With each passing day, Nora's life as farmwife to Lars becomes more and more difficult to endure and her escape inside Victorian literature becomes more and more consuming. The transfixing quality of Thomas hardy's poem "At the Altar-Rail" holds Nora hostage in her bedroom as she reads, over and over, the plight of a young woman who runs away from her simple-minded husband for a "swift, short, gay life" in the city.
When Lars comes home from a long day at work, he notices that the housework hasn't been done, and that his dinner is cold. Knowing full well the cause of the disarray is his wife's passion for reading (which she does for hours on end, every day), he confronts her, asking if he deserves the disrespect of a wife who doesn't look after her responsibilities. He questions if her lack of domestic interest is actually due to a lack of interest in their marriage.
She mollifies him by becoming the stereotypically dutiful wife. When he goes to nap on the couch, she declares that she promised at the altar to stay with Lars forever and will do anything and everything in her power to make him happy.
The next day, Nora goes into the town bookstore, where Anders, a boyish man (and perhaps in another lifetime, Nora's soul-mate) tends shop. She presses him to take the book of poetry that he sold to her a few weeks prior, as it is causing much distress in her marital life. She tells him that it has caused her to forget her place as homemaker, and that it is destroying any semblance of her husband's happiness.
Anders questions her as to whether or not she is considering her own happiness, or if she is selflessly thinking only of her husband's. She tells Anders that as a girl, she yearned for a fancy, gay life - but settled for something simpler. He encourages her to read the poem that illustrates the choice she should have, but ultimately did not make and when she does a flood of tears results.
She comes home, hiding the book that she hoped to get rid of at the bookstore. Lars questions her whereabouts that day, pointedly wondering if she truly needs to go all the way to twon to voraciously read. She tells him that she is is wife, and that she deserves to be happy.
The confrontation comes to a head when Lars tells Nora that his mother believes that in order for their relationship to work - and in order for Lars to regain the devotion of his wife - the books that litter the house, and cause Nora's biggest distraction must be removed. Nora tells him that it doesn't need to result in that, but Lars has already taken matters into his own hands and has boxed up her collection of books and sent them to the local Lutheran Church to be sold at their rummage sale.
Nora stands defeated as Lars takes away her only respite from her boredom...
Nora at the Altar Rail is the first in a trilogy of operas, which make up The Farmwives' Chronicles. This operatic mini-series follows three generations of farmwives in the same family. Nora, in 1935, lives vicariously through romantic figures in Victorian literature, to the chagrin of her husband; Phyllis in 1965 deals with the waning romantic interest of her husband after an accident claimed on of her legs; and Susanne in 1995 puts up with an alcoholic husband whose depression has taken a turn for the worse with another terrible farming season. Each of the episodes in the trilogy shows a woman who yearns for more, and the changing times that allow for their role as housewives to progressively become more liberal. It is about my mother, my grandmothers, and all of the farmwives who came before.
- Jay Anthony Gach & Royce Vavrek