This essay discusses the vulnerability of the female protagonists in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s house. Despite the two literary publications being set a mere 70 years apart, the view of women and their vulnerability due to the impact of social attitudes are interchangeable. Interestingly the highly patriarchal society presented in both Pride and Prejudice and A Doll’s house both accurately mirror the society of real life. The late 17th to the early 19th century, in particular, was a struggling time for the female sex who was subjected to severe sexism and in many ways helpless to the unfairness and ill-treatment of society. The traditional social views limited women in almost every aspect of life; to being nothing more than housewives and mothers.
Both these eras viewed women as powerless, forced to be completely and utterly financially reliant on men through marriage. Similarly, the female characters in both A Doll’s house and Pride and Prejudice, in particular, are solely reliant on the financial aid of the men. In Jane Austen’s famous Pride and Prejudice, Austen highlights the vulnerability and various disadvantages the late 17th to 18th-century women faced; all due to being born of the inferior sex. The famous novel accurately conveys the social attitudes of marriage and money from the perspective of both men and women. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (chapter 1). The opening lines of novel instantly establish that wealth is the dominating purpose of marriage. Typically women from around the young age of around 14 and above would cautiously be attending balls and other courteous social events in the hope to meet potential husbands. This is demonstrated in Pride and Prejudice at the Netherfield ball. Furthermore, during this period women were not permitted to work and served as housewives and mothers, reliant on their husband’s incomes. Uncommonly if a woman did not marry she remained dependent on her father or brother and would often be deemed as a spinster. Moreover, the term “spinster” is now associated with negative connotations; such as unwanted, undesired, worthless and a disgrace to the family. The character of Mrs Bennet clearly presents this strong social attitude in regard to Charlotte Lucas – “But everyone is to judge for themselves … It is a pity they are not handsome!” The verb “judge” used here in the quote exemplifies the importance of social status and women’s appearances to attract husbands. This is shown in her rude remark about Miss Charlotte Lucas as undesirable due to the fact she is not “handsome.” Additionally throughout history and even in some modern cultures families rely on male heirs to inherit and run the family, generation by generation.
Within the novel, Mrs Bennet of Longbourn estate shows a great sense of urgency in finding her daughter’s suitable rich husbands. However, the urgency of finding a rich husband is due to the law that Mr Bennet’s estate is entailed; meaning that due to their sex his daughters are unable to inherit his fortune or estate. Therefore as they were unable to inherit, the five Bennet daughters risked either being split up or unhappily married as ultimately due to their circumstance and lack of wealth were in no position to refuse a proposal. In spite of their situation the headstrong female, heroin Elizabeth goes against her mother’s wishes and chooses to reject Mr Collin’s proposal. “You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so” – chapter 19, page 105. Here Elizabeth states that she doesn’t value wealth but instead vows to marry for love. Austen uses the hyperboles of “last” and “world” to emphasize and exaggerate how ill-matched they are together and instantly discourages any chance of a happy future. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s language within the quote is straightforward, sharp and blunt. The use of short complex sentence reinforces her discontent and creates a tone of panic. A reader of this period would class Elizabeth as selfish and outrageous for refusing his proposal and for not saving her family. On the contrary modern readers may feel a sense of pride and would definitely be more supportive of Elizabeth’s independent decision. Ultimately Jane Austen uses Elizabeth to convey the importance to marry for love rather than money.
Similarly to Pride and prejudice, Ibsen presents the male characters in a juxtaposing light to the women. From the outset of the play, Ibsen presents the male characters as dictating, with higher positions within society than the women. One of the main characters Torvald Helmer best upholds this representation. Money also plays a central theme in Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s house. In the opening act of the play, the audience is presented with the traditional family dynamic in Torvald and Nora’s relationship. Comparably, Ibsen also presents the female protagonist Nora as financially vulnerable and dependent on the male figures in her life: Helmer- “There you are. (Gives her some money.)” – Page 6. Here Torvald delights in his authority and control over how much his wife spends. Furthermore the fact that Torvald gives his wife an allowance shows the inequality within the relationship, suggesting he has a lack of trust in her and views Nora almost as a child. In contrast to social attitudes, Nora’s controversial decision to break free from her dependence on Torvald, becoming completely on her own would have certainly shocked audiences of this period. In terms of production, it was so shocking theatres altered the ending.
It is commonly overlooked at the sheer impact and emotional ownership that the male characters possess over the women in both texts. In a Doll’s house, Torvald, the antagonist, praises himself for having an overbearing control over his wife and her actions. Knowingly Torvald continuously influences Nora’s emotions and actions. This is presented in his choice of patronising, controlling language and tone in which he addresses his wife with. As suggested earlier he treats Nora more as a child or a possession rather than his actual wife. Within the opening acts of the play, it is evident that Torvald uses various demeaning nicknames for Nora such as “Skylark” or “featherhead” to name a few. Some audience members suggest that he purposely uses these nicknames to break down her self-esteem and fulfil his patriarchal need to feel masculine. This can be seen in the vile and hurtful language Helmer uses towards his wife who he regarded earlier as “my little singing bird.” Here, Ibsen uses the personal pronoun of “my” to represent that Helmer objectifies Nora by treating her as his possession; much like a doll that he can manipulate and play with. Furthermore the use of adjective “little” creates a demeaning and patronising tone towards Nora. This is due to the connotations of “little” as weak and inferior, which is essentially the Victorian, patriarchal views of women. Additionally, over time Nora became accustomed to the patronising and childish treatment she had been subjected to by the dominating male figures in her life. Moreover, this implies that Torvald does not view his wife as his equal but as a fragile object.
Many historians regard the Victorian era as a patriarchal society that did not allow women to have the same privileges as men. Ibsen clearly represents the patriarchal values through the characters relationships. This idea is captured in Act One during a conversation between Nora and Ms Linde when Nora says, “Free.To be free, absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it.” Ibsen uses the repetition of “free” to express the lack of freedom Nora has within her isolated life; as a mother and a wife. Additionally, Ibsen uses the repetition to indicate to the reader her unhappiness within her marriage to Torvald, as it creates a regretful and oppressive tone. To elaborate this semantic field of freedom is ironic as she could easily be “free” but chooses to comply with Torvald’s wishes. Finally the repetition of “free” implies that she longs to be “free” from her marriage so she can have independence. Thus the reader feels sympathy towards Nora. Furthermore, here Ibsen gives the reader an insight into the dynamics and marriage of Nora and Torvald. At the end of the quote, Nora states “the way Torvald likes it.” Immediately this indicates that Torvald is the dominant partner within the relationship as it implies Nora does as she is expected to as a housewife, to please him. The fact that she addresses him by his name in the quote may be interpreted as Nora feels that only his opinion matters and she has no say. This shows that she is conforming to the patriarchal social values, as it is as if he controls her. Ibsen purposefully uses all of these techniques to signify a hierarchy within a family dynamic – the men’s needs and likes come before the women’s. In this case, Torvald would be the most important member of their household. Additionally, some readers may interpret that Ibsen uses the preposition “likes” to present that Nora feels a sense of fear towards her husband. This is evident in the fact that despite her desire to be “free” Nora still conforms to social expectations and her “duties” as a woman; all in order to please and satisfy him. On the other hand, some audience members may interpret that if Nora was to stay with Torvald and continue their fantasy of a happy marriage she would be increasing her vulnerability to depression. This idea is sparked in Act Two where Nora hints thoughts and plans of committing suicide; “Do you think they would forget their mother if she went away altogether?” The suggestion of Nora committing suicide or “going away altogether” implies that she was desperately searching for a way out. Therefore by staying with Torvald Nora would have been even more at risk.
After analysing in depth both texts, there is evidence to suggest that the authors use the situations of the female protagonists to convey the sheer vulnerability and difficulties women faced in these patriarchal societies. Jane Austen lived during the flourishing of the women’s rights movement, which she supported by exposing the extent of economic vulnerabilities women were subjected to. Interestingly Austen focused her novels on intellectual and independent heroines who challenged controversial social issues; mostly inequality between the sexes. Based on the ideas of financial dependence on men, Austen also presents this issue within her last novel, Persuasion. The women in both novels have limited options within their situations; to either marry for money or be condemned as a spinster or a burden to the family. In fact, a literary critic Haiyan Gao suggests that “it is difficult for her to marry a gentleman in Austen’s time” due to a lack of family wealth. Subsequently, in comparison to men who were able to get a proper, valid education to work and a build life for themselves women were more at risk of poverty and declining the social hierarchy through a loss of wealth. In contrast, Ibsen focuses on the aspect of emotional ownership within a patriarchal society. This aspect is presented through the relationships between the characters within the play, most specifically Nora and Torvald’s superficial relationship