Women Challenging Gender Roles in A Doll's House and Trifles

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In both A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, and Trifles, by Susan Glaspell, the focus is on women as they exist within the confines of a man-dominated society, and how they respond to extenuating circumstances presented in their marriages. Both stories have a common theme of women who have been repressed and controlled by husband and societal expectations. Both women take steps to address the control exerted over them, but the actions they take are very different.

In both plays, there are women who come to a startling awakening of a woman's true lot in life, which they had not understood before. In A Doll's House, the awareness comes to Nora, the major character in her story but in Trifles, the awareness comes to two women left to witness the abuse of their neighbor. In A Doll's House, Nora is married to Torvald, a pompous, egotistical man who is a control-freak and believes he must oversee every aspect of Nora's life. For example, when they attend the masquerade ball, Torvald helps choose Nora's costume and then orchestrates how they will make their dramatic exit, even while living out a sexual fantasy of secretly sneaking off with a wild peasant dancing girl, rather than his wife. Nora is treated like a doll, but finally realizes that Torvald has no regard for her as the determined woman who was willing to do anything to save his life when he fell seriously ill.

Gender roles continue to evolve and change. It has only been for a relatively short time that women have broken through their defined roles to be seen on the same level as men on a wide scale basis. Much of history’s pages are written from a patriarchal perspective, opening the way for the female protagonists and complimentary characters in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House to challenge those gender roles, providing interesting points of comparison and contrast between the plays and challenging us to think about gender roles in a new way.

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Trifles and A Doll's House are both centered around married couples and are presented from the points of view of female characters. In Trifles, we are put into Mrs. Wright’s home a day after her husband has been murdered. The play takes place after the fact, and much of the script is built around a conversation between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters concerning whether Mrs. Wright really did kill her husband. The reader has little doubt the entire time that she did, but is compelled to continue to find out why. Trifles is about a woman murders her husband and two other women who lash out against their gender roles by withholding evidence from their husbands.

In A Doll's House the important action also occurs before the curtain is ever lifted. We discover that Nora, a woman who seems to conform to her gender role, has gone against her husband’s will and has been paying off a debt behind his back for ten years. She forged her father’s signature to help her get the loan in the first place and she has no problem lying to him about this to preserve the peace in their marriage. Indeed, Nora would rather Torvald continue to think of her as irresponsible than as a woman in debt, further challenging the reader’s original assumption that she is a typical housewife character.

A particularly interesting comparison exists between these two women protagonists in that both are compared to birds. Torvald calls Nora his lark, and Mrs. Hale openly says Mrs. Wright was kind of a bird herself. These seem to be innocent metaphors on the surface, but darker tones soon overtake them as the plays progress. Birds can be trapped in cages in the same way that women might be trapped into their gender roles, where their duties are not to themselves but to their husbands and children. We discover this theme in Trifles, when a literal canary is found strangled and its dead body sewed in the pocket of a quilt strangled by Mr. Wright and sewed away by Mrs. Wright, the same way Mrs. Wright’s spirit and free nature were discarded so she could serve her gender-assigned duties. Indeed, we see in her character a desire to serve those duties, a desire for children and to be a good wife through the descriptions we receive from Mrs. Hale, but these desires are denied by the cold spirit of one Mr. Wright. Mrs. Hale says as much to the County Attorney. For the woman once known as Minnie Foster, it was that same man who eroded her until she no longer was one of the town girls as she had been thirty years before, no longer a woman who sang in the choir, and not one of the town women in a Ladies’ Aid. Her last solace in that otherwise drained and dreary home was that singing little canary that she had bought a year before the events in Trifles, and whose death sets her off to finally murder her own husband by tying a rope around his neck and strangling him in the same way he strangled the bird and her own spirit.

While Mrs. Wright lashes out against the cage and her gender role by killing Mr. Wright, Nora’s character ultimately decides to seek freedom from it. Nora’s complex personality proves to be hard to predict to the very end, when she decides to neglect her duties to her husband and children to focus on herself, to serve her own needs for individuality. Indeed, Nora quite easily refuses to be the doll in Torvald’s house anymore, once she realizes that they have never exchanged a serious word in their relationship despite their discussion days earlier about Krogstad.

No matter the resounding challenges they issue to traditional gender roles, Nora’s actions are not crimes, although it is a crime that she forged her father’s name on the loan papers from Mr. Krogstad. However, it is unjust that at the very heart of the challenges issued to Nora in A Doll's House, an otherwise harmless woman is forced to break what tradition would assert to be true and step out of her boundaries by doing so. It is not only Minnie Foster’s and Nora’s crimes that challenge such gender dynamics, but the actions and circumstances of their supporting casts as well. For example, in at least one of the relationships in A Doll's House, there is a complete reversal of typical gender assignments. This is demonstrated when Mr. Krogstad loses his job to Kristine Linde, a woman who proves herself completely capable of solving problems on her own without the help of men during the events of the play. Additionally, it was she who fixed her family’s problems years before by taking it on herself to break off the original relationship with Krogstad and marry a richer man. Even Krogstad himself steps out of gender role when he accepts the circumstances that fall upon him. He does not care that he is not to be the breadwinner of the family, he cares only that he and Ms. Linde are at last reunited.

It is the actions of these complimentary characters, women solving murders or women taking over the patriarchal duties of a family, that enable Trifles and A Doll's House to challenge gender roles. After all, if it was only Minnie Foster and Nora that had set out to challenge the conventions, then neither play would be heralded so much for their feminist themes. It is because there are multiple characters in each play that convince the reader and the audience that what is being presented to them is realistic to life that these themes begin to be clear and thus challenge history’s patriarchy.

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Women Challenging Gender Roles in A Doll’s House and Trifles. (2020, September 04). WritingBros. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/women-challenging-gender-roles-in-a-dolls-house-and-trifles/
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Women Challenging Gender Roles in A Doll’s House and Trifles. [online]. Available at: <https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/women-challenging-gender-roles-in-a-dolls-house-and-trifles/> [Accessed 25 Jun. 2024].
Women Challenging Gender Roles in A Doll’s House and Trifles [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Sept 04 [cited 2024 Jun 25]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/women-challenging-gender-roles-in-a-dolls-house-and-trifles/
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