McEwan in his novel Atonement explores deceit through the character of Briony. Briony is presented as an overly ambitious young girl whose actions are mainly done to gain some recognition in the adult world. McEwan structures his novel in such a way that the reader is presented with the deceit in the first part of the novel and the atonement for the deceit is later on in the novel. Ibsen in his play A Doll’s House also explores the theme of deceit through the character of Nora.
Nora at first is presented as a naive and an inexperienced woman who does not seem to understand the conventions of society and this is ater contrasted to Nora’s character at the end of the novel where she is viewed as a strong and determined individual. The protagonists are comparable in that they both atone for their deceit and it is the atonement that the texts centre on rather than the deceit itself. McEwan’s novel Atonement is set in three time periods. The first part of the novel is set in the year 1935 and the events take place in one day.
McEwan uses the hottest day of the year as a backdrop to the crime Briony commits. The heat is used to convey the mounting tension throughout the day leading up to the suffocating and oppressive atmosphere in the ining room of the Tallis’ real estate just prior to the twin’s disappearance and the subsequent rape of Lola. The motivation for Briony’s deceit is her need to be in control and to be taken seriously by those around her. She feels as though she is ‘shrinking under the early evening sky’ which foreshadows the lie she tells later on in the novel and demonstrates how her reality is worse than her daydreams.
Ironically, the fact that she is ‘shrinking’ suggests that the lie she later tells will become a far bigger force then herself and therefore, will be out of her control. The threat of this first occurs when she reluctantly allows Lola to play the role of Arabella because ‘she knew at once that she could not ask Lola to play the prince’. McEwan makes it clear that Briony did not anticipate how grown up Lola would be; she is simply too womanly to take on a masculine role. Briony being uncomfortable with losing ‘her power of Godly creation’, is later compounded by her shock at the language used by Robbie Turner in his letter to Cecilia.
The taboo word, ‘cunt’ has a profound effect on Briony causing her to change her views on Robbie. She is appalled and feels that her ‘estranged ompanions of.. childhood’ are ‘now closed’. It is this combination of factors which persuades her on an unconscious level to lie about what she saw that night. Briony is able to convince herself and Lola ‘without a trace of question’ by constantly repeating that ‘it was Robbie’ that raped Lola. McEwan uses irony here to convey that although Briony is adamant in entering the adult world, at the same time she feels threatened by it and is clearly not ready.
She seals Robbie’s fate with the words ‘l saw him! I saw him’, which demonstrates her sub-conscious drive to know and understand the adult world nd her story to be accepted by the adults, at any cost, making every effort to ensure that her version of the truth is unquestionable by presenting herself ‘with the face of granite’. Her position is immovable. Nora’s deceit runs throughout the three acts in the play unlike McEwan’s novel Atonement where the deceit unfolds in part one.
By structuring the play like this, Ibsen is able to create tension between characters and explore the dynamics of relationships between men and women in late 19th century Norway. Torvald’s strong beliefs on ‘borrowing and debt’ acts as a catalyst for Nora to commit the forgery because omen in the 19th century were unable to take out a loan ‘without her husband’s consent’. Torvald questions Nora on what she would do if ‘a tile’ was to fall ‘off a roof and onto his head, which suggests that Torvald does not trust her with money and is very careful when handing her small amounts of money.
The possible danger that is to come if Torvald was to find out of Nora’s deceit, is what creates the underlying tension throughout the play. However, the audience sympathises with Nora due to her frustration at her entrapment and the unsatisfactory nature of marriage for women. Torvald comes across as stiflingly paternalistic to Nora with his constant terms of endearments such as little squirrel and ‘little featherhead’, which are belittling and patronising. The word ‘little’ emphasises his infantilization of Nora and the unequal power relations between men and women in the 19th century Norwegian society.
This is furthered by Nora drooping ‘her wings’ and acting ‘out of temper, which suggests that Nora conforms to Torvald’s expectations of her by sulking and acting in a childlike manner. Nora forges her father’s signature in order to ‘save’ Helmer’s life nd tries to perpetuate the illusion of a happy marriage. However, this only seems to worsen Nora’s situation and causes her to become anxious of what is to come. Like Briony, Nora too feels disempowered and therefore, forges the signature partly to experience the same power men wield on a daily basis.
Ibsen uses Mrs Linde as a device by which Nora’s crime is revealed. The two characters are alone on stage allowing Nora to speak freely. It is unclear whether Nora tells Christine out of excitement or because she feels she has to prove herself to the independent Christine. Nora makes it evident that she is fed up of how others perceive her as she says ‘you’re like the rest. You all think l’m incapable of getting down to anything serious-‘. It seems she tells Christine to gain credibility and be treated as an equal by others.
The fact that Christine calls Nora ‘crazy’ after Nora has revealed her secret, illustrates the threat Nora has exposed herself to and Christine’s shock reflects the likely reaction of the audience. Nora seems ‘happy and proud’ of the illegal act she has committed. She does not seem to understand the danger of what she has done. The audience however, may ympathise with Nora more than the reader sympathises with Briony in Atonement because Nora seems to be treated unjustly by society because she is a woman. This is because in 19th century Norwegian society, women were seen as inferior to men.
Briony is treated fairly but her impatience to join the adult world causes her to lie. McEwan explores the theme of self- deceit through the character of Lola since she is complicit in Briony’s framing of Robbie for the crime of rape against her. At one point she confesses that if Briony had not ‘cut her off she would have ’embarked upon a long confession’, suggesting that Lola not only knows who her attacker was but feels guilt or at least partly responsible for the rape as she was attracted to Marshall and may feel that she led him on.
Initially, she allowed Marshall to win her over with trivial objects such as an ‘Amo’ bar, the means by which a sensual moment between the two occurred. Ironically, Marshall uses the ‘Amo’ bar as an object for his lust for Lola when in fact ‘Amo’ means ‘l love’. This only confirms that Marshall does not love Lola but uses her as a tool to nourish his needs, foreshadowing the transgressive act he later carries out. McEwan uses Lola’s acceptance of Marshall’s roposal later on in the novel, to explore women’s psychological reasoning.
Perhaps Lola feels that by marrying Marshall, their history is somehow re-written and she regains her sense of worth or dignity. Similarly, Ibsen explores the theme of self- deceit by using the tarantella costume almost as a disguise for Nora as it is not only used to cover up the deceitful act she has committed by distracting Torvald from reading Krogstad’s letter once it has been deposited in the letter box but, more importantly, it enables Nora to ‘perform’ for Torvald, living out the role of the doll wife. When the costume is first brought out,
Nora notices that the costume is ‘torn’ and is tempted to tear it apart, symbolising the dysfunctional relationship between Nora and Torvald and demonstrating Nora’s underlying feelings of dissatisfaction towards her marriage. By using the costume as a prop, Ibsen also allows a different side of Nora to be seen as the dance is seen to be a very passionate and a fiery one, which allows Nora to drop her facade of a submissive house wife. The audience see Nora dance ‘more and more wildly’ suggesting a side to her which is normally repressed in order to conform to the expectations of her gender and class.