Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 1

I’d like to explore the idea that because life imitates art, the fiction writer, as an artist, should invent beautiful lies.

I’ve been thinking about these issues as I write a children’s story about a group of children who, after surviving the experience of being stranded on a frozen island, set out to save the world using radical and unconventional methods.

I understand that there is much in the title of this blog post which requires explanation, so bear with me as I think out these ideas.

I’d like to start with Ibsen’s Doll’s House as an example of an artist inventing beautiful lies.

Here’s the story of The Doll’s House, in a nut shell:

Nora and Torvald have been married eight years, and have three children. Torvald sees Nora as his silly and irresponsible plaything, who he indulges and controls. Nora happily plays the role of the cheerful songbird who entertains and worships her husband.

But there are a few things Torvald doesn’t know about Nora. Earlier in their marriage, she borrowed a large sum of money so that he could recuperate from a serious illness. To get the loan, she forged her dying father’s signature. As she viewed her forgery, she was sparing her dying father the painful knowledge that Torvald was deathly ill, and she was acting heroically to save her husband.

Nora hides the forgery and loan from Torvald, paying the loan back herself by working on the side and saving from her household allowance. She doesn’t want Torvald to know about the loan because she believes that when he does learn her secret, he will understand he is indebted to her, and this will injure his masculine pride, thus ending their present happiness.

Meanwhile, Torvald gets a job as manager of a bank and promptly fires Krogstat, who was once disgraced for forgery. Krogstat is also the man Nora borrowed the money from.

Krogstat threatens to tell Torvald of Nora’s forgery unless she intervenes and convinces Torvald to rehire him at the bank.

Naturally, by the end of the play, Torvald learns of Nora’s forgery. She expects him to protect her by offering to take the blame, which of course, she will not allow him to do.

When Torvald learns of the forgery — to Nora’s shock — he turns on her, calling her names and telling her she is unfit to be a mother. Also to her surprise, he plans to submit to Krogstat’s blackmail — something she never expected him to do. He shows that he cares only about maintaining his own image.

The audience, of course, saw this coming, but Nora truly believed that Torvald would seek to protect her, and would feel grateful that she loved him so dearly as to take such steps to save his life. Instead he tells her that their marriage is now an empty shell. They will keep up appearances. She will remain in his house and the outside world will believe all is well, but she will not be allowed to raise the children because they might learn dishonesty, and he will keep her under close watch.

In a last minute reversal, Krogstat changes his mind as a result of his relationship with Nora’s friend and newfound happiness. He returns the forged note and will no longer blackmail Torvald into rehiring him at the bank.

Torvald cries, “I am saved!”

Nora has been watching Torvald’s reactions with horror and deepening understanding the emptiness of her marriage and life she has been leading. She has been a doll in his house, nothing more.

She thus tells Torvald she is leaving him. She tells him that he was right when he said she is unworthy to raise her children:  “I am not up to the job. There is another job I have to do first. I have to try to educate myself. You can’t help me with that. I have to do it alone. And that’s why I’m leaving you now. . . I have to stand completely alone, if I am ever going to discover myself . . .”

He tries hard to stop her, believing that they can return to the way things were now that the threat of blackmail has been removed, but she packs her bag, takes off her wedding ring, and walks out on her marriage and her children in order to find herself.

The play ends when she slams the door behind her.

When The Doll’s House was first performed in 1879, audiences were shocked. While it was not unheard of for a woman to walk out on her husband and abandon her children, the result was always scandal. Ibsen’s play, however, presented Nora’s decision to walk out of her marriage as a necessary step to maturity after a lifetime of allowing men to define her.

While feminists ever since have seen the play as showing the reality of marriage for women in the 19th century and championing one woman’s attempt to reach maturity, the play was also considered radical and somewhat dangerous by suggesting that all people owed something to themselves, including the right to stand as an individual. As Nora says in the end:

“I believe that, before all else, I am a human being, no less than you — or anyway, I ought to try to become one. I know the majority thinks you’re right, Torvald, and plenty of books agree with you, too. But I can’t go on believing what the majority says or what’s written in books. I have to think over these things myself and try to understand them.”

A Doll’s House was based on what happened to Laura Kieler, Ibsen’s good friend. Just like Nora, Laura desperately needed money to save her husband’s life. Initially she asked Ibsen for help, but he refused. Whether he was unwilling or unable to help isn’t clear. She therefore signed an illegal loan document to secure the money. When her husband discovered her secret loan, he divorced her and had her committed to an asylum. Later, at her husband’s urging, she returned to him and her children.

Shortly after she was committed to the asylum, Ibsen wrote the play, changing Laura to Nora. In making the change, Ibsen changed what actually happened, which was lurid and sad, to what should have happened.

In other words, Ibsen told a beautiful lie.

It could be said that Nora taught generations of women to find dignity and autonomy. If you haven’t read the play, I highly recommend it. Ibsen is a master of drama and character, and at least for me, the play still packs a punch in the year 2014.

This blog post is already long, so in my next post — which will be next week, on Friday — I will expand these ideas by considering Oscar Wilde’s theory that because both life and nature imitate art, the calling of the artist is to tell beautiful lies.


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