Both Ibsen and Rhys portray women living under the suppression of their husbands to the point where they start questioning their true identities. At the end of the play in 'A Doll's House' Nora decides to abandon her husband and children in order to be free from her marital life marked by the domination of her husband. Contrastingly in 'Wide Sargasso Sea', Antoinette who is a Creole woman, struggles in finding her own national identity and she is driven to madness due to her husband's demands and sense of belonging. I will look at how the two female figures stand out in finding their own identities given their difficult situations and also how the different views of readers and audiences might interpret them from a feminist point of view.
Ibsen's play and Rhys' novel are both set in the patriarchal society. A common concept in both texts is that both heroines identity is altered by their husband's idea of a perfect wife. In 'A Doll's House' Nora is considered as a personal property both by her father and later on by her husband as she later on realises that living with Torvald is the “same as being with papa'. Early in the play Nora's husband constantly calls her by pet names such as 'my little squirrel' and “skylark”, these adjectives show that her husband dehumanises her and she is completely dependent on her husband as his status represents the source of her identity: she is just a housewife, better again as the title implies, she is a “doll” confined within four walls. On the other hand Antoinette is dependent on her husband by forced marriage in order to gain identity but later on she is stuck between two cultures: the one she inherited from her family (European) and the one she was born into (Caribbean). She is fighting alone asking “Who is she” and “where does she belong to” while her husband transforms her into an English woman because Caribbean culture is irrational and uncivilised to him. Antoinette, just like Nora, becomes Rochester’s doll as he himself describes her as a “doll that had a doll’s voice, a breathless but curiously indifferent voice”. This demonstrates that Rochester has been objectifying her all along and shows that he has completed his dominance over her. Some critics argued that Antoinette’s doll-like image is just an excuse to hide her rebellious impulses.
The main point of Ibsen’s play is that Nora after eight years of marriage finally understood how her husband played with her like a doll. Trovald accuses her of taking after her father with 'no morality and no sense of duty'. This statement puts in contrast Nora’s true nature as she sacrificed her own reputation to save her husband’s life by taking a loan which in the patriarchal society was considered dishonourable for the female image. Hence it highlights her sense of duty as a wife and her morality to save a life. Contrastingly to Trovald’s accusation, Nora responded saying that is Trovald who resembles her father the most. She realises that she was 'simply transferred from Papa's hands to his”, as well as that both of them have committed a “great sin against her' and because of that she did nothing of her life. The word “sin” juxtaposes with the actions that Nora and Trovald have committed: from Nora’s point of view toying with her is unforgivable, however for a patriarchal audience Nora taking out a loan might be a considered a greater sin than what her father and husband did as their actions are normalised in a male dominated society. Ibsen probably created this feminist character to portray that a woman cannot be herself in the modern age and this is because there are certain true values of life which are underestimated because of the standards imposed by society. While Nora, who is a fragile and tormented character who aspires to be considered as an individual with equal rights and claims her right to life while realising her perpetual state of inferiority, Antoinette's classification as a Creole presents one major aspect of her character in which she receives conflicting social messages regarding her overall identity.
During Ibsen's time the audience were shocked both negatively and positively by Nora's character and her decision to leave the house and her family. However with the modern audience 'A Doll's House' seems to be relatable as well as influential. Where, on the other hand, i think Rhys chose the timeline of her novel to be a year after the emancipation act to highlight the racial tensions and hatred the former slaves held for the white colonisers, in-fact in the novel Antoinette's family was called 'white cockroaches'. This implies that the differences between the English and the Creoles were considered racial as well as cultural. Thus Antoinette belonged neither to Jamaican nor English culture, but instead trapped in between which makes her often “wonder who she is'. Antoinette is not just the 'other' to the Jamaicans but to the English too, and therefore her ambiguous position in Jamaica as a white Creole becomes her personal tragedy. Despite that she can be constantly perceived in two ways: she is either childlike, needing Rochester to love her and guide her as 'if she was a child [...]not a stupid child but an obstinate one'; or she poses a threat to him with her dangerous outburst, sexuality and knowledge of Caribbean black magic as her husband describes her as a “red-eyed wild-haired stranger who was my wife shouting obscenities at me'. The imagery of a “red-eyed” and “wild-haired” might show Antoinette’s possible dangers of a wild imagination and an acute sensitive. To the audience Antoinette is far from the female heroines of nineteenth as well as twentieth centuries who are often more rational and self-restrained. Her restlessness and instability seem to stem from her inability to belong to any particular community.
This image of females living with moderation in the Victorian era is also contrasted in Nora who from the outset is pretending to be the submissive darling wife to her husband but has left the audience understanding her true nature. She's a grown woman with a vaguely innocent trait as that of a child. This is seen when Trovald performs gestures such as taking her “playfully by the ear' which emphasises his dominance. The act of taking Nora “playfully by the ear” might also be seen as a parental affection, as if he is the father of Nora, hence as mentioned before, Trovald resembles her father a lot. However she is not all naive and insightful as she appears to be, but instead she shows knowledge of the importance for her to feel valued and considered. 'This life we have built together would no longer exist' suggests their relationship is superficial with not a strong foundation of trust and true understanding of love. Even though there is no true love between them, Nora however, seems to have sincere feelings towards Trovald as she understands him and has secretly protected him and saved his live without him knowing it 'how painful and humiliating would it be for Trovald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything!'. In the patriarchal era women borrowing money without their husband’s consent was seen as immoral, however Nora did so in order to save Trovald’s life. In the beginning of the play we find out that Nora had borrowed some money from Krogstad to save her husband's life. 'No, a wife cannot borrow without her husband’s consent' here the society is shown to be even more oppressive when the audience discovers that Nora is in serious problem because she had known she cannot borrow , but her actions indicate she does not agree with such idea. Furthermore, in terms of structure, Ibsen at the very start of the play shows how Trovald oppresses Nora and portrays her low level status. 'Hasn't Miss Sweet Tooth been breaking rules in town today?' implies that Nora is not allowed to eat macaroons because they will harm her teeth. This fact shows the 'doll-like' image and roll she has in their marriage. Women being oppressed and dominated by their husbands is the central theme of 'A Doll's House' and Ibsen highlights that Nora can come up with decisions on her own.
In patriarchal society women were mostly dominated because of their economical position in society: usually the male figure is the 'bread-winner' hence women had to obey their father/husband. In 'A Doll's House', money symbolises the power characters have on each other. For example in the first scene Trovald's ability to dictate how much Nora can spend on Christmas shows his power over her. Similarly, in 'Wide Sargasso Sea', in the marriage of Antoinette and Rochester, economic power and dominance plays a key role in the novel. In one scene, Antoinette asked her nurse to advice her how can she get attention from Rochester and she said to 'pack up and go'. Here Antoinette understands that she is in a situation where she is economically powerless 'He will not come after me. You must understand I am not rich now, I have no money of my own at all, everything I had belongs to him... that is the English law'. When Rochester married Antoinette he was offered all her properties. According to English laws the husband becomes the rightful owner of any wealth or estate the wife might own before marriage. Therefore Antoinette's choices are limited, she cannot leave him to make a better life for herself on her own. I personally believe that women are the main characters with real values and moralities within the society and because they had so much on their shoulder (taking care of the public image of their husbands as well as their families) they prove to be the strongest members in the community both physically and mentally that men had to oppressed them in order to make them seem vulnerable, tough and dominant. Ibsen himself wasn't feminist but implied that a woman cannot be herself in modern society because its a male society with laws made by men who asses feminine conduct from a male point of view.