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Nora Helmer and April Wheeler, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

As I have read, viewed, and otherwise examined the various works of art associated with the course materials for Cultural III, I have been repeatedly struck by the way the different artists and writers explore their themes through different lenses, yet often manage to strike upon remarkably similar themes and ideas. In a sense, this confluence of overlapping themes serves to demonstrate a sense that, at their core, these themes are universal. Although works such as “A Doll’s House” or “Revolutionary Road” are set in very different time periods, each with their own cultural and social contexts, the female protagonists in the story are strikingly similar in many ways. Both Ibsen’s Nora and Mendes April are women who feel stifled, even imprisoned, by the manner in which cultural and social expectations place demands on them that they long to change or abandon entirely. In the end, Nora and April do both manage to escape the confines of their existence, though the first does so in a manner which can only be described as triumphant, while the latter does so in a manner which is nothing short of tragic. Despite these stark contrasts, however, a singular theme still emerges: the prototypical role of “housewife,” and all the emotional, social, and cultural baggage that such a rile entails, can be dispiriting, and even devastating, as it enforces a rigidity upon women that often robs them of the chance to live the lives they would prefer to live.

The artwork of Laurie Simmons has, throughout this course, remained a constant reminder of these themes as well as a source of inspiration that has served as a palpable touchstone as I have explored further works. Simmons’ use of the classic children’s toy –or, to be more specific and pertinent- the classic girl’s toy- forces observers to contemplate the differences between the fantasy world of children’s make-believe play time and the stark, harsh reality of what really goes on behind the closed doors of houses both across the country and across the world. The patriarchal social structures that rein in characters such as Nora and April are nothing new, nor are they exclusive to the United States or even the larger Western world. While there have, of course, been some societies whose roles afforded to women have been broader or which have afforded women greater opportunities than they might find in other societies or cultures; these are, however, the exceptions that prove the rule of patriarchy throughout history and across nearly all cultural boundaries.

Simmons makes use of doll houses in many of her works, and she uses female dolls exclusively in these doll houses, displaying them in various states that are often indicative of domestic strife hidden behind the walls of the houses. This manner of presentation is both fascinating and starkly effective; virtually any observer can relate to the idea that people live hidden lives, and that the house that looks beautiful from the outside may be obscuring the less-than-perfect home on the inside. By focusing exclusively on female dolls, Simmons ably demonstrates how women, much moreso than men, are those who are likely to be trapped behind the walls of the picture-perfect house. There is no question that social and cultural changes of the last few decades have meant greater opportunities for women –and in some cases have allowed me to, for all intents and purposes, switch gender roles and remain in the home to raise children or otherwise fill the roles that used to be almost exclusively those of women. Despite such advances, however, we have hardly reached a point of true equality, and for many women the traditional gender roles that have served to make characters such as Nora and April feel trapped are still firmly in place.

Now, after taking this course and being exposed to the works of art and the ideas and themes they represent, it is almost impossible for me to examine these works without considering them in the context of Simmons’ doll houses. In the example of Sam Mendes’s film Revolutionary Road, for example, the structure of the film’s narrative and the manner in which it is directed continue to call to mind the physical structure of a doll house. On one side of the house, where there are no walls, it is possible to see directly in and observe every detail of the doll house’s interior. On the other side –which is typically the front of the house, and the part which the world would see if the doll house was a real house- the inner workings and details of the house can only be seen in glimpses by peering through windows or catching a glance through and open door. In works such as Howard’s End, Revolutionary Road, and, of course, A Doll’s House, the viewer or reader is initially only allowed to catch glimpses of the private lives of characters –and the interior emotional lives of the women at the hearts of each story- with greater revelations and insight coming later in the various stories.

To connect this approach to Simmons’ work –or simply to the metaphor of a doll house- it is as if we first see the characters and their stories through the front of the doll house, with the limited perspective and point of view that can be found there. As the stories unfold, our perspective gradually shifts until we can see what really goes on inside these houses, away from public view. As the walls are stripped away in these stories, what is often revealed is a woman who is central to the story, yet who is in one way or the other trapped or caught up by the hidden circumstances of her life.

In Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, we are introduced to the main characters swiftly, and with only a little context. The male protagonist, Frank Wheeler, meets a beautiful young woman named April at a dance party. They exchange some pleasantries in conversation, and we learn that April is studying to be an actress, while Frank has a far narrower vision for his future; he works as a longshoreman, and seems to have no hopes or dreams for his future beyond that job or other menial work. When April laughs at Frank’s flippant remarks it is clear that she does not take his comments entirely at face value; it is as if she assumes that he must be joking, and that she simply has to wait to get to know him better before she will know what his true aspirations are.

In the subsequent scenes it becomes clear that some time has passed; the two single people who met and flirted at the party are now clearly involved in a relationship, most likely married, and we see them at a small, community theater wherein April is performing. This scene in the film begins just as the final scene in the play is ending, so none of April’s acting performance is portrayed in the film. What is portrayed is the aftermath of the performance; it is clear that neither the audience who watched the play, nor the character of April, is very pleased with the quality of the play or the talents of the actors. As Frank and April are seen driving home from the community theater, viewers of the film are shown a very different couple than the one seen in the opening scene of the film. They drive in sullen silence for a time, until Frank breaks the tension by beginning to talk about April’s performance with several backhanded compliments. April is clearly upset both by Frank’s comments and by her own (presumably) poor performance in the play, yet there seems to be something more something greater, that is bothering her.

Through the dialog and the subtext of the story, it becomes clear that April’s disappointment is hardly limited to one bad performance in one bad play. The seeming failure of the performance is indicative of something much larger: the death of her dream to become an actress. Again the metaphor of the doll hose comes to mind; although it seems that April’s dreams of being an actress are somehow dashed, it is impossible (or at least difficult) for the audience to fully understand why that is the case. Clearly much has changed for Frank and April between the first moments of the film, where they are both seen as happy and idealistic, and these scenes that come mere minutes later in the film, where both characters appear angry, frustrated, and unable to effectively communicate with each other. Like peering through the tiny windows of a dollhouse, viewers can only see a small part of what is a much bigger picture, and it will be a bit longer before it will become possible to see through the open walls of the dollhouse and more fully understand what has happened, and is happening, to the main characters.

Following the scene in which April’s performance in the play falls flat, Frank is seen lining up with hundreds of other men, all dressed in virtually identical suits and hats, as they wait to board a commuter train. This same group of men is then seen streaming through the train station and making its way into office buildings filled with row after row of desks and cubicles. It is now becoming clearer what has happened –and, just as significantly, what has not happened- in the lives of Frank and April since we first witnessed their budding romance. Frank is no longer a longshoreman; he is now an office worker, a drone, just one of a countless number of faceless parts of the larger machine of the corporate world. April, who was once studying to be an actress (and who presumably dreamed of acting in films or theater) has clearly fallen short of that lofty goal; not only is she acting in a small, unprofessional community troupe, she is not even doing very well in that limited context. It is soon further revealed that she and Frank have two children and a house in the suburbs, making it clear that several years have passed since the couple first met and fell in love; it is also clear that none of that they talked about, planned, or hoped for has come to pass, and that they had instead settled into a rut of suburban life that did not comfortably fit either of them.

In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the female protagonist Nora charts a very different course than does Revolutionary Road’s April. Nora appears, at least at first, to be quite content inhabiting the role of doting wife and mother. Her husband, Torvald, is a somewhat successful professional who works in banking. Nora seems quite proud of Torvald, of his career, and of her lot in life, at least at first. Nora domes harbor a secret, however, and the eventual revelation of her secret will lead to an unraveling of her and her family’s entire life. While there are some similarities between Nora and April, it is also worth noting and examining some of their differences; the most significant of these is that while Nora seems, at least for a time, to be genuinely content in the role of wife and mother, April appears to have always been somewhat ill at ease in a similar role. These differences can be explained at least in part, by the different time frames in which the stories are set. Nora is a product of the 19th century, where women in her society simply did not have many options available to them in life other than to meet and marry a man. April, by contrast, is a product of the mid-20th century, in the post-World War II era. In that time period, women may not have achieved anything approaching equality, but it was at least more common for women to have become part of the workforce and to have some options other than exclusively being wives and mothers.

The different contexts in which these two characters lived go a long way in explaining their differences. Nora grew up in a time where her choices were very narrow; marrying well was one of the only dreams or goals for women of her generation. In that respect, then, Nora accomplished such a goal by marrying Torvald (or at least she believed for a time that she had done so). If she was happy with her lot in life, it may simply have been because she had very little to compare it to; if the only course available to her was to marry, have children, and care for a home, then she had at least done all those things, and had done them well by her contemporary standards. April, on the other hand, was a young woman in a time when young women were beginning to realize that there could be more to life for themselves beyond simply marrying, having children, and being a housewife. As the last façade of April’s dollhouse is stripped away, it is revealed that her first pregnancy was unplanned, and that it was the birth of her first and then her second child that had steered her and Frank towards the suburban life in which she eventually felt trapped.

It is interesting to note the many ways in which Nora and April are quite similar as well as the ways in which they –or their circumstances- are quite different. There are a number of parallels in each story that, while not specifically similar, share some broad themes. In A Doll’s House, Nora’s happiness, while seemingly genuine, is suddenly marred when a secret from her past comes back to haunt her. As it is revealed that Nora made some financial decisions that she believed would help her husband through a difficult financial period, it is also revealed that she did so by borrowing money from a rather shady character. When Nora is slow to repay the loan, she is threatened with blackmail, the implications of which threaten her marriage, her social standing, and virtually every aspect of her life. Although she is fearful of sharing this news with Torvald, and still hopes to sort her way out of the problem on her own, her husband does become aware of the situation. Once the fear of discovery by her husband is no longer looming over her, Nora is, at least at first, rather relieved; she imagines that Torvald will come to her rescue and somehow resolve the problem.

Nora is, of course, profoundly disappointed by Torvald’s actual response; he castigates and insults her for what she has done, and in those moments Nora suddenly realizes how unhappy she is and how disgusted she is by the revelation of Torvald’s true character. All of the little pet names he has used for her no longer seem endearing; they now seem insulting and degrading. As it dawns on her that he has no respect for her as a person, as a thinking, feeling individual, she immediately realizes that her marriage and her life with Torvald are completely over. Although Torvald attempts to talk to her, to apologize to her, and to appease her, his efforts are futile; she once thought he would be the brave man who would stand by her and see her through her difficulties, but by the end of the story she sees him as a coward who is concerned only about his own reputation and about how her actions will affect him. Nora now sees the life she thought she loved as a cage, as a prison, and she becomes determined to escape it. In a powerful monologue near the conclusion of A Doll’s House, Nora tells Torvald exactly how she feels about him and about their life together, and she announces that she is leaving. Such a scene would resonate with emotional power in any era, but it was especially powerful coming from a 19th-century female protagonist.

Where Nora suddenly realized that the life she was living as imprisoning her I one shocking, illuminating moment, April was constantly aware of her confining circumstances, as she watched the walls of her life slowly grow up around her. Like Nora, April devised a plan of escape; unlike Nora, April’s plan failed to come to fruition. April had never felt fulfilled or satisfied by her life as a housewife and mother, nor had she ever intended to become either; the circumstances of her life simply steered her in that direction, and the social and cultural norms and mores of her era served to reinforce them and hold them in place. Like Nora, though, there was a time when April held her husband in the highest regard, and her plan to leave the suburbs behind was predicated almost entirely on the notion that doing so would bring out the best in him and in her.

Although Frank was initially skeptical about the idea of moving to –or, perhaps more accurately, running away to- France and leaving the suburban life behind, he eventually came around and agreed to go. For a time, he even appeared excited about the idea, and their plans began to take shape. Concurrently, however, he was being singled out for praise and promotions at work, making the choice to leave all the more difficult (at least for him, if not for her). Just as the family was on the brink of departing for France, however, April realized that she was pregnant with their third child. The reality of the situation with the pregnancy suddenly made the idea of moving to France look like foolish pipe dream; while April was clearly devastated by the idea that they would no longer be going, Frank appeared almost relieved. Eventually, April attempts to abort her pregnancy while home alone, an act that results in her death. In a sense, Nora and April had two diametrically-opposed character trajectories: Nora did not realize how confined she was until a series of dramatic events made it clear; once she saw the true nature of her existence, she immediately made her escape from the prison that was her marriage to Torvald. April, on the other hand, was well aware that the life she was living made her feel trapped and closed-in, yet her efforts and plans to escape were notably less effective and successful.

Throughout this course there have been an array of female characters explored; in each story these women have their own individual identities and characteristics, yet they also each share some similar traits and exist in similar circumstances. Works such as A Doll’s House, Revolutionary Road, Howard’s End, and The Yellow Wallpaper each, in their own ways, offer some insight into how social norms and mores about gender roles and expectations can make women feel trapped; further, they demonstrate in their own ways how these confines can have significant, and sometimes terrible consequences. For every character like Nora whose flash of insight allows her to break the figurative chains of her circumstances, there are female characters such as those in The Yellow Wallpaper or Revolutionary Road who are crushed by the walls that close in on them. Although these female characters are, of course, works of fiction, they offer significant insight into social structures, gender roles, and behavioral norms that are, sadly, all too often real.

Works Cited

Howard’s End. Dir. James Ivory. Perf. Vanessa Redgrave; Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson. Merchant Ivory, 1992. Film.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1992. Print. “Laurie Simmons: kaleidoscope house.” Laurie Simmons.com. N.p., 2001. Web. 18 Aug. 2013. Revolutionary Road. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio; Kate Winslet. Paramount Pictures, 2008. Film.

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