Story Club

What Happens after Nora Walks Out16 min read

An exclusive essay by Lu Xun to kick off our monthly story club – translated by Bonnie S. McDougall 


Editor’s note: For our opening week at the China Channel, it has been our pleasure to bring you a smorgasbord of delights to celebrate both Lu Xun’s birthday, and our own as a new channel for sinophiles and the sinocurious. Now to close our first week out, we’d like to introduce a new monthly feature: story club. Each month we will publish a Chinese story, fiction or nonfiction, in translation, and invite you, our readers, to write in with your thoughts. Our first offering is an exclusive excerpt from Jottings under Lamplight, the new collection of Lu Xun’s essays in translation, published by Harvard University Press, that Liz Carter reviewed for us.
In this essay, originally a talk to a women’s college in Beijing in 1923, Lu Xun tackles a range of topics, all under the guise of wondering about the fate of one of literature’s most famous figures: Nora, a Norweigen housewife in the late 19th century and protagonist of Henry Ibsen’s celebrated 1879 play A Doll’s House. At the end of the play, belittled by her husband and a constrictive society, Nora walks out on her family, slamming the door behind her as the curtain falls. Lu Xun picks it up from there, and compares Nora’s predicament to that of the fledgling republic of China.
There is much to unpack and question in this masterful essay, from attitudes to feminism to Chinese politics of the time, and while a product of its era it touches on the universal, with hidden meanings that can be applied to today. Rather than say more, we invite you to read it and make up your own mind, then write to us at [email protected] with a short paragraph explaining what you think the most interesting aspect of the essay is, plus any questions you have about it (see below for some prompts). One random reader who writes in will receive a copy of the collection, courtesy of HUP. Then in a fortnight or so, we – being the editors, together with reviewer Liz Carter – will compile and discuss those thoughts, and get to the bottom of the essay and what it means. – Alec Ash

What Happens after Nora Walks Out

by Lu Xun 鲁迅
Chinese: 《娜拉走後怎樣》

A talk given to Literature and Arts Society at Beijing Women’s Normal College, December 26, 1923

My talk today is on the subject “What Happens after Nora Walks Out.” Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian writer in the second half of the nineteenth century. Apart from a few dozen poems, his work was mostly in drama. At one period in his life he wrote plays that were mainly on social problems, known to the world at large as “social drama,” and among them was the play known in China as Nuola (Nora).

The play’s title in German is Ein Puppenheim (A Puppet’s Home). However, the word Puppe refers not only to a puppet or marionette but also to a doll that children play with; more broadly, it also refers to people whose actions are controlled by others. At the outset, Nora is living contentedly in a supposedly happy household, but eventually she is awakened: she is her husband’s puppet, and her children are her puppets. So she walks out, and the play ends with the sound of the front door slamming shut.

What would have prevented Nora from leaving? Ibsen may have supplied the answer himself in Die Frau vom Meer (The Lady From the Sea), translated into Chinese as Hai Shang Furen (The Lady At Sea). The heroine is married, and her former lover lives across the sea, but one day he seeks her out to ask her to elope with him. She tells her husband that she wants to meet her visitor. Her husband finally says, “I give you complete freedom. You can decide for yourself (whether to leave or not) and take sole responsibility for your decision.” This changes the whole situation, and she doesn’t leave. Judging from this, if Nora had been given this kind of freedom, she might have stayed too.

However, Nora ends up walking out. What happens to her afterward? Ibsen gave no answer, and now he’s dead. Even if he weren’t dead, it wouldn’t be his responsibility to answer the question. For Ibsen was writing poetry, not raising a problem for society and providing an answer to it. It’s like the golden oriole, which sings for itself and not for the amusement or benefit of human beings. Ibsen was a rather unworldly type of person. It’s said that when he was invited to a banquet in his honor by a group of women, and their representative rose and thanked him for having written A Doll’s House and giving people new insight into women’s consciousness and emancipation, he replied, “That was not what I had in mind when I wrote the play. I was just writing poetry.”

What happens after Nora walks out? A few people have given their opinions on this. An English playwright wrote a version in which a modern woman leaves home, but as she has nowhere to go, she becomes degraded and enters a brothel. There’s also a Chinese man—what shall I call him? Let’s just say a Shanghai writer—who claims to have seen a version, which differs from the Chinese translation, in which Nora eventually returns home. Unfortunately, this version hasn’t been seen by anyone else, unless Ibsen himself sent it to him. Logically, however, Nora really has only two options: to fall into degradation or to return home. A bird in a cage lacks any kind of freedom, no doubt, but should it leave its cage, dangers lurk outside: hawks, cats, and so on; and if it has been shut up for so long that its wings have atrophied or it has forgotten how to fly, then truly it has no way out. There is another possibility—that is, to starve to death—but since starving means departing from life, it’s no solution to the problem and so is not a way out either.

The most painful thing in life is to wake from a dream and find there is no way out. People who dream are fortunate. If there isn’t a way out in sight, it is important not to wake them. Take the Tang poet Li He, who died at the age of twenty-six after being poor and wretched the whole of his life. As he lay near death, he said to his mother, “The Emperor of Heaven has built a white jade palace, Mother, and summoned me to write a poem on its completion.”

Wasn’t this surely a falsehood, a dream? But for the young man who was dying and the elderly woman who survived him, it allowed a dying man to go happily to his death, while his survivor was able to live in peace. Falsehoods and dreams at such times may be magnificent. It therefore seems to me that dreams are what we need if we cannot find a way out.

Nevertheless, it’s not a good idea to dream about the future. The Russian novelist Mikhail Artsybashev made use of one of his novels to challenge idealists who dream of a future golden age, since they call up misery for the many in order to build that world. “You promise their sons and grandsons a golden age,” he said, “but what do you have to give them?” There is, of course, something to be given: it is hope for the future. The cost is too great, however: for the sake of this hope, people are made more sensitive to the depths of their own suffering, while their souls are summoned to witness their own rotting corpses. These times appear to be splendid only in falsehoods and dreaming. To me, therefore, dreams are what we need if we can’t find a way out, but not dreams of the future, just dreams of the present.

And yet once Nora had awakened, it was not easy for her to return to dreamland, so her only recourse was to leave; but after she’d left, she soon faced the inevitable choice between degradation and returning home. Otherwise, we are obliged to ask, what did Nora take with her apart from her awakened mind? If she had nothing but a crimson woolen shawl like you young ladies, it would be completely useless, whether it was two feet wide or three feet wide. She would still need something more substantial that could go in her purse; to be blunt, she would need money.

Dreams are fine, but otherwise money is essential.

The word money sounds ugly, or even ridiculous to superior folk, but generally it’s my belief that people’s opinions vary, not just from one day to another but even before and after they’ve had a meal. People who readily admit that a meal costs money and yet still maintain that money is dirty would, I’m afraid, if you could check their stomachs, probably still have some undigested scraps of fish or pork inside them—but just let them fast for a day and then see what they have to say.

So for Nora, money (or to put it more elegantly, economic means) is crucial. It is true that freedom cannot be bought, but it can be sold. Human beings have one major defect: they are apt to get hungry. To compensate for this defect and avoid acting like puppets, economic rights seem to be the most important factor in present-day society. First, there must be a fair division of property between men and women in the family; second, there must be an equal division of power between men and women in society at large. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to obtain these rights, other than that we will have to fight for them, perhaps with even more violence than we have to fight for our political rights.

Demanding economic rights is no doubt a very commonplace sort of thing, but it may turn out to be more troublesome than demanding elevated political rights or broadly based women’s emancipation. There are plenty of examples everywhere of how it’s more troublesome to get small things done than big things. For example, if it’s a winter like the present one and all we have is a single padded jacket, we are obliged to choose between saving a poor man who is freezing to death or sitting under a Tree of Enlightenment meditating on ways of saving all of mankind. The difference in degree between saving all mankind and saving one poor man is actually immense, but if you were to ask me to choose, I would instantly go and sit under a Tree of Enlightenment, because it would save me from taking off my only jacket and freezing to death. So it won’t meet with heated opposition in the family if you talk about a division of political power, but just mention equal shares of economic resources and you’ll inevitably find yourself confronted by enemies, which of course leads to ferocious battles.

Fighting isn’t very nice, and we can’t expect everyone to be a fighter, so peaceful methods will come to be prized: that is, for parents in the future to exercise their authority to liberate their own children. Parental authority in China is absolute, so it should be possible at that point to divide up the family property and share it evenly between sons and daughters so that they receive equal economic rights in peace and without conflict. Afterward, they may do as they please, and whether they go on to study, start up a business, have a fine old time enjoying themselves, work for the betterment of society, or squander the lot, it’s all their own responsibility.

Although this is also a rather distant dream, it is much closer than the dream of a golden age. However, the first requirement is memory. Poor memory benefits ourselves but harms our descendants. The ability to forget allows people to leave behind step by step the suffering they once knew; but the ability to forget also leads people to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. When a daughter-in-law who has been mistreated becomes a mother-in-law, she will still mistreat her own daughter-in-law; an official who detests students may have been a student who used to denounce officials; parents who now oppress their children may ten years earlier have been family rebels. This probably relates to age and status, but poor memory is also a major factor. The remedy is for everyone to go and buy a notebook and jot down what they are now thinking and doing, so that they can refer to it in the future when their age and status have changed. If you get irritated because your child wants to go to the park, take a look through your notebook until you see the entry, “I want to go to Central Park,” and you’ll immediately calm down. It’s the same with everything else too.

There is a kind of low-level criminality at large these days whose chief characteristic is tenacity. It’s said that the petty criminals in Tianjin after the Boxer Rebellion were very tough. For example, if you asked someone to take your luggage, he would demand two dollars; if you said it was a small case, he would say it was two dollars; and if you said it wasn’t far to go, he would say it was two dollars; and if you said you didn’t want it carried, he would say it was two dollars. Petty criminals can’t, of course, be considered good role models, but there is something admirable in their tenacity. It’s the same with demanding your economic rights. When someone tells you this is too old-fashioned, the response should be that you want your economic rights; when they say it’s too petty, the response should be that you want your economic rights; when they say the economic system is about to change and there’s no need to worry, the response should still be that you want your economic rights.

Actually, Nora would not necessarily find herself in trouble if she were to leave home at present, because people like her are very unusual and her conduct would appear fresh and novel, so there would be sympathetic people who would help her survive. Survival thanks to others’ sympathy is already a loss of freedom, but even this sympathy would be stretched thin if a hundred Noras were to leave home while a thousand or a million Noras would only be met with disgust. Certainly it would be far more reliable to have economic rights in your own hands.

Are you no longer a puppet once you have won economic freedom? No, you are still a puppet. It’s just that you are less subject to others’ control and more in control of other puppets. In present-day society, it’s not only the case that women are men’s puppets, but men are other men’s puppets, women are other women’s puppets, and some men are even women’s puppets. This is not something that can be remedied by a few women gaining economic rights. Nevertheless, people cannot wait quietly with empty stomachs for the arrival of an ideal world. At the very least they must reserve a last breath, like a perch in a dry riverbed desperately seeking a drop of water; they need this economic power—which is relatively close at hand—before devising other methods.

However, I have so far discussed Nora as if she were an ordinary person, but it would be a different matter if she were exceptional and had rushed off willingly to sacrifice herself. We have no right to encourage people toward self-sacrifice, nor to prevent them from doing so. There are, moreover, many people in the world who take pleasure in self-sacrifice and suffering. There is a legend in Europe that when Jesus was on his way to crucifixion, he stopped for a rest under the eaves of Ahasvar’s house, but Ahasvar refused to let him rest there. For this he was cursed, doomed to roam the world without being able to rest until the Day of Judgment. Ahasvar is still roaming around the world today, unable to stop and rest. Roaming is painful and rest is pleasurable, so why doesn’t he take a rest? Although he is under a curse, he most likely still feels that roaming is preferable to resting, and so he continues his frantic roaming.

His preference for such sacrifice is personal to him, however, and has nothing to do with the social aims professed by revolutionaries. The masses (especially in China) have always been spectators at a play. If the sacrificial victim is bold and brave when he takes the stage, they are watching a tragedy; if he cringes and cowers, they are watching a farce. You’ll often find people standing outside a Beijing mutton shop watching open-mouthed as a sheep is being skinned. They seem to enjoy the sight, and what they gain from human sacrifice is little more than this. What’s more, even this bit of pleasure will be forgotten before they’ve moved a few steps away.

There is nothing you can do with people like this; the only cure is to give them nothing to watch. There’s no call for a briefly horrifying sacrifice; it’s better to engage in protracted, tenacious struggle.

Unfortunately, it’s too difficult to change China: blood will flow just by moving a table or mending a stove. And even if blood does flow, the table isn’t necessarily going to be moved or the mending carried out. Unless a great whip lashes her back, China will never consider budging. I think such a whipping is bound to come. Whether for good or bad is another question, but it is bound to come. When it will come and how it will come, however, I cannot exactly tell.

I’ll end my talk here. ∎

Translated by Bonnie S. McDougall
This is an extract from Jottings under Lamplight by Lu Xun (Edited by Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk Denton), published by Harvard University Press, $35.00. Copyright © 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Did you enjoy this story? Have any questions, or thoughts you’d like to share? Please write to us at [email protected] and we will compile your takes, to discuss in a few weeks. Plus one random reader who writes in (anywhere in the world) will receive a free copy of Jottings under Lamplight, the collection in which this essay appears. Header image: from a poster for a 1922 silent film of ‘Doll’s House’ (free use).

If you’re getting brainfreeze, here are a few questions to inspire you:

  • Did Lu Xun understand Nora’s feminist decision to begin her own independent life, or does he misinterpret or even betray it?
  • How does he use her story as a prism through which to discuss the uncertain future of China at the time, and does it work?
  • Does anything above remind you of Lu Xun’s famous “iron house” metaphor for China (from the preface to his first story collection)?
  • What from this 1923 essay still holds true today? What has changed?