Throughout the history women have had different roles in society which we can see today in literature. Literary works reflect the society in which they are created and published. In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonists are female characters, Nora and Offred respectively. Although the settings of the two protagonists are very different, as Nora lives in the 19th century in an unspecified Norwegian city and Offred in a dystopian society, the portrayal of these two women is very similar.A Doll’s House is a famous play by Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen, published in December 1879. The play is about the average middle class European family of the 19th century, formed of a husband and wife, their three children and the family nanny. It takes place during Christmas and New Year, which serves as the symbol of an ending followed by the beginning of something new. At first, Nora, the protagonist of the play, appears to be a very weak and silly woman.
When called a “little rogue” (Ibsen, 9), “little bird” (Ibsen, 10), his “squirrel” (Ibsen, 7), his “little lark” (Ibsen, 10) or his “own, sweet little song-bird” (Ibsen, 11), by her husband, she doesn’t seem to be bothered, instead she enjoys it. Her husband always calls her “little” and his own, something which she doesn’t disagree with, suggesting that she accepts the position of inferiority that she holds in this family. Moreover, she would not dare go against her husband’s word as her own line suggests: “I shouldn’t think of doing what you disapprove of” (Ibsen, 8). The first impressions of the female protagonist Nora are that she is an unintelligent person, submissive “As you like, Torvald” (Ibsen, 4) and dependent of her husband : “Yes please, Torvald. I can’t get on without you.
” (Ibsen, 45). That is the first portrayal of women we encounter in the play. She is also a very materialistic person, continuously talking about money: “it’s splendid to have lots of money” (Ibsen, 19), asking her husband for money: “You might give me money, Torvald” (Ibsen, 5), and even trying to seduce her husband for money: “(playing with his coat buttons, without looking him in the face)” (Ibsen, 9). Another proof that she is the inferior one in the marriage is the way she accepts all the insults: “Thoughtless as ever!” (Ibsen, 7), “What a woman you are!” (Ibsen, 8), “you’re a strange little being” (Ibsen, 11) given by her husband, not giving any riposte or without even getting upset, instead she accepts them almost as words of endearment.Another female character of the play is Mrs. Kristine Linde, an old friend of Nora’s but very different from her. Mrs. Linde is firstly a more experienced woman, a widow who has gone through a lot and has remained with nobody to care for.
She is a wise woman, as opposed to Nora. Even though Kristine admits that her marriage was not a success, saying that her husband did not even leave her with “a sorrow or a longing to dwell upon” (Ibsen, 12), and after living three years of “one long struggle” (Ibsen, 16), opening a shop and then a school, she wants to live like the average woman of the 19th century, meaning to be a wife and a mother before anything else: “I need some one to tend, and your children need a mother.You need me and I–I need you” (Ibsen, 102).
Kristine is an independent woman who can solve problems; she takes matters into her own hands after seeing that Nora is helpless and goes to sort out the problem. She even tells a man what to do: “No, Nils, you must not recall the letter” (Ibsen, 103), which in those times was very brave and quite rare of a woman to do. Here we have a wise, independent and experienced female character, free from care and without a husband, but who just wants a “normal” life, according to the norms of the 19th century, because without this she feels “terribly aimless and forsaken” (Ibsen, 90). After solving the problem on her own, Mrs Linde fixes the broken relationship with an old lover: “How if we two shipwrecked people could join hands?” (Ibsen, 90) and is finally happy when she is part of a family and has someone to live and work for: “What a change! What a change! To have some one to work for; a home to make happy” (Ibsen, 104). Nora goes through a metamorphosis in the play. At first she seems to be the happiest person, without a care in the world, but it is soon revealed that her life is not as perfect as she makes it seem, and when that happens, we see a change in Nora’s attitude.
This occurs when problems knock at the door, more specifically when a man named Krogstad, whom she owes money, that her husband does not know about, comes to ask that he keep his job under his husband’s direction. The problem of debt as Nora puts it will “utterly upset the relationship between us; our beautiful, happy home would never again be what it is” (Ibsen, 27), so she tries to solve it desperately, begging her husband to let Krogstad keep his job: “If your little squirrel were to beg you for something so prettily”, “The squirrel would jump about and play all sorts of tricks if you would only be nice and kind”, “Your lark would twitter from morning till night” (Ibsen, 57), in a seductive, submissive, and quite desperate way, but does not succeed. We can see how scared she is of her authoritarian husband and with what great passion she tries to avoid him getting upset and angry as well as her vulnerability to blackmail coming from a man, suggesting again, women’s position in that society. When her husband finds out about the debt he gets really angry at her, yelling and scolding her: “Wretched woman! What have you done?”, “she, who was my pride and my joy–a hypocrite, a liar–worse, worse–a criminal”, “no religion no morality no sense of duty”, “unprincipled woman” (Ibsen, 107). This is when, due to seeing a new, undiscovered face of her husband, she is shocked and this is when metamorphosis takes place.
She demands that her husband sits down and they have a conversation: “Sit down. It will take some time; I have much to talk over with you.” (Ibsen, 112).
This is the first big proof of her character change, when she takes the role of a leader and starts demanding that her husband listens to what she has to say. After they both sit down, Nora notices something: “We have been married eight years. Does it not strike you that this is the first time we two, you and I, man and wife, have talked together seriously”, “we have never exchanged one serious word about serious things” (Ibsen, 113); she starts to perceive what her role in the family has been for all these years and realises that it has been the same all her life: “I mean I passed from father’s hands into yours. You settled everything according to your taste; and I got the same tastes as you; or I pretended to”, “I seem to have been living here like a beggar, from hand to mouth.
I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald” (Ibsen, 114). She comes to the shocking conclusion that her life has been wasted: “It is your fault that my life has been wasted” (Ibsen, 114). The play ends with Nora leaving her husband in order to discover herself and to see what it’s like to live for herself: “Listen, Torvald–when a wife leaves her husband’s house, as I am doing, I have heard that in the eyes of the law he is free from all duties towards her” (Ibsen,121-122).We can find two major female characters in this play. One that eventually comes to the realisation that she has been treated unfairly by her husband, because of the social norms of the 19th century, and one that is a widow, more experienced and a bit smarter, but without a husband or family. The second one, even though is independent, doesn’t feel accomplished and doesn’t see her role in life without a husband and a family to care for. There could be many messages that the author is trying to reveal here.
Firstly, that women are so used to having the role of homemaking and caring for their husband and children, because that is how they have been raised by parents and the society, that they have been brainwashed and, therefore cannot live life any other way.Secondly, perhaps women who have experienced being alone and not having a family and husband to care for, have realised that it is worse and harder to be independent and that women are actually happiest and feel most accomplished when having a family. In any case, I think that the author of the play is trying to mock the society of the 19th century more than he is trying to mock certain individuals, because we can see the male authority throughout the play in actions, but even when characters state laws. He creates a rebellion against social norms through Nora’s ending actions, suggesting that society is the source of the problem. The fact that Mrs.
Linde chooses to remarry and relive the sacrificial life of women in that society, I think shows that….The Handmaid’s Tale by Canadian author Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel published in 1985. The story of the novel takes place in “the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and theocratic state that has replaced the United States” (plot overview). Everything happened when, because of too much pollution, the fertility rates dropped enormously. At that point a group of people took control over the country using the military. They created new laws, one of which was that women were not allowed to own property or to have a job.Offred, the protagonist, is a handmaid.
Handmaids were women who were used for reproductive purposes in the dystopian society created by Atwood. Offred stands for “of” and “Fred”, Fred being the owner or, as called in the book, The Commander. The society in Gilead is composed of the commanders and their wives, served by a lot of people, including the eye, which was the commander’s private security, handmaids, which were the ones supposed to make them children, cooks and other servants.
Offred is a woman who has lived and was married before Gilead “in an age of readily available pornography, prostitution, and violence against women” (plot overview). She was captured and separated from her husband and child while trying to flee the country to Canada. Afterwards she was brought to the commander’s house in order to serve him as a handmaid. At the beginning, the girls were taken to the “Red Center” where they were instructed on how to become handmaids. Their supervisors were the so called Aunts who were teaching them how to behave and how to live in this new theocratic and totalitarian society: “Think of it as being in the army” (Atwood, 4), “Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak unless they ask you a direct question” (Atwood,13), “It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the wives” (Atwood, 51), “In a bathroom, in a bathtub, you are vulnerable, said Aunt Lydia.
She didn’t say to what” (Atwood, 71). She was their mentor, with this sort of motherly image.Offred goes through a metamorphosis.
At the beginning of the book, she accepts her new social status quite easily, more than that, she gets used to it. When she sees some tourists from Japan, and what the women wear: “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach right below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes…” (Atwood, 33). Even though the appearance of the Japanese tourists, women in particular, was something normal for Offred before Gilead, she is so used to the new society and its rules that she is bothered by them: “We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.
“, “Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.”(Atwood, 33). She seems weak, scared, without initiative and easily controlled. After getting used to the new society and starting an affair with the Commander: “The Commander and I have an arrangement.” “I visit the Commander two or three nights a week, always after dinner, but only when I get the signal.” (Atwood, 178), she starts to change.
She becomes more courageous and daring: “I’m sitting in the Commander’s office, across from him at his desk … I no longer sit stiff-necked, straight backed, feet regimented side by side on the floor, eyes at the salute. Instead my body’s lax, cozy even. My red shoes are off, my legs tucked up underneath me on the chair” (Atwood, 219-220). Another female character present in the novel is the commander’s wife also known as Serena Joy “or had been once”, (Atwood, 17), which is not her real name, it is her past stage name, however this character is neither serene nor joyful, possibly suggesting the effects of the new society on its citizens.
The Wives have a certain authority over their servants: “A Guardian detailed to the Commander does the heavy digging; the Commander’s Wife directs, pointing with her stick. Many of the Wives have such gardens, it’s something for them to order and maintain and care for.” (Atwood, 10), “She wanted me to feel that I could not come into the house unless she said so”, “The Guardian set down the bag and saluted her.” (Atwood, 12). However, the title of Serena Joy in the society is The Commander’s Wife, suggesting that the husband is the head of the marriage and perhaps that she belongs to him. Everything belongs to the commander: “their long black murmurous cars, or their blue Wives and white-veiled daughters”, “…
or their dumpy green Marthas, or the occasional Birthmobile, or their red Hand-maids” (Atwood, 24). We can clearly see that in this society, as in the society from A Doll’s House, the male is the dominant one, he controls everything. We can encounter women with authority, but it is obvious that they have this power due to their husbands, The Commanders. There are however some moments in which The Wife and her rules indicate an authority over The Commander: “The Commander knocks at the door … the sitting room is supposed to be Serena Joy’s territory, he’s supposed to ask permission to enter it.
She likes to keep him waiting.” (Atwood, 98). The difference here is that The Commander would still have authority even without his Wife, but we cannot say the opposite is true.
Moira is another female character from the novel. She was Offred’s best friend in college. Moira, as Offred put it, was “quirky, jaunty, athletic”, “Freckles, I think; irreverent, resourceful.
” (Atwood, 59), with “Dark hair” (Atwood, 143). She proved to be a very courageous, smart and independent woman when she escaped from the Commander’s house: “Moira stood up straight and looked firmly ahead. She drew her shoulders back, pulled up her spine, and compressed her hips. This was not our usual posture. Usually we walked with heads bent down, our eyes on our hands or ground.
” (Atwood, 155). She walked straight up to the guards that every girl feared, except the Commander’s Wife, and deceived them by hiding her identity. The other girls admired Moira very much for her courage and independence and even felt safer with her: “In the light of Moira, the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd. Their power had a flaw to it.” (Atwood, 157). She took a position of authority and corrected the girls when she thought they were doing something wrong; she was pretty rough but she only wanted the best for the girls, for all girls in fact: “Moira took Janine by the shoulders and shook her.
Snap out of it, Janine, she said roughly”, “Moira slapped her across the face, twice, back and forth. Get back here, she said. Get right back here!” (Atwood, 260). The society of Gilead as well as the society of 19th century Europe from A Doll’s House are clearly man centered. Women are inferior to men by law. In the 19th century European society, women have a model to follow in life, to get married, have kids and spend the rest of their lives caring for them.
Furthermore women were dependent on men: “a wife can’t borrow without her husband’s consent.” (Ibsen, 19). Gilead has very strict rules depriving women of freedom as: women are not allowed to read, “Evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible” (Atwood, 39), “There is no such thing as a sterile man, not officially.
There are only women who are fruitful and women who are narren, that’s the law.” (Atwood, 69). As a product of these societies and social norms, women in general are treated in a certain way.
Because they are inferior to men in the legal system, they are being treated as inferior beings by the entire society.The Handmaid’s Tale and A Doll’s House were written approximately one century apart, the first being written in the 20th century and the second in the 19th century. As I have showed, in both societies presented in the works, man is the dominant one.
Admittedly there are a lot of differences in details, but overall women are portrayed in a similar manner, that of being inferior to men, weak, powerless and totally dependent on men. However, both works show the main character go through a metamorphosis. At first they are portrayed as the inferior ones, created in such a way by the authors to satirize these societies, then a model of independent women is presented through secondary characters Moira and Mrs Linde and at the ending the two protagonists change for the better and are removed from the stereotype of women being inferior to men. This is done by the authors to encourage changes in this unfair, unjust society.To conclude, women, in these two works, live in societies which dictate how they should be and what priorities they should have in life and at first we see them as regular female members of the society of that time, following these dictations, however at the end they are portrayed very differently, both of the characters realise the injustice they are suffering and rebel against the society and its unfairness towards women. This rebellion is caused by many factors, like other female characters and certain events, and symbolizes the need of women to take control of their own lives and to make society change the way it treats them.