Nora, a capable young woman in her late 20s, is a dutiful wife and loving mother of three sweet children. Her husband is kind and devoted, protective of his wife’s public reputation and character, and himself an honorable man. As a young couple, they have tried to live their lives according to the high standards of moral uprightness appropriate to their society and culture. It’s a scene of domestic contentment played out repeatedly all around us in the LDS community. We know people like Nora.
But Nora abandons her family, tragically and irrevocably, because she does not know who she really is. Her ignorance of self is deep and crippling. She was raised by a father who taught her what to think, and was then handed directly over to a husband who did the same. Nora eventually came to the appalling realization that she had lived her life as a kind of favorite toy—a treasured possession—always treated with kindness and care, but “protected” from knowing more than she should. She is unmoved as her baffled husband makes an appeal to her sense of duty, reminding her that before all else she is a wife and mother. “I don’t believe that any longer,” Nora candidly replies. “I believe that before all else I am a thinking human being, just as you are… or, at all events, that I must try and become one.”
Nora is, of course, the protagonist in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, A Doll’s House. But her experience isn’t exceptional, not in the 21st century, and certainly not in LDS culture. There are, unfortunately, Noras still among us in our congregations and neighborhoods.
As a college professor who teaches a large humanities survey, I have discussed this final scene of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with thousands of young LDS students. Each time, as I look up into the faces of some of the young women in those classes, I see powerful, perceptible reactions that run the gamut from relief and gratitude to deep fear. I’m repeatedly amazed at the intensity with which these young women are stirred by Nora’s story. It hits them in the core of their souls. When they thank me after class, it’s frequently with trembling lips and tear-stained cheeks. (I certainly don’t get that kind of feedback when the topic is, say, Rococo art or middle-period Beethoven!)
Perhaps many of these young women realize that they are becoming, or have already become, “Nora.” They are also participants in a culture that seems to promise happiness, even eternal happiness, if they marry the right kind of man (sooner rather than later, of course), raise the right kind of children, hold the culturally-accepted opinions, behave at all times in the right way, defer to well-intentioned male leadership, educate themselves only “as much as necessary” to get a husband, and find their joy exclusively in motherhood. And now I… or Ibsen… tell them it doesn’t always work out like that. It can be a shocking disclosure.
Each semester’s iteration of this scene leaves me with mixed feelings, too. Part of it feels like guilt, that I have perhaps destabilized the unsullied steadiness of their young, somewhat naïve hopes. But it’s also exhilarating as I see the weighty veil of that culture’s expectations lifting from these young women, many of whom see even more clearly the broadened opportunities to know themselves and the individual potentials they can pursue.
Though the classroom response to Nora’s predicament appears to be gender-specific—the male students don’t want to talk about it at all with me—I don’t think the problem itself is necessarily a gender problem. Ibsen noted that he didn’t set out to write a play in support of women’s rights. He said it was simply about “humanity.” When Nora claims her rights as a “thinking human being,” it can on one level appear to be an act of proto-feminism. But it’s also just common sense. That glaring jolt of reality and truth, shorn of Victorian-era pretense, is what shocked 19th-century audiences so much. In the end, though, what will remediate Nora is what saves all of us, male and female, from a similar tragedy.
I think of the strong, compelling women in my life—my mother, wife, sisters, sisters-in-law, my two young daughters, colleagues at work and church—and I’ve tried to identify the qualities that set them apart from the many struggling “Noras” I also know. My mother, for example, has for more than half a century lived her belief that LDS women should act and not merely be acted upon, that they should “reason together” unremittingly and on equal footing with their husbands and priesthood leadership. She is a force. And yet she would never label herself a “feminist.” My wife is an exceptionally-gifted communicator who reads voraciously, daily building on the extraordinary combination of education and experience she has amassed already. My own very young daughters (ages 9 and 5) already astonish me with the fervor of their opinions, the energy of their intellect, and their commitment to becoming agents of influence. They come home from school only to keep “playing school” in the living room, creating mock homework assignments for each other simple for the joy of learning and teaching.
I can’t take any credit for the choices of these remarkable women and girls. The best I can do is keep out of the way and allow them to cultivate life roles that powerfully shape and persuade others to do good. But they all share something that makes a remarkable difference in each of their lives as well as my own. They treasure knowledge, and openly confess education’s almost unlimited capacity to edify and enhance. Through the gaining of knowledge—not only of self, but of the world around them—they have successfully avoided Nora’s dilemma. They all know who they are.
At the start of each semester in which we discuss Ibsen’s A Doll House, I refer my students to the list of topics given in D&C 88:79, topics that God has specifically commanded us to study and master:
Things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—
This list is actually a part of my syllabus. It’s utterly comprehensive—nothing is excluded. And why are we commanded to gain as much knowledge as possible, on every conceivable subject? The answer is equally absolute: so that we may be “prepared in all things” and “magnify the calling” we are given (v. 80). Education like this is the prerequisite to powerful service in God’s kingdom.
I believe this applies just as forcefully whether the call is as a wife and mother (or, for that matter, husband and father), or the call of a missionary, a Gospel Doctrine teacher, a Bishop, Relief Society President, or a professional calling, our call to strengthen each other, or to serve in the community. As I remind my students constantly, not one of us knows exactly what our futures hold. Plans and goals are wonderful necessities, but an ongoing education is what will allow each of us to be prepared “in all things,” not just the paths we have mapped out for our future selves.
There is another passage of scripture, very familiar to the men of the Church, that also teaches this principle. Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants warns priesthood-holders about the dangers of unrighteous dominion and of thinking it is their priesthood alone that will make a difference in people’s lives. This section goes on to explain that divine power and inspiring influence emerge from a blend of personality traits all members, not just the men, should cultivate: persuasion, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, and kindness (v. 41). But the Lord adds to this list another item that is qualitatively distinct: “pure knowledge.” All educators know, and the Lord confirms here, that knowledge “enlarges the soul.” It is a decisive factor in sacred service. Gentleness and kindness, meekness, patience, and longsuffering can guide how we inspire others—they are the adverbial qualities of influence. But it is knowledge that guides what we do as we magnify our callings. Whatever our divine call (and whatever our gender), we are more effective servants when we combine the kind of comprehensive, ongoing education outlined in Section 88 with the refining, godly behaviors listed in Section 121.
We are now nurturing a generation of young women in the Church who, if they are encouraged to combine deep and lifelong education with Christ-like attributes, will know without a doubt who they are. They will become virtually unstoppable in their ability to do good—in their homes, their professions, and their communities. But it’s not feminism that urges these young women to learn and flex and grow, to avoid becoming Nora. It’s simply the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Luke Howard currently teaches music history and general education courses at Brigham Young University. He studied piano performance and music education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in his native Australia, and received graduate degrees in music history from BYU and the University of Michigan. He sings with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, makes killer toasted cheese sandwiches, and perpetually entertains the absurd dream of writing a best-selling novel one day. Luke is married to Hadley Duncan Howard, and they are the parents of two daughters.