The analysis of social pressure on women and women’s struggle for existence through Henrik Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House and Bernard Shaw’s Liza in Pygmalion

This study examines that the social pressure on women and women’s struggle for existence through Henrik Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House (1999) and Bernard Shaw’s Liza in Pygmalion (1988).

The roles of men and women in society are generally related to the value system and structure of society. In traditional societies, it is known that man is a sanctioning power that limits all actions and thoughts, and women are overwhelmed by this power. The Enlightenment movement, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution played an important role in the displacement of the patriarchal system and dogmatic idea that has lasted for centuries (Şener, 1982). With the development of human rights and freedoms, gaining women’s own rights, reached a better level in the last few years.

In societies, where radical changes cannot be achieved, instead of eliminating traditional gender values, it is obvious that they emerged again by giving them new forms and discourses. Individuals have to live with these impositions by accepting the roles imposed on them. Society is forced women to act according to gender roles. Women are forced to take their education in this direction because they should not face any problems in business life or family life (Donovan, 2012). In addition to these, one of the social pressures on women is psychological pressure. Controlling women, supervising, punishing, humiliating, accusing, accepting as the patient, not respecting the physical structure or thought structure, is a reflection of the forms of psychological pressure on women.

After the first wave of Feminism, social pressure on women became one of the essential subjects in literature.  As notable writers of the 20th century, Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw had frequently used women’s figures, who are constantly supervising by the patriarchal society, in their plays and they forced their audiences to think and understand this social pressure and gender inequality. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as a revolution and Shaw’s Pygmalion as a ground-breaking play are the most significant play samples which include women’s struggle in Modern English Literature (Legois, 1990).

The analysis of social pressure on Nora and Eliza

From past to present, the roles imposed and enforced by society have been rejected by many female characters. Every woman who stepped in the way of proving that she is an individual has to face the brutal cruelty of society. These impositions for some women can differently begin as soon as they open their eyes to the world. Society tries to instructing, change women, and make them well-adjusted. Especially in traditional societies, this effort is much more common. However, there are women who have succeeded in exposing the struggle for existence within every woman. But these women generally are not accepted in society.

  When we look at Ibsen and Shaw’s plays, we see a struggle for existence in both of their characters. First of all, if Nora is examined, it is clear that she is a child and represents a woman shaped by society. At the beginning of the play, Nora, who is not obstinacy by respecting her husband, is one of the finest examples of good women’s perceptions of society. Nora is actually a strong woman inside, but she doesn’t worry about having a passive character because of her upbringing and she talks the way her husband likes. The women in Ibsen’s play demonstrate their existence in accordance with social norms. Ibsen draws attention to the extent to which an economically progressive society can be dropped behind behaviourally and ideationally. Actually, Nora is a re-created woman like Shaw’s Eliza and she has not any social role except for wifehood and motherhood. In the character of Nora, the desire for freedom that exists within each individual is witnessed, first rasped by his father, and then almost completely forgotten because of society. We learn from the big secret that Nora is stubborn. This secret shows that Nora is not a child and in serious situations, she can exceed the limits of society. Unfortunately, this secret has been a source of shame not pride for Nora in the patriarchal society. The rebellion found in Nora’s essence embeds in deep, because of her father’s and husband’s impositions, which include love and compassion. However, when we look at the end of the play, Nora, realizing her own power, abandons her husband, because she does not feel belonging to her house and husband and tries to find her own essence. In this sense, Nora is a symbol of her desire to attain her freedom, which was taken from women. Nora, a good woman within the framework of social values since the beginning of the play, is defined as an immoral woman at the end of the play.

If Shaw’s Eliza is considered in this context, it is obvious that she is already an incompatible florist girl, at the beginning of the play. Higgins’ desire to educate her represents the desire of society to shape women. As Eliza represents an incompatible woman in the patriarchal society, Higgins represents a society that is educated but intellectually incomplete. Eliza is a woman who is not accepted in society and is aware of this situation, therefore, she accepts Higgins’ offer. Just as Nora obeys her father and husband, Eliza obeys Higgins as well and does what he says. Unlike Nora, Eliza’s education is carried out with condescending, not love. This difference is an indicator of the hypocrisy of society. A woman like Eliza should be educated with tyranny, not with love. Eliza, who became a woman respected by society over time, revolts against Higgins, by listening to the incompatible woman inside her, at the end of the play. The final scene of the play is one of the most beautiful examples of women’s upheaval to society. Eliza changes both physically and intellectually and she is neither the old florist girl nor belongs to that class, although she is accepted in the elite class. When she feels like a stranger on both sides of society, like Nora, she tries to find her own existence by rejecting everything she has.

The problem of proving the existence of women is an issue that has been questioned and worked on from the past to the present. This problem is not still solved in a common ground, in our contemporary period as well. In this context, Nora and Eliza are the two special characters who accept to be shaped within the impositions of society but eventually reach the consciousness of the individual and both of them are still symbols of a revolt in society.

Deniz Kotancı

Bloom, H. (1988). George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
Donovan, J. (2012). Feminist theory: The intellectual traditions. New York: Continuum.
Ibsen, H., & Rudall, N. (1999). A doll’s house. Chicago: I. R. Dee.
Legois, Emili, A Short History of English Literature, Hong Kong, Oxford at The Carenden Press, 1990.
Lyons, Charles R. Ed. Critical Essays on Henrik Ibsen. Boston: Hall. 1987.
Şener, Sevda; Dünden Bugüne Tiyatro Düşüncesi, Adam Yayıncılık, İstanbul, 1982.

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