it the paitning or the woman- it’s all very detached.  But we also are told that she was painted by Fra Pandolf- Garry, you said we don’t know anything about this guy for sure, but is there any historical context that could give us some help in understanding subtext here. 


Well,  Fra- is short for Friar- this is a catholic monk or priest.  That tells us that there is NO sexual hanky panky going on.  Friar’s take vows of chastity, and although we know there were those that broke them, there were more that didn’t and we should presume that here as well.  Also, he worked busily a day- may imply that this IS a fresco.  Fresco paintings had to be done in one day, like with Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel because when the plaster dries youre done.  But the nice thing about them is that once they do dry, they last forever.  If you wanted beauty to never die- a fresco would be the way to go. 


And notice this rhetorical question- whoever the Duke is talking to is basically being told to sit and admire the last Duchess.  We will soon find out that this guy is the emissary for the new Duchess, so in a sense, it is not appropriate to sit and stare at the last Mrs. So, we have to wonder, why does he insist on this?  This next sentence is really very long and difficult to understand.   



I said 

“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read 

Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 

The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 

But to myself they turned (since none puts by 

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 

But to myself they turned (since none puts by 

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 

How such a glance came there; so, not the first 

Are you to turn and ask thus.  


This sentence takes a couple of rereads to just make sense of it- but let me put it in my words.  Basocially, he’s saying that Fra Pandolf- on purpose- captured a very specific facial expression in the face of his ex-wife.  She had this certain deep and passionate smile- the way he’s suggesting here- it’s almost a sexy smile- and- according to this duke, he imagines that the guy he’s talking to is like everyone else in the world and everyone else in the world- when they see this painting want to ask him, although they don’t dare because this duke is just that intimidating- they want to ask him who she’s looking at to give such a sexy glance.  And then he is just going to tell this guy- who did not ask that question or even ask to see this painting- who exactly his wife was looking at when she gave this sexy smile.  And notice that the way he phrases it almost suggests the last duchess was perhaps cheating on him.   


Sir, ’twas not 

Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 

Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps 

Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps 

Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint 

Must never hope to reproduce the faint 

Half-flush that dies along her throat.” 


He says, it wasn’t just my presence that gave her that sexy smile.  Maybe even Fra Pandolf happened to suggest that she reveal a little more skin- implying maybe she liked to show a little more skin- a little more wrist.  He goes on to say that paint couldn’t possibly reproduce her half-flush.  All of this is pseudo sexual language that ends with death threat along the throat.   


Let me interject something here that caught my eye- the way he talks to the guy he’s talking to is very condescending.  He makes him sit down.  He uses the term “sir” and “you” instead of “thee or thou” that would have been more appropriate between men of equal station of the time period.  He is talking down to this guy for whatever reason. 


Look at these next two sentences- 


 Such stuff 

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 

For calling up that spot of joy. She had 

A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad, 

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er 

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 


He’s going on and on about this sexy smile.  But here he again implies she’s permiscuous.  He uses the word “stuff”- that is a very vague term which we use euphemistically for things we don’t want to say outloud.  Then he says this, “she had a heart- how shall I say?- too soon made glad” that phrase- how shall I say is set off with dashes.  This duke is stopping as if he can’t quite find the right word to describe the behavior for his wife- how shall I say- he’s looking for that word and the words he comes up with are “too soon made glad”- or she gets happy to easily- again implying almost less subtly that she flirts inappropriately.  Just the very idea that he wants to pretend that he has to find the right word- he’s been rattling on and on in perfect iambic pentameter for a good 22 lines with no need to even have any dash at all- much less a problem with coming up with the right words.  In fact, he has already told us he shows off this picture many times apparently to a bunch of people who look at that sexy smile and wonder who she’s smiling at.   


He will continue to imply that his wife was a slut with even more euphemisms.  Read the next two sentences.   


Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er 

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 

Sir, ’twas all one!  


That last sentence, is a telegraphic sentence- that means it’s very short for the purpose of highlighting a very important idea.  She looked everywhere and with that same dang sexy smile.  It’s clear by this point he hated that.    


My favour at her breast, 

The dropping of the daylight in the West, 

The bough of cherries some officious fool 

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 

She rode with round the terrace—all and each 

Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 

Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked 

Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked 

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 

With anybody’s gift. 



And now we are let on to the secret that this guy may be a psychopath.  Look at what he’s jealous of- that duchess presumed to look at the sunset with her sexy smile.  A nice person gave her a cherry and she gave him a sexy smile.  She gave her mule that sexy smile.  Now we are led to question, is this really a sexy smile or is this just a kind smile?  It appears she had the audacity to thank people for things- clearly something he doesn’t do.  And in fact, something she should not do- the only person she should ever be thanking is him.  He gave her the most p recious thing in the entire universe- his name- and if she thanked him other people with the same words as she used to thank him- or if she smiled at people with a kind smile- that was a direct assault him.  Who does she think she is? 


Who’d stoop to blame 

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 

In speech—which I have not—to make your will 

Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this 

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 

Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let 

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse— 

E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose 

Never to stoop.  


Notice how the tone seems to shift here.  He’s getting a little angrier.  He’s also throwing out more of those dashes- this time to set off the phrase that he doesn’t have skill in speech- of course he has skill in speech- that’s the whole point.   


It reminds me of when I’ve fussed at my children and said something like, “I guess I didn’t make myself clear when I asked you to clean your room”- you’re not really communicating you were not clear, you’re communicating you WERE clear and you were ignored.   


Exactly- and apparently he had told her that certain behaviors of hers like smiling and thanking people were disgusting to him and she blatantly ignored this.  She refused to be lessoned- and of course we have a pun here- because lessons are something that you learn- she refused to be taught- but she also refused to be lessened as in made smaller.  She didn’t stoop – but here’s what’s worse. He didn’t actually tell her anything.  He didn’t actually ask her to do or not do anything.  For him to actually have to tell her to do these things- that in and of itself would be degrading to him.   


I’ve been told that line before- perhaps you have to- I shouldn’t have to tell you to do this- you should just know it- you should WANT to do this thing that I want you do to do.  And by you not knowing or not wanting the right things that I want you to want or to like- THAT is the infraction- the insult lies there.  How could you NOT want this thing that I want you to want or have this behavior that I want you to have.  The very idea that I would have to stoop to tell you is in itself an insult beyond scope.   


And if you are not convinced that he’s psycho- he’s got more to say.  First to confirm that she did not cheat on him or even hate him.   


Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, 

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without 

Much the same smile? 


She smiled at him.  It seems, as we are now to assume, that she did not have a sexy smile but that this smile was a kind smile- she smiled kindly at him.  And THIS was an insult because that smile, that we see on the wall- that sexy smile that is now a kind smile- she gave out to other people besides him.  Why would she do that!??  That was just too too much, so the poor person sitting down and listening to this is supposed to clearly understand that by this point he had no choice- she had to go.   


 This grew; I gave commands; 

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 

As if alive. 


So, did he have her executed? 


I know- it’s ambiguous.  I read somewhere that someone directly asked Browning this question to which and one time he replied smugly, I didn’t say he had her executed.  I said all smiles stopped, maybe he sent her to the convent.  But another time he said, yes, these were commands to be put to we are left to make that determination for ourselves.  I will say, I think the person he’s talking to thinks he had her killed.  As we read these lines, there’s an indication that tried to bolt but the Duke won’t let him. Let’s read the ending. 


 Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet 

The company below, then. I repeat, 

The Count your master’s known munificence 

Is ample warrant that no just pretense 

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 

Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed 

At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go 

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! 



How do you think that means the emissary is trying to bolt? 


Well, first the Duke tells him to get up for them to go down together to meet the new duchess- but then he says, nay= nay means no- no to what- I think the guy was trying to get head of him because he says, “nay, we’ll go together.”  He’s not letting this guy out of his sight.  He’s enjoying this.  He wanted to tell this story.  He wanted to brag on his omnipotence- it’s not a coincidence that he’s showing off another piece of art of his- this one a Roman God- Neptune.  And this is the final thought of the poem and worth us taking a minute to think about.  Again- this is why poetry is not informational.  The fun of poetry is not to get to the end and get all the information.  The fun of poetry is to slow down and think the thoughts the poet is feeding you.  Following the clues and hearing his voice.  Browning, from over 100 years ago wants to give us a few ideas about life and how to look at certain people that surface in every generation.   


And the final image is this statue of the Roman god, Neptune.  When we see the statue, the first thing we think about is =huh, another piece of art.  Browning has created a frame for his poem- he started and ended his poem with art- these two pieces.  Then the next thought should be- huh- I wonder what Neptune is supposed to tell us.  Who is Neptune?  How does art piece number two connect with art piece number 1? Well, obviously, Neptune is the god of the sea- the Greeks called him Poseiden.  But what is he doing here- well- he’s taming a sea horse- what does that mean?  This statue is not a static statue- it’s not a bowl of fruit, it’s not even a horse in a park.  It’s a Roman god taming  a sea horse.  Neptune, in general is god of the sea – he commands and controls nature itself- the environment- there is a suggestion here of violence- by casting the sculpture in bronze the Duke has tamed and stopped the god taming the sea- he is the master of it all- he is in total control- Neptune has restrained the sea horse in exactly the same way as the Duke has restrained his wife- he controls the vitality- just as he has frozen the vitality in this statue- the vitality of his wife is also frozen.   


Well, and what is ironic about all of it- is that in describing his ex-wife- he describes a woman totally in tune with life- she connected to nature, to others, to animals- she was the very expression of vitality- to the point that her vitality is expressed in a smile he tries to explain away as adulterous.  He is bragging because he had the power to get rid of that smile- to get rid of that vitality- she could be reduced to a work of art in death- something he could never accomplish in life.   


And yet, there is more irony even in this…in order to destroy his wife- he preserved her for all eternity.  We all know that art outlasts a single lifespan.  By destroying her vitality- he preserved her vitality.  


Oh my, that’s confusing- are you trying to make us crazy.   


Maybe- but I’m trying to point out how fun poetry can be if we let it.  Let’s read it put back together. 


That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, 

Looking as if she were alive. I call 

That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands 

Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 

Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said 

“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read 

Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 

The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 

But to myself they turned (since none puts by 

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 

How such a glance came there; so, not the first 

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not 

Her husband’s presence only, called that spot 

Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps 

Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps 

Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint 

Must never hope to reproduce the faint 

Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff 

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 

For calling up that spot of joy. She had 

A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad, 

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er 

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 

Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast, 

The dropping of the daylight in the West, 

The bough of cherries some officious fool 

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 

She rode with round the terrace—all and each 

Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 

Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked 

Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked 

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 

With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame 

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 

In speech—which I have not—to make your will 

Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this 

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 

Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let 

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse— 

E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose 

Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, 

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without 

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; 

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 

As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet 

The company below, then. I repeat, 

The Count your master’s known munificence 

Is ample warrant that no just pretense 

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 

Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed 

At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go 

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! 



  A great writer can make things simple- like the simplistic understanding that this is an excellent portrait of a psychopath- which it is- to a historical understanding- as an expose on the dark side of the Renaissance- a moralistic understanding- like beware of objectifying self-serving schucks- or what I will call an optimistic reading….freedom and vitality cannot be contained…life finds a way… (to quote that philosopher Michael Crichton) and that way may just be through a poem.. .  Thank you Robert Browning.   

Yeah- well there you go- today’s take away- stop reading for information- but read looking for the vitality!!!   


Yeah!  Read for vitality!! It’s there!   


Next episode, we will tell you the famous love story of Robert Browning and his celebrity wife, Elizabeth Barrett, and we’ll read some bona fide love poems.  Thank you for spending time with us today.  We don’t take that for granted.  Support us, if you don’t mind, by tweeting an episode on your twitter feed, your linked in feed, or your facebook or Instagram feed.  Text an episode to a friend and help us grow. 


Thank you. 


Peace out. 



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September 25, 2021

A Dolls House - Henrik Ibsen - Episode 2 - Is It Or Is It Not A Feminist Play?


Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is episode two in our three part series over Ibsen’s explosive play A Doll’s House.  Last week, we looked briefly at the life of Ibsen, his early origins in Norway, the beginning of his career all the way to this play- the one that launched him into stratosphere of Theater greats- It still amazes me that his plays are only outperformed by those of William Shakespeare.  Crazy!!!  We also looked at the very very beginning of this play- we entered the doll house by meeting Nora as she came back from a shopping trip.  We talked about her unique role in this play- she is the entire focus of the play- Nora IS the doll- but we also began to expand the metaphor a little bit because we are also introducing the idea that Nora is not the only person playing a part- maybe she isn’t the only doll in the house. 


No, I don’t think she is- although she’s the most interesting and the focus, no doubt.   This play is fascinating because there are so many subtle details that leave subtext about so many psychological and sociological ideas- this is, to a greater or lesser degree- a play about someone we all know- if not about ourselves.  To what degree do we all play parts and to what degree do we want to?  Do we use people?  Are we used being?   Are we in a relationship where both parties are using each other? What are the moral implications of this?  Does an arrangement like this bring happiness? What are the inevitable consequences- and are these consequences  different for men and women because of the different roles we absolutely can’t escape either sociologically or biologically on planet earth?  And it is that last question that we will start discussing today.  Because, if you google this play at all, the unanswered question that has plagued this play- to the chagrin of Ibsen himself for over 100 years is this- IS or is this NOT a feminist play?  Is Ibsen advocating for women’s rights?   


HA!! It’s really amazing that so many books that have staying power over the centuries end up landing on gender politics?  From Antigone to Wuthering Heights to The Scarlet Letter and the Great Gatsby- gender politics is absolutely inescapable at one level or another. 


Well, it absolutely IS- and speaking of gender politics in the 20s, Hermann Weigand a notable literary critic of that time period once said about having watched the doll’s house that “he was, like all men, momentarily shaken by the play.  He said this, “Having had the misfortune to be born of the male sex, we slink away in shame, vowing to mend our ways.” 


Ha!  That’s funny.  I get the feeling since I’ve also had that very same misfortune that I’m supposed to feel that way after watching a lot of things.   


Indeed, and, that of course IS the goal of most things women write (I’m kidding- I’m not trying to insult anybody, just having a bit of fun), but having said that, Henrik Ibsen absolutely ran from this “feminist” label.  So much so that in May 1898, he gave a speech at a banquet held in his honour by the Norwegian Women’s rights league and this is what he said at the speech. 


“I am not a member of the Women’s Rights League.  Whatever I have written has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda.  I have been more the poet and less the social philosopher than people generally seem included to believe.  I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the Women’s Right’s Movement. I am not even quite clear as to just what this Women’s Rights Movement really is.  To me, it has seemed a problem of mankind in general. And if you read my books carefully you will understand this. True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others; but that has not been the world purpose. My task has been the description of humanity.  To be sure, whenever such a description is felt to be reasonably true, the reader will read his own feelings and sentiments into the work of the poet.  These are then attributed to the poet; but incorrectly so.  Every reader remolds the work beautifully and neatly, each according to his own personality.  Not only those who write but also those who read are poets. They are collaborators. They are often more poetical than the poet himself. With these reservations, let me thank you for the toast you have given me. I do indeed recognize that women have an important task to perform in the particular directions; this club is working along. I will express my thanks by proposing a toast to the League for Women’s Rights, wishing it progress and success. The task always before my mind has been to advance our country and to give our people a higher standard. To achieve this, two factors are important. It is for the mothers, by strenuous and sustained labor, to awaken a conscious feeling of culture and discipline. This feeling must be awakened before it will be possible to lift the people to a higher plane. It is the women who shall solve the human problem. As mothers, they shall solve it. And, only is that capacity can they solve it? Here lies a great task for women. My thanks! And, success to the League for Women’s Rights [6].  

Well, Christy, what should we say about that.   That seems pretty clear. He is obviously distancing himself from Women’s Rights- are we not to take him at his word? 

I know, and it seems a bit ironic coming from me because I am always insisting that we take people at their word- but in this case, I’m sorry- I have to say- bull malarky- Henrik Ibsen- you are full of it- like it or not- you, darling are a feminist- I don’t care what you say!!!  This man was absolutely a feminist- and why would you even accept an honor from a women’s rights organization if you weren’t?  What a crazy thing to say while accepting an award- now having said that-  I do take him at his word- in the literally since.  Meaning if you listen to his words and what they actually mean, what he says here is actually literally true.  I do think he doesn’t want to be writing propaganda for the women’s rights movement.  Propaganda in and of itself is the opposite of art.  It’s not even honest, by most definitions.  Ibsen wasn’t trying to do that.  Also, there is no doubt that   he is interested in humanity.  But none of those things are mutually exclusive.  He’s also interested in how sexual politics defines our humanity.  

Well, as I said before- nothing is more interesting on planet earth than humans and there is no doubt how men and women relate is a “problem” to use his language that we cant really solve..   

 Well, there’s no doubt.  But Ibsen because of his interesting friend group in the theater, had a different perspective on gender politics  than most men living traditional Scandanavian lives at the turn of the century.  The women in Ibsen’s world were extremely strong women.  They were building careers in the theater; involved in creative endeavors, highly educated.  We know this from reading his biography, but we also know that by reading his work.  Ibsen creates stories where the women outshine their male counterparts over and over and over again.   He was almost drawn to stories where women were grappling with patriarchial societies and the imbalances of power within them.   

The women who filled Ibsen’s world really are a fascinating subgroup.   

Well, that’s a whole tangent, and don’t think I’m not tempted to go down it, not all of those stories, though, reflect super-well on Ibsen.  As far as his relationship with his wife, Suzanna goes, their son weighed in on that relationship later on his life and basically credited his mother for Ibsen’s entire career.  Apparently there were many times when he wanted to give up- he didn’t have the stamina for it in the early days- and it seems to me that even his personality was much weaker than hers.  Sigurd said this, “The world can thank my mother that it has one bad painter the fewer and got a great writer instead.”   


Suzannah was for sure a strong influence obviously, but beyond his wife, Aasta Hansteen, was a very famous and outspoken advocate for women’s rights in Norway at that time, and I know she was a good friend of Ibsen.  I may want to circle back to some of the history of women’s rights next week after we get to the conclusion of the play because it is certainly something to think about in the context of the play’s ending.  But  there is no downplaying the realities that being a single or divorced woman in Scandanavia or really anywhere in the Western World was not the easiest path to take in life at that time. 


No doubt, And I think how this affected women’s psychology really fascinated Ibsen on an personal level as well as a professional level.  On a different occasion when talking about laws, Ibsen can be quoted as saying this, A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsels and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view” , and then my favorite Ibsen political quote was when they asked him about property rights for married women.  He said that men should not even be consulted in drafting this law because and I quote, “to consult men in such a matter is like asking wolves if they desire better protection of the sheep” [7].  


Okay, so back to the question of whether ibsen was a feminist, I think there is enough indicting evidence to suggest that Ibsen was involved at least in sympathy with the imbalance of power in a patriarchial society.  However, I would like to point out that women are not without power in every generation. 


And I think that’s a very nice way to say that, he did see the disadvantages of a society where distribution of power was so unevenly distributed between the sexes, but having said that, I think Ibsen , at least in this plays, does not see women as necessarily powerless even in this unequal society- and it is this dynamic that he highlights.  I’m not even sure, Ibsen would suggest that if society was unequally balanced and the balance of power favored women, women would be less tyrrancial then men- but that’s a different question altogether- a play yet to be written, I think.   


Where I want us to land, as we open our discussion of the play today, is to take a position on this issue before we even read the play.  I want to come down on the side that sees this play as a feminist play.  


I agree.   I absolutely don’t think we can escape that. 


Having said that, writing a play where the theme is men are bad is not interesting.  It’s been done over and over and over again.  In fact, I’ve ready high school creative magazines filled with poems that pound that theme to death.  No play will stick around in popularity for over 100 years if that’s all it has.  There has to be more. 


This play is focusing on women-but in particular- one woman- and it’s looking at several things as we look at this one women- one of them is how this imbalance of power between sexes affects a marriage and a homelife in general. But there are other things as well. 


 A Doll’s House is a such a personal play in some sense.  As Thorton Wilder tells us in Our Town, most people choose to go through life with another person.  So, this is about how some people live that life- a way that’s slightly cynical maybe.  This play pulls back the curtain on this couple and their love affair.  Two people who think they are in love.  But we are left to question this reality- what is the basis of this love?  What is the basis of this marriage?  Their lives are great.  They have had lots of fun.  They’ve traveled.  They have children.  He has a good job.  She spends her days shopping.  But Ibsen is asking- okay- so now- what is the basis of the relationship between these two people- what is it really?  Could it be something besides a devoted commitment to walk through life together?  Could it be something like societal expectations, competitive relationships with people outside the home, personal narcissism or simply the objectification of another person?    


Ibsen exposes a marital reality that way too many people see in their own lives and relationships and wish they didn’t.  He asks questions that many people ask years into a marriage after they’ve tried one way of living and are now questioning the wisdom of those choices?      


So, Christy, are we ready to open up this text and walk through the rest of Act 1-2? 


I think so, last week, we read a little bit of this dialogue between Torvald and Nora.  It’s so awful. He’s so condescending.  He calls her by animal names and not even cool animal names like Flying Phoenix or Cunning Fox- he goes with little squirrel.  


For the record, Christy hates Torvald’s names, if you can’t tell.  And just so you know, I have not been able to resist the temptation to call Christy my little skylark and my little squirrel for the last two days- and every time I do it, if I’m within strking distance I pat her on the top of her head.  I may as well tell you, I’ve been enjoying it, but I’m not sure that she appreciates it in the spirit that is intended. 


The pat on the head is particularly awful.   It highlights my height impairment.  Since this is a podcast, you don’t know this about me, but I’m a full 11 inches shorter than Garry- so patting me on the head is particularly awful. 


It’s awesome.  And it’s not just the animal terms- although I find those hilarious.  Using the dimunuitive by adding the word “little” all the time and then the possessive adjective “my” multiples the level of condescension.  I can feel it as I say it and as I pat you on the head, my little squirrel. 


Good Lord.  


 Ibsen leaves absolutely zero room for doubt that Torvald views Nora as his possession- his prized and most expensive possession, and even one that he loves dearly- but clearly a possession.   That is premise number one in Ibsen’s argument. 


Having set that up, though, he switches gears and immediately proceeds to paint Nora very unglamorously.  She condescends to Mrs. Linde almost as much as Torvald does to her, albeit it’s way more passive aggressive.    Some people really think Mrs. Linde is supposed to represent some sort of a feminine ideal, but I don’t know about that.  In fact, I know I don’t think she is.  She is most certainly at this point in her life an independent working woman.  She is more authentic and self-aware than Nora.  She’s been exposed to life and has not had the insulation money buys.  She’s suffered and had to figure things out for herself.  She wasn’t raised with money and as a woman in a patriarchal society, has incredible challenges in getting some.  When she arrives to talk to Nora we find out these two haven’t seen each other for years.  Nora has made good because she landed a good. Husband.  Kristine married well too, but her sugar daddy died and left her broke.  Nora knows this about Kristine, so she does what so many girls do when confronted with an old girlfriend who’s fallen on bad times- she hijacks the conversation and brags on herself- making sure in the most sympathetic of ways, that the other person knows, she’s done quite well for herself.   


Oh my, girls would never do that to each other. 


Ha!  And I can hear the irony in your voice as you say that.  Garry, btw, has worked in a girls school for the last five years, so he’s seen this play out more than once.  That’s the entire game we play. 


I’m a smart enough man not to comment here, but let’s read the passage.   


Read page 1814  


I know a man who’s wife did something similar to what Nora is doing here, and let me say, this woman at the time was in her 50s.  She had invited a friend to stay with her because her friend’s husband had left her and she was entitled to no alimony.  The woman had no real career but had lived a pretty nice lifestyle now she had nothing- and was falling from a comfortable life to a dubious one.  Well, the woman I know invited her to stay in Memphis in order to “console” her, but two days before she came, she bought all new outfits complete with brand new jewelry- for each day of her friend’s visit. She also bought fancy food they usually didn’t eat and prepared elegant desserts.  She pulled out fancy china and for the duration of the visit used them pretending that was the normal course of daily life.  I remember the event because it seemed particularly cruel to subtextually brag on how great your life was in comparison- but it was done so nicely.  


Oh yes, female aggression can be so subtle- and we all feel it even if it’s nice- we just know we’re uncomfortable.  It’s very different than how men treat each other or even treat women.  And I guess that’s what we see here because Kristine fights back- also subtextually, of course, She mocks Nora for being so naïve and having lived a sheltered life.  She turns all that bragging about being pampered, and changes it to an accusation of being sheltered and basically stupid.   And so, not to be out done and to prove to Kristine that she’s as sophisticated as Kristine, Nora brags about her little financial tryst and we learn about this debt she has incurrred- and it’s a  big debt- Nora has recklessly taken  enormous debt to fund an entire trip to Italy for a solid year and she did this with absolutely NO ability or plan as to how she would ever repay it. In some ways it seems it didn’t even occur to her at the time she did it, that that was a thing that would eventually have to be done.  That’s the side of Nora that is unattractive and makes me not feel bad for her being called a little squirrel. 


Well, that’s true, but in another very real way, you have to feel a little sympathy for Nora.  The text never questions her motives.  She did it for love.  She did it to save her husband, and although nobody knows about it, she has pride for having saved her husband’s life.  He is her provider and the provider of her children, and he was unable to provide, so she managed it- and she did it all without wounding his pride- something she KNEW would kill him.  There is nobility in that.  She’s been carrying around a huge secret burden for a decade- working secretly and all of this knowing it was the only way at her disposal to save her husband’s life.  Ten years is a long time, and if you take her at her word which we have to do- and compare her to Kristine- she has something to be proud of, she saved Torvald’s life.  She did what she had to do to keep from becoming Kristine- or even worse because she has three children to provide for.  Kristine does not. 


Of course, I can concede that.  You know, I was going to mention, Ibsen got the plot for this story from a real person.  Ibsen had a protégé by the name of Laura Petersen Kieler.  She was a Norwegian journalist and he was extremely fond of her. 


Another one of his strong female friends? 


Exactly, anyway, she was married to a man who was extremely paranoid about debt.  Laura, as his wife, did what Nora did, and secretly borrowed money to finance an Italian vacation for him to recover from tuberculosis.  She worked frantically to repay the loan, exhausted herself, turned in hackwork, but still couldn’t pay back the debt so she forged a check.  Her husband found out, used her crime as grounds to divorce her, claimed she was a unfit mother and had her committed to an insane asylum.   


That’s terrible. 


Well, it is and it really upset Ibsen.  He told Suzannah about it as well as several friends.  One friend wrote him back and said this about the entire thing, “She has committed a forgery, and is proud of it; for she has done it out of love for her husband, to save his life.  But this husband of hers takes his standpoint, conventionally honorable, on the side of the law, and sees the situation with male eyes.” 


And so we see the inspiration for this play- the legal part anyway.  Torvald is not like that guy in the sense that that particular man in real life was obviously mean.  I don’t see meanness in Torvald, but Ibsen is making a much larger point that would have been lost had Torvald been obviously cruel and abusive.  This play is not about cruelties and abuses.  It’s about using people, even if it appears to be consensual.  It’s about the lack of intellectual and emotional intimacy in a marriage. 


And that brings me back to Nora because, she IS the deal And although the bigger point of this play is the marital relationship- as a way of understanding this complex thing which is the marital relationship between a man and a woman from the vantage point of a woman, Ibsen surrounds Nora with other relationships.  The Nora of Act 1 projects perfection.  She has a wonderful husband who adores her, three beautiful children and a nanny to take care of them.  The only thing that is keeping her from total perfection is money- enter Dr. Rank.   


Oh yes, the rich old man dying of congenital syphilis without any dependents who comes over every day, oh and by the way- who is in love with Nora.   


Nora’s relationship with Dr. Rank is another one of those things that we’ve all seen play out in real life and makes us uncomfortable.  Here it doesn’t make Nora look very good either.  Nora is keenly aware that her physical appearance is sexually alluring to Dr. Rank.  They have never acknowledged this with words, but the sexually charged subtext of their relationship allows her to be seductive and he to be seduced without anything physical ever really happening.  It’s an obvious and open game.  In Act 2, she hits him lightly over the ear with her stocking that she’s been dangling before him with the pretext of displaying part of the costume she will wear at the dance.   


It is an open game so much so that  Mrs. Linde, when she finds out about Nora’s debt, erroneously assumes that Dr. Rank was Nora’s lender.  It’s the obvious assumption.  And all that playful secret keeping between Nora and Dr. Rank in front of Mrs. Linde just enhances this idea of fake intimacy between the two, she even cusses in front of Dr. Rank- something she doesn’t haven’t permission to do with her husband.  Dr. Rank encourages her to say the D word just as she’s hiding more macaroons from Torvald.  Torvald prohibits cussing and macaroons in his little skylark.    


Ugh- There is so much awful there.   Ibsen cleverly imbeds the idea that there is a possibility Rank will leave his fortune to Nora.  I know we’re jumping ahead but in Act 2 when they chat in the darkening living room, and she reveals her flesh-colored stockings, Dr. Rank expresses a desire to leave for Nora, to use his words, “some poor show of gratitude” as a guarantee he will be remembered fondly… 


Yes, and since were jumping to Act 2 and that discussion between Nora and Dr. Rank, Nora demonstrates nobility when she shuts down the game between them.  She let the opportunity slip by to get the money from Dr. Rank- although I do think she considers it.  In fact, she considers it all the way until he says out loud what they both had known to be true about his feelings for her.  He would have given her whatever she wanted for just a little sexual cajolery.  Nora rejects him and tells the maid to turn up the light.  She is not going to add what would feel like prostitution to her list of indiscretions.  In other words, she’s creating her own sense of moral boundaries and rejects the easy way out. 


So, let’s drop back a little back to Act 1 and introduce the man who is bringing all these ambiguous moral choices to the surface- Krogstad.  This is the man who has been fired by Torvald, who has lent Nora money, who has blackmailed Nora to convince her husband to give him his job and AND who, as we have found out, was the man in love with Kristine back in the day and who she dumped for the rich guy who she married and who is now dead.   


Krogstad, according to Dr. Rank is “rotten to the core”, and Rank doesn’t even know about his blackmailing of Nora or any of that other stuff.  The general understanding of Krogstad is that he is a man with criminal record for having committed forgery.  Torvald wants him gone from the bank because he doesn’t feel Krogstad has publically paid for his indiscretion PLUS and this is the worst part as far as Torvald is concerned- Krogstad was a childhood friend and this association is embarrassing.  


Let’s read the part where Torvald tells Nora about his feelings towards Krogstad.  


Read 1831-1832 


Torvald’s speech is remarkably strongly worded and unwavering.  It’s not even the way he usually talks to Nora. None of the playful childlike condescension.  She’s always known that if her husband found out what she’s done, the relationship would be problematic at least at first, but this speech seems particularly stern.  She even voiced a hope that maybe one day when it’s all over and she’s old and unattractive, knowing the story might be something he could appreciate after the fact. 


Yeah- that dream is dead.  I also think it’s terrible that he makes this connection to historical “sin”- as if this is something that is passed down through families.   I’m really unsure what to make of it, but Ibsen imbeds the generational thing one way or another into every character in the story.  Nora’s dad apparently was a negligent father.  Dr. Rank’s father left his the gift of syphilis, Kristine’s father was such a negligent father that she married a man she didn’t love FOR money forsaking one she did and who loved her back.  And here, Krogstad is accused of being an unfit parent although we find out over the course of the play that the reason he wants to regain his respectability is so that he redeem himself as an honorable man for his sons- to become a good father.  It certainly adds a little of a spiritual dimension into a play that is set at one of Christianity’s two holy days or high holidays – This play actually demonstrates two views Christmas, if you want to take it even further.  Christmas has a secular dimension in every household.  That’s why many people celebrate Christmas who are not Christians.  It’s an end of the year celebration- parties, gifts, and it is in this sense that the tree is at the center of the Helmer house- but that is not the redemptive story of Christmas that we will see play out later in Kristine (another word which has its origins in Christ and Krogstad).   Torvald and even Rank’s worldview leave no room for Christmas redemption, as Rank reminds us that nothing is ever free and Torvald reminds us that our personal flaws are things that we can pass down generationally to our children- our mistakes can ever be reclaimed- generational curses.  


Nora’s comments at the end of this Christmas sermon show us that she’s conflicted, maybe for the first time in her life, in accepting Torvald’s worldview at face value.  She doesn’t feel like a mother corrupting her children, but maybe she is- maybe she is toxic like the man he’s described.  Maybe her “sin” can ever be redeemed, no matter how many years she sits of doing copying work and paying back her debt.  She’s not sure about that, but she is sure that Torvald must NEVER know the truth about her because HE believes it is.  Another very interesting thing that happens, and we see this in people who are in relationships with people who live in relationships that are unequal- - Nora, seemingly for the first time in her life, questions whether the man she has always seen as infallible, may not have truth.  She is emerging from a fog, if you want to understand it like that.  When we have unequal relationships like this, be it for any reason, when one party begins to question this inequality, things often burn to the ground.   


And there is no doubt Nora is questioning the status quo, the game she has played, even enjoyed.  There is a lot of hide and seek in this game and in this play.  The children are physically playing hide and seek, but they are supposed to be playing they’re children- it’s a childish thing to do.  But it’s not a fun game as an adult.  Nora and Torvald play hide and seek.  Even Kristine has to hide in the room away from Torvald.  Nora is questioning the game. The first Act of this play is about society.  The Helmers project domestic happiness to everyone they know.  The central metaphor is the Christmas tree.  It’s decorated with innocent material secrets, wrapped gifts.  Nora wants to wrap money on it.  It is the expression of the good life: the good job, the good house, the good children, the beautiful wife- everything Torvald wants to project to the world.  Krogstad threatens all of this, and in Act 2 we see this shift.  Notice that the Christmas tree in Act 2 is stripped, bedraggled and with its candles burnt out. The values of Act 2 shift from material, physical and social to invisible and psychological ones.  Nora confides in Christine the nature of her relationship with Rank and the strange fantasies that go with that- that game is exposed.  The dialogue between Nora and Krogstad in Act 2 shifts to a discussion from the social nature of Nora’s crime to a much darker one- the psychological ones.   Krogstad leaves a letter in Torvald’s box.  That secret will be exposed too.  Nora and Krogstad talk about her consideration of suicide as a way out.  Krogstad is the one person in the world, ironically that understands her.  The major metaphor for the scene also shifts.  In Act 2, we are no longer going to talk about Christmas trees, we are moving to the tarantela- the dance of the spider.  And learning about the tarantela is where I thought we would end today with Act 2, but time has got the better of us, so let’s pick up with the tarantela next episode.  Next episode we will start with the end of Act 2 and talk about what’s so interesting about the tarantela, which by the way is the music from the intake and outtake in case you wanted to know what it sounds like and haven’t actually seen a performance eof the play.  After that we’ll follow through to the end of the play and its famous ending.  If you haven’t read this play in a while, read it, watch it, or listen to a version on an audio version.  It never gets old. 


There’s a lot to look forward to.  I hope you’ll pick back up next episode.  Thanks for listening and as always we invite you to connect with us any way you like: Instagram, facebook, linked in, twitter, our website  Also, and most importantly, please help us grow by talking about us and texting an episode to a friend. 


















A Doll‘s House - Henrik Ibsen - Episode 1 - Norway At Its Literary Best!

A Doll‘s House - Henrik Ibsen - Episode 1 - Norway At Its Literary Best!

September 18, 2021

A Doll's House - Henrik Ibsen - Episode 1 - Norway At It's Literary Best!


Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 


I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  Today we begin our series on Henrik Ibsen and his great play- A Doll’s House.  Ibsen was born in Norway, a country that shines a bright light on our view of the world more than most of us realize because it’s such a small place geographically. 


Haha- shines a light- is that a pun- Norway is, after all, the land of the midnight sun!  Where in the summer, the sun literally shines at midnight.  


Well, there is that, but I was actually thinking about the tremendous influence of the Nobel committee and the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize the famous committee that grants  every year since 1901 on December 10th, from Oslo City Hall.  There they announce which human, in their estimation, on planet earth has conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.  What an amazing designation.   


Oh, that’s pretty important too.  I know this is a tangent, but why IS the Nobel Peace Prize selected by and given out by Norwegians instead of the Swedish people, since Alfred Nobel was Swedish and not Norwegian.   


That’s a really good question, and I’m not sure anyone knows- but it was definitely stipulated by Alfred Nobel at his death that although the other awards would be awarded in Stockholm, the Peace Prize would be awarded in Oslo, Norway and it has been ever since.   


Norway is a country that has established itself for many years at the top of the lists of “best places to live on planet earth”- a designation it won again in 2020.  It has the highest life expectancy in the world, (82.4 average) in case you’re wondering, second place went to Ireland, btw.  It’s population on average is one of best educated in the world, and the gross national income is ranked third behind Switzerland and again Ireland. 


Wow, and yet Christy, I wonder if you would like living there- let me remind you that the average temperature in the summer is 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18 degrees Celsius. 


I know, growing up in tropical climates where the average summer temperature is in the 90s or high 30s Celsius, I would definitely have to buy a new wardrobe, but that’s not always a negative. 


Ha!  No, I guess that’s true.  Norway is also a land we generally think of for its striking outdoor beauty characterized by those magnificient fjords. 


Fjord is one of the few Norwegian words that almost everyone knows.  It literally means where one fares through- and if you see pictures of them, that makes sense why.  They are fairy-tale like, truly and can be hundreds of miles long.  Of course, Norway isn’t the only place where they exist, but they have over 1700 of them and two are featured on UNESCO’s world heritage list.  Garry, describe what a fjord is for those of us, which includes me, who have never seen them. 


Well, I’ve never seen them in person either..yet…but I will.  They are long narrow inlets of water with steep cliffs on both sides that were created by glaciers thousands of years ago.  They are astonishingly deep, often thousands of feet or meters deep.  They say one of the best ways to seem them is on a cruise ship, so that’s my plan.  


Ha!! Sounds like a great plan.  Of course, right after Fjords and the Nobel Prize, the next thing that comes to mind when we think of Norway is still not Ibsen but-  Vikings.   


Oh Vikings for sure have put their mark on northern Europe, and many of us have a very specific image in our minds of raiding warriors arriving in those amazing ships that could move around 15-17 knots.  And although, the Vikings are mostly known for colonizing and conquering, which could be viewed negatively, you would be happy to know that women’s rights date back to before the 1100s among vikings.  Women had the right to divorce, own property and were protected by law from sexual harassment. 


Well, there you go, and I guess that’s a good Segway to the reason for our interest today in Norway- because after those things- when we get to famous Norwegians, it’s hard to find one more well known then their native son, Henrik Ibsen, who was also quite the feminist- although as we will talk about next episode- he fought that label as he fought all labels.     


Yes- I guess he did.  But let’s jump back just a little before we talk about Ibsen specifically,  to talk a little more bit about Norway,  because this little country has made such an important impact on the world but it isn’t a country that necessarily and deliberately draws a lot of attention to itself.   


I guess that’s true.   Are you talking about Lasse Matberg- the real live version of Thor- Instagram and basically the internet has gone nuts over.   


Okay- Christy- no drooling.  I was thinking King Harald the fifth. 


 Most of us don’t even realize it is a constitutional monarchy with a very active monarch, Harald V who is 84 years old is known as a symbol of consolation and support; he and his beautiful queen Sonja- enjoy an 80% approval rating.  Which is incredible! 


 Well, it IS incredible- I’m not sure even Disney World enjoys an 80% approval rating.   


Anyway, the modern, the highly educated and urbanized nation of Norway is not the Norway Henrik Ibsen grew up in- at least according to Ibsen.  His world was much more rural -and to hear him describe it, backwards- although, that’s probably how people describe Memphis if they compare us to other more glamorous parts of the world. 


True, he was born in is the city of Skien in the Telemark region of southern Norway.  It’s a port city.  Today the municipality boasts a healthy 54 plus thousand residents and is famous for being the birth place of Henrik Ibsen.  During Ibsen’s day it was one of the largest and  oldest cities in Norway  The Ibsen family was a solidly middle-class family apparently well respected and prosperous.  Both sides of his family tree were well established, they had worked and made their money in the trade and shipping industry.   


Which was all well and good until something happened in his father’s business and the family lost everything.  Apparently it was pretty bad and when Henrik was 15 he dropped out of school, moved out of the home and over 100 miles away to work as a pharmacist  assistant for basically just his room and board.  By age 18 he had fathered a child out of wedlock, which would ultimately be raised by his mother’s family, and although he supported the child financially until the child was 15, I’m not sure they ever even met.  


Well, so far, there’s nothing in the story you’re telling that would indicate to me that this is the man that is going to revolutionize theater as we know it and become the second most produced playwright in the world after William Shakespeare. 

Exactly, he did not have a charmed childhood, but I will say, even as a child he dreamed of greatness.  His sister Hedvig told a story after he became famous about a conversation she remembered they had one day as they walked walked up Bratsberg hill in Telemark.  He told his sister that what he wanted to do in his life was  "to achieve 'the greatest and most perfect of all possible forms of greatness and perfection'."  

 HA!!  Well, I would laugh at that, but there’s a real sense that he came close to doing something akin to that with the theater.  


And so it goes to show you that should never count yourself out- even if you feel like you have no privilege in this life or have screwed everything up with what you do have.  You’re never done til you’re dead!  It’s a nice thought. But back to ibsen, it’s looking rough for little Henrik-at age 18- he’s got no education, a child to support and a couple of plays that he wrote in his spare time stashed away. So he decides to do what a lot of us do- he left the little town of Grimstad where he was the pharmacy assistant and moved to the big city- Oslo, although at the time the name of Oslo was Christiania.  He’d been in the health care business so it’s not shocking he’d decided to go to university and get a degree in medicine.  Unfortunately for him at the time, although maybe not for the world, he failed his college entrance exams.  And even though you’d think that would be a low point, I’m not sure it really was because it was around this time he cut a break in a field that he enjoyed far more.  So, I mentioned he had a couple of plays that he’d written in his spare time in Grimstad, well one of them got staged!  So after all the missteps up to that point,  by age 23 he’d had his first play performed- pretty incredible.  After this  a few more doors opened, and now instead of being an assistant to a pharmacist- he became – basically with zero experience, the assistant director to Bergen’s main theater.    


This, of course, is the moment his life changed forever because he clearly found his calling.  He no longer wanted to be a doctor- he would become a playwright.  But what is even more interesting is that he found himself at a particular historical junction for the history of Norway – as far as theater goes is not radically different than what we saw with William Butler Yeats.  Norway, like Ireland had an interest in creating its own unique theater tradition.  While Ireland had been colonized by the British; Norway had been ruled by Denmark for over 400 years.  But now there is this movement to start a true Norwegian theater company that will produce Norwegian plays- that would help shape a unique Norwegian identity.  


 Many of us don’t really understand that  Norway had even been a part of Denmark for 400 years, which, of course,  is quite a long time.  And we certainly don’t understand how that affected culture, but of course it would.   Denmark had asserted a lot of cultural and language influence.  But at this point in the story, there was a real interest in establishing a Norwegian identity eparate from the Danish one, and so the interest in establishing an original Norwegian theater came along at this time fortunately for Ibsen.   


True, and although The Theater in Cristiania had finanicial problems and Ibsen wasn’t particularly super-successful at making a go of it- now that we know his style- he would never have been a good fit for creating patriotic pieces, but nevertheless, because  He was involved in writing, directing, staging and producing over 145 plays- he learned a craft- and that is the legacy that created the opportunity for his art to take off on its own.  


He also met and married Suzannah Thoreesen in 1858 and shortly after, they had their only child, Sigurd, who btw- grew up to become the prime minister of Norway in Stockholm- another story but worth googling.  Christy, I know you’ll probably point this out later but Suzannah was quite an independent and intelligent woman, and many credit her for Ibsen’s ultimate success.   


I know!!  And I think we should talk about her, but I’ll table it, at least for the moment.  The theater in Crisitiania went bankrupt; Ibsen was sued for incredible amounts of debt and he almost got himself thrown into debtors prison literally escaping the country.  He swung a government writing grant and moved his family to Italy.  Although he never stayed in one town very long, he would stay away from Norway and in this sort of self-imposed exile for 27 years.  When he finally returned to Norway,-he would go back as a hero- a celebrity- albeit a controversial one. 


It’s amazing to me that although, his body was physically out of Norway, it seems Ibsen’s mind never left the place- even if he did insult it from time to time.  His plays, including A Doll’s House, are set in Norway and what is even wilder, they are written in Dano-Norwegian- the common written language of Denmark and Norway.  And they were published by a Danish publisher, Gyldendal.  In fact, they were performed first in Sweden- not Italy or Germany where he was residing.  


True, it’s kind of a roundabout way to success and really an unlikely success it seems.  Most People watching his performances were watched translated pieces- usually that doesn’t work well.  But in his case, the emotion, the appeal translated cross-culturally- and really still does.  Also, Ibsen was a far cry for a self-promoting influencer like we think of today.  He was kind of Ibsen a shy and antisocial dude.  He had no privileged family from a famous place to create buzz.  He was from this relatively small and undistinguished town, writing in a relatively obscure language-but all of a sudden he emerged and became an icon.  Like you said, today, his plays are the second most performed plays in the world- only behind William Shakespeare’s- as you mentioned- incredible.  They are translated today in 78 different languages and performed all over the world. Nevermind the fact that he literally changed the way theater would be done from that point onward, and in fact is still done to this day. 


Okay, I’ve heard people say that before, but I’m not sure I understand what you mean.  And even after reading A Doll’s House, I don’t understand how it’s revolutionary besides the content being obviously controversial for the period.  In many ways, the plot and the characters seem so ordinary. 


And that, darling, is exactly the genius of it.  Here’s what was going on. And think about Shakespeare for a moment.  UP to that point, the theater had been a place where people went to get away from the world- and maybe it still is to some degree.  The plays produced were otherworldly.   They were about fairies and monsters; they were about kings- all the things Shakespeare writes about-  perhaps the things Marvel studios gets excited about- obviously there is nothing wrong escapism- that’s a big part of performing arts.  And  In fact, that’s where Ibsen started, he wrote about Vikings , monsters and all those things we enjoy in commercially successful movies today.  Except he chose not to stay in that vein.  He studied his craft; he began to pay attention to some key changes in what they were doing in theater in Moscow, Germany and other parts of Europe.  And those things appealed to him.  So, he made a shift- instead of writing stories that took us out of the world- he would write stories that reflect the world.  He would write the story of our lives.   He began writing plays that were realistic.  And when I use that word, I mean the theater movement called realism.  The plays he’s most famous for start with the twelve he wrote between 1877-1899.  Some people call them his sociological plays; other people just call them the Ibsen cycle.  Either way, Ibsen began writing about middle class people- not kings, queens or fairies.  He wrote about problems- real life and difficult problems, and he wrote in prose.  He didn’t use iambic pentameter or verse of any kind.   He wasn’t going to have his characters give long soliloquies or speak with all these cheesy asides.  They weren’t going to expound on philosophy in obvious ways- although these plays are extremely psychological.  The would be filled of short exchanges between characters.  They would say the sort of things we say and do the sort of things we tend to do- whether we admit it or not. Now to us that seems normal or maybe even obvious because that’s how most of our television and movie experience is- but we got that idea from this movement.   


And what’s more, the staging was going to be different.  And again this may seem fairly obvious to us, but it was new when it happened- with realism the stage is going to have a box set- that means there are three walls and the pretend fourth wall which faces the audience.  The audience, or us watching, would pretend we are looking into someone’s lives.   The drama would appear ordinary, maybe even bland, but the idea would be that the play would be psychologically driven- the plot would not be  

the thing- the interior lives of the people involved would be the thing.  The protagonist would rise up not against dragons but against something much more complicated, more internal- the sort of things we rise up against- things like syphyllis- the disease Dr. Rank inherited from his father.   


Oh my, so what about A Doll’s House- 


Exactly, what exactly IS a Doll’s house about. BTW- even that title is controversial- in Norwegian it’s really a Doll House- which isn’t quite the same as a Doll’s House- anyway- When it came out- it absolutely rocked the world- almost as much if not more than syphyllis.  


It premiered in Copenhagen in December of 1879 to a packed house.  The applause was incredible and every one left the theater scandalized.  When it played in Germany, the lead actress, a famous actress, refused to perform the ending as written and forced Ibsen to rewrite the ending to her liking.  She was a storng enough voice that she threatened  she’d get someone else to rewrite the ending for him if he didn’t change it- and since there were no copyright laws back then, she got her wish. 


In Victorian England, the play was censored and forbidden to be performed, and America didn’t perform it until 1889- a full ten years later. 


The Americans are always slow.   


I know- aren’t we? 


So, are we going to just talk about what other people thought about it, or is it time to find out what the scandal is all about? 


Let’s do it.  The setting is very simple.  It’s set in an unnamed fairly average Norwegian town in an upper middle class home.  The whole thing from start to finish only occupies three days of Christmas.  It  opens with apparent harmony and confidence- a happy feeling and we soon understand that this family is a lot like a lot of middle class families- the family is comfortable but not not conflict free- and conflicts revolve around money-  


Oh my- it doesn’t get more real than that   


One thing we have to bring up when we talk about live theater is that we have to remember that when it comes to plays- the creative experience involves more than the writer.  A drama is more than a written text- much more.  That’s the beauty of live performances.   In fact every single performance of every single play by definition cannot help but be unique- even audiences affect how a performance goes.  No actor will ever perform exactly the same two nights in a row.  But beyond that, every actor who plays a role will interpret each character in his or her own way.  For example, Kristine could actually be a good character or a bad character depending on how the actress understands her and portrays her.  Every character will always be like that- bur especially in an Ibsen play.  Even the details of the set will never be the standardized.  Ibsen in his stage directions for A Doll’s House, says and I read that the set is, “a comfortable, tastefully but not expensively furnished room.”  What does that look like? Every set will be different.  Every director will choose different things to enhance- from the set to the costuming to the lighting.  All of these collaborative choices affect how we understand and interpret what is going on. 


True- but isn’t there something of the intent of the creator and should that be respected- and make each performance mostly the same? 


It’s not that simple.  Let me give you an example, in 2007, in Edinbough, the director cast Torvald the husband as a four foot tall man- on purpose for a thematic reason.   


In China, once the play was staged with a Western woman marrying into a Chinese family. All of this is allowed in the theater. 



So, this play centers around Nora.  The character of Nora is widely considered one of the most challenging roles in the Western Canon and Deciding what to do with Nora is not a simple thing.  Who is this woman?  This will be a huge discussion between any director in charge and the actress charged with performing the role. 


Why is that?  Again, she seems ordinary.   


And in a sense, that’s it exactly.  She is ordinary.  Her life could be my life.  Her home could be my home.  It is the fact that she seems ordinary that makes her so tremendously complicated.  Because no human is ordinary, not really.  No life, no matter how pampered, is care-free.  Sooner or later we all innately understand this, but then we don’t know what to do with this understanding.  Well, Ibsen isn’t going to answer that question for us.  In fact, that’s exactly what is wants to NOT do.  Ibsen famously said, that a dramatist should never answer questions- only ask them.  And so, what we are left with is  questions- and this play for the last 100 years has created nothing but arguments and questions as to who is this woman?   


So, let’s ask the most basic of all questions about Nora- What is so enamoring or interesting about an ordinary, upper middle class Norwegian woman named Nora? 


For one thing, if you’re an actress given this role, you may immediately notice that Nora never leaves the stage.  The stage is the doll house and Nora is the Doll. Nora is always on display- she is always in view- she has no privacy- she has no breaks- and neither does the actress.  Everyone comes and goes- but Nora never has the freedom to breath- and this is the point of it- there is total claustrophobia in this performance-based life of a doll- there is no privacy in this life- this actress, as Nora, will experience the thrill and exhaustion from start to finish of the life of a doll in a doll house.   


And how is a theater-viewer supposed to know to notice that?   


Well, you likely won’t- it’s one of those things you intuitively feel even if you don’t consciously think about it.  To get back to your question though?  For me, the first question I ask myself when I watch this play and honestly, I’m not sure I ever answer it- Do I like this woman?  Then I find myself asking a series of rambling questions: Is Nora a good person?  Is she a victim?  Is it right to like a doll in a doll house, and if a person likes that life, who am I to judge or dislike her for it?  Is it her exposure and lack of privacy that makes her unlikeable (because honestly, I usually land on the idea that I don’t like her really- but I know some people do- in fact Ibsen himself adored her) 


Oh my your mind runs wild!  Why would living like this in your mind make someone unlikeable? 


 Well, you tell me, do humans need privacy? Psychologically, that is.  Does a lack of privacy not to mention autonomy- but let’s just stick with privacy- does that change a person in a negative way.   


Well, you know I feel about this topic.  When it comes to development of children, it is Absolutely fundamental.  Children need to have secrets.  It gives them autonomy and where they find their humanity.  Parents, the cliché is mothers but dads can be bad about this too, who read their kids cellphone, track their kids ever move, determine their children’s friend groups, and basically do their best to control their children’s every decision- even if their intentions were pure, almost always raise children who are dysfunctional.  These are often the kids who have secret facebook pages, secret phones, secret boyfriends across the ocean years older, maybe even entirely secret lives.  It is just absolutely critical.   


And so we meet Nora- and Ibsen does go a little into her personal history- maybe she’s emotionally stunted in her development for being so patronized and controlled, maybe she’s just deceptive and manulative by nature- maybe she’s both- I guess I see what you mean- Ibsen asking questions but not giving answers.   


Let’s read the first line of the play,  


“Hide the tree carefully, Helene.  The children mustn’t catch a glimpse of it until this evening.” 


And there you have it- Nora’s entire world in the first word- there is something hide. 


As we look at Nora we see that she, like many of us, achieve privacy through deception.  But what we don’t know and what the  actress has to decide how to communicate to us is WHY is she doing this and what is she trying to achieve by all this?   Is Nora role-playing on purpose in order to get the life she wants?  Is Nora aware that she is a plaything for Torvald- his squirrel, his skylark?  Is this pretending instinctual?  When her deceptions become rather serious, does she even realize this?  Is she aware of the difference between secretly eating macaroons and forgery- I’m really not sure. 


But even before we get there, the first scene for me really highlights a high level of deceit and inauthenticity.  The first action on stage is Nora paying a porter twice the cost of the service which wouldn’t have stood out really except it’s not long after that we begin to understand that one of the themes of the play is the real cost of fiscal irresponsibility, what does it mean by this little detain in the opening act? 


I don’t know what it means, except to help us understand that Nora lives in an imaginary world.  She pretends and overpaying is just a way to set all of this in motion.  The second action of this play is this business with the macaroons.  Let’s read this part of the text?  For me it’s hard to read.  It’s SO patronizing.  


That is like a woman! But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt. We two have kept bravely on the straight road so far, and we will go on the same way for the short time longer that there need be any struggle. 

[moving towards the stove]. As you please, Torvald. 

[following her]. Come, come, my little skylark must not droop her wings. What is this! Is my little squirrel out of temper? [Taking out his purse.] Nora, what do you think I have got here? 

[turning round quickly]. Money! 

There you are. [Gives her some money.] Do you think I don’t know what a lot is wanted for housekeeping at Christmas-time? 

[counting]. Ten shillings—a pound—two pounds! Thank you, thank you, Torvald; that will keep me going for a long time. 

Indeed it must. 

Yes, yes, it will. But come here and let me show you what I have bought. And all so cheap! Look, here is a new suit for Ivar, and a sword; and a horse and a trumpet for Bob; and a doll and dolly’s bedstead for Emmy,—they are very plain, but anyway she will soon break them in pieces. And here are dress-lengths and handkerchiefs for the maids; old Anne ought really to have something better. 

And what is in this parcel? 

[crying out]. No, no! you mustn’t see that until this evening. 

Very well. But now tell me, you extravagant little person, what would you like for yourself? 

For myself? Oh, I am sure I don’t want anything. 

Yes, but you must. Tell me something reasonable that you would particularly like to have. 

No, I really can’t think of anything—unless, Torvald— 


[playing with his coat buttons, and without raising her eyes to his]. If you really want to give me something, you might—you might— 

Well, out with it! 

[speaking quickly]. You might give me money, Torvald. Only just as much as you can afford; and then one of these days I will buy something with it. 

But, Nora— 

Oh, do! dear Torvald; please, please do! Then I will wrap it up in beautiful gilt paper and hang it on the Christmas Tree. Wouldn’t that be fun? 

What are little people called that are always wasting money? 

Spendthrifts—I know. Let us do as you suggest, Torvald, and then I shall have time to think what I am most in want of. That is a very sensible plan, isn’t it? 

[smiling]. Indeed it is—that is to say, if you were really to save out of the money I give you, and then really buy something for yourself. But if you spend it all on the housekeeping and any number of unnecessary things, then I merely have to pay up again. 

Oh but, Torvald— 

You can’t deny it, my dear little Nora. [Puts his arm round her waist.] It’s a sweet little spendthrift, but she uses up a deal of money. One would hardly believe how expensive such little persons are! 

It’s a shame to say that. I do really save all I can. 

[laughing]. That’s very true,—all you can. But you can’t save anything! 

[smiling quietly and happily]. You haven’t any idea how many expenses we skylarks and squirrels have, Torvald. 

You are an odd little soul. Very like your father. You always find some new way of wheedling money out of me, and, as soon as you have got it, it seems to melt in your hands. You never know where it has gone. Still, one must take you as you are. It is in the blood; for indeed it is true that you can inherit these things, Nora. 

Ah, I wish I had inherited many of papa’s qualities. 

And I would not wish you to be anything but just what you are, my sweet little skylark. But, do you know, it strikes me that you are looking rather—what shall I say—rather uneasy today? 

Do I? 

You do, really. Look straight at me. 

[looks at him]. Well? 

[wagging his finger at her]. Hasn’t Miss Sweet Tooth been breaking rules in town today? 

No; what makes you think that? 

Hasn’t she paid a visit to the confectioner’s? 

No, I assure you, Torvald— 

Not been nibbling sweets? 

No, certainly not. 

Not even taken a bite at a macaroon or two? 

No, Torvald, I assure you really— 

There, there, of course I was only joking. 

[going to the table on the right]. I should not think of going against your wishes. 

No, I am sure of that; besides, you gave me your word— [Going up to her.] Keep your little Christmas secrets to yourself, my darling. They will all be revealed tonight when the Christmas Tree is lit, no doubt. 

Did you remember to invite Doctor Rank? 



Read this part. 


Nora hides macaroons from her husband.  He wants to control her to every level, but she does seem to like the pay off of being taken care of.   We also see that he moralizes.  We see that his pet grievance is debt.  He is going out of his way to condemn it and she goes out of her way to supplant him. 


 It’s a complicated co-existence.  Who are we to judge here- Nora for being a liar?  At this point, I feel sympathy for her.   I would even say the way this reads to me is that this man, Torvald doesn’t want to control Nora, he believes he OWNS her.  She is his property.  His pet.  He loves her, but as a pet- an expensive hobby- I’d say, Christy, don’t take offense to this, but he loves Nora in the way a guitarist might love his favorite Stratocaster.  


Oh dear- that’s getting close to home.   


 But, they have worked out a deal.  Do we let either party off the hook?  She lies and deceives, but she has no concerns in the world but to be a doll.  She loves stuff- she loves buying- she loves money- they have made a deal- she is a play thing- but she is also an expensive past time.   


And- again- we are smacked with life- these kinds of deals are made all the time.  One of the more famous philosophical statements on that topic springs of course from the mouth of Marilyn Monroe when she sings, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”  I’m really not sure Ibsen wants us to pass judgement on her- but he does seem to be questioning the deal they’ve made.  Is this the deal we should be making?  It seems obvious that Torvald and Nora do not have any real communication or human relationship with each other- they manipulate each other, play with each other, even enjoy each other, but they are not connecting on any real and human level.  Is this comfortable life coming at the cost of their humanity?  What is that cost? 


 And to think that all that has happened is that she’s bought macaroons.   


I know- it’s in the subtext of those macaroons!!! BTW- when I hear someone talk about macaroons I think of this cooking show the girls and I used to watch when they were living called “Sweet Genius”.  It was the first baking show I’d ever watched, and they were always making macaroons.  We don’t have those really in Memphis, so when went to Paris and saw all those macaroons, we did exactly what Nora did and stuffed our mouth with them. 


Hahahaha!  I can see you three, staking out the macaroon counters on the Champs Elysee- 


That’s exactly what we did!!!!  They’re truly amazing and not easy to bake.  I tried and failed. 


Well, I don’t think Nora bakes.  And we see that Helmer disapproves of macaroons.  But more than that- They don’t share  a life like we would understand healthy couples to do.   


Yes- there is so much that is being introduced right here at the beginning- we meet the children and see that they are dolls too.  There is nothing in this text to suggest Nora is a nurturing mother.   We don’t see her building with them anything different  than what she has built with Torvald- they have fun- but it’s all very distant.  We also have a hint that this style of relationship is established by her father, perpetuated by Torvald but also extended to the next generation.  The nurse seems to take care of the children.  Nora plays with them when she wants to, but it’s established early on, and then it will be explicitedly stated in Act 3, that as Nora is to Torvald so the children are to Nora.    


Everyone plays a role it seems?  And I’m not sure Ibsen is endorsing this way of life.   


Like I said, the man likes to ask questions and to not answer them.   


And so I guess we will for the next two episodes.  Next time we will finish discussing Act 1 and move through Act 2.  The final week, we will look at the concluding scene that has scandalized the world for 100 years.   


And yet, it is all so ordinary!!! 


And yet not-  thanks for listening!..... 








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