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Portrayal of Women in North and South and A Dolls House: Comparative Analysis

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Both North and South (1854-55) and A Dolls House (1879) present women as systemically restricted by an 1800’s patriarchal society, which elicits a response of sympathetic relatability within a typical female Victorian reader. Both of these novels are defined by the controversy of binary conflicts, which, if left unresolved, tear apart Gaskell’s Nora and Torvald, but consequently draw Ibsen’s Margaret Hale and John Thornton closer together. Both Gaskell and Ibsen explore the idea of equality within relationships, and whether it is beneficial, or completely the opposite.

Gaskell and Ibsen both choose to display the relationships within the novels against the traditional Victorian stereotype of love. With a patriarchal society governing the perceived love within each relationship, it either defines it, or tears the characters apart. Ibsen’s Nora and Torvald are a classic example of this, with their love being extremely artificial in order to paint a bright picture of the ‘perfect’ household. Even with industrial England intermittently changing the social roles within the class hierarchy, the sacrificial role of women remains the same, which Ibsen strongly points out. Towards the beginning of the novel, Nora seems perfectly happy. She consistently responds affectionately to Torvalds teasing, and does not seem to mind her doll like existence in which she is coddled and pampered, treated more like a possession than an actual human being. However, as the play progresses, Nora reveals that she is not just a ‘silly girl’, as Torvald constantly calls her. Her strong articulation indicates that she possesses qualities beyond mere wifehood. The unforeseen change in Nora towards the end of the novel indicates that she was this strong, independent woman throughout the play, but it was masked by the presence of Torvald, who echoes the majority of middle class men within industrial England. This is Ibsen’s way of revealing the intellectual power of Nora, but while she seemed to reach an awareness of the power of men, previously, she had shown a rather naiive innocence about this which is very similar to Margaret’s behaviour when she fails to realise the implications of her behaviour during the riots in North and South.

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North and South is a novel defined by binary conflicts and how they are resolved. Margaret Hale, the heroine, is confronted with a variety of sympathies, including those between industrialists and the working class, as well as her contradictory opinions on her own intellect. Margaret seldom takes sides, preferring to consider mutually beneficial relationships instead. The novel’s conclusion, in which a proposal to lend money to the newly benevolent Mr Thornton, demonstrates the convergence of her business sense and compassion, binds these seemingly dichotomous elements together. However, as she enters the Northern town of Milton, she is described as a ‘fish out of water’, thus making her refuse Thornton’s handshake as she is unaware of the northern tradition; ‘It was the frank familiar custom of the place; but Margaret was not prepared for it. She simply bowed farewell;’ This social error indicates just how out of place Margaret appears in the industrial town of Milton, which is further confirmed by her erratic behaviour within the riots, in which ‘there was a restless, oppressive sense of irritation abroad amongst the people; a thunderous atmosphere, morally, as well as physically around her’. Gaskell paints a picture of an electric atmosphere, of which Margaret was a part of, and actively ‘threw her arms’ around John Thornton, in order to prevent any harm from coming to him. Such a public display of affection would have greatly risked her reputation during the Victorian era, of which I find Gaskell to illuminate Margaret’s impertinence and naivety, of which a Victorian reader would have either interpreted this moment of plain stupidity, to have potentially risked her life in order to save a man that she did not appear all that keen on, or to have realised this to be a crucial part of an intense and romantic love story, submerged by political content. I interpret this moment within the novel to be a demonstration of the lack of equality between the Milton workers and John Thornton, and how devastation could potentially occur because of the monumental gap between the rich and the poor. The character of Margaret is used by Gaskell to be the metaphorical bridge between the gap, preventing damage from occurring. I feel as if Gaskell is encouraging the reader to apply this metaphor to life, as the true love between complete opposites consequently draws society closer, possibly changing it for the better.

In both texts, the characters of Thornton and Torvald are protected by the female characters, which is the main focal point of ‘A Dolls House’, as both heroines sacrifice their reputation and livelihood in order to protect their ‘love’. However, this sacrifice is interpreted in very different ways, which very accurately brings to light the different types of male within England, and whether equality is desired, or unwelcome. For example, Nora communicates that Torvald is ‘so proud of being a man- it’d be so painful and humiliating for him to know that he owed anything’ to her. I feel as if Ibsen is exploring the idea of what the ideal 19th century man appeared to be, and how he has exercised his dominant control over the household. The concept of equality within a Dolls house is completely lost, as although it appears the roles of men and women were prominent, Torvald still influences the decisions Nora makes on the decorations of the house, further pushing the idea of complete and utter dominance, silencing Nora’s character until the dramatic climax of the play, where Ibsen forces us to realise the importance of equality, and how the lack of it ultimately led to the destruction of the Helmer Marriage. North and South’s Margaret Hale and John Thornton stand in complete opposition to this, as when Margaret saves Thornton from both lynching and bankruptcy, he acts upon this positively and embraces the act of love behind the process.

In North and south, From a feminist standpoint, I find it very interesting that the context of the production itself can be seen as having an element of the patriarchy. Gaskell wanted to call the novel ‘Margaret Hale’, to emphasise the heroines importance, but she was overruled by Charles Dickens, the editor of the weekly magazine Household Words, where it was first published from September 1854 to January 1855. North and South, according to Dickens, ‘encompasses more and emphasises the opposition between people who are compelled by circumstance to come face to face,’ making it a possible sequel to his own industrial novel Hard Times. Because of the episodic serial structure, Gaskell had to include frequent cliff-hangers, such as Margaret’s brother Frederick’s hidden presence in Milton, which causes Thornton to ‘indulge[e] himself in the torment’ of imagining Margaret with another man, and suffer ‘savage, distrustful jealousy’ before union leader Nicholas Higgins tells him the truth. Gaskell’s chosen form helps allows her to engineer a ‘classic romantic happy’ ending which allows Margaret to take control of her future. Margaret must navigate her way through a patriarchal society by treating the love of her life as if it was a business deal, which leads Thornton to believe Henry Lennox is the ‘right man’ for Margaret even after the Fredericks mistake is cleared up. This insight into the patriarchal society Margret is living in allows us to see how a middle class woman like Margaret is almost afraid of the damaging effects of love, which essentially taint the feminist qualities she possesses, indicating that the constant dismissal of her feelings for Thornton were an act of defiance against the Victorian patriarchal society, that continuously highlighted the inequality between the North and South, The Labourers and the factory owners. Gaskells creation of the Novel North and south, is one that tells a love story, that can absolutely not be ignored. Though it is miniscule, the theme of love and feminism is able to shine through the love of Margaret and Thornton, which at the same time brings to attention the creation of a better society, if equality was even just slightly closer, slowly bridging the gap between the rich and the poor.

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Portrayal of Women in North and South and A Dolls House: Comparative Analysis. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
“Portrayal of Women in North and South and A Dolls House: Comparative Analysis.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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