The Battle of the Sexes in Ibsen and Vogel

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Written more than a century apart, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive (1997) deal with the battle of sexes at different level, though there is  some common underlying  theme can be found. While Li’l  Bit has to fight the sexual advances of her Uncle Peck physically, Nora has to battle with the ego of her male chauvinist husband, Torvald Helmer,  who as the head of the family  makes every decision and does not believe in power sharing. He cannot condone Nora’s forgery of her father’s signature even when his own life depended on it. It is a typical male dominated Puritan culture  that eclipses the wife’s  human rights. From the very beginning the nicknames given by Torvald to Nora  such as “little squirrel” “little lark” only reveal his condescending attitude to his doll-wife. His rejection of Nora in the face of blackmail by Krogstad only confirms his male chauvinism. Although he agrees to ignore Krogstad, he cannot forgive him for talking to him in familiar terms. So Nora’s protest is regarded as  every woman’s battle against male hegemony. Without economic freedom women’s emancipation cannot be realized.   Though the female protagonists react differently to the male domination, their ineffective struggle against exploitation shows  the futility of   woman question. Nora and Li’l Bit  continue to fight an unequal battle and learn to how to drive themselves safely through the maze of  “human” predators.

The female protagonists of the plays  are engaged in an uneven battle against male characters who have an edge over them. Li’l Bit’s conspicuous breasts get undue sexual attention from not only from Uncle Peck, but also from her classmates, making her position disadvantageous. Though Nora emerges as a woman of substance, her lack of financial independence makes her position vulnerable. Their male adversaries’ status as bread-winner gives them an  immunity and help them garner support of other family members. Uncle Peck, a teen-molester, is projected by his wife as a hardworking man of family values. Therefore, the suffering women cannot bring about any change in their position. In A Doll’s House Nora as a housewife  fights a psychological war of nerves against the  patriarchal tyranny of Torvald Helmer. Paula Vogel’s  How I Learned to Drive explores a taboo subject of pedophilia and shows how an elderly male exerts his  power for sexual exploitation of a teen-ager. It is battle not only between sexes, but also between the innocent and the experienced in which mostly the latter has an edge. Moreover, Li’l Bit is not assisted by her grandparents and mother in her battle against Uncle Peck’s sexual molestation. On the contrary as Greek chorus they discuss sexual overture  as normal male behavior.  Far from putting up any defense,  Li’l Bit  gives in to  Uncle Peck who forces her to sit on his lap, gropes her blouse and has orgasm without much resistance.  She proves herself to be a sexually attractive girl with an over-developed body and an underdeveloped mind. In this battle of sexes there is no clear winner. Nora finally chooses to live without her husband and her children rather than live a meaningless life of humiliation. It is definitely a blow to Torvald’s self-righteousness; for Nora it is victory of the principles for which she has fought such a hard battle., as she says: “I have fought a hard fight these three days.” (Roberts.1487)

Other characters in the play like Krogstad, Linde, and Li’l Bit’s mother and grandparents only accentuate the problems of  the female protagonists. Torvald refuses to forgive Nora because he has turned down Krogstad’s reinstatement on the ground of forgery. Linde’s offer to help Nora comes too late to be of any use. Similarly, the flippant comments made by Li’t Bit’s grandparents on male sexual appetite only aggravates her problem; as responsible wards of a growing teen-ager they do not counsel her properly to cope with her sexuality.  Dr.Rank’s secret romance with Nora underscores her charm and he only heightens and prolongs the suspense in the play. Christine Linde acts as a foil to Nora. Her subplot only reinforces the suffering and bondage of financially dependent women.  She intensifies the conflict between Krogstad and Nora by seeking a job which would replace Krogstad. But when she is reunited with her lost lover, Krogstad she prevents him from withdrawing his letter. She wants Nora to come out of her hide-and-seek game with Torvald and face the truth.

While Nora fights a successful war against her husband who robs her of her right as a wife and mother, Lil’bit fights against her oversexed uncle Peck, but finally gives in. Her physical experience of sex, though overwhelming, gives her a sense of adulthood. Nora, on the contrary, awakens to a new realization of identity crisis as a mother and wife. She voices her final protest — her epiphany: “But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.” (Roberts.1489) With the slamming of the door and leaving her husband to turn over a new leaf, she rejects Helmer’s appeal for compromise: “I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me. It is for this reason that I cannot remain with you any longer.” (Roberts.1489) Ibsen rightly perceived that suppression of women would not make men fully happy. If women are emancipated their husbands and other members of the family would also share the benefit. Therefore the conflict between the sexes ultimately is a no-win situation for both men and women. In a losing battle there cannot be any victor.

Work Cited

Roberts, Edgar V. and  Jacobs, Henry E. (eds.) Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. New Jersy. Prentice Hall. 1989. pp.1438-1494

Vogel, Paula. How I Learned to Drive. New York. Theatre Communications Group. 1997

May 19, 2008

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