Gender is a social and cultural construction, in that if there are two sexes – male and female determined by biology – then there are two genders – masculine and feminine Abercrombie, Hill & Turner, 2000, pg149. The interpretation of gender then, in realism writings should reflect social and cultural norms established within that society. As realism can be a depiction of everyday life, so it is reasonable to say that issues of women in realism writings were realistic in their nature in accordance to nineteenth century norms and values.
Off course issues of class have to be taken into consideration, as different women born into the differentiated social classes, were treated differently and consequently have been reflected in most realism writings accordingly. These representations often revolved around woman’s reproductive abilities with the idea that a woman’s place was in the home thereby reinforcing the notion of gender roles. The role of the male within the family institution was that of the breadwinner, who must go out and work, whilst his female counterpart stayed at home, kept it in immaculate condition and reared his children.
What is to follow then is an analysis of gender issues as presented in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, with main focus on the treatment of female characters. Both texts, written in the 19th century depict society as preoccupied with notions of upward mobility within the social structure of society. In Great Expectations, we follow the protagonist – Pip through a long journey of self improvement and self discovery all in search of a better life he believed to be found within the bourgeoisie class.
In A Doll’s House our protagonist – Nora is on a similar journey, but rather one of emancipation, revolving indirectly around a bourgeoisie lifestyle â€“ the desire also of a better life but more so of ultimate happiness. These societies defined by patriarchal and capitalist ideals fuelled the hegemonic oppression of women within society and more importantly within the social institution of the family. This sense of oppression can be felt more so in Ibsen’s revolutionary play through the protagonist Nora, her best friend Mrs Linde and Anna-Maria the nurse, each experiencing varying degrees of oppression in accordance to their social class.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was, written about the middle-class for the middle â€“class. It is an attack on the institution of marriage and the lies that one has to live with in the belief that married life is what a woman should want to aspire to, to provide happiness within the family and within herself. In this play, the audience sees a woman who claims to be happily married but feels deep inside that everyday, she is living a lie and begins to realise it. This depiction was seen by audiences as a threat to social mores, which celebrated the institution of marriage.
Within this middle-class patriarchal ethos, a wife was seen not as a worker but rather a kind of manager of unimportant, mundane domestic and social arrangements Forsyth, 2004, pg3. This is the model of Nora and her husband Torvald’s relationship. Right from the beginning there is evidence in their conversations that there is an inequality within the language and tone used on Torvald’s part, when he calls her all sorts of names such as “little skylark”, “featherbrain” and “scatterbrain” albeit affectionately, it nonetheless indicates his sense of authority over her – Torvald treating and speaking to Nora as if she were a child.
In almost all of their conversation there is a lack of seriousness that stems from Torvald’s belief that Nora is not as intelligent as a man, and couldn’t possibly hold a civil conversation with one such as himself. This is evident when Nora brings up scientific examinations with Dr Rank whereby Torvald responds in mock surprise “Well, Well! Little Nora talking about scientific tests! ” pg216. To him, she is but a mere possession – a play thing that is to be showcased to the rest of the community, as a prime example of a model wife.
This is evident in the final Act of the play when Nora and Torvald have returned straight after she has performed the Tarantella at the dance held in the flat upstairs. Torvald forbids her from staying longer and rather forcibly makes her return explaining that “An exit should always be well timed” pg 213, describing the effect he wanted to leave on the guests who must have thought her an exquisite site; his reason for leaving explained in his conversation with Mrs Linde; “Her Tarantella was a huge successâ€¦could I let her stay after that, and spoil the effect? pg212. To Torvald, Nora is “â€¦neither worker nor woman but a child and a beautiful object, possessed by him for his own pleasure” Forsyth, 2004, pg4. In the case of Mrs Linde and Anna-Marie the nurse/nanny, both experience oppression from society as a whole rather than from a specific institution, like marriage as Nora is. Both belong in the lower proletariat class and thus, must fight to survive an ever-growing capitalist society, which makes it easier for a woman to become economically dependant on a man, than to be financially independent.
Mrs Linde for example had to abandon Mr Krogstad her true love and marry a rich man in order to support her sick mother and two brothers. The nanny on the other hand is in a worse position as she is forced to “hand over child to strangers” because she was a “â€¦poor girl who’d got into trouble” with a “blackguard of a man who never did a thing for ” Ibsen, pg182.
It seems there is no option for any of these women for happiness unless they are to rebel against social norms; in which case, the nanny would have her child living happily emotionally but miserably financially as no help would be coming to her, if she does not find work herself. Same goes for Mrs Linde, if she had married for love than out of necessity, then her filial duty to her mother would be demolished and her last days spent in anguish and despair.
Ibsen’s conclusion of the play sees Nora’s rebellion against the status quo, choosing to walk out on her family and children in search for an individual self. Although it may have been seen as an act of complete abomination of middle-class mentality, it could be seen as an act of self-sacrifice. Her forgery crime, seen in her mind, through Torvald’s description of Krogstad’s character would create “â€¦an atmosphere of lies that infects and poisons the whole life of a home â€¦every breath that the children take is filled with the germs of evil” Ibsen, pg179.
The neglect of her children with the help of her fortunate middle class position allows them not to be handed over to strangers- like that of her nanny- but rather be left in her care, as the nanny she feels would be a better mother to them. The women in Great Expectations distinguished by this social segregation offer a picture not so much of oppression but of power in the form of abuse, tyranny and crime.
This is shown through the characters of Pip’s sister Mrs Joe Gargery – who brought him up “by hand”; Mrs Havisham and Estella who in turn tease and berate Pip throughout the novel and Mr Jagger’s housekeeper who – at the end is revealed to be Estella’s birth mother – is a criminal saved by Mr Jaggers from the gallows. Here Dickens portrays women as essentially malevolent and spiteful, the reader feeling no sympathy for them when they encounter some form of tragedy, as the underlying view is that they are simply bad people and deserve what they get.
Mrs Havisham after living a life of isolation and self-inflicted despair dies horribly and alone; Mrs Joe Gargery after years spent bullying and abusing Pip, dies ironically after a violent attack, that leaves her an invalid; and Estella under Mrs Havisham’s guidance becomes a cruel, cold-hearted snob, moulded solely for the purpose of enacting her guardian’s revenge on the entire male species, who by the end of the novel enters into a loveless marriage that ends in her ultimate unhappiness and divorce.
These characters which lie in direct opposition to the other female characters often overshadow them not only in their cruelty and brutality, but also in their importance to the main narrative. Unlike Mrs Havisham, Estella and MrsGargery, the characters of Mrs Pocket and Clara, are mere background characters, who serve merely to carry the narrative along. They are the two female characters in Great Expectations who do not hold as much power over the male characters as the others.
Mrs Mathew Pocket, whose comical existence serves as â€“ just that â€“ a comical break from the sinister qualities found in the more mean spirited characters. She represents the idle rich. The daughter of a knight, her useless upbringing was modelled on the idea that she would marry a man with a title – instead she marries beneath her Talbot, 1984, pg93. Sheltered from the menial labours of domestic work, she is unable to function within her own house, unable to rear her seven children, instead relying on the assistance of her two nurses Flopson and Miller.
Is she a victim of society? Through her upbringing she is prepared for nothing but a life of luxury. In contrast Clara Barley, the betrothed of Pip’s best friend Herbert Pocket – before her life with Herbert – lived under the oppressive thumb of her father. Her filial duties toward him keep her from leaving the house at Mill Pond Bank, and who was “a very pretty, slight, dark eyed girl of twenty or soâ€¦natural and winningâ€¦confiding, loving and modest” chp30.
She comes from no family and has no relatives but her father â€“ her one and only relative which is meant to be a source of happiness and love is instead a source of malice through his tyrannical and exacting ways. Despite this, she fulfils her duties as a daughter and thus keeps to the gender ideology of a nurturer and carer. This is the dominant ideology with in 19th century society where a woman is expected to marry, be obedient to her husband and fulfil all duties to him as he saw fit. It was a patriarchal society, ruled by men and till this day continues, although to a much lessor extent.
The difference in the depiction of gender roles especially in that of the female characters within both A Doll’s House, and Great Expectations through realism texts, showed just how much women were placed within the role of the oppressed. This is more evident in Ibsen’s play. The protagonist’s actions are dictated by social norms as are all of our actions, but because she lives in that certain era and especially as a woman, Ibsen’s shows how difficult is can be to rebel against a solid tradition of following the value consensus in which her actions were an abomination to the celebrated institution of marriage.
In contrast, Dickens’ Great Expectations although dealing mainly with issues of class displays at its forefront the images of women as tyrants, living not so much as the oppressed but rather as the oppressors. Each character separated by class has their own individual sense of oppression that has been displayed through the creative geniuses of Henrik Ibsen and Charles Dickens.