The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. Our book club discussion runs from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion. - Scott Moncrieff
In her course on “Conversational English for Native Speakers,” Marilynn Chandler McEntyre assigns her students to read Pride and Prejudice, taking the dialogues of Jane, Elizabeth, and Mr. Darcy as models of lively, life-enhancing conversation. If I were teaching such a course, I would be sure to include the last act of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. In this final scene, after two and a half acts of villainous blackmailing, music and dance, agonizing soliloquys, and sudden rescue, Nora Helmer seems to have nothing to do but pose gracefully and let the curtain fall. Instead, she abruptly says to her husband, “Sit down, Torvald; you and I have much to say to each other” (112). He sits, and she continues:
NORA: We have been married eight years. Does it not strike you that this is the first time we two, you and I, man and wife, have talked together seriously?
TORVALD: Seriously? Well, what do you call seriously?
NORA: During eight whole years and more—ever since the day we first met—we have never exchanged one serious word about serious things. . . . We have never yet set ourselves seriously to get to the bottom of anything. (113)
In the ensuing discussion, Nora begins for the first time to “get to the bottom” of the experiences of her married life: her desire for independent personhood and a better understanding of her world; her conclusion that these desires are incompatible with her role as wife and mother; her frustration at being treated as her husband’s “doll” rather than as a grown-up individual; her disillusioned sense that though they have lived together eight years, they are yet strangers. The Helmer marriage, as Nora describes it, has been a marriage starved of conversation. The absence is so permanent that her husband takes it for granted; when Nora finally demands a “serious” discussion, Torvald asks, surprised, “Why, my dear Nora, what have you to do with serious things?” (113)
As I read that line, the thought occurs to me: Who are the people in my life to whom I would ask that question? To whom would I implicitly ask, “What have you to do with serious things? What business do you have with individual thoughts and needs, apart from my assumptions about you? How dare you exist beyond the role you play in my daily life?” McEntyre describes curiosity as “a form of compassion,” a readiness to approach interlocutors with the implied question: “What is it like to be you?” (98). To my grandfather, this seems to come naturally. When I introduce him to one of my friends, he has questions for her, and more questions for me later on — “What is she studying, and why? What does she hope to do? Does she read the same things you do?” Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to find myself answering, “I don’t know, actually; I’ve never thought to ask.”
This is Torvald’s answer when Nora confronts him. At first he simply reproaches her for being “unreasonable and ungrateful,” falling back on his old habit of rebuking or laughing at her adorable childishness (114). As she continues her narrative, however, he continues to listen. And as he listens, he grows curiouser and curiouser.1 Instead of dismissing her words, he now responds simply with, “Explain yourself more clearly; I don’t understand” (119). This is another of the essential qualities McEntyre mentions — the willingness to “open [oneself] to persuasion” (104). At the beginning of the play, Torvald assumes that he knows everything about his wife that is worth knowing; but the more he learns, the more he recognizes that he does not yet know.
Ultimately, Nora closes the door on the conversation (figuratively and literally); having discovered how little they know one another, she concludes that a meaningful marriage with Torvald is next to impossible, achievable only through a “miracle” (122). Many of Ibsen’s contemporaries were outraged by this ending — a selfish woman abandoning her children and husband to seek some vague idea of freedom. To my mind, the tragedy is not that she leaves, but that she leaves when the authentic, communicative marriage of which she despairs is becoming a possibility for the first time. If Torvald’s curiosity had begun earlier, if he had shown it a little more, or if she had noticed the early signs of it, and given it time and encouragement to grow, and responded with reciprocal curiosity about his experience — where might the conversation have gone then, I wonder?
Despite my penchant for playing marriage counselor to fictional characters, I’m aware that pop psychology is not the answer to all the world’s problems. Torvald and Nora might have found, even after more questioning and listening, that in their eight years in the doll’s house their minds had grown too far apart to make a shared life possible. But however the Helmers’ conversation ends, ours are still in the making. Ibsen challenges me, as McEntyre does, to look for opportunities to approach my conversations with a generous dose of humble, compassionate curiosity.
With that goal in mind, here are a few questions to get the conversation going:
- McEntyre lists many important conversational skills and qualities: storytelling, listening, deliberation, curiosity, and honesty, among others. Which of these qualities do you most try to cultivate in your own conversation, and why? Are there other qualities you would add to McEntyre’s list?
- If you were teaching a class on “Conversational English for Native Speakers,” what literary works or other sources might you present as conversational models?
- McEntyre speaks of conversation as a “ministry” that God calls his followers to offer (93). Can you recall a time when someone ministered to you through conversation?
1. Curiousity goes hand in hand with humility; as G.K. Chesterton says, "Alice must become small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland."
Mary Christian is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Indiana University. She teaches writing and is working on a dissertation about theatrical representations of marriage in late nineteenth-century plays. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, but has also called Pennsylvania, Nebraska, France, and South Korea home. She enjoys travel, good nonsense verse, and theater (onstage, backstage, or in the audience).
Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Schedule PlannerFebruary 24 Why Worry About Words?Scott Moncrieff, Andrews UniversityMarch 3 Strategy 1: Love WordsBrooke Holland, Collegedale AcademyMarch 10 Strategy 2: Tell the TruthBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 17 Strategy 3: Don’t Tolerate LiesBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 24 Strategy 4: Read WellKellie Bond, Walla Walla UniversityMarch 31 Strategy 5: Stay in ConversationMary Christian, Indiana UniversityApril 7 Strategy 6: Share StoriesJeanette Bryson, Andrews UniversityApril 14 Strategy 7: Love the Long SentenceEmily McArthur, University of California, RiversideApril 21 Strategy 8: Practice PoetryCraig van Rooyen, San Luis Obispo, CaliforniaApril 28 Strategy 9: Attend to TranslationSarah Fusté, Berrien Springs, MichiganMay 5 Strategy 10: PlayJustina Clayburn, Andrews UniversityMay 12 Strategy 11: PrayTBDMay 19 Strategy 12: Cherish SilenceKristin Denslow, University of Florida
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5903