Oppression Thrives on Misunderstanding
Of all the struggles of the oppressed, perhaps the most daunting has been the most silently tyrannical. Women have spent ages proving their obvious intellectual, cognitive, and social equality to the male population, especially to the men in their lives. In “A Doll House” and “Trifles,” Henrik Ibsen and Susan Glaspell illustrate how men not only underestimate their wives, but also drive them to hide their true thoughts, act in secrecy, and ultimately take formidable, yet understandable measures of overcompensation. They do so while simultaneously imposing unique male and female perspectives on the relationships they create.
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Through the men’s shallow view of the women around them and their inability to properly analyze their interactions, the male characters in “Trifles” and “A Doll House” create a culture of tension and resentment in their households that lead their wives to rebel against their oppression. In A “Doll House,” Ibsen uses Torvald’s character to highlight the patronizing quality of the 19th century husband. Torvald addresses his wife, Nora, almost always by pet names, such as “Is that my little lark twittering out there?… Is that my squirrel rummaging around?…
When did my squirrel get in? ” (859) For the better part of three acts, Nora internalizes the condescension and relishes the adoration—or at least she pretends to. The comments, which serve to reduce her humanity, lead Nora to realize that Torvald is ill-equipped to be a husband or a father, as he can only seem to sustain the relationships he dominates. As she comes to this realization, she tells her husband “There’s another job I have to do first. I have to try to educate myself. You can’t help me with that. I’ve got to do it alone. And that’s why I’m leaving you now. (907) Although removing herself from the hold of her husband’s patriarchy seems logical, it is uncertain whether Nora will adapt to the realities of an independent lifestyle. The transition from her father’s patronization to the binds of Torvald’s expectations left Nora no opportunity to explore her interests or learn practical skills, like money management. Furthermore, had Nora pursued either, her husband would have forbidden her from duties associated with the male realm. The lack of these experiences forced Nora into venturing into the male world of business, taking out the loan which “saved” Torvald.
When he reads Krogstad’s letter, his true sentiments about Nora come out: “I should have suspected something of the kind. I should have known… All of your father’s flimsy values have come out in you. No religion, no morals, no sense of duty. ” (904) Torvald’s lack of faith in Nora’s intellectual and business abilities also become clear through the outburst. The tension and shallowness in the household become apparent when he uses pet names superficially, but when genuinely expressing emotion, he uses no names of the sort.
He restricts their interactions to shallow conversation, which Nora picks up on when she announces her departure: “In eight whole years—longer even—right from our first acquaintance, we’ve never exchanged a serious word on any serious thing. ” (906) Certainly, their interactions are more of a father-child dynamic than that of a married couple. Only when faced with her departure does Torvald make any concessions to the relationship, after attempting to subdue her defiance. Likewise, the women in “Trifles” are oppressed, though less subtly.
Though Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale make significant discoveries at the Wrights’ home, their husbands treat them as children brought along to work. For instance, these women live their day to day lives pursuing the popular cultural interests deemed appropriate for women, and as such, are prone to discuss them in conversation. When Mrs. Hale points out Mrs. Wright’s quilt, the sheriff is quick to tease her: “They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it! (The men laugh, the woman look abashed. ” (917) The blatant disrespect makes the women disinclined to tell the men investigating the crime scene any of their real findings, almost out of spite and to protect their fellow woman, Mrs. Wright. The women take note of the quilt, the broken preserves, and the dead canary, which likely triggered Mrs. Wright’s rage. While the men begin their search with the preconceptions that Mrs. Wright committed the crime and attempt to find evidence to prove it, the women assume her innocence; either they choose to because of their kind nature, or perhaps because doing so is a silent form of retaliation. Such rebellion is obvious when Mrs.
Hale hides the bird from the sheriff and recalls Mr. Wright’s injustice to his wife: “I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang. Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that? ” (921) The men do not account for the woman Mrs. Wright had once been, and are therefore blind to the motive they search for. Mrs. Wright parallels Nora in that their men drive them to acts of desperation. Whereas Nora merely leaves her oppressive husband, Mrs. Wright finishes hers off herself.
The difference in sex between the authors and how they have the women deal with their husbands is especially significant. Ibsen, a man, concludes with the oppressed woman becoming aware of her situation in spite of her lack of education, summoning the courage to leave her husband and family never having experienced independence. Almost suddenly, Nora realizes the lifelong hold of patriarchy her father and husband have imposed on her when she complains “Our home’s been nothing but a playpen. I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child. And in turn, the children have been my dolls.
I thought it fun when you played with me, just as they thought it fun when I played with them. That’s been our marriage, Torvald. ” (906) Glaspell, on the other hand, brings a female perspective and ended her characters’ marriage in murder—a fit of passion and rage from a woman who had lost her identity and zeal. The female author’s conclusion of overcompensation seems more realistic than the male author’s of miraculous clarity. For example, the male author’s version of the married couple is surely one of blatant shallowness, while the female author indirectly illustrates a dynamic void of respect and love.
The more subtle, sinister nuances of the relationship that Glaspell hints at are more characteristic of real relationships; the ones that deteriorate often lose civility gradually. Contrasting, the Helmers were seemingly cordial, though paternalistic, until the end. Through their oppressive behavior, intentional or not, the men in these works contribute to their wives’ emotional deaths and to the deaths of their relationships. By treating them more like pawns in their quest for superficial happiness than equals, these men fail to recognize the frailty of their marriages.
In addition, by underestimating their wives’ capabilities, they are blind-sighted when the women assert their humanity. The male-dominant dynamic incites the conflicts that lead the women to rebel; had there been any depth to the husband-wife connections, the contentions of “A Doll House” and “Trifles” may have been eschewed all together. Instead, the despotism in these relationships forges irreversible consequences: for the men, the harsh reality of a broken life; for the women, resentment for their oppression and a future of uncertainty.