Jane Austen

Jane Austen

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She puts to rest her pots and pans and takes a new stand. She is conniving and explicit in her manipulative ways. She cares deeply for her beloved children. She fears not being headstrong and liberal-minded, and she truly believes that her epiphanies are gospel truth to her own life. Most important of all, she takes action, is heroic in her boldness to fix the wrong, and does not hesitate to look back on what she leaves behind. In his nineteenth century plays, Henrik Ibsen portrays Norwegian women sharing and contrasting many, and more, of these strong qualities. Like a vigorous and professional artist, Ibsen paints vivid female characters in his skillfully tragic plays, creating diversity among them. In three of his plays alone, A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People, and Hedda Gabler, women are shown to play various roles under different circumstances in nineteenth century Norway. In these plays, the women’s characteristics range from being maternal and conservative, to being radically liberal and nonconforming.
     In Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, the protagonist is in fact, a woman, named Nora. At the onset of the play, Nora is shown to be like the traditional mother, simply making preparations for Christmas events. She is portrayed as a strikingly beautiful and almost perfect wife who is affectionate, kind, and always obedient to her husband saying things such as, “I should not think of going against your wishes.” However, this surface is only a mere cover to what really lies in the heart of Nora. It becomes evident that Nora is not completely complacent with her life. Gradually it becomes evident that she takes pleasures in other things that she does not have. For example, she longs for an affluent lifestyle and indulges in material things because she is more youthfully extravagant than she is maternal. In the play, she even admits herself that she desires grand opulence, saying, “…I used to sit here and imagine that a rich old gentleman had fallen in love with me…[and] that he died; and that his will contained… ‘The lovely Mrs. Nora Helmer is to have all I possess paid over to her at once in cash.’” To fantasize about such a greedy thing shows that Nora prefers being a single and wealthy woman in society.
Not only was Nora hungry for money, but she was hungry for simple respect. In all the years she was married to Helmer, no one ever took Nora seriously or accredited her with anything.

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However, Nora played the important, heroic role in saving her husband’s life – but while doing so she became involved in fraud of forging a signature for two-hundred fifty pounds. As the surface layers slowly come off, Nora is seen as a bolder character than before. She went as far as ruining her own moral reputation to aid her husband’s fight for life. Slowly, as the shameful scandal is about to be revealed to her husband, Nora begins to take more matters into her own hands. By the way in which she operates situations in evasive ways, Nora may appear to be a scandalous woman who does things only to get her way. However, more importantly it shows how self-reliant and shrewd she becomes. For example, she is keen in handling matters so that she delays her husband’s knowledge of the scandal when she prevents him from retrieving the mail enclosed with all the secrets. In doing so she gives herself more time to think upon the matter and what measures she is to take. In this serious matter, she is no longer complacent with putting her own fate in the hands of another, so she contemplates daringly to take extreme outlets. She only gives the following premonition: “…you must prevent nothing. After all, it is splendid to be waiting for a wonderful thing to happen.”
Whether or not she could be saved from shameful exposure of her disgraceful forgery, Nora does not try to elude the situation. Instead she is more courageous and decides to confront the problem. Nora, with the epiphany that she has been treated like a toy doll her entire life, feels that she has never been allowed to think for herself; hence no one ever took her seriously as a human being. At this point, she breaks from the chains of limited expression and pours out the grievances on her mind to her husband Torvald saying,
“…our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife…and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.”
In a moment’s time, Nora becomes independent from her husband. She is now considered what lies between a modern day Liberal Feminist and Separatist. Nora is no longer the traditional mother she appeared to be, but she is now is a strong-minded and independent woman who is off to tend to her own “sacred duties” as a human being. Indeed, a “wonderful thing” has happened.
Another character in A Doll’s House is a woman named Mrs. Linde. Mrs. Linde’s character is an entirely contrasting character to Nora Helmer. They are different in many ways and similar in very few. Ironically, Mrs. Linde is a very maternal character in the play. Although she is widowed and is left with no children, the values and responsibilities on which she grew up make her motherly and just as striking a woman as the reformed Nora. With her, she has genuine compassion, maternal knowledge, and a sense of teaching.
Mrs. Linde grew up looking after family. She was the caring daughter of a sick mother who dearly needed her help and nursing. Mrs. Linde also had young brothers that she needed to provide for because she was the only living and able guardian to them. Basically living for others, she learned to strive on the bare necessities. Ironically, instead of being worn out and burdened by this great responsibility, Mrs. Linde finds it fulfilling. It is a miraculous attitude for a person to have such a great reason for existence. In contrast, Nora does not dare to live on bare necessities alone because she is a spendthrift and is too material in her desires. Although Mrs. Linde is no longer married or is left with any children, she still attains the maternal quality of wanting to provide for others. Mrs. Linde is obviously a lonely soul with a big heart and seeks family for a sense of belonging and a reason for living. On the contrary, Nora is too accustomed with Torvald providing for her needs instead of her having the desire in reciprocating the yearn to provide for her children. It is safe to say that she merely sees her children as toys she seldom plays with. By the end of the play, it is also evident that Nora cannot live for others like Mrs. Linde, but must be independent and free.
The kind, poor widow that she is, Mrs. Linde doesn’t hesitate to lend an ear and give advice. She patiently listens to Nora’s fortunes and misfortunes. Throughout the play, Mrs. Linde is there for Nora, listening to the dilemma that she is in. On account, Mrs. Linde gives Nora honest advice on what should be done. Being older and having more experience in life, Mrs. Linde reminds Nora that she is childish in many ways. She says it almost as if a mother is telling her own child to grow up and to mature before any regrets. As if she is teaching her daughter a lesson from mistakes, she allows Nora’s scandal to become exposed. Mrs. Linde is obviously more of a maternal figure than liberal-minded Nora. She has more compassion to live for others and a greater experience in the hardships of life to give lessons.
In another of one of Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, Mrs. Katherine Stockmann is introduced. She too is a typical housewife, but unlike Nora Helmer, Katherine is constant and upholds that portrayal. Katherine is not a conflicting character, but is instead a very supportive one, especially to her husband. In the play, she is shown to be very faithful to her family. Society generally expects mothers to make the care of their families as a main priority. The idea is cliché, but Katherine acts accordingly. When her husband, Thomas Stockmann, plans to take extreme measures of action in proving his point about the impure morals of society, Katherine’s immediate reflex is to think about her family’s reputation and welfare. For example, when Thomas asserts that he will risk his job for the declaration of the truth and exposure of impurities in society, Katherine exclaims, “But towards your family, Thomas? Towards your own home! Do you think that is doing your duty towards those you have to provide for?…There are the boys. Thomas! Look at them! What is to become of them?” As the voice of the family’s conscience, Katherine tries her hardest not to let Thomas or Petra become too liberal and radical so that the family is not in jeopardy.
Not only is Katherine faithful to her entire family, but she is more specifically faithful to and trusting in her husband, Thomas. Thomas is thoroughly radical and takes great measures in order to let the voice of truth be heard about the impurities of the Baths. Fearing her husband’s dismissal from office and also future financial needs, Katherine becomes uneasy of Thomas’s seemingly arbitrary actions. However, fully trusting in his righteous morals and values, she blindly follows him and takes an audacious stand – not only for her husband, but also for herself. She supported Thomas saying, “Then I will show them that an – an old woman can be a man for once. I am going to stand by you, Thomas!” For Katherine to blindly follow Thomas evidently shows that she is a very faithful wife and that she loves him deeply. She even goes as far as to stop thinking about her family, the close people she commits herself wholly to as a mother, and instead thinks of the community. Like Thomas, she also knows the wrong from the right, and that society's impure morals should be cleansed. However, although she takes her bold stand supporting her husband, she is still timid about taking radical actions.
Katherine herself is a simple-minded person. She does not synthesize radical ideas of her own, and would rather stick to the safe and moderate side of matters than overturn the bucket and find the dirt. She is not liberal enough, like Thomas and her daughter Petra, to veer away from the norm. If not for her faith, trust, and love in Thomas, Katherine would have gladly supported the compact majority in keeping things quiet and moderate instead of upsetting the entire system and fixing the wrongs.
Petra, another character of An Enemy of the People, is the daughter of Katherine and Thomas Stockmann. She is unlike her mother, and is more comparative to her father. As a young woman, Petra is very intelligent. Often exposed to radical ideas and unique beliefs, Petra’s outlook on matters is not limited by clouded thoughts or by narrow mindedness. Like any strong woman, Petra has the power of knowledge and broad mindedness. She is a schoolteacher who loves her work and her enthusiasm can be attributed to the fact that she is intelligent and good at her job. However, her brightness is only one of the virtues that make her a strong female character.
Petra is idealistic like her father. From her father, she learned to support pure morals and truth as opposed to twisted values and falsehood. Rather than going by the smooth and easy way of systems, Petra would rather speak up against them. In contrast to her mother, who does not mind the status quo, Petra chooses to remove herself from the comfort zone and alter what can be fixed and improved. Expressing her dismay in the current society and school system, Petra says disappointingly, “At home one must not speak, and at school we have to stand and tell lies to the children…If only I had the means I would start a school of my own, and it would be conducted on very different lines.” Again, Petra shows her strength of character by outwardly expressing her idealistic opinions.
An intelligent and clearly focused young lady like Petra is a bold character. And with that boldness she is not afraid to take action and a strong stand for things that she truly believes are in the right. For a woman of her time, Petra is intrepid in that she who does not share common views with the compact majority. She is similar to her mother in the way that she takes a strong stand beside her father. But unlike her mother, she faithfully supports him not because it is her father, but because she truly has faith in the seeds of ideals that her father introduced to her. Amidst an angry storm, she is a bold young flower who has firm rooting in her beliefs.
In contrast to Petra, the play Hedda Gabler has a very timid character by the name of Mrs. Elvsted. Like any other proper woman, Mrs. Elvsted is very amiable and gentle. Although her lady-like ways make her a very tender woman, they also make her very bashful. Unlike Petra, Mrs. Elvsted doesn’t have the confidence or the strong-mindedness to be completely independent. Hence, she trusts and relies heavily on others to help her in many ways.
Mrs. Elvsted is the type of person who confides in others. This innocent virtue can in fact be harmful to her. Her flaw is that she is too quick to trust others. As dismaying as it sounds, her trust and reliance can be taken for granted and taken advantage of. Since she is such an easily convinced woman, she can be easily manipulated by those she trusts too quickly. In the play, a headstrong woman named Hedda Gabler takes advantage of Mrs. Elvsted's trust and dupes her into thinking that she is doing things for her own good. However, the omniscient reader knows what Hedda is attempting to do. Too timid to fend for herself, Mrs. Elvsted obviously does not take comfort in any type of conflict. The following quotes show her lack of confidence and own strong opinion on even trivial things and as well as how Hedda just continually plants ideas into Mrs. Elvsted’s gullible mind:
Hedda: “…I can see him already – with vine-leaves in his hair – flushed and fearless.”
Mrs. Elvsted: “Oh, I hope he may.”
Hedda: “And then, you see – then he will have regained control over himself…”
Mrs. Elvsted: “Oh, God! – if he would only come as you see him now!”
It is plain to see that Mrs. Elvsted often relies on the small false hope that is fed to her. But despite all her timidity, humility, and reliance on others, Mrs. Elvsted does show an ability to be liberal.
     In desperate need of the affection and closeness of others that she relies on, Mrs. Elvsted becomes liberal and takes extreme action in fulfilling her needs. A woman, no matter how humble or faithful she may be, needs to be cared for and loved. In desperation, Mrs. Elvsted cried, “Oh, I could bear it no longer, Hedda! I couldn’t indeed – so utterly alone as I should have been in the future.” As a plain housewife to an apathetic husband, Mrs. Elvsted cannot take the utter loneliness she feels. So consequently she takes it upon herself to be radical and become independent of her husband. After desperation and contemplation, Mrs. Elvsted becomes brave and cultivates her wants and needs. Even the most unsuspecting characters can become audacious when it comes down to a boiling point. Just as Nora Helmer did in A Doll’s House, Mrs. Elvsted left her household to satisfy her own desires.
     Also from the play Hedda Gabler, Hedda Tesman is a very unique character. She is the type of woman anyone can easily learn to love or hate. For this reason, it takes deep analysis of what lies beneath her actions in order to fully understand the woman she is. By nature, Hedda is very hard to please. From an affluent and high-class lifestyle, the general’s daughter is very bored of life. Having to live like a commoner with her husband Tesman (whom she does not even love), Hedda finds little happiness in anything. Her boredom in life causes her to become very interested in drama affairs. In the play, it is evident that she takes great interest in gossip like many women of her time. Her boredom, in fact, is a factor of her involvement with the chaos that happens.
     As Nora and Petra are strong an independent, Hedda too is very liberal. However, Hedda has a slight manipulative twist to her personality. Her beauty and fake amiable personality is very easy to become fond of. She often takes advantage of the fondness others have for her in order to make events happen the way she wants them to. As a wife, she is not ever genuinely affectionate towards Tesman or his aunts. Even when Tesman asked Hedda to visit his late Aunt Rina, she coldly replied, “No, no, don’t ask me. I will not look upon sickness and death. I loathe all sorts of ugliness.” Hedda is obviously not afraid or hesitant to do or say what she wants to.
     At first it might seem that Hedda is simply a villain. But at the culmination of the play Hedda is instead portrayed as a heroic figure. In much of the literature of the nineteenth century, heroic women figures were rare. But indeed, Hedda defies the status quo and plays a bold part in the play. As a bored, liberal, and strong woman, Hedda becomes more and more destructive to those around her. Instead of improving or reconstructing her own personality flaws, she slowly allows her boredom, liberality, and strength to deconstruct the lives of those around her. But as a heroine, Hedda commits suicide and ends the creation of all further chaos. But her suicide is not all altruistic. Hedda was very bored of life and saw no pleasant future. Also, as a fearless daughter of a general, Hedda wanted to show others how one dies beautifully. Hedda also valiantly ventures into a new realm of abnormal behavior. Astonished at her suicide, another character, Judge Brack, says, “Good God! – people don’t do such things.” Ending further chaos, seeing no happiness in her future, being courageous and showing others how to die beautifully, and going against the system are all factors that involved Hedda’s suicide. This play is a tragedy in that the heroine, Hedda Gabler Tesman, committed suicide. As a woman, Hedda took diehard actions. She proves to be just as shrewd as a man can be. She proves to be just as daring and bold as a man can be. Most of all, she proves to show that women can be hero’s too.
     In all three of Henrik Ibsen’s that are discussed, it clearly shows that the Norwegian women of his nineteenth century plays are diverse and play a variety of roles with an array of both strong and weak qualities. The women in these dramas show that they play more than the role of simple housewives, widows, and daughters. Instead they demonstrate and show that they have rounder characteristics that enable them to play stronger, roles in the household and society. For instance, Nora does not only play the role of a housewife or a “doll”, but reveals that she has a liberal mind of her own which synthesizes radical ideas and “sacred duties” for her to follow. Mrs. Linde shows an ironically compassionate side as she takes joy in caring and living for others. She is very loving and shows that despite her widowhood, she still has maternal care. Like Mrs. Linde affection, Katherine Stockmann exhibits dedicated motherly concern for her family. As glue that holds pieces together, Katherine takes the necessary actions in order to hold her family together. Furthermore, Petra doesn’t only play the role of a simple daughter, but reveals her idealistic views and takes the role of a confident woman amid strong opposition. Mrs. Elvsted, a timorous woman, shows that even the weakest and the shyest women can grasp a strong stand on opinions and take necessary, and sometimes extreme, actions to fulfill ones personal needs. Finally, Hedda Gabler Tesman shows that she will not be complacent with being a boring housewife, and is willing to take daring and heroic actions regardless of the consequences. Ironically speaking, not only did these women take great leaps and powerful actions in stepping out of their comfort zones, but simultaneously, they stepped into new comfort zones of liberality and independence. They acted upon their desires and thus showed strong character.
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