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Gender in 'a Doll's House' & the Importance of Being Ernest'

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How Is Gender Represented In 'A Doll's House' And 'The Importance Of Being Earnest'?

A Doll's House and The Importance of Being Earnest were both written in the late nineteenth century at a period in time when gender roles in society were not only significant to the structure of society but were restrictive and oppressive to individuals. This was particularly true in the case of women who were seen as the upholders of morals in polite society and were expected to behave accordingly. A Doll's House and The Importance of Being Earnest challenge society and its inclination to categorise and expect certain behaviour of individuals based on their gender.

In its historical context A Doll's House was a radical play which forced its audience to question the gender roles which are constructed by society and make them think about how their own lives are a performance for Victorian society.

A Doll's House illustrates two types of women. Christine is without a husband and independent at the start of the play whereas Nora is married to Torvald and dependent on him and his position at the bank. Both begin at different ends of the spectrum. In the course of the play their paths cross and by the end of the play each woman is where the other started. It appears that a woman has two choices in society; to be married and dependent on a man or unmarried and struggle in the world because she does not have a man.

Women are expected to fulfil the role of 'angel of the house' which expects a woman to perform a submissive role by standing by her husband and staying faithful whatever he does, Nora survives in her relationship with Torvald by deliberately taking a submissive role. Yet there is a double standard regarding the expectations of men. Men are the dominant figures in any male-female relationship particularly marriage expecting their wife to obey their decisions and their will. By conforming to these roles both man and woman can be sure of securing a respected position in society.

Nora engages in a mutually dependent game with Torvald in that she gains power in the relationship by being perceived as weak, yet paradoxically she has no real power or independence because she is a slave to the social construction of her gender. Her epiphany at the end at the play realises her and her marriage as a product of society, Nora comes to understand that she has been living with a construction and refuses to comply any further; 'you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom' (67). She realises that she has been living with a stranger, since the whole marriage is a charade to fulfil the expectations of Victorian society.

Nora's refusal to stay in the marriage, however, does not give us a sense of a liberated woman. By the end of the play we are concerned for Nora as she leaves the warmth of the family home for the cold outside as a single woman since we have seen Christine so desperate to get into the 'warmth'. This 'warmth' can be defined as being a person being accepted for fulfilling the gender roles which society constructs for both men and women. Women appear to be reliant on the existence of a husband in their life in order to have a respected status within society and therefore feel fulfilled. Christine feels unfulfilled without anybody in her life: 'I only feel my life unspeakably empty. No one to live for anymore' (9). Christine is an independent woman but we can see that she is unhappy at the fact that she has not met the social stereotype for her gender. She functions to show how difficult it is for a woman to survive on her own. Christine realises she will be far more comfortable and regarded better by society with a husband and we believe that she feels that any husband will satisfy the expectations of her gender better than being single. This explains why she settles for a dubious moral character. Faced with only two possible decisions Christine settles for the lesser of two evils.

A Doll's House in its historical context comments on gender roles in society. It confronts the constructivist view that the expectations of the genders are created as a result of society and the differences between men are women come about as a consequence of the culture they are in. A successful individual is judged largely on whether they have fulfilled the expectations of their gender. A man who was dominated by his wife or an unmarried woman, for example would not command respect from society. The marital home in A Doll's House is greatly affected by outside influences and what people will think of what is happening inside. Likewise a marriage or an individual performs how it believes is appropriate in reaction to the gender constructions and expectations of society.

As Ibsen demonstrates the inclination of individuals to live their life as a performance for society by complying with society's gender constructions, so Wilde addresses this issue in The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde's communicates this by creating characters who do not display typical traits of what was expected of their gender and position in Victorian society. The Importance of Being Earnest mocks society for the pressure on individuals to act in accordance with gender expectations.

Wilde dismisses the need for individuals to acquiesce to convention by ridiculing and belittling the performance of gender roles in particular situations, for example the interview between Lady Bracknell and Jack over his eligibility to marry Gwendolen. Typically this is a situation which would be conducted by a father, however the masculinity of Lady Bracknell is emphasised by her portrayal as a father figure not to mention her domineering and imposing manner. Jack too, in many respects, is the opposite of society's expectations of a male being rather dandified and camp. The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest shatter the gender roles which are criticised in A Dolls House. Each of the characters fulfil the traditional male-female roles to a degree yet this is usually subjected to ridicule because the play questions the fact that such traits can be expected of or imposed upon a person merely because of their gender. Lady Bracknell is given feminine traits when she assumes the position of a loving and concerned mother: 'I am quite ready to enter your name, should your answers be what an affectionate mother really requires'(266) yet this very statement is shown to be untrue when the following exchange reveals Lady Bracknell's interests as anything but 'affectionate'. Lady Bracknell is characterised and remembered more by her masculine attributes particularly the pleasure which she takes in wielding power over others.

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