Torvald's Question: Italo Svevo and James Joyce Stage Modern Masculinity


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Nora! Nora! … Empty. She's gone. (A sudden hope leaps in him.) The greatest miracle—?! Torvald in Henrik Ibsen, A Doll House (1879)

I have peeped into a great many doll's houses; and I have found that the dolls are not all female. Nora in George Bernard Shaw, "Still After the Doll's House" (1890)

The Doll's House … has caused the greatest revolution in our time in the most important relationship there is—that between men and women. … Ibsen has been the greatest influence on the present generation. … His ideas have become part of our lives. James Joyce to Arthur Power, Conversations with Joyce (1920s)

When Nora Helmer departs Torvald's doll house to educate herself as an adult human being, she leaves behind a paragon of nineteenth-century masculine "honor" whose questions as to what he must do, how he must change, she cannot answer.1 Whereas most commentary on A Doll House assumes that Ibsen leaves Torvald no escape,2 this essay highlights Torvald's echo of Nora's word "miracle" in his hopeful question at the play's open end and argues that two of Ibsen's heirs— the Triestine writer Italo Svevo (1861–1928) and his English tutor and literary soulmate the Irish James Joyce (1882–1941)—pursue Torvald's question in plays that stage crises of modern masculinity in parallel with Nora's awakening. Read comparatively, Ibsen's A Doll House (1879), Svevo's A Husband (1895/1903), and Joyce's Exiles (1913–1915) embody a dramatic dialogue on freeing all the characters—Torvalds and Noras alike—from an antiquated socio-economic sex/gender system. Taking Ibsen's critical-realist dramaturgy into daring new territory, Svevo and Joyce stage avant-garde psychodramas in social worlds that put traditional masculinity—formed by man-made laws, rights, values, freedom, conscious and unconscious assumptions, prerogatives, and motives—in tension with Ibsen's revolutionary modernity. Their diagnostic dramas of toxic-masculinity-with-a-good-prognosis distill from Torvald's question a Shavian quintessence of post-Ibsenism that illuminates Ibsen's subsumption of feminism within the dialectical vision of human possibility that Nora's departure opens.


1. Henrik Ibsen, A Doll House, in The Complete Major Prose Plays, trans. Rolf Fjelde (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978), 194. Unless otherwise noted, I cite Fjelde's translation by page number in the text.

2. For example, Joseph Valente attributes a "rhetoric of closure" to A Doll House by contrast with Exiles' "rhetoric of aperture"; framing Torvald as a "would-be agent[] of the retrenchment," Ibsen as "Torvald's chief detractor and rival," and Richard as an aspiring "anti-Torvald," Valente sees Ibsen, Joyce, and Richard trapped in "a masculine economy of representation," "a vicious circle" wherein rejecting paternalism "produces effects strangely akin to those of paternalism itself" (James Joyce and the Problem of Justice: Negotiating Sexual and Colonial Difference [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995], chap. 4, 169, 150, 165).

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