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The controversial issues of women’s rights and equality for blacks in America during the 19th and 20th centuries’ are themes that paved the way for the success of two famous historical playwrights. Henrik Ibsen, one of the founders of modernism in theater, explores throughout some of his plays the theme of gender roles during the 19th century. August Wilson’s plays “constitute a cycle that traces the black experience in America throughout the twentieth century” (1027). He emphasizes the struggle for equality among African-Americans during the 20th century. In two famous dramatic plays, A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, and Fences, by August Wilson, the fictional characters develop conflicts in their relationships which lend to the themes explored by each playwright. In both plays, the main characters, Torvald, in A Doll’s House, and Troy, in Fences, unconsciously ‘throw off’ parts of themselves and project their expectations onto their family members, essentially damaging their relationships within the plays.
Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, explores the controversial struggle of gender roles during the late 19th century. Nora Helmer fulfills the role of the stereotypical housewife, and allows her husband Torvald to shape her into the image he expects her to be. Torvald treats Nora as if she were a doll, living in a doll’s house, hence the title. He denies Nora the right to think and act the way she wishes, for example, in act I when Torvald asks her “[has] little Miss Sweet Tooth been breaking our rules in town today?” Nora replies, “I wouldn’t dream of going against your wishes” (799). This dialogue depicts the demeaning relationship between Torvald and Nora. His rule for not allowing Nora to eat macaroons, or any other sweets exemplifies the doll wife, in which Torvald expects Nora to be. His use of the word “little” followed by pet names when referring to Nora, like his “little squirrel” (796), “little songbird” (818), “little skylark” (840) portrays the role of a doll wife that Nora willingly fulfills.
While fulfilling the doll wife role, Nora also tolerates Torvald’s unconscious acts of ‘throwing off’ parts of himself onto their marriage. Torvald is a typical husband during a time when the opinion of society meant everything to a man. His eagerness for social acceptance is ‘thrown off’ onto Nora, which essentially causes the demise of their marriage. In the final act of the play, when Torvald finds out about the forgery and the loan which is the big secret Nora withholds from him, he calls her a “little fool” (850), even though her actions saved his life. His egotistical side took over, and his acceptance by society is ruined in his eyes, this is apparent when Torvald says, “[now] you’ve destroyed all my happiness…[you’ve] ruined my whole future”(851).
Torvald is ‘throwing off’ his own ideals onto Nora, selfishly reacting to the secret that saved his life when he was very ill. Torvald’s selfish behavior causes Nora to finally understand the depth of their relationship, and she no longer sees a purpose in continuing their marriage. Nora’s response to Torvald’s reaction is simply “I realized you’re not the man I thought you were” (857). Nora finally understands that her husband is more concerned with his public image and acceptance of society, than with her or their marriage. Torvald’s selfish actions results in the demise of their relationship when Nora leaves him and her children behind, to find a life of independence by herself.
The title of the play, A Doll’s House, symbolizes Nora, and refers to her home and life as places in which she plays with her children as dolls, in the same way her father and husband played with her as if she were a doll. Nora admittedly says in Act III,…our home’s been nothing but a playroom. I’ve been your doll-wife, the same way that I was papa’s doll-child. And the children have been my dolls. I thought it was great fun when you played with me, the way they thought it was when I played with them. That’s what our marriage has been, Torvald. (855)Ibsen uses the idea of a “doll” because a doll always maintains the same look, no matter what the situation. A doll must do whatever the controller has them do. Dolls are silent and never express opinions or actually accomplish anything without the aid of others. This is essentially the expectations in which Torvald places upon Nora. She ends her doll life by leaving her doll house to learn and explore on her own, and she is no longer a doll under the control of her master.
In the play, Fences, the playwright August Wilson depicts the controversial struggle of a black family dealing with the equality of living during the 1950’s in Pittsburg, PA. Troy Maxson, the main character, can be compared to Torvald Helmer. Troy too, unconsciously ‘throws off’ parts of himself onto his family, specifically onto his son, Cory. Cory is offered the chance to go to college on a football scholarship, yet Troy ruins his son’s chances by not signing the recruit form. In Troy’s eyes, he sees his son getting the same athletic rejection Troy experienced when he was younger. Troy was a skilled baseball player, as said by Troy, and the other characters in the play, he would have made it to the Major Leagues if it were not for the color of his skin. He is very bitter about this injustice, and has allowed it to affect him into his adulthood. Troy’s response to Cory’s recruitment is, “I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football” (1033). Troy has a low expectation of what black men can do with their lives just because these low expectations were put onto him. His unconscious ‘throwing off’ of his own past onto Cory essentially damages their father-son relationship.
The expectations Troy places on Cory, along with his projections of himself, cause their relationship to falter. Troy’s expectations of Cory are common to that of a normal father, for example, the agreement that Cory must continue school, take care of the chores around the house, and keep his job at A&P, if he wants to continue playing football. Troy’s expectations might seem high, but nevertheless reasonable, but his discipline toward his son is not. He disciplines Cory in a selfish and child-like manner.
Troy expects Cory to understand their relationship as a child-like game of baseball, and every time Cory does something wrong, Troy considers it a strike. Strike one occurs when Cory quits work and continues playing football, strike two happens in act II scene II when Cory interferes in the conflict between his mom and dad, and strike three takes place in act II scene IV when Cory crosses Troy on the front porch, they get into a fight, and Cory leaves home willingly. Troy’s attitude toward his relationship with his son can be seen as selfish and spiteful. Since Troy didn’t have the opportunity to fulfill his dreams of baseball, he in turn acts out against his son and uses the game of baseball as a means of discipline. Troy’s projection of himself seen through his parenting methods, and the overall expectations of his son, lead to the severing of their father-son relationship.
Along with Troy’s expectations of Cory, Rose, the wife and mother, has expectations of her own in the play. Rose wants Troy to build a fence throughout the entire play, hence the title Fences. Beneath the surface of Troy and Cory’s faltering relationship, the fence is an underlying image, and its significance has a different meaning to the different characters in the play. The fence meant something different for Troy than it did for Rose, and the only one to realize the differences is Troy’s friend Bono. For example, in Act II, scene I, Bono suggests to Troy that “some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in” (1064). Bono realizes that the fence is being built to serve two different purposes by two different people. Troy is building the Fence to keep people out, and Rose wants the fence built so she can keep her family together. The symbol of the fence also reaches beyond the interpretations of Rose and Troy, the fence extends to legal boundaries as well.
During the racial time period in which the play was written, the fence can symbolize the split between the northern, free states, and the southern, slave sates, each has different views and each side wants their view to prevail over the other sides’ view. The fence can also symbolize the boundaries or segregation between blacks and whites, which are most easily seen in baseball and in Troy’s current job, as a garbage-truck driver. The literal meaning of the fence throughout the book refers to any kinds of boundaries set up that serve as a block against something else; Troy and the outside world, Rose and keeping her family together, and the segregation of blacks and whites during the time period in which the play was written.
Both Ibsen and Wilson are renowned famous playwrights in history for their success in dramatic plays which portray the controversial issues and struggles of their eras. Ibsen took on gender roles during the 19th century, and Wilson explored equality for blacks in America during the 1950’s, and each playwright produced exceptional plays including A Doll’s House, and Fences, respectively. Both plays portray two types of conflicts in two different types of relationships; however, both still share the common ideas of expectations of family members, and the unconscious projection of one character’s ideals onto another character. Along with these ideas, the central image of both a doll’s house and the fence helps tie together the significance of the themes in both plays.
Plays: “A Doll’s House” Henrik Ibsen, “Fences” August Wilson