Another ‘critical approaches’ essay from my Upper 6th – I like the somewhat exploratory titles and the chance to focus on their research of the critical approaches. We discussed in class the lack of Linde material here, and also of Proserpina – maybe you could work on that in your classes?
After reading both Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ it seems clear to me that the empowerment of women, and means by which they achieve this empowerment, has changed over the last century. However, male dominance and bravado is still rife, both in in literary work and in today’s society, while the consequence for acting in a sexist fashion seems to be non-existent. Throughout the first half of The Merchant’s Tale, Januarie behaves in the most objectifying, chauvinistic way towards his “fresshe” May and receives no punishment whatsoever. He still has his wealth, reputation, heir and wife. On the other hand, Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ sees Nora finally recognise her rights as an individual, and leaves her husband begging for her to come back. In this case, Nora is victorious, and Helmer is left grovelling and in a state of awe; has suffered the consequence of his sexist ways. Perhaps fiction that suggests man can behave in the most vulgar way, and receive little punishment, ought to be left off the school syllabus. Fiction, however, that emphasises the freedom and rights of women and the condemnation of chauvinism must remain an integral part of educating today’s youth.
All feminists understand there to be two spheres in society: the public and the private. The public sphere concerns itself with the realm traditionally associated with male dominance and patriarchy; politics, education, art and so on. The private sphere, on the other hand, is concerned with the realm of domesticity, in which women are often confined to a life of inferiority. Liberal feminists, such as J.S.Mill and Wollstonecraft, argue that feminists should focus on securing equal rights in the public sphere while radical feminists argue that the private sphere should be politicised, thus the slogan ‘the personal is political.’ The education system is, therefore, the perfect public platform to teach children about the importance of equality, rather than perpetuate a patriarchal society that objectifies women. Whereas Chaucer limits his exploration of female empowerment to the private sphere, Ibsen goes even further and suggests that women should expect egalitarian society as well as an egalitarian home; they have a “duty to [themselves]”.
Helmer and Nora’s marriage is not one that strikes the audience as one that is particular loving. Torvald is very much in control of his wife, and while his pet names such as “songbird” may seem as a sign of affection at first: it later transpires that these names might have a deeper metaphorical meaning, with Nora being a “bird” who is trapped in Torvald’s cage, the home, or even more broadly, the cage constraining women’s freedom in the male dominated society of the 19th century. Betty Friedan’s ‘Feminine Mystique’ (1963) showcased American housewives and how they were dissatisfied with a monotonous life of domesticity. She discovered that women who had been raised to seek fulfilment as wives and mothers were left miserable and unfulfilled. She labelled it as the ‘Problem with No Name.’ So, when Nora finally escapes the hands of her controlling, sexist and egoistic husband in search of a fulfilled life, she solves this ‘Problem’. Surely girls at school ought to be taught that men have no right to treat them as inferior and, that if they do encounter male dominance, they have every right to object to a life of inferiority. Boys at school can also learn from ‘A Doll’s House’ that women are rational and autonomous, and remind them that women will speak up against patriachal and sexist behaviour.
On the other hand, for one to be a real liberal one must believe in the rudimentary idea of freedom, especially in a place of knowledge such as a school. Mill argued that truth could only emerge through free speech and open debate and when error collides with truth progress occurs. Even if something is entirely wrong, Mill values it because we know we are right and have ‘living truth’ rather than ‘dead dogma.’
Pupils must understand why women deserve equal rights and respect for themselves rather than be told what to think and how to feel. If this is the case, everything ought to be taught and discussed within school bounds.
In the ‘Female Eunuch’ (1970) Germaine Greer argues that women are not just oppressed socially and politically, but also sexually. She uses the metaphor of castration to highlight the disempowerment of women. She furthers this by stating that men have lured women into becoming passive and servile creatures, particularly in the bedroom. Liberation thus requires women to reclaim their sexually and capacity for pleasure. May is clearly subject to passivity throughtout her sexual encounters with Januarie. Chaucer makes it clear that Januarie’s “corage” is so “sharp and keene” that May will find it difficult to “endure”. Here, sexual penetration is not only vulgar and violent, but it is also an enjoyable experience for man, while woman must lie there and effectively ‘take it’ without even the prospect of pleasure. One may argue, however, that May finds liberation when she decides to sleep with Damyan; she orchestrates the entire ordeal and effectively lies her way out of any punishment or social ostracism. However, one must remember that it is in fact Damyan who is in control of the adulterous action – “in he throng”- again perpetuation a society in which all bedroom activity is dictated, controlled and fulfilled by man.
Overall, the school is a sphere for discussion and freedom of thought. However, it is important for pupils to read an engage with female authors that promote female empowerment. It seems as though ‘A Doll’s House’ is a more powerful antidote to male superiority and captures the rights, thoughts and feelings women want. Chaucer, on the other hand, explores this to a lesser degree and makes less of a bold statement concerning women’s rights. While Ibsen wrote at a more liberal time than Chaucer, perhaps this difference in political credos defined by historical time ought to be considered when chooses literature to be taught on the syllabus for the upcoming year.