Thursday, December 7, 2006

Crafting with Ibsen

Students in the class I'm teaching were puzzled (and in some cases kind of tickled) by this very weird passage in Act III of Ibsen's play A Doll House, which I taught for the first time this week. In this passage, the self-righteous and controlling husband, Torvald Helmer, tells his wife's friend, Mrs. Linde (a poor widow), that, instead of knitting, she "should embroider....because it's a lot prettier. See here, one holds the embroidery so, in the left hand, and then one guides the needle with the right--so--in an easy, sweeping curve--right?" Mrs. Linde, seeming confused about Helmer's sudden interest in women's handwork, lets him continue: "But, on the other hand, knitting--it can never be anything but ugly. Look, see here, the arms tucked in, the knitting needles going up and down--there's something Chinese about it."

If you've read the play, you know that Helmer's wife, Nora, has a serious problem with "embroidering" the truth---her husband has no idea that, several years earlier, she forged her father's signature in order to get a big loan. She's been lying ever since about where her money goes. Helmer's a micromanager who won't even let Nora munch on macaroons (she does it behind his back).

I didn't ask my students (most of them are female) if any of them were knitters or other kinds of needleworkers. But it was clear to me that they understood the different use values and class statuses of knitting and embroidery in the 1870s.....and they understood that Helmer would just as soon see Mrs. Linde's children go cold in the Norwegian winter than have to watch her act "Chinese" (whatever that's supposed to mean....).

Do people today have similar "crafting hierarchies"? I suppose many people think there are more-cool and less-cool aisles at their local Michael's store....but I don't think I've heard anything as blatantly weird and elitist as Helmer's comment in A Doll House.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think its weird, only very telling. Knitting has had along life in representing intelligence in females in literature. Knitting is also much more useful than embroidery. In terms of characters, Linde is knitting, and Nora is embroidery. Torvalt likes his women to be embroidery: elegant, pretty, and so on..

And yet, this could also allude to the upcoming shift of Nor from embroidery to knitting, by leaving her husband.