Tag Archives: Doll’s House

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….

new-doc-2017-01-11-09-46-28_1

 

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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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The Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale

For the new OCR A level examination, these two texts can be run together in the drama and poetry paper.  I am quite excited about this: a 19th century Well Made Play and a Mediaeval poem, albeit a dramatic poem with narrator, hardly seem clear bedfellows.

The questions will take the from of general statements for discussion in the manner of the old A level paper. Alevel sample paper  In this paper I am offering my initial thoughts as a stimulus.  There are few examples of AO2 and my intention is to offer a springboard for my Year 13s to develop their own paths.

It strikes me that The Merchants’ Tale could indeed by a subtitle for Ibsen’s play.  It moves the focus from Nora – usually perceived as the doll and the player with dolls suggested by the title- onto Torvald.  A 19th Century merchant suffering from all that implies:  ludicrous working hours, a need to maintain ‘face’ and a need to sustain a position in society based on a high moral purpose.  Now, Januarie has little moral purpose – he is clearly marrying for sexual gratification and attempting to sidestep the sin of lust in so doing.  But there are similarities.

Both are obsessed with their business – Januarie shows this in his constant use of business lexis when discussing marriage and love, and Torvald in the need to work on December 26th at a job which he has not even started yet.  So both are driven and both enjoy their earning power.  Torvald has made the home lovely and chosen most of the decor of the apartment in a manner which resembles Januarie’s luxurious Italian decoration for the wedding feast.  Both have created a secret garden:  Januarie in reality and Helmer in the apartment.  It is clear that the return to the apartment in Act 3 is solely for sexual gratification (whether Nora agrees or not) much as Januarie builds his garden to allow him to perform the acts which can’t be performed in the home!  Thus the societal requirement of a locus amoenus in which to woo and make love is still alive in the 19th century.  One could even paint Dr. Rank in the colour of the courtly lover.

You should consider this.  Rank loves an untouchable maiden, the wife of a friend.  He is sworn to celibacy and suffers not only from his love-disease but also from the constant proximity of the unattainable.  In Act 2, when he admits his feelings Nora is horrified.  Whereas May seizes the chance for adultery with both hands, Nora ends the discussion with a firm finality.  She will not break her moral code to that degree and is also reluctant to remove herself from the position of control which she currently inhabits.  Whilst the two female protagonists share nothing in the discussion of morality, it is clear that they are consummate actresses who control their husbands even when their husbands do not realise it.  That the outcome is so different is due to Nora’s determination to stop playing roles and to establish her individuality.  Helmer is happy to compromise his moral position regarding Nora’s crime, just as Januarie places his hand on May’s womb, probably containing another man’s child.  Nora is a new woman for the 19th Century.

Elsewhere we see Helmer as a man unable to take advice if it is not in line with his straightforward pronouncements and thus mirroring Januarie’s ignoring of Justinus’ advice.  Where Januarie is flattered by Placebo, we could argue that Helmer enjoys the flattery of Nora who constantly plays the ‘squanderbird-game’, no more so that when she wants money.  She knows her sexual allure and is not afraid to use it to get what she wants.  This suits Helmer who wants to show her off  at the masquerade dancing the tarantella in the costume of a fisher women.  He revels in her beauty and is clearly turned on by this action.  From here it is a small jump to Januarie showing off his lower-born wife at the wedding.  Both men wish to take their rights as a husband when they are alone.  Januarie is not successful and Helmer is interrupted by a string of events.

In both texts society is challenged.  Ibsen writes a critique of bourgeois complacency and proposes the emergence of a new Existentialist citizen based on the writing of Kierkegaard.  Chaucer holds a mirror to the world and finds it wanting. He has held positions of power in commerce and has seen greedy merchants at first hand, moreover he makes his merchant a Knight – old and lust driven – a dangerous thing to do when the ghost of John of Gaunt hovers over your family.  IN short, neither offer a radical political manifesto for change, but both highlight the faults and fissures in contemporary society for those who wish to see them.

Convinced?  Well, this idea will develop as the new academic year progresses.  Hopefully there will be new writing and plenty of comment.

f comment.

 

 

 

 

 

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