By common definition, ‘a predictable journey’ refers to something behaving or occurring in a way that is expected. Looking at this notion in terms of literature, specifically in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), the general preconceived consensus would probably be that , yes, there will be a predictable path the female characters take. On the surface, both leading protagonists Clarissa Dalloway and Nora Helmer lead typical of-the-time conformist lives, whereupon they are engulfed in patriarchal worlds – helpless to the treacheries of traditional androcentrism. However, looking deeper, the accuracy of this speculation may actually be fallacious; the postulation of women blindly following the trajectory of lifelong traditionalism, in fact being incorrect.
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was a play that shocked the masses – predating early Feminism, it was heralded as one of the very first pieces of writing to explore the chauvinistic society. On the other hand is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – a novel which was caught up in the midst of, and certainly contained elements of, the aforementioned Feminist movement; both texts together are set in eras of unprecedented restriction for women’s freedom, and are both characterised by denoting the social angst of the beginnings of political and wider societal changes.
In A Doll’s House, it is monumentally clear to see that female protagonist, Nora, is a typical 1900’s housewife in the beginning of the play. Nora is stereotypically conformist and is seemingly happy to be subjected to being patronised and treated as a child through name-calling, and is thus objectified by her husband, Torvald Helmer. Audiences can clearly see the extent to which Nora is a product of Victorian society; inferior and sub-par to her husband. This notion is established by how Torvald addresses his wife, often using seemingly harmless and endearing names like “my little skylark”, “little squirrel” and “my sweet little song bird” (p2 and p5), which implies Nora is a defenceless character through the symbol of a small creature that is incapable of independence, which is wholly ironic seeing as though such creatures, by nature, are free in the wild. What can be noted here, could be likened to a sort of ‘iron hand in a velvet glove’ situation. On the surface, audiences see his way of conversing with her as sweet, however Torvald’s manner is undoubtably gainful in reminding or even placing Nora in the specific role of being ‘lesser’ than him; such name-calling is empowering to him as he is belittling Nora, surprisingly in a way that seems she sees as acceptable. So cleverly named, Nora embodies the name of the play which beholds her role: a doll. To Torvald, Nora is simply a whimsical object he can toy with – of the time, this was to be expected of women so no controversial rejection of societal expectations can be noted at this stage. Her life is typical, and this is Torvald’s view of her – just like Aristotle’s quote in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities. We should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness”(1). This is how Torvald sees Nora, she isn’t an individual in her own right with her own identity, she is simply something by which he can impose his inherently demeaning words upon and exercise his authority over.
In Mrs Dalloway and by contrast, societal expectations act as Clarissa’s oppressor; as the key protagonist, she has to suppress her feelings for Peter Walsh and marry Richard instead, to maintain her Bourgeois status, which renders her conformist. To many, this may seem relatively shallow, but what’s paramount to remember is that such a practise was orchestrated almost indefinitely as the norm – doing what was expected of her and embracing her inevitable life of duty; what society dictates as the most important – at this stage, her character is certainly adhering to a typical journey. Due to the suffocating repressive era, Woolf depicted Clarissa as being bedevilled by what others thought of her, and so she married the man who society would respect the most: Richard, a Government worker. Choosing in favour of the stability and security offered by Richard, Clarissa rejects Peter, in turn rejecting a life of passion, emotion and freedom – a possible archetypal move. After all, Peter Walsh is almost the opposite of Clarissa. She has experienced the “death of her soul” (p44) whereas Peter feels “not old, or set, or dried in the least” (p50), which reveals a lot about Clarissa’s current situation; Richard makes her feel trapped and isolated, meanwhile Peter “was utterly free” (p55). They are completely opposite characters, a tool possibly used by Woolf to demonstrate the stark differences between subserviency and subversivness. The love they felt is undeniable; Peter was “overcome with his own grief” (p42) when Clarissa reminds him of the time he wanted to marry her and when he tells her of his Indian love interest, Clarissa is clearly affected in a negative way; it’s like she’s seeing her could-have-been life, dwindle in front of her, while she’s left behind as a product of societal dictations, which, of the time, was an expected occurrence in the course of a woman’s life.
Similarly in A Doll’s House, a further adherence to societal convention by Nora, would be how she accepts Torvald’s rebukes about her perceived frivolous spending of his money, which shows he is pigeon-holing her into a submissive wife whereby he holds all the strings. Ibsen’s depiction of Nora here is that she is weak and child-like in how she’s being told-off like an undisciplined adolescence. Referring to her as “my little featherbrain (that has) been out wasting money again” (p2) – the feather imagery possibly representing Nora as a docile character – Torvald even “[goes to her and takes her playfully by the ear]” (p2) which is extremely prodigious in exemplifying the extent of Torvald’s condescending manner. The use of the stage direction ‘playfully’, exemplifies perfectly the child-adult contrast. To modern audiences, the act of doing this would appear obnoxious and inapposite; it’s like Torvald is purposefully taking on the role as her father, straying away from his singular role of husband and in turn, directly placing Nora as immature, which he outright states later in the play; “Look, Nora, in lots of things, you’re still a child…” (p184) The way Nora accepts Torvald’s words is very much a sincere reflection of the Victorian era, whereby women are taught since infancy to have a “softness of temper, outward obedience and scrupulous attention” (2) – Nora adhering to all. Another key point about Torvald scolding Nora over her prodigality, is that even though he is reproachful about the issue, he still gives her money to see her joyous reaction; “Oh, thank you, Torvald, thank you!” (p3), which establishes the conclusion of: Torvald gives Nora money in order to amuse himself by manipulating her emotions and feelings; again the idea of Nora being his doll, whom pleases him by allowing him superior control, comes to mind. To Torvald and audiences, at this stage of the play, Nora isn’t rejecting society and conformity, but is seemingly embracing it as her duty as wife.
Mrs Dalloway by contrast, isn’t manipulated by her husband, but by society instead. By conforming and marrying Richard, Clarissa is trapped in the role of Bourgeois wife and so feels a convulsion to throw lavish parties and be the “perfect hostess”, to subsequently be the “perfect wife”, to live up to the requirements of her role. As a dominating force in the novel, Richard’s expectations are something Clarissa feels she can never live up to – the reoccurring sense is that “she had failed him” (p115), which again points to the theme of entrapment and isolation; even through her obvious non-lackadaisical efforts to conform, she still feels less than adequate. Like previously mentioned, Clarissa is extremely afflicted by how others perceive her, and so by hosting extravagant parties, Clarissa can successfully maintain appearances and simultaneously make her husband look triumphant in his work and home life; “He (Richard) repeated that it was a miracle that he should have married Clarissa; a miracle — his life had been a miracle” (p113). What we see here is that, even though Richard implies it is Clarissa who’s the miracle for improving his life, “his life” reinforces the idea that it is his life that was the miracle, which points to the notion he appreciates her only for her contribution to him and his career – she’s very much his “perfect hostess”, and the hope of Clarissa and Richard being equals with mutual worth, is very much devastated at this point. As Clarissa moves through her day, through Woolf’s groundbreaking use of a stream of conscious which was a key characteristic of the Modernist period she writes in, we can see how she probes for deeper meanings and introspection into her present and past decisions, namely choosing to marry Richard over Peter, giving her a profound capacity for emotion, which outwardly, she suppresses in order to keep up appearances and remain composed, just like a subservient wife should – a notion that’s very unchallenging to expectations of the time.
However, in a Doll’s House and contrasting greatly with previous patterns, the journey of Nora’s conformity starts to resemble a struggle to continue in her subordinate ways – a relatively climacteric notion for audiences of the period. One way this idea is quite strongly conveyed, is by Nora’s relationship with the macaroons, and how she is forbidden by Torvald to eat them; “Hasn’t Miss Sweet Tooth been breaking rules in town today?…taken a bite at a macaroon or two?” / “No, Torvald.” (p6) Ibsen’s use of the macaroon symbol perfectly outlines Nora’s assumed newfound deceit, however he still hides the revelation of Nora’s full web of deceit until later in the play, which will be discussed later. The macaroon symbol begins to represent Nora’s disobedience of Torvald; a great contrast with how Nora has previously been portrayed. An example of such behaviour is how she lies to Dr. Rank about Mrs Linde giving her some of the contraband macaroons, and also after performing her tempestuous tarentella, she asks that macaroons be served after dinner. The use of Nora’s relationship with the macaroon symbol by Woolf, could be indicative of Nora’s inner passions, both of which must be concealed within her marriage, however it is clear this rule is getting more difficult to comply with. Another key indicator of Nora starting to break free of her societal mould, is by her practising of the previously mentioned tarentella for Torvald, which is a pivotal point in the play. Unlike before where Nora was a passive character, the tarentella dance could be emblematic of a change. This notion is due to the fact that traditional tarentella dancing was characterised by swift movements and extreme ruffling of the woman’s skirt – unacceptable for Victorian society. Native to Southern Italy, it is heavily associated with an illness leading to an impulse to dance; the only cure being the tarantella. Relevant to Nora’s situation, audiences can see how she “dances more and more wildly”(p58), even after Torvald’s exasperated plea for her to do it “Not so violently, Nora!” and “Slower – slower!”(p58) This concept could represent Nora’s last attempt at being her husbands doll; her violent and sexual manner of dancing could be suggestive of her trying to rekindle the last hopes of their marriage, before Torvald finds the letter that would surely end their relationship. Conversely, the dance could symbolise the beginning of Nora’s self-expression and independence, which clearly displeases Torvald by his demands for her to slow down.
A similar theme of the awakening to freedom from the weight of society is in Mrs Dalloway, with Woolf’s use of symbolically referencing – in a sort of cyclical structure – a line from Shakespeare’s play which ultimately signals the freedom of Clarissa; the typical journey female characters take is overtly being flouted here. When Mrs Dalloway is looking into Hatchards’ shop window in the beginning of the novel, she notices the line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline; “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages” (p7), something that’s referred to, or alluded to by Clarissa throughout the events of the day. In context, the line is often eulogised as a poem for funerals, thus having connotations of death. The line begs one to not fear earth’s elements and all they provide; instead acknowledge them as cycles of nature – including death – which is an important theme; the ideas of growing old and dying plague Clarissa’s life, thus acting as a limit of her living life free from restriction. The quote also encapsulates the notion that if one did die, the heat of the sun – social expectations et cetera – would no longer burn thus impeding your life. The heat of the sun, whether for good or bad, is constant, and something everyone must undergo and endure. For Mrs Dalloway the line strikes a poignant reminder that even after she ceases to exist, pieces of herself may live on, however currently, she can only think to herself “if she could have her life over again!”(p7), which explicitly shows her mental state as unstable; she is drastically uneasy about her decisions, namely choosing her life of subserviency. As the day wears on and her party is ever closer, however, Clarissa ponders and reflects upon her decisions, the line from Shakespeare being omnipotent throughout, especially at her own musings and elements of deep introspection again through the stream of conscience and intrusive narration. It is at Clarissa’s party where the notions of freedom come about, the party acts as a sort of crescendo, by allowing the line “fear no more the heat of the sun” (p165) to be repeated one last time, as it comes back to Clarissa, almost like the final jigsaw piece. At the end of the novel when Septimus’ suicide is announced, we fully see the complete liberation of Clarissa as she “felt somehow very like him — the young man who had killed himself” (p165). It is at this stage where we can finally see Clarissa’s moment of epiphany or her moment of being; she realises Septimus was a lot like herself, realising his suicide was a means of communicating ; a way of retaining his independence in mind and spirit, by being in control and defying those who aim to control him. Instead of feeling sorrow for him, Clarissa “did not pity him” (p165), and is instead heartened; Septimus’ suicide ultimately allows Clarissa to see the beauty of life rather than it being in the shadows of oppression and death; his death causes her rebirth; she finally accepts and even embraces death and growing old, and so is released from the burden of endurance. Of the time, this shift from oppressive nature, to the freedom of one’s mind, especially a woman’s mind, was not common; it was extremely against the predictability of the journey of female characters.
Comparably Nora, having already been on the brink of breaking free of her oppressive restraints, arrives at a shocking twist in the expected course of the play, laying the foundations for her to be presented as radical and unconventionally avant-garde by how she ultimately leaves Torvald, which, similar to in Mrs Dalloway, is drastically rejecting the typical journey of a female character of the time. Almost completely unheard of, Nora outright tells Torvald she “must try to educate myself (herself). And you’re not the man to help me with that; I must stand on my own feet. That’s why I’m leaving you.” (p81) As expected, this ground-breaking act sparked sensation, debate and controversy, and is the reason it has been heralded as one of the earliest articles of written Feminism. The 1870s were dominated by strict Victorian laws and social codes that severely restricted women and married women in particular. Such a law was the Napoleonic Code, used by European Governments to prevent women from engaging in financial matters, therefore leaving it to the husband’s to be in complete control. In A Doll’s House, Nora’s deceit of illegally borrowing money from Krogstad in order to save Torvald’s life, is gradually revealed to audiences, until the pinnacle moment where dramatic irony is introduced during Mrs Linde’s visit whereupon Nora confesses all, and “It is Nora’s fiscal irresponsibility (of being naïve about blackmail) that catalyzes the situation in which Nora’s childlike expectations of Torvald are shattered” (3); all along Nora had been concealing the truth about her life-saving intervention, and so the very notion of the play being typical, of Nora’s character being typical, is utterly broken. As the truth is revealed to Torvald whose just been “brought so pitifully low all because of a shiftless woman!” (p75), it is clear he dismisses the fact Nora saved his life, and is more concerned over what it will do to his reputation if the news of Nora’s deceit got out, thus coming to the conclusion that “the whole thing shall be nothing but a bad dream to me” (p76). It is in this moment that Nora’s whole perception changes just as it did for Mrs Dalloway. Before, she had imagined Torvald would retain dignity and morality in defending Nora to Krogstad, by sacrificing his reputation to stand up to Krogstad’s blackmailing, however it is now she can see his true colours and the disillusionment that was keeping Nora as a passive doll, is now shattered. Despite his eventual pleas for her to stay, Nora finally transcends the limits of her passive oppression and as she hands back the symbol of her marriage – her wedding ring – her independence and freedom are achieved. Nora has undergone a character development of extreme proportions, her realisation of her role as a doll and the fact she was “simply transferred from Papa’s hands to yours” (p66) is now blindingly obvious to her. She realises her role in life was “a doll wife, just as at home I was Papa’s doll child” (p67) and so “[from below comes the sound of a door slamming]” (p86) is where Nora is finally free – she “comes to see herself as an object moulded by her father and then by her husband” (4), and comes to perfectly outline the notion that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” (5) Executed in a way that was highly unexpected, it’s even questionable as to whether she surprised herself by her resolute and determined manner to crush her doll roll and ultimately end her relationship. In no way is Nora’s ending to her story synonymous with her passivity of earlier times, and so can undoubtably be said no be non stereotypical of the era.
By way of a conclusion, both Nora and Clarissa possess character traits of women far beyond their time. Taking hold of the factors that oppress them, the two lead female characters deny the typicality of predestined journey’s that are so typically cast upon them, and in turn diminish the very idea of a predictable journey. Throughout their stories, and despite the adversity they faced, both women act and react in ways that are far from the expected norms of women of their times, thus portraying the unprecedented new beginnings of late 19th and early 20th century literature.
Bibliography and References
A) Primary Texts
Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House and other plays (1965), Penguin Classics
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1990), The Hogarth Press
B) Secondary Sources
(1) Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2010.
(2) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2010
(3) Michael C Wiseman, Nora as a Doll in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. inquiriesjournal.com. 2010
(4) Stephanie Forward, A New World for Women. Pluto Press, London. 1977
(5) Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2010.