Henrik Ibsen once stated that “A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day which is an exclusively masculine society…”. Compare and contrast the significance of marriage as a form of social control in A Doll’s House and The Yellow Wallpaper in light of this view.
In both Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the main female protagonists are subjugated as a result of the systematic female oppression which took place within marriage in the late 1800’s, thus inspiring the title of my investigation. A traditional patriarchal marriage requires women to give themselves to the role of a housewife, devoting themselves to their husband and children, and therefore stripping them of their independence, identity and even agency. Having said this, in the era these two texts were written, women would have also lacked independence outside of marriage as they were greatly limited by society but this is what enabled women to be ‘secure’, when under the control of a man, as there was little opportunity for women to succeed other than to commit to marriage.
Both Ibsen and Perkins-Gilman seem to make efforts to expose the extent to which women are equated to children within the exclusively masculine society that they both lived in. In both texts, women are not respected in terms of their intelligence and are not trusted when it comes to making decisions about things such as their health or finances. Thus highlighting the premise that women had as little power as children when the texts were written. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the main female protagonist is confined to a room which she presumes was first a nursery, claiming that the windows were “barred for little children”. However, she is merely assuming the childlike qualities of the room that she has been limited to, leading us to question the reliability of her narrative voice, perhaps due to her mental illness. Her description of the room could instead be a reflection of how she has been made to feel through the oppression of confinement and patriarchy. A reader could subsequently infer that Perkins-Gilman is making reference to the fact that in the male dominant society of the late 1800s, women were little better than children in terms of status and importance. To make a direct comparison to Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, the dynamic of Torvald and Nora’s relationship relies heavily on Torvald’s apparent paternalism, creating the presence of parent-and-child like qualities.
This is evident throughout the play as a whole but becomes unnervingly obvious at the end of Act Two when Nora desperately requests for Torvald not to open any letters; he replies by explicitly saying “the child must have her way”. Although he is effectively giving in to her minor request, he still finds a way to undermine his wife by plainly referring to her as an adolescent. This could suggest marriage was merely an institution for social control in which women were invalidated by men in a parental manner and used as pawns for them to fulfill their need to provide and assert dominance. This correlates with Ibsen’s idea that “a woman cannot be herself…” because they are playing a role. Nora comes to terms with this struggle and leaves her husband, at the end of the play, in search of freedom outside of marriage.
This controversial ending to Ibsen’s play sparked huge uproar among critics, many of whom argued that Nora deserting her husband, home and children was scandalous, and even inconceivable for some. In June 1889, The Daily News argued that not only was her departure unjust, but that Nora took a “selfish view of the dilemma”. The outrage expressed by many critics shows that someone like Nora, who eventually falls outside of the expectations of the domestic ideology of a woman, didn’t fit with the cultural norms of the time. This further highlights the fact that marriage was primarily used to keep people as a unit, particularly in terms of oppressing women. In light of this, A Doll’s House was hugely influential in altering attitudes surrounding marriage and divorce in the late 1800’s and beyond.
Playwright August Strindberg stated that, thanks to Ibsen’s contentious play, “marriage was revealed as being a far from divine institution.”, thus opening the doors to the social acceptance and justification of divorce.In The Yellow Wallpaper, the female protagonist remains unnamed until the end, however it’s still only speculative that her name may be ‘Jane’.
Although the text is written in first person and is from a narrative viewpoint, Perkins-Gilman may deliberately conceal the name of the main character in order to highlight the fact that she is endlessly silenced through the effects of patriarchal oppression. In addition to this, John refers to his wife as a “blessed little goose”, thus dehumanising and objectifying her in an animalistic way, perhaps in order to make her feel inferior and helpless. An obvious parallel to A Doll’s House is when Torvald persistently calls Nora pet names such as his “little skylark”, much to the same effect. EXPANDMany parallels can be drawn between A Doll’s House and The Yellow Wallpaper in terms of the plot and the struggles that the main female protagonists experience. They are both restricted to a married woman’s silent, subservient role which would have been commonplace in society at the time the texts were written. John and Torvald tirelessly undermine their wives, questioning their ability to make important decisions and care for themselves, in turn causing conflict and leading to Jane and Nora’s eventual downfall, of sorts. For example Nora decides to leave Torvald and their children, finally seeing their marriage as a sham. EXPAND Comparatively, Jane’s rest-cure (an entirely inappropriate and now outdated approach to recovery from depression) gets the better of her, leading to an unfortunate descent into insanity.
During Act Two, Nora implies that she would have the courage to kill herself as an inordinate measure to protect her husband from knowing the truth, thinking that he would then be absolved from all grief regarding her loan. Similarly, when commentating on the wallpaper, Jane explains that the curved lines seem to “commit suicide”, which seems a dramatic narration for a pattern on a wall. A reader could infer that Perkins-Gilman intends for the wallpaper to act as a symbol for something deeper, as if it is an indication of the narrators subconscious thought. Throughout the story, the narrator gradually intensifies the personification of the wallpaper, suggesting it “knew what a vicious influence it had” EXPAND ON THIS QUOTE.
Later on she explains that the pattern appears to be “like a woman stooping down” and then that she had in fact “come out of that wallpaper” herself. This identification with a woman trapped behind the wallpaper suggests that the narrator sees it as a reflection of herself, as if it’s a mirror, suggesting that she feels equally trapped. Nora and Jane are in fact both trapped in a role of subservience, being controlled by their husbands. EXPANDBoth texts can be compared by looking at the common theme of class. The main characters in both A Doll’s House and The Yellow Wallpaper belong to the upper middle class, thus meaning that the texts could potentially be critiqued for being predominantly limited to only the concerns of wealthy women. However they do indirectly address the illusion of bourgeois contentment, suggesting that family dysfunction is not in fact restricted by class.
The Marxist viewpoint supports the view that marriage is a tool for social control, be it in terms of class or on the smaller scale of the relationship itself. In addition, Marxism provided the criticism that marriage is merely a product of a capitalist society and is an institution which supports both patriarchy and class division. Karl Marx also believed that capitalism was a necessary step in human development suggesting that a ‘bad thing’ has to happen in order to bring about good. One could argue that Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ is structurally similar to this theory, however on a smaller scale. For example, to put an end to Nora’s increasingly intense inner torment, Torvald had to find out the truth, thus sparking her decision to leave in order to free herself from the grips of an oppressive marriage. Whether it was the authors’ intentions or not, both texts seem to expose the extent to which marriage traditionally stripped women of their independence through the enforcement of their society’s fundamental patriarchal values. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the narrator abruptly writes that “the Fourth of July is over”, which is known as Independence Day in the United States. From this, we can infer that she is covertly making a comment that any of the independence she possessed prior to being prescribed a ‘rest-cure’ is now entirely lacking.
In terms of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, Nora is essentially striving for independence throughout the play making comments such as “_______”; she frequently reminisces about when she used to work and relishes in the idea of manual labour, which is something that was commonly restricted to men in the Victorian period. During Act One, whilst Nora is talking to Kristine, she exclaims that working to earn money behind Torvald’s back was “tremendous fun”, explaining that it was “almost like being a man”. From a modern perspective, Nora’s excitement over a workaday job, and the fact she even describes herself as feeling out of character, is a shocking demonstration of a woman’s fundamental lack of independence and agency within marriage in the late 1800’s. Women wanted more than the idyllic fantasy of a family and money; they in fact craved independence and to act as their own person, and Ibsen’s Nora could be considered the embodiment of this notion. Although she may lack independence as a woman, she is still extremely strong willed and could potentially be considered a revolutionary character in Victorian Literature. Some critics of Ibsen’s play responded negatively to Nora’s fortitude and liberty, believing the ideas presented may negatively impact susceptible audience members. For example, in a review of ‘A Doll’s House’, Norwegian Journalist, Erik Vullum described Nora’s outbreak of independence as “indescribably unnatural”Following on from the theme of independence, Kristine could be said to represent Nora’s ultimate goal and somewhat foreshadows what Nora achieves at the end of the play. Kristine is essentially an image of freedom as she is no longer married, is able to work and earn money as she pleases and has no looming financial ties; she is more or less acting as an opposition to the concept of an ideal woman in her society.
In Act One, Nora takes a particular interest in Kristine’s apparent liberated situation and how she now merely lives for herself and no one else, exclaiming “what a relief you must find it”, suggesting that she essentially has an attraction towards achieving independence. This makes for a great comparison to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as the narrator can see a woman lurking in the pattern on the wall implies that she sees this trapped woman as a reflection of herself. This perhaps contrasts to the somewhat heroic character of Ibsen’s Kristine but can still be linked by the influence it has on the main female protagonist. EXPAND + find quote.The titles of both texts provide a very significant literal description of the predominant symbol in each narrative. In Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, the title effectively foreshadows the dynamic of the Helmer household.
It is particularly suggestive of Nora’s role as a woman, because it brings connotations of puppetry as she is controlled by the restrictions of her marriage. During Act Three, Nora expresses awareness of the harsh reality of a traditional patriarchal marriage towards her husband