Gender Roles in A Doll's House and The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Published: 2021-09-11 03:50:09
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Concerning the institution of marriage, Dr. Samuel Johnson once opined: “Sir, it is so far from being natural for a man and a woman to live in the state of marriage that we find all the motives which they have for remaining in that connection, and the restraints which civilized society imposes to prevent separation, are hardly sufficient to keep them together.” Choose any two couples in Tolstoy and/or Ibsen, and consider the centrifugal forces at work in their marriages. What kinds of power relations govern these marriages? What can we learn about patterns of class and gender in the nineteenth century from these portraits of unhappy families?
The 19th century public of modern Europe was not ready to address the harsh realities of their matrimonial conventions. The industrial revolution had triggered the advancement of communication and transportation systems, connecting people and places. Liberalism had swept through and Imperialism was in the air. In areas of theatre arts and literature, the audience did not like to be reminded of reality. Nevertheless, several thinkers of the arts and literature, Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy in particular, produced work that would probe the social belief system and reveal its realistic imperfections through their works A Doll’s House and The Death of Ivan Ilyich respectively. In the texts, one can make general observations of the fact that the male counter parts in marriage held dominant roles. They had the power of decision making in most important situations without having to consider the wife’s opinion. Monetary tasks were handled by the man where he controlled the amount of money his wife would receive to spend on household and family related expenses. When a man seeks to make independent decisions and closely control his wife’s spending, it questions her intelligence and authority. Since his wife spends most of her time on her children and homemaking, as assumed by society, she must have developed a better intuition to make decisions whether they are monetary or day to day. However, the husbands in the these texts still choose to control their wives’ area of expertise which they don’t seem invested in. This sort of dynamic between a husband and wife could lead to relationship issues of trust and freedom of individuality and these problems can inturn create distance between them in marriage. It is therefore ironic that although marriage was considered holy by society in the 19th century and couples in marriage were urged to stay together, the prevailing social issues, as illustrated in the works of Leo Tolstoy and Henrik Ibsen, instigated a separation within their marriage.
In Act I of A Doll’s House, Nora arrives home with christmas presents for her family. “Is that my lark twittering there?”, “Is that my squirrel skipping about?”, asks Torvald, her husband, from inside his study, addressing her like he would a child. Nora tells him, “Come here, see what I’ve bought,” and Torvald’s first reaction is“Don’t disturb me,” but is alarmed when he realises that she had gone shopping. He seems to keep his calm but is not happy that Nora spends like a “spendthrift,” a term used to describe birds (gamblers) always making the money fly. Upon noticing that she was sad, he hands her some money to cheer her up. When he finds out that she had not bought anything for herself, he urges her to tell him what she would like. She hesitates and denies but eventually asks him to give her some more money. This shows that Nora was, after all, dependent on Torvald for money for day to day spendings and he did not understand that homemaking demands spending. He was also disinterested in what she wanted to share with him and he only seemed to care when he heard that it had something to do with his money and her spending it.
Torvald’s disinterest follows from the social convention that a man should be invested in work and education and a woman must look after the children and keep the house presentable. This creates distance between the husband and wife and also suggests that the gender roles were very distinct which contradicts the fact that marriage means togetherness.
In the short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, the protagonist, Ivan Ilyich adopts a proprietous and aristocratic lifestyle. He focuses all of his energies on leading the ‘right’ life, complying to society’s rules. He finds himself a wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, because that is what a young righteous working man ought to do in that period of time, “He was swayed by both these considerations: the marriage gave him personal satisfaction, and at the same time it was considered the right thing by the most highly placed of his associates.” Their marriage starts off well but soon Praskovya starts to demand absolute attention from him and abuses him if he did not respect her needs. Although Ivan was highly discomforted by her behaviour, he submits but soon realises that matrimony infringed both his comfort and propriety. Thus, he seeks solace in his work. His determination to live a righteous life distances him from his wife over time and her demands start to feel like a nuisance to his self-interests, especially when she is pregnant and ill. Pregnancy is a key milestone in a marriage. It symbolises a sense of family between a married couple and is known to bring them closer but it drove Ivan Ilyich away from Praskovya. When getting married, it is socially common for a husband and wife to make oaths that promise to provide support in sickness and in health. This example, however, contradicts this social convention in the name of social righteousness.
Living a socially correct life is not the answer to happiness in marriage or life in general. In Tolstoy’s short story, Ivan is diagnosed of an incurable illness. He starts to introspect and question his life and school of thought, “’Maybe I did not live as I should have.”(Tolstoy, 85). Ivan had obligated to society’s rules all his life and was very successful at work but the consequence of this lead to a broad empty space between him and his wife. In fact, when Ivan was ill, Praskovya had been so detached from him over the years that she could not care less about his suffering. She would attend social events and seldom stay by his bed. This shows that she too had distanced herself from Ivan Ilyich.
Inevitable illness in general can be very difficult to understand and deal with. The issues that stir from having somebody diagnosed with an illness are grave and no social norms can prevent them from getting any worse. A lot of times, it is a feeling of helplessness and frustration that kindles in both the person diagnosed and the people who are trying to take care of him or her. These emotions result in people taking the illness and the sick person himself for granted which can change how people in a relationship feel about each other. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “it came about step by step, unnoticed, but in the third month of Ivan Ilych’s illness, his wife, his daughter, his son, his acquaintances, the doctors, the servants, and above all he himself, were aware that the whole interest he had for other people was whether he would soon vacate his place, and at last release the living from the discomfort caused by his presence and be himself released from his sufferings.” (Tolstoy, 73). Ivan felt neglected and unwanted, people had started to treat him differently. Moreover, Ivan Ilyich had started to hate his wife for her attitude towards him and his illness. So he kept to himself and only seemed to like his servant, Gerasim. His family too had strayed away from him. They had all drifted apart within the social bounds of their relationship.
In Ibsen’s play, in particular, Nora decides to leave her family too. She had been dominated by Torvald for a very long time making her feel like a child with no maturity. Her act of taking out a loan to protect Torvald suggests that she was trying to prove that she had done something intellectual and mature to protect her husband. She wanted to show that she too was capable of making independent and informed decisions. Nevertheless, when Torvald found out about her suspicious activities, he was furious and more worried about saving his reputation, as opposed to the gallant reaction she was expecting. It was socially unacceptable for women to take out loans and Torvald was a man who really cared about what society thought of him. At this point, Nora had realised that this marriage was nothing but an act where she played the role of a doll to Torvald just like she did to her father. She realised that her father and Torvald had stunted her development of individuality and maturity and sought to move away from her family in order to find herself. During her farewell, she says to him, “I release you from all duties. You must not feel yourself bound any more than I shall. There must be perfect freedom on both sides. There, there is your ring back. Give me mine.” (Ibsen, 121). Nora leaves Torvald and chooses to separate herself from her family to attain freedom and become the individual she could be. Similarly, in Tolstoy’s short story, Ivan Ilyich moves into a space of solidarity and introspects about life as his illness progresses. Both authors are trying to show this act of moving away from their marriage in light of the issues illustrated in their respective plots as a suggestion that social norms about marriage are too broad to hold a married couple together.
Marriage is associated with emotions of unconditional love and everything that comes with it, therefore it cannot be strictly bound by rational rules. These rules also prevent a couple from being involved with each other’s interests and thus prevents them from having discussions which help them develop strong communication skills. One can also feel like they have no freedom if they are monetarily dependent on their partners or have to seek their permission to make certain decisions at all times. Perhaps males were able to take on this dominant role because women were not allowed to pursue further education until the latter part of 19th century. Thus, it was easy to assume that a woman is not intellectual enough to make independent decisions. Upon marriage, all of a woman’s wealth would belong to her husband. Women were also not allowed to buy, own or sell property until this time, so they must feel physically dependent on their husbands. Therefore, it is justified that the social structure and law system would define the gender roles in the way Tolstoy and Ibsen portray them to be. However, the very fact that they choose to address these issues shows that there was something horribly wrong with these social norms and that they were not an answer to the space that marital issues created between a husband and a wife.

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