Historically speaking men and women had separate spheres, which defined the natural characteristics of the two sexes. These characteristics that women are expected to be obedient, powerlessness, submissive, dependent and domesticated created a natural hierarchy that grew increasingly through marriage. In the Victorian Era, a proper woman is perfectly described by the term ‘Angel in the House’ – the title of a popular poem which reflected the mindset of a popular Victorian image of the ideal wife or woman. Seventeenth century Europe also had the same mindset and expected the same thing. Women were expected to aspire to marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction. Both Nora and Nella adhere to society’s ideology and keenly purse these ideas of how their futures should look like. The objective is to examine the depiction of gender in both texts and how the writers use these female protagonists to take control of their gender expectations and gain an identity that doesn’t depend on their husbands. In addition, what was the significance of the critical response and interpretations following the release of both texts?
It is evident that the underlying message of both ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘The Miniaturist’, is that it is a man’s world. Similarities are drawn in the way that Ibsen and Burton slowly challenge the unfairness and hypocrisy of society. As written in A Feminist concern in English Literature the texts contrast well together because Ibsen presents women negotiating, resisting and subverting the female roles constructed by the societies in which they live. Irish playwright George B. Shaw found it thrilling that Ibsen was willing to examine society with such bigotry.
Nora and Nella are continuously defined by the people around them. Nora is well defined by her husband, Helmer. She is Helmer’s “skylark” – a pet, a sexual partner, a mother and housekeeper. Helmer rarely, throughout the play calls Nora by her name. Ibsen uses animalistic imagery to develop her character throughout the play. By placing the first use of this imagery in the first few lines at the beginning of the play, the audience understands that in Helmar’s eyes, Nora is a pet and not his equal. The effect of Helmer calling Nora his “skylark”, “little lark”, “little squirrel” and other animal names is followed by an action – her hiding the macaroons (“Is that my squirrel frisking about?”) and being carefree (“Is that my little lark chirping around?”). Interestingly when Helmer refers to Nora by using these words, it reflects how he feels about her. The possessive pronoun “my” suggests that she is his; a possession. Nora is locked and caged by him in their home. He questions her behaviour during those situations, which is followed by his condescending behaviour towards her. Ibsen intentionally does this to show how Nora is supposed to act and how she is portrayed. It allows the audience to see the control he has over Nora and to realise that Helmer has built a prison of language for Nora. It also signifies how little Helmer sees Nora compared to him and sees her as insignificant in the family as he is the breadwinner hence why he hands Nora notes in the first act. Traditionally, women were defined physically and intellectually as the ‘weaker’ sex, in all ways subordinate to male authority. In private life women were subject to fathers, husbands, brothers even adult sons., while publicly, men dominated all decision-making in political, legal and economic affairs. A link that Nella, shares as Johannes Brandt is the hard-working breadwinner in their family.
Throughout the novel, Nella is often referred to as ‘childlike’. In what way would you say this is so? How do we see her mature? In Nella’s case, she is repeatedly treated like a child. When the only gift that Johannes can give her is a doll’s house replica of their home, she displeased at the childish gift that she will practice her housekeeping skills on.
Moreover, both texts show how Nella and Nora are subjected to being treated as inferior by dominant male characters that constrict their freedom to have their own identity.
In A Doll’s House, Nora’s lack of interest in society – “I think it’s a bore” (p 40) reflects for many nineteenth century belief that responsibility (the debate between Mrs Linde and Dr Rank) was not a woman’s problem. This is why Nora’s impulsively but morally responsible decision to forge her father signature to save Helmer’s life, is kept a secret. Nora does not believe that it can make a difference to who she is unless it is revealed. Hence why Toril Moi, stated that defining yourself was a male task – ‘a struggle with the external world and himself’ (Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism; Art, Theatre, Philosophy, 2006). Toril Moi goes further to say “as long as marriage and motherhood are incompatible with women’s existence as individuals and citizens, Nora will have none of them.” This shows that Nora is a woman who society had defined as a daughter, a wife and a mother. Being a wife and a mother expressed what a woman was born to be, rather than the choices she might or might not make to define herself. When Nora makes the decision not to accept Helmer as the spokesperson for the powerful forces in society, she no longer allows him to define the roles of wife and mother for her but plans to learn for herself. She is already beginning to shape herself as an individual beyond these labels. Norweigan journalist’s review on the ending of A Doll’s House, illustrates the shock of the audience at the time. “I am thinking about the fact that it is Nora, that is, the woman, who acts as a spokesman both when it comes to the dissolution of the marriage and to entrusting the children she herself has borne to the care of a nanny. There is something indescribably unnatural in this, and therefore, in the final instance, artificial.” Many feared that this choice would negatively impact the audience. In the Miniaturist, Nella dedicates herself into becoming the ideal woman for Johannes. She defines the criteria of being a proper woman which is repeatedly mentioned in the text – “a proper woman marries – she has children” (p 161). She is an idealistic young woman, who has concrete ideas of what she wants her future to look like: a romantic marriage full of love and children and a traditional role as a wife. It soon becomes ironic because her marriage does not end up like the “ideas of true love, of marriage beds, laughter and children” (p 110). This allows her to to believe that “for some of us, it’s a waste to be married” (p 399) which demonstrates that women lose their self dominion as they cannot decide what kind of life they have by themselves. This is something both Nora and Nella go through.
Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) suggest that there is no such thing as innate masculinity or femininity. Rather our gender is performative – gender is not something we are but what we do. The social construction of gender is learned through many aspects of society. of Both Nella and Nora were destined to break the archetype– Nora through abandoning her role of wife and mother – leaving Helmer and her children and Nella accepting that being a proper woman for her husband will never happen. Nella and Nora are linked by ideologies placed on them by their parents. As Nora becomes increasingly aware of the true nature of her relationship with Helmar she sees the resemblance with her father. She realises that she ‘was simply transferred from Papa’s hands to [Helmar’s] … You and Papa have committed a great sin against me”. Stephanie Forward interprets this moment from a feminist perspective, as Nora finally ‘comes to see herself as an object moulded by her father and then by her husband’ Nora realises that though her life with her father and Torvald conforms to societal expectations about how husbands and wives should live, it is far from ideal as “it is [their] fault I have made nothing of my life”. Wilson states “men hold power in all the important institutions of society”. Conversely, Nella’s existence of women is based on her mother’s perception of what a woman should be. It becomes her goal to become a proper woman because according to her mother, “life is hard if you’re not a wife” (p 22).
The connotation of this statement is important as it signifies that being a wife is the only option for Nella.”Life is hard” because during that period women were financially dependent on men, which created a sense of powerless from their reliance on their husbands. Gamble argues that the idea of a proper woman is the “internalised norms of femininity” which is present in the Dutch society. Contextually this view was shared in seventeenth century as when women got married according to the Dutch law, many of them would choose manus, which granted her husband complete martial power over her, rather than usus which made them equal. There are similarities when comparing this to the nineteenth century, Victorian Era, as men also had complete control in marital affairs.