University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
A Woman of No Importance and a Dolls House
Explore the presentation of Nora Helmer as a deceitful female character in “A doll’s house.” Compare and contrast your findings with the way Wilde presents his female protagonist Mrs. Arbuthnot in “A woman of no importance.”
Both “A doll’s house” by Henrik Ibsen and “A woman of no importance” by Oscar Wilde were about Nora Helmer and Rachel Arbuthnot (protagonists) and their role as; mothers, wives, and new women. They were written and performed in Victorian times, for a Victorian audience and they believed in keeping up with your appearances and maintaining a high social status. In order to do so they had to abide by the Victorian code of conduct to remain ‘good’ in the eyes of other people. Nora and Rachel are both similar because they both lied to the people they loved to protect their well-being. Both followed their hearts at the beginning and at the end of the play. Nora followed hers, by choosing to take a loan for the sake of her husband’s health. At the end of the play Nora chooses to leave, so that she could educate herself about the world, she followed her heart.
Rachel followed her heart when she chose to go with George to the garden, breaking all the rules for love, and at the end of the play she listens to her heart and chooses to leave for America to start a new life. Nora and Rachel have also had their hearts broken by the people that they loved the most. They had been stuck in their fantasy, and had hoped that their princes will come and save them, but they had been let down. These plays were very controversial because they broke the boundaries of how a woman was perceived during Victorian times. The plays portray women who were independent, confident, women who could look after themselves, new women. These plays would have had a different impact on a Victorian audience than a modern one. A Victorian audience would have been shocked by Oscar Wilde’s play “A woman of no importance” because there was no happy ending. Mrs. Arbuthnot chose not to get married to the father of her child.
They would have thought it improper that a woman had conceived a baby out of wedlock. They would have looked down on her because she was a fallen woman, which was frowned upon. However if this play was performed in front of a modern audience they would have had a different reaction. They would have understood Rachel’s decision to hide her past, and conceal the truth from her son. They would have offered her sympathy because she has been a martyr all her life. In Henrik Ibsen’s play “A doll’s house” a modern audience would have formulated a different reaction from a Victorian audience. The latter might have said that they would have done the same thing as Nora, because a modern audience would entertain the idea of independent women and believed that she was better off without her husband.
A modern audience would also see that her marriage was one that was not worth saving, because he was not a man of his word. He abandoned her when she needed him the most. However some would argue that she should have not left her children behind or that Helmer should have been the one to leave the house, because he was the man. A Victorian audience would question Nora’s decision when she was leaving her husband, because he was going to be earning more money. She had stayed with him when he was nothing and now when he is finally going to move up the social ladder, she leaves him. They wouldn’t understand the circumstances of the situation, because it was not acceptable to separate from your husband. In Helmer’s very first line we gain an insight into the way in which he treats Nora: “Is that my little skylark twittering out there?” referring to Nora as ‘little’ he undermines her.
He uses other names such as; “my little skylark”, “my little spend thrift” etc. which further emphasizes how insignificant and ‘little’ she is. Through language Ibsen paints a picture of a marriage where Nora is child-like and someone who is constantly patronised by her husband, and she takes no offence to his belittling her. He also creates dramatic tension in Act 2 describing the Christmas tree as ‘bare and dishevelled’ and during some dialogue the setting ‘It begins to grow dark,’ saying that the atmosphere was dark we see that it is now a house full of lies, it’s different from the happy house at the beginning of the play. In Wilde’s play, George refers to Mrs. Arbuthnot as ‘a woman of no importance’ undermining her. However at the end of the play we see a role reversal and it is now Mrs. Arbuthnot who refers to George as ‘a man of no importance.’
At the end of the plays the writers cleverly reverse the expectations of the audience, we expect to see a happy ending but instead we were left disappointed and sympathetic for the two women. Both female protagonists were deceitful in their own way but in my opinion, I felt as though they were both deceitful in their own way. Nora had lied about the loan, but she lied about other things as well. She influenced everyone; her children, the maids, Dr. Rank, and Mrs. Linde her to lie for her, so that she would not be caught by her husband. Mrs. Arbuthnot also lied to her son, and society about her affair with Lord Illingworth. Even though both women were at the wrong, you can see that they were only following their hearts. They hid their shame and embarrassment with lies, but it was only for the good of their loved ones. In the end these lies made them stronger, and able to break out of society’s rules and become new women.