A silly title, perhaps, but a serious purpose. I want the Upper Sixth to engage closely with the ideas of Marxist critique, so this essay, modelled on the old AQA LitB coursework seemed like a good idea.
This is by one of my students. A discussion of the essay will be added later….
SOCIALIST CRITIQUE AND DOLLS HOUSE
CAPITALISM CORRUPTS – HELMER AND KROGSTAD
Historical Marxism – conflict between employer and employee will eventually lead to communism
Similar conflict pushes Nora to break free?
Class conflict = proletariat rise up and rebel – can this be likened to Nora?
Helmer = most powerful character, everything seen in relation to him
Nora goes against him, rebellion of the proletariat
WE ALL HAVE A FUNDAMENTALLY GOOD HUMAN NATURE – LINDE HAD TO DITCH KROGSTAD DUE TO MONEY, NORA SHOWS HER GOOD NATURE BY SAVING TORVALD
SOCIAL EGALITARIANISM – NORA WISHES FOR EQUALITY, PROMPTING HER ACTION AT THE END OF THE PLAY
Socialists believe that inequality compares from unequal treatment by society… perhaps due to gender
Need-satisfaction – Nora believes it is her need to discover who she is
Emmy “she’ll pull them apart”
COLLECTIVE OWNESHIP – NORA OWNS NOTHING
Helmer owns all property and aspects of their home
Nora realises her position in life, in her marriage with Helmer and decides to break free of it
She can only do this when she is fully aware of her situation
Marx’s ideology is originally built on a dislike of capitalism, with the desire to abolish it. For Marxists, and socialists, capitalism breeds injustice and inequality, leading to class conflict and divide. Due to their positions at the bank, capitalism places Helmer, as “vice president of the bank” and Krogstad at the top of the social hierarchy, creating a class divide within the home, between the bourgeois family and the maids. The Helmer’s conform to Marx’s ideas about class divide caused by capitalism, which leads to the increase of injustice and inequality. Marx explains this more in his theory named ‘Historical Marxism,’ in which he claims that conflict between employer and employee will lead to communism. Although Nora is not an employee of Helmer, she does his bidding, furnishing the house “just the way that Torvald likes.” Their difference in status, defined by their gender, leads to the destruction of the hierarchy of the home. The increasing struggle that ensures, after Helmer finds out about the “loan” leads Nora to rebel and leave him, which is symbolic of Marx’s predicted spontaneous revolution of the proletariat. Nora breaks free of the oppressive capitalist regime, represented by Helmer, and rebels against traditional gender roles, which were outlined in works such as Coventry Patmore’s poem, ‘The Angel in the House.’ She does not rebel against an entire capitalist regime, but in this context does represent a rebellion of the proletariat as she breaks free from the power of Helmer, leaving him destitute and alone. This could be viewed as a victory of the proletariat, who have broken out of their traditional place in society in an attempt to find freedom.
Januarie’s pursuit of women and treatment of them can imply that he has been corrupted by wealth. The “worthy knight” decides that he needs a bride that “shal nat passe twenty yeer.” When becoming enamoured upon May in the market place, he marries her. She is given no word or name until after the marriage, implying that she has had no say in it whatsoever. It could be argued that Januarie’s wealth has corrupted him as he forces May to marry him, and forces her to be subject to his unpleasant sexual acts, that are “not worth a bene.” In this respect, may can be seen as a member of the proletariat, rebelling against the wealth of society by having a clandestine affair with “this” Damyan. This could make Damyan appear to be the hero of the poem, as he is the liberator of May, who is oppressed by the wealth of society. As he allows her to escape, and fulfil her rebellious desires, he can be seen as the hero and May as the heroine, as they both rebel agains the oppressive Marxist state.
Ibsen’s play also show cases a common socialist ideas, which have taken inspiration from Marxist ideologies. It is believed that all humans have a fundamentally good human nature, as outlined by thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin, who argues that all humans subscribe to the idea of ‘mutual aid,’ meaning that all humans are naturally inclined to help each other. Nora seems to fit in with this idea, as she undertakes the illegal task of acquiring a loan, in order to “save” her husband’s “life.” Our ‘plastic’ human nature means that, although we are fundamentally good, our human nature can be corrupted by ideals such as capitalism. Helmer also displays, as when the “IOU” is returned, and they are “saved,” he only cares about himself after chastising Nora. He is corrupted by the capitalist regime, and his high power of position at the bank. In contrast, Nora displays her good nature by trying to save Torvald, and alleviate distress from her father by forging his “signature.” Linde is also corrupted by the capitalist regime, which had to influence her decision giving Krogstad “up” for money. Linde had to provide for her brothers, and so couldn’t marry Krogstad. The nature of the capitalist regime, and attitudes at the time influenced Linde, moving her away from her true self. This negative influence, exerted by capitalism is well described by Marx, as such a regime breeds inequality. Nora contrasts this with her acts alluding to natural justice, as she saves the life of her husband and works to pay off the debt.
Relating this to ‘The Merchant’s Tale,’ it could be argued that the wealth of Januarie corrupts and convinces him that he is allowed to treat May in such an appalling way. His “laboureth” and rape of her on their wedding night contradicts socialist ideas about human nature. However, perhaps it is the wealth, his status and his gender that allows Januarie to act in the oppressive way that he does, in the same view that Helmer does with Nora when he attempts to force her to have sex with him, as he is her “husband.” This opens up a discussion about May, and a debate about whether she contradicts socialist ideas about human nature. If we are to assume she is uncorrupted by wealth, as she herself doesn’t own any of it, then perhaps she displays moral corruption, as she has an affair with Damyan. Alternatively, if she is corrupted by the wealth of her new husband, one can exonerate her for her adulterous actions. Perhaps both of these speculations don’t matter, as in the eyes of a Marxist, her actions, whether related to human nature or not, symbolise the spontaneous revolution of the proletariat against the wealth of the state.
Marx’s wish for the proletariat to be free and unconstrained can be interpreted as an advocation of equality within society. This belief in social egalitarianism can be seen in the play through the actions of Nora. At the end of the play, she focuses on her “duty” to herself, the individual, committing to a form of social egalitarianism, as she wishes for equality within the world, and sets herself the task of discovering what that truly is. She explains that she has been controlled by powerful mail figures, such as her father and Helmer, describing this as a great “wrong.” It can be argued that the proletariat have been wronged by the justice bred by capitalism also. Nora’s breaking free of these male figures leads her to focus on herself, and her own individual needs, therefore addressing the ideas of social egalitarianism as she desires equality. Inequality comes from unequal treatment within society, and Nora has not been treated equally to her male counterparts, her father and her husband. Nora’s action at the end of the play can also be tied into the socialist idea of ‘need-satisfaction.’ It is Nora’s need to discover herself, outside of their “marriage” that propels her to walk out. For Nora, this need is as important as the human need for food and water. These serious needs are advocated by Marxist and Socialist ideas. Emmy too shows glimmers of social egalitarianism, as the cradle that Nora buys her is noted to be pulled “apart” by her fairly soon. Emmy appears to reject traditional gender roles, which identifies the woman as the mother. She also rejects the ‘Separate Spheres’ of society, which is a well-documented idea, explaining the different domains of the man and woman. Perhaps May’s adultery should be read as her own attempts of achieving equality of women, as like men, she follows her “bodily delit.” She could be seen to fight to gender equality and egalitarianism, as she acts in the way that men do, as showed by Januarie’s description as a wealthy knight of “Pavie,” which was known for its debauchery.
Marxism also stresses the idea of collective ownership. Marx was vehemently against the idea of private property, believing that equality can only be promoted in society when everyone owns something. In relation to the play, Nora owns nothing in contrast to Helmer, who has wealth and owns the house. This again makes Nora appear as the lowly proletariat, antagonised by her lack of wealth and property, who sparks a revolution at the end of the play. May also fulfils the same role in the poem and benefits from the money that she acquires from her husband, although she does not explicitly own all of it. Nora acquires all her “money” from Helmer, and uses her sexuality to do so, as she frequently gets this money after “playing with his coat buttons.” Linde too has owned no property in her life, and describes her own fulfilment as being able to “work” for someone. This is her highest calling, and she fulfils the woman’s role of society, as carer and mother. Nora breaks free of this, after realising that she has been a “doll wife,” and that she has just had “fun” during the eight years that she has been married.
Nora only does this when she develops the Marxist idea of ‘class consciousness.’ Marx writes that the proletariat will only rise and rebel once they realise that they are being exploited, and once they realise that capitalism is the cause of it. In this similar fashion, Nora only walks away from Helmer when she realises that he doesn’t “love” her, after his failure to conjure the “miracle” she so hoped for. When the miracle fails to appear, Nora truly realises the marriage that she is entrapped in, giving her the power to break away from Helmer and discover herself. May could also be seen to do the same, as she realises that she is trapped in a marriage with a senile man that does not sexually satisfy her, causing her to break free. She does so by having an affair with Damyan. Similarly, Nora realises her status, in comparison to Helmer, signified by her dramatic line “I’ve changed.” This change can be defined as her realisation of class consciousness, as she fully understands the oppression that she has been subject too, and who it has been at the hands of, much like May.
In conclusion, ‘A Doll’s House’ can easily be manipulated by Marxist and Socialist critique to present an image of a woman breaking free of societal norms, representative of the rebellious proletariat. This is harder to do with ‘The Merchant’s Tale,’ as it is difficult to analyse the human nature of the two protagonists and whether they fit in with Socialist ideas.