Women were valued very little by nineteenth century society. The treatment of these women was also extremely negative; they were expected to stay home and fulfill domestic duties. Literature of this time embodies and mirrors social issues of women in society. Henrik Ibsen uses Nora Helmer in A Doll House to portray the negative treatment of all women throughout society during the nineteenth century. Many women characters throughout American literature reflect the same conflicts and attitudes of Nora in Ibsen’s play A Doll House.
The role of a woman was inferior to that of a man, especially in marriages. The main duties of a woman were centered around the home. They were expected to fulfill their domestic duties, such as caring for the children, cooking washing, and cleaning the household. She had the responsibilities of dealing with a household and she almost always had children to care for, which required strength and knowledge; however, being able too fulfill marital duties and satisfying her husband brought satisfaction to some married women.
In the play A Doll House, Nora too finds happiness in keeping her husband pleased. She always ‘play-acts’ for Torvald, and she enjoys doing so. Nora has the responsibility of dealing with household issues. She basically oversees Anne-Marie, who is the children’s nurse, in caring for the three small children; she is also responsible for doing household shopping as suggested in these lines:
…come here so I can show you everything I bought…new clothes for Ivar here–and a sword. here a horse and a trumpet for Bob…And here I have dress material and handkerchiefs for the maids. Old Anne Marie really deserves something more. (Ibsen 784)
This proves that Nora does have responsibilities in her home, and she is capable of effectively caring for the members of her family.
In Rose Terry Cooke’s “How Celia Changed Her Mind,” it is suggested that a married woman is nothing more than someone who is obligated to fulfill domestic responsibilities and duties. Mrs. Celia begins to understand and realize that the image she had of marriage being an equal partnership between the two parties is very uncommon, as illustrated in the following lines: “…she discovered how few among [women] were more than household drudges, the servants of their families, worked to the verge of exhaustion, and neither thanked or rewarded for their pains” (Cooke 472). A marriage, in the opinion of Mrs. Celia, calls for a woman to devote herself completely to domestic endeavors.
Economic factors also reflected the discrimination and inferior roles of a woman. The marriage vows that the woman took were supposed to evoke the image of mutual trust, yet a woman entered this marriage in which she did not have the same legal and economic rights that her spouse had. One of the main secret’s of a man’s domination of the household was his control of money (Longford 45).
Nora has the same money issues of other married women. In Act I of the play, Torvald tells Nora that just because he is getting a bigger salary, there still will be no depts and no borrowing. However, he then gives her some money to do a little shopping, but tells her that is all she will have to manage with. When he asks her what it is that she wants for the holidays, she replies, “You can give me money, Torvald. No more than you think you can spare; then one of these days I’ll buy something with it” (Ibsen 784). Nora is very dependent on her husband for money, and he gives her money at his discretion.
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Mrs. Beazley’s Deeds,” Mrs. Beazley’s dilemma involves her spouse selling land and property that was left to her by her father. Although her signature is required on the legal documents, she only signs them because she feels that she is made to by her husband. When Miss Lawrence asks her why she continues to let her husband sell the property and why she continues to sign her property away, Mrs. Beazley responds: “Let him!–Oh, well you ain’t married! Let him! Miss Lawrence, you don’t know men” (Gilman 511). Mr. Beazley also tells Mrs. Beazley “what do you women know about business, anyway! You just tell him you’re perfectly willing and under no compulsion, and sign the paper…,” which reiterates the fact that men dominated most economic issues (Gilman506).
Society’s general attitude towards a woman was that her place in society was to be controlled or dominated by a male figure. It was thought that someone had to be on top and the men were the ones called to this leadership. Men felt that it was their duty and obligation to be socially dominating over women.
In A Doll House Torvald is very dominating over his wife, Nora. He controlled her as if she were his own personal property; Nora had to dress a certain way to satisfy her husband, and she also is forbidden by Torvald to eat macaroons. As he shakes his finger at her, Torvald asks, “My sweet tooth really didn’t make a little detour through the confectioner’s” (Ibsen 785).
It is implied that in Elizabeth Stuart Phelp’s “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder,” the wife is also somewhat controlled by her husband. Mrs. James complains that because of her overload of domestic responsibilities, she never has any free time to herself. Mr. James, her husband, then replies, “…make up your mind to let the work which is not done, go undone, if it must. Spend this time on just those things which will be most profitable to yourself. I shall bind you to your promise for one month…” (Phelps 157). However, the next day he interrupts this time so that she may do some sewing for him, saying to her “…sorry, but what can a man do? He cannot go downtown without a shirt-bosom” (Phelps 158); this suggests that his needs come before hers and she must come when he calls.
Demeaning language and controlling behavior by men were also a common occurrence in the everyday life of women. Men belittled women by using language to make them feel inferior to them. The men not only spoke to their wives in a belittling way, but they also spoke of their wives in a demeaning manner to others (Longford 22).
Torvald speaks to Nora as if she were inferior to him; this can be concluded because every time he calls here a pet name, it is usually preceeded by the word ‘little’ to describe it: “…because you give in to your husband’s judgment? All right you little goose, I know you didn’t mean it like that” (Ibsen 808). By Torvald treating Nora like a child, she is shielded from reality; Torvald transfers her to a subhuman level.
Jane Harwood, mother and wife in Lydia Sigourney’s “Intemperate,” is also put down by her husband, James. On their journey to a new home, James is speaking to a neighbor when he says the following about his wife when he is asked to carry the baby and not allow her to carry the burden alone: “…She makes the children so cross, that I never have any comfort of them” (Sigourney 74). James is disrespectful towards his wife and does not pride himself in speaking well of her even though he should, especially to strangers.
Although the women during this era showed no social domination, their attitudes of acceptance promoted this stereotyping of social roles based on gender. Many women welcomed their fixed positions in society, and some were against the independence and equality that others wanted. Women were thought to merely yield to necessity and accept the role and limitations within which they could be useful.
Nora promotes this inferior role by accepting her husband’s humiliating treatment. She appears to be quite happy and content with the pet names that her husband has given her, feeling that they are not insults, but words that represent his affection for her. Nora feels that her husband is an honorable man who loves her, and treats her in a way that is in her best interest.
In the story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the speaker accepts that her husband’s parental treatment is in her best interest. Her husband has diagnosed her with a nervous condition, and although she does not agree with him she feels that “If a physician of high standing…assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression…what is one to stay” (Gilman 480). She accepts that every thing her husband does is correct, and that all he does is in her best interest. He also treats her as a child and she starts to depend on this treatment feeling that she “cannot be without him, it makes [her] so nervous” (483).
Despite the inferior attitudes of society towards a woman, she still found the courage and the strength to rise above them. She was faced with the dilemma of entertaining the responsibilities to her husband or the responsibilities to oneself; she realized that she had obvious duties to her spouse; she had to please and fascinate him and give in to his every demand. Fortunately, women began to want to be freed from all personal bonds and all forms of oppression. As a result of this need for individualism, the number of marriages decreased because of women’s new perception of themselves (Longford 81).
Nora does realize that she has a responsibility to herself. She feels that she has to liberate herself from all the simple roles that she has been assigned to. Nora bluntly tells Torvald that before anything else she is a human being. She understands that she too should be treated like a human being, and the responsibilities to herself is greater than the responsibilities and obligations to him.
Mrs. Beazley in the story “Mrs. Beazley’s Deeds” also conveys this same need to become an individual and be released from her husband’s oppression. Although skeptical at first of the thought of actually leaving her husband, feeling that “…none of us can get away, and if I don’t do as he says I must, he takes it out of us…you don’t do nothing with a man like that,” she does decide that it would be best for not only her, but her children as well (Gilman 511). It was popular belief that a woman could not do anything without the assistance of a man; after learning of his wife’s departure, Mr. Beazley asks, “What’s she going to do–a woman alone” (Gilman 518). This reiterates the fact that men thought women were incapable of caring for themselves.
Nora and the women of the nineteenth century have overcome many obstacles as women to develop individuality. Despite the many oppressions in a masculine society forced upon them, the women were willing and able to rise above them. If things are different now, it is due to the growing individualism of the women during the nineteenth century.