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Students submit essays for Gould Prize competition

Students submit essays for Gould Prize competition

Two of our outstanding English Literature pupils in Year 12 are going to submit essays over the summer for the Gould Prize for Essays run by Trinity College Cambridge. They will be writing about the stagecraft of Ibsen's 'A Doll's House'. 

Here is one entry by Chrissie K.

‘Loss and suffering are familiar conditions in human experience.’ In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers explore loss and suffering. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists. [30]

Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright writing in the 19th century, wrote the controversial, contemporary realist play ‘A Doll’s House’ in 1879. As a realist playwright, Ibsen was concerned with the accurate representation of an un-heroic, contemporary life, exploring both loss and suffering in his play ‘AnDoll’s House’, and how they are familiar conditions within the human experience. The play itself was based on the true story of Laura Kieler, who like Nora, illegally borrowed a sum of money to save her husband’s life. However, unlike Nora, Laura’s fraud was discovered; she was committed to a mental asylum and had her children taken away from her, considered the ultimate punishment for a Mother. Throughout the play, Ibsen uses his characters and stagecraft to explore suffering due to the loss of reputation, loss of idealism and loss of love, showing to some extent that the loss of each results in a great deal of suffering, but can also provide new opportunities. Ibsen was familiar with loss and suffering due to his own father’s lost reputation due to the depletion of his family’s wealth. This had a profound impact on his life, hence the recurrent themes of loss and suffering throughout his works, often inflicted by bourgeois respectability and the  patriarchal society in 19th century Norway. This essay will illustrate the ways in which Ibsen explores loss and suffering throughout his play ‘A Doll’s House’.

Ibsen explores the importance of reputation in 19th century society, and how the loss of which creates a great deal of suffering for Krogstad, and in turn his own family. Krogstad had a questionable past, his actions leading to the loss of his reputation and appearance of respectability, in a world run by men like Helmer, Krogstad is nothing more than a ‘moral cripple’. Treated as a criminal and villain by society, Krogstad resorts to blackmailing Nora in a desperate attempt to keep his job. Losing his reputation not only cost him his appearance in the eyes of society, it resulted in suffering for his family. Krogstad is a father, his determination to ‘fight for my little job at the bank as I would for my life’ stems from a sense of responsibility toward his children. He tells Nora in Act 1, ‘My sons are growing up: for their sake, I must try to regain what respectability I can’. Ibsen’s own father’s lost his reputation and his family suffered the consequences. Whilst Ibsen was born into wealthy circumstances, in 1935 his father had to sell his house due to financial problems. During the 19th century, losing wealth was considered socially embarrassing and subsequently tarnished the reputation of Ibsen’s father, instilling in Ibsen a shame and embarrassment. Although Krogstad is presented as the villain, he is not villainous in the traditional sense, he is a victim of society, resorting to nefarious means to support his family who suffered greatly due to his loss of reputation. Ibsen explores the importance of reputation in 19th society through Torvald. At the end of act 3, when Torvald learns of Nora’s fraud and forgery, the threat of a stained reputation terrifies Torvald, he’s blind to the knowledge that Nora’s crime saved his life, his only concern being public appearances, claiming ‘You [Nora] have ruined my whole future’. The temporary loss of his reputation exposes Torvald’s priorities, Ibsen demonstrates the superficial foundations of their marriage, built on social appearances rather than love. Torvald claims ‘we must appear to be living together as before. Only appear, of course’. Torvald’s obsession with public appearance and reputation is alluded to early in the play. Brittany wright, writes that Ibsen presents Torvald’s ‘concern for her [Nora] as purely aesthetic’, Nora explains to Mrs Linde the reason Torvald limits her consumption of macaroons and sweets, that Torvald ‘is afraid they will spoil my teeth’ reinforcing importance of superficial femininity and appearances within their marriage. Upon discovering Krogstad returned Nora’s I.O.U, he exclaims ‘I am saved!’. At this moment, Nora realises that although Torvald loved her, he always valued his reputation more, leading to her leave him to seek self education, out from the shadow of their marriage. ‘A Doll’s House’ is a realist play, therefore Ibsen accurately details how loss of reputation and suffering are linked in the human experience.

Ibsen explores the way in which a loss of naivety about the world creates a great deal of suffering for Nora but also the opportunity by which she will become a more enlightened person through self knowledge and a critical examination of society and its restriction. Ibsen explore’s Nora’s loss of naivety through the tarantella at the end of Act 2. Initially, Nora does the dance to please Torvald, just as Coventry Patmore’s ‘Angel in the House’ states ‘man must be pleased; but him to please is a woman’s pleasure’. The Tarantella symbolises female sexuality and repression. Dean argues that the tarantella ’ironically underscores an independent woman’s voluntary return to a patriarchal institution’. However, Nora transgresses against the typical role of a 19th century woman through dancing ‘wildly’ as if her ‘life depended on it’, she rejects her naïve and idealistic opinion of the world, finally seeing the restrictive nature of her life. Torvald is offended by Nora’s moment of freedom from tradition, declaring ‘Stop… you have forgotten everything I taught you’. Torvald portrays 19th century men’s need for female sexuality to be repressed in order to safeguard their dominance. Torvald, unlike Nora, continues to view the world as society dictates, he naively accepts the expectations of him as a man, adhering to bourgeois respectability. Nora, however, become increasingly more aware of her limiting role as a 19th century wife, although her freedom is restricted by the patriarchal society, she resorts to certain means to assert herself and eventually slams the door on the restrictive lifestyle she’s been living. The highly significant stage craft of the slammed door portrays Nora turning her back on her restricted life as a middle class wife, confined to the domestic sphere. Nora ‘slammed shut’ the door on her old life, dictated by bourgeois respectability and the patriarchal social structure. Instead, Nora’s dramatic and unresolved departure from the ‘dolls house’ would’ve left a 19th century audience with no knowledge of her future outside of the only social structure they knew. Brittany Wright argues that Ibsen’s protagonist enters a new world of female liberation in which she no longer faces the oppression of the marital home, she loses her idealistic, naïve view of life to pursue her own education and enlightenment. She suffers in that by prioritising her self, she makes the controversial choice to abandon her children. Through Nora, Ibsen explores the effects of loss of naivety and idealism, and whilst Nora suffers leaving her children and even her marriage, she gains the opportunity to become a more enlightened person, without the restrictions of society.

Ibsen explores the way in which a loss of love created immense suffering for Mrs Linde, but Nora’s loss of love for Torvald led to her freedom from the restrictions of bourgeois respectability and the constraints of her life as a 19th century wife. In the 19th century, women had to adhere strictly to the roles supplied to them by the patriarchal society and bourgeois respectability, limited to the domestic sphere. Women had little freedom to pursue individual passions or love, as it was seen as ‘un-womanly’ for a lady to chase after a man. William Acton wrote ‘the best mothers, wives, and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences’. Ibsen presents Mrs Linde as a woman who had to make a choice of necessity and practicality over love, and as a result she suffered a great deal and lived an unfulfilling life. Mrs Linde felt an obligation to marry the man who could provide financial stability, rather than Krogstad whom she loved, ‘I didn’t feel like I could say no’. Mrs Linde acted selflessly, as expected of a 19th century woman, she sacrificed her love with Krogstad for the sake of her family, ‘I have learned to act prudently. Life, and hard bitter necessity have taught me that’. Mrs Linde’s marriage of convenience resulted in an empty life full of regret in which her ‘only joy’ has been her passion for work, even as a penniless widow she doesn’t grieve over her husband’s death. Whilst Ibsen presents Mrs Linde’s loss of love as a huge cause of suffering in her life, when Nora loses her love for Torvald, her eyes are opened to the restrictions placed on her by bourgeois respectability and her limiting role as a 19th century wife, ultimately pushing her to reject the patriarchy and seek to educate herself. At the end of act 3, when Krogstad’s letter reveals the details of Nora’s fraud to Torvald, he patronisingly questions her as if she is an ignorant child, demanding if she understands her actions, Nora says ‘Yes. Now I am beginning to understand’ and she starts ‘Taking of my fancy dress’. Ibsen alludes to the ‘fancy dress’ as being Nora’s blind adherence to bourgeois respectability, by taking it off and subsequently ‘slamming shut’ the door at the end of the play, she rejects the patriarchy to become a more enlightened woman through self knowledge and a critical examination of society and its restriction. Whilst in life loss of love and suffering are often linked, Ibsen explores the opportunities that can come from certain losses.

To conclude, in ‘A Doll’s House’, Ibsen explores loss and suffering through the character’s loss of reputation, idealism and love and the affects they have on each individual. Nora loses perhaps the most in ‘A Doll’s House’, her idealism, her marriage, her reputation and her children, all of which caused her a great deal of suffering, from which came the opportunity for her to start anew without the constraints of bourgeois respectability and the patriarchy. Whilst Ibsen explores the similarities of loss and suffering in the human experience, he also examines the subsequent opportunities which can arise from loss.