Sense And Sensibility Romantic Notions Of The Two Principal Female Characters In O Neill S Ile And Ibsen S A Doll S House And How These Affect Their Perception Of Reality
Although they appear to have very different personalities, Nora and Mrs. Keeney, the two female protagonists in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and O’Neill’s “Ile”, share a very important characteristic; that is their romantic notions as well as the tendency to develop a false sense of reality in an attempt to glorify things. This romantic point of view urges them to make wrong decisions based on their sentimental irrationality, an aspect that is vital for the unravelling of their drama and which finally leads to their inevitable ruin. These romantic notions may well be attributed to their oppressive environment, and their inability to build a life over which only they have control. These dreams offer the two women something to wallow in and hope for, an escape from the harsh reality of their lives. In my opinion, the authors’ purposes are to project this stereotype and also emphasize the complex nature of women.
For example, Mrs. Keeney was a simple and common woman, who looked for adventure and excitement in her dull life. When she made the decision to follow her husband in his quest for whale oil, she was “dreaming of the old Vikings in the story books” (O’Neill 607). Her decision was based on this romantic interpretation of life at sea, her dream of “sailing on the great, wide, glorious ocean” (O’Neill 606). She didn’t think at all of the hardship she would have to go through, even though her husband made it clear that “whalin’ ain’t no ladies’ tea party” (O’Neill 606). Furthermore, her irrational decision could also be attributed to noble ideas of self-sacrifice, to her sacrifice of the comforts of Homeport for the sake of her husband, for being with and supporting her husband. Submissive as she was, Mrs. Keeney saw everything evolving around her husband and forgot to think about herself: “I wanted to be with you, David, don’t you see? I wanted to be by your side in the danger and vigorous life of it all…I wanted to see you the hero they make you out to be in Homeport” (O’Neill 606). On the one hand, Mrs. Keeney can be considered as too devoted to her husband, blinded by her admiration for him. On the other hand, Mrs. Keeney could well be asserting her own share of adventure. In any case, her decision is based on sheer sentimental irrationality and goes against every logical argument. Thus, she finds herself trapped in a “horrible and brutal” (O’Neill 609) environment, which she can no longer bear.
The idea of sacrifice is present in Nora’s behavior too. Again the pursuit of her own life and of the recognition she thinks she deserves make her delusional. She sacrifices herself in order to save her husband, but at the same time perceives this action not as a burden or a shameful deed, but as “something to be proud and glad of” (Ibsen 9). Confronted with trouble, Nora finds refugee in the fantasy of the kind benefactor, who off course doesn’t exist. The fact that she turns to some other imaginary man other than her husband makes us think that she is indeed looking for some adventure, and is actually enjoying the exhilaration of danger. The most crucial of Nora’s fantasies, however, is the one of the “knight” in the shining armor, who is no other than her husband, Torvald. The idea of the knight symbolizes her hope that Torvald will appreciate her sacrifice and salvage her from public judgment in return. Hoping for that “miracle of the miracles” (Ibsen 200), Torvald putting her above anything else, she deliberately lets him read Krogstad’s letter. Many would say that she was insane to expect such a radical change from Torvald, but it was him surprisingly that implied it by saying: “I often wish some danger will threaten you, that I might risk body and soul, and everything for your sake” (Ibsen 193). After that Nora told him: “Now you shall read your letters, Torvald” (Ibsen 193). Was she wrong to believe in something so impossible? Was she wrong to hope? Or did she simply reach her limits and had to get this off her? I believe that her decision was made on the mistaken perception that she had done a heroic act by saving Torvald, no matter if it was illegal or immoral. For Nora, her sacrifice had become a symbol of her increased strength and independence. She glorified what society would see as a mere act of forgery into the most noble and moving sacrifice.
The dramatic climax builds up around the misfortune of these two women. Due to their futile dreams, both women find themselves trapped; Mrs. Keeney is psychologically and physically trapped, while Nora finds herself in a difficult situation when the truth is revealed. Complying with another long-established stereotype, both women ask for help and protection from their husbands. This is when the true fragile and vulnerable nature of the female psyche is revealed. Mrs. Keeney begs her husband to “take her away from this horrible ship…take her home” (O’Neill 9), while Nora hopes for Torvald to stand up for her sake and protect her dignity. Unfortunately, the men’s unemotional logic prevails on their feelings-exactly the opposite from the women- and they put their honor, social status and personal success first. In these two plays, female sensitivity is juxtaposed against the unemotional logic of men and their inability to understand the psychological needs of their wives.
Capt. Keeney actually experiences an internal conflict between his male pride and his soft side which loves his wife, but in the end he chooses the hunt. Torvald initially insults Nora and blames her for all the bad things that have happened, but then, only after discovering that they would face no legal persecution, he rejoices and immediately forgives her. One stereotype presented here is the willingness of women to sacrifice everything because of their romantic ideas about love, while men remain realists and put their esteem above anything else, even love.
As a literary device, both writers use the characters’ romantic notions to provide an insight into their souls and justify their actions. Their dreams, a combination of what they would like to and what they can have are the characters’ motivation, their criteria in making decisions that advance the drama. If their decisions were based on sheer logic, then the plays would not only be predictable and boring, but also unrealistic, because feelings are essential to all humans. It is passion and despair that create the tragic moments. In that sense, the romantic notions of the characters also contribute to the classification of these two plays as tragedies. The two women, Nora and Mrs. Keeney, dream about things that are “beyond them”, such as becoming equal to men or leading adventurous lives; dare pursue these dreams and challenge reality by committing hubris; until finally nemesis intervenes and their retribution is fall from grace. Why does Nora abandon her husband and family? Because she realizes that her “knight” doesn’t exist and that she can only be a doll for Torvald or a completely independent and self-sufficient woman. Taking the second option shows us that she decides to make it on her own rather than wait for support from others. On the other hand, Mrs. Keeney goes demented because the reality she also faces is overwhelmingly cruel and harsh, nothing like what she had dreamed of. The two women differ as Nora stands up and chooses to keep on fighting, while Mrs. Keeney simply gives in.
The authors’ messages are to emphasize how complex the female psyche is and how women base their decisions on feelings and dreams, rather than on rationality. This is what makes them so appealing, but also so vulnerable to committing tragic mistakes. The effect on the audience is very moving and makes us realize how volatile human life is and also how each and every one of us sees matters in their own personal way. Reality may not be what we consider it to be. Even though dreams and hopes are what keep us going, we shouldn’t confuse our fantasies with reality. Being a sixteen-year old girl, I can totally relate with the heroines’ romantic dreams; and understand their need to escape from reality to an imaginary world. Sometimes reality is overwhelmingly cruel and our existence seems to be without a purpose. For these women, Nora and Mrs. Keeney, their life must have felt extremely empty, since they lived in the shadow of their husbands. To allay these feeling of vanity we invent fantasies and develop hopes that something important will happen to us. Sometimes, though, we get absorbed in out imaginary world and confuse reality with what it should have been. Unfortunately, irrational decisions based on our fantasies lead us down the wrong path.
• O’Neill, Eugene. “Ile.” World Literature – an Anthology of Great Short Stories, Poetry and Drama. Comp. Donna Rosenberg. Columbus, Ohio: McGraw-Hill Glencoe, 2004. 598-611.
• Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” World Literature – an Anthology of Great Short Stories, Poetry, and Drama. Comp. Donna Rosenberg. Columbus, Ohio: McGraw-Hill Glencoe, 2004. 142-202.