Tag Archives: Doll’s House

Art as context in A level English Literature

A while ago I wrote a brief post including 3 19th century depictions of women as stimuli for A Doll’s House. In this post I revisit them and add material from Medieval England for my students reading The Merchant’s Tale.

Since both texts present a highly Patriarchal society in which women are still tainted by the ideas of the Fall of Man and Eve’s innate untrustworthiness, I thought that a little more specific material would be helpful.

In Holman Hunt’s The Awakening conscience, a young girl seems to be terror-struck as she stares at the onlooker both seeming to beg for help and to challenge our preconceptions. The male is relaxed and arrogant in the picture – his wife is his plaything and he is oblivious to her anguish.  A better visual metaphor for Act 3 Nora would be hard to find. It would be wrong to assume that society in the mid to late 19th century was utterly accepting of the position of women, It is far too easy to generalise.  In addition to Woolstonecraft and Ibsen’s own writings on the subject, students can consider whether ADH is a proto-feminist text or an exploration of the individual. What this picture gives us is a clear image of social awareness of the position of women at the time.

Likewise, in this picture:

Here we see the fate which awaits Nora or which was suffered by Christine.  Neither are widows, true, but both have lived the life of the single female in a harsh and unforgiving society. I will let the passage next to the portrait do the talking for me. What is certain is that Nora, with no belongings and tainted with disgrace is going to fall prey to all sorts of charlatans and predators with very little way of raising cash to aid her subsistence.  I see this as another interesting piece of context to be placed alongside contemporary writings. Remember, if the art is being created, then there must be sympathy for the plight of the women in the pictures.

In The Merchants Tale we can place May in similar context.

It is too easy to talk of women as second class or property… once again, art can help us here. Whilst there is no doubt that the issues of Eve are valid in a text which is so clearly a parody of the Fall of Man, I am always interested by the apparent compromise or truce offered by the end of the tale. If Januarie’s hand on May’s ‘wombe’ suggests a pregnancy, there is a need to consider whether this might be Damyan’s child. Januarie’s action seems to signal a wish to continue as married despite any adultery – a sense that there is parity in some way between the two characters at this point of the tale.

Certainly May, pre-marriage, had a poor future to look out on. She would have little chance of a ‘job’ beyond service and be viewed as tainted with Eve’s untrustworthiness, yet images from Medieval works such as the Lutterell Salter show such women as she brandishing their distaffs (the mark of manual labour – the punishment meted out to Eve- and using it to beat their husbands:

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Whilst this may well be a satirical picture, satire must be rooted in fact to be effective. Women of all degrees ran the household. This puts them in control of their husbands to an extent and also, when wealthy, of servants. Wealthier wives were ladies of leisure for whom hunting and games were diversions widely practised. They gave orders to the servants of the household and developed lives of their own.

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Not only that, but certain women, without being Royalty, had enormous power. IN the religious world Abbesses and Mothers Superior would rule over their religious houses and much of the surrounding countryside, dispensing Church Law and establishing women as anything but the subservient gender.  There was not always harmony – Nunneries such as the Abbey at Amesbury in Wiltshire became notorious for licentious behaviour, but it would be wrong to imagine that women were not able to rise to great power (and wealth) in this way.

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In Chaucer’s England there may well have been memory of the most powerful LAdy to have ruled the Kingdom, Queen Isabella, who together with her lover Roger Mortimore, had deposed her husband, King Edward II, some hundred years earlier. The route tot he throne was not barred to women, even though the adulterous couple would give scope for Eve-based criticism. The point is that there was not a guaranteed opposition to the concept of the storng woman, especially if their husband was ill-perceived.

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May is elevated from her poor background and given a wedding with much pomp and glamour, albeit rather hurried and would have been seen as a powerful woman. She is sufficiently powerful and of high status that she can become a focus of courtly desire and although this is a satire – a Fabliau – the relationship must be seen in this light – she calls the tune: She organises the clicket, arranges the assignation and controls Damyan’s ascent of the tree. The humour of the lack of romance in his ensuing action does not detract from her position  – she is the Lady of the house and remains so after the Tale comes to an end.

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Love is invariably possessive… an OCR A level essay

Texts: A Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale.

Time : 50 minutes

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers explore power and gender.

The two texts under consideration are written some 55o years apart, yet there are strong similarities in the socio-historical context of both. Whilst it is clear that the medieval feudal system had developed by the middle of the 19th century, the strata of society were still clearly defined. Where Chaucer places Januarie as a ‘Knight’ who will marry a girl found in the market place, chosen for her mixture of youth and sexual proficiency, Ibsen places the Doll’s House at the centre of a bourgeois middle class as rooted in societal convention and the need to establish position, albeit by wealth and rank, just as much as if the play had been written centuries earlier. At the centre of both texts is the issue of the Patriarchal response to marriage and the position of the female in a society which clearly regards wives as possessions and as symbols of their husbands’ good name and status.

In both texts, the wife seems to be regarded as a lower status to that of her husband: Nora is chosen by Helmer as a result of an attraction developed while he helped her father escape prosecution for unspecified financial irregularities and May  is a town girl who becomes ‘feffed in his bond’ as Januarie embarks on what is clearly a business arrangement, well suited to the business mind of the Merchant-narrator.

Januarie is clear that he desires ownership and seeks his wife in the market place, as though purchasing an item of food or clothing. He seems naive and lists reasons for his confusion – not least that some are ‘riche but hadden badde name’- until ultimately he alights on May. Once married she is reduced to the level of his sexual servant. She says very little, is silent through the wedding feast and lies ‘as a stoon’ when he proceeds to labour atop her while making ‘love’. The merchant is allowed to quote her when she comments that Januarie’s love making was not ‘worth a bene’ and Chaucer skillfully undercuts the sense of male power at this point by foreshadowing the climax of the Tale – that a girl who is experienced in such matters will not remain subject to a single, elderly husband.

Where May is subjected to sexual humiliation at the hands of her husband, Nora is no less his plaything, but she has developed a repertoire of flirtatious games with which to keep him at a distance. It is clear that in Helmer’s Doll’s House, Nora is the prime doll.  We learn that Helmer has chosen all the fixtures and fittings of the house and has enough control that Nora needs to even usher away Christine, because Helmer ‘can’t bear to see work’ in the drawing room. True to convention she remains at home, outwardly supportive of her husband and providing him with children.  Ibsen himself noted that her eventual departure could be likened to an ‘insect’ which after delivering offspring to the hive goes away to die. This interpretation would enhance the idea of a controlled and futile existence within love, yet other writers have seen the play as part of the mid 19th century birth of a feminist movement (what male critics would sneeringly refer to as the ‘woman problem’) probably influenced by thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, whose writings were having an unsettling effect on the complacent patriarchal bourgeoisie of the time.

Nora is undoubtedly a possession, and her response to this is to flirt with Helmer and with Rank – flicking him with her tights in the half light of Act 2 – before dancing the Tarantella to titillate not only her husband, her doomed lover and presumably the guests a the act 3 party. This flirtation is not open to May – her escape from ownership needs to take place in secret – in the ‘privy’ or in Damyan’s bedroom. For May, the eventual brutal sexual encounter in the pear tree is a clear break away from her role as Januarie’s possession, yet the status quo achieved at the end of the poem suggests that although love may not be possessive, it can be achieved through a compromise. Helped by Proserpina, she deflects Januarie’s accusations and as they leave he places a hand upon her ‘wombe’. At this time, heritage and an heir was crucial to the continuation of a family name. Januarie has clearly stated that this is one of the purposes of the marriage. He may be aware that any child is likely to be Damyan’s, critics disagree on the level of sexual competence he can wield at his age – the garden seems to allow him to actually complete the sexual act in a manner not seen in the palace (‘and spedde’) – but it seems by this action that the compromise – he brings up a bastard as his own and May remains his possession – is complete and is possibly a requirement of the time. In the 14th Century, there was no divorce as we understand it and an adulteress would suffer strong penalty. It is in nobody’s interest to draw attention to the deceit and the loss of his power. Chaucer was himself the husband of a woman of higher status, whose position at the court of John of Gaunt has been discussed by terry Jones as likely adultery, would clearly understand the need for such compromise in the Medieval court.

The end of A Doll’s House relies on the failure to find compromise. Helmer is too tied to his 19th century attitude (aren’t I your husband?’ he demands when Nora has the temerity to resist his drunken advances in Act 3) to accommodate any shift and loss of power. A man who cannot bear to be addressed by his Christian Name is not likely to willingly give up his control of his ‘little squanderbird’. Nora will also find herself unable to compromise her ideals which have become cemented by Helmer’s inability to provide the miracle of miracles. As she leaves, it is clear that the love that both of them had for the other is now destroyed. When the play was premiered, the fact that an alternative ending was required to enable major German theatres to stage the play, the societal constraints on women were such that such a desertion could not be countenanced.

In this world, the world so well illustrated by artists like Holman Hunt, a woman was a possession.  That was not up for debate. In the 21st Century Nora’s leaving is a vehicle for expression of the individual and of the feminine. Critics divide – one camp suggests a play establishing the individual as paramount and other supporting the notion of the specifically feminist agenda – yet one thing is certain: Where Lady May achieves some freedom within the confines of marriage, Nora Helmer breaks out of the trap and shows women from the middle of the 19th century that love need not be ‘invariably’ possessive and that although it may seem foolhardy, freedom lies on the other side of the door.

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Symbolism in A Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale

A resource for my Year 13 to download – created during  a class discussion.

symbolism-work

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Compare the symbolic and thematic importance of the Love Garden(Merchant’s Tale) and Helmer’s Dolls’ House in these texts.

planning sheets for Yr 13….

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Upper 6th: Dolls House/Merchants Tale discussions

There seems to be a terrible outbreak of the lurgy at school (or it might be Friday period 6).  Here is the discussion from today’s lesson about linking Ibsen and Chaucer, based on the June 2016 AS exam passage for analysis from Merchant’s tale (starting L.525).

In another reduced class, we discussed Feminist readings and the conversation took a turn into the discussion of critical theories. I am keen to remind students that all critical theories are applied after the event – Feminism, Marxism, Freudian et al…

My favourite moment here is when one student asks: “bit isn’t that unfair…”

Once again, a reminder that we are linking Chaucer and Ibsen for the OCR A level.

 

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Krogstad: a villain? Thoughts on Doll’s House

Sound files from Year 13 discussing aspects of Krogstad’s character….

 

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Nora in control?

Year 13 work for download relating to Nora and control in A Doll’s House

dolls-house-charts

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Picture stimulus: A doll’s house, Ibsen

3 pictures to stimulate discussion and context…and their descriptors. Found at Tate Britain.

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Some “Quite Interesting” things about Nora Helmer…

  1. She has a loan of £250 from Krogstad which she is repaying as best she can.  She does not work…
  2. She pays around £6 per week to employ her maid
  3. In London in the mid 19C Female copy clerks earned around £1 per week (Get a look at LUCY PICARD’S “Victorian London” – a great source book for interesting titbits).
  4. She leaves to buck a trend expected and perhaps best represented in this poem by Coventry Patmore (a man writing about his wife..). Here’s a taste:
  5. Man must be pleased; but him to please
    Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
    Of his condoled necessities
    She casts her best, she flings herself.
    How often flings for nought, and yokes
    Her heart to an icicle or whim,
    Whose each impatient word provokes
    Another, not from her, but him;
    While she, too gentle even to force
    His penitence by kind replies,
    Waits by, expecting his remorse,
    With pardon in her pitying eyes;
    And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
    A comfortable word confers,
    She leans and weeps against his breast,
    And seems to think the sin was hers;
    Or any eye to see her charms,
    At any time, she’s still his wife,
    Dearly devoted to his arms;
    She loves with love that cannot tire;
    And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
    Through passionate duty love springs higher,
    As grass grows taller round a stone.
  6. Nora fits into a pattern of women in Literature who are depicted as breaking this mould – Jane Eyre, Tess to name a couple
  7. She had to suffer a change of heart in the revised version of the play thought fit for German stages. In this version motherhood is seen as the highest virtue, far exceeding the right to be an individual human being.
  8. Ibsen is not a “feminist” writer, he strives after the individual and follows Kierkegaard in seeing an existential need for all humans to forge their own existence. Nora does pre-echo some of the characters by the great feminist and proto-feminist writers such as Kate Chopin – look at my guide to the Awakening  – Jean Rhys and Maya Angelou… all full of the “caged bird” imagery used here.

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Images in A Doll’s House

A powerpoint giving a brief overview of some of the key imagery in Ibsen’s play.

DH imagery

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