Role of 'Hegemonic Masculinity' in the marital relationships of Henrik Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea and A Doll's House
Sheelalipi Sahana is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Literature and Modernity at The University of Edinburgh. She has previously obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English (Honours) from Christ University, Bangalore.
This article attempts to initiate a discussion into the multi-dynamic relations that marital structures adopt and enforce, by looking at two of European playwright Henrik Ibsen’s works- A Doll's House and The Lady from the Sea. The central couples in both are read as exhibiting father-daughter traits rather than ties bound in matrimony. The men treat the women as children, lacking agency and freedom of direction. Through the theoretical framework provided by feminist psychoanalyst R. W. Connell, an investigation into ‘hegemonic masculinity’ provides insight into the motives that drive these men to behave in the way that they do, and provide a basis for their assertion of power. The paper attempts to trace the evolution of masculinity through the Middle Ages into the Victorian era in which Ibsen wrote in order to situate this phenomenon as a ‘sign of the times’. Biological, religious and judicial aspects are studied to form the interdisciplinary purview through which this topic needs to be discussed as a socio-cultural and political phenomenon. Lastly, Ibsen’s own views are read to portray the influence of current ideologies of masculinity and influx of propaganda aiding in conceptualisation of masculine psyche. The intermingling hierarchies of family structure reveal the gendered hegemony that prevails today, in the form of marital and filial bonds. This study is an attempt in that direction to legitimise it in theory.
Keywords: Hegemonic Masculinity, Henrik Ibsen, Psychoanalysis, A Doll's House, A
Lady from the Sea.
Henrik Ibsen has been dubbed as a pioneer of Women's Rights even though he argued the contrary, in his speech for the Norwegian Women's Rights League. However, his statement, "To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general" (qtd. in Ledger 34) moved the women of 19th Century Europe to respond to the 'Women Question' by joining the Feminist movement that was underway. In his two seminal domestic dramas (focusing on the lives of the bourgeoisie) The Lady from the Sea and A Doll's House, he sheds light on the manipulative dominance that the men of the household have over their supposedly not-so-better halves with regards to social conduct and authority.
Although this masculinity can be traced back to Biblical literature millennia back, it increased steadfastly in the 1st and 2nd Centuries and developed in full-force under the ascent of Industrial Revolution, sending the husbands out to seek work and provide for the family and the wives to remain at home, creating disparity in gender roles (Alderson 634). This upper-hand that the men perpetually seem to have over women can be pinned under the 'Hegemonic Masculinity' theory popularised by R. W. Connell, as a gender-based corollary to Antonio Gramsci's 'Cultural Hegemony'1 . This accepts the prevalent gender practices by guaranteeing male domination and female subordination (Connell 77).
Ibsen’s ‘realist problem plays’ deal with contentious social issues such as the oppression of women by men. One such relation has been studied- that of the husband and wife. As evident in the plays, Torvald and Wangel treat Nora and Ellida respectively like children, taking on the responsibilities of a patriarchal figure. This behaviour has been linked to the theory of hegemonic masculinity that defines the same as being the accepted superiority of the male race by the society. Therefore, in order to understand this theory, its historical lineage through the Middle Ages and into the Victorian Age needs to be studied. Having lived in Norway, which was influenced by Victorian ideals, Ibsen incorporated the current beliefs of male hegemony of men ruling all aspects of life and contested them in his works. The reasons for the rise of this masculinity are looked at from the biological, legal as well as religious angles. Scholars have commented on the rise of masculinity by providing statistical and empirical data which have been cited along with an application of Connell’s theoretical framework.
Hegemonic Masculinity substantiates the argument that it is the social practices (such as restrictions on women’s property) that determine hegemony of a race with psychological underpinnings (Oedipus complex), and such have been the practices of human beings as history corroborates, that masculinity has dominated femininity and continues to do so. In utilising this framework, the patriarchal behaviour adopted by the husbands can be better understood.
This study proposes to create a link between the behavioural patterns of husbands in Victorian Europe towards their wives as being patriarchal, and R. W. Connell’s theory of Hegemonic Masculinity that guarantees male domination and female subordination through conducted societal practices. It hopes to achieve the mentioned goal by tracing the historical evolution of male hegemony through the Middle Ages which was backed by the Christian monarchs, and concentrating on the Victorian Age of industrial Revolution which was the era that impacted Ibsen’s writings and thoughts. Along with this, male hegemony is approached through the legal perspective which enumerates the shortcomings in the judiciary by pointing out the restrictions on women’s freedom, and the biological perspective which provides analysis of male and female anatomies as being respectively stronger and weaker. These provided an explanation for male behaviour to the public at the time, making it easier for them to reinforce said notions. Later, Ibsen's own views are taken into account to realise the goals that these objectives have tried to meet, by showing their impact on his works. The incorporation of hegemonic masculinity in his plays as a tool used in marital relationships justifies the claim made that the practice was prevalent eminently during the fin-de-siècle.
Throughout the length of the paper, how Connell's theory has shaped the marital bonds in Ibsen's select plays has been seen through an analysis of the same in order to argue that Ibsen's plays portray the relationship between husband and wife as being one in which the latter is treated like a child, enabling the men to take on the duties of a patriarchal figure, discounting women's behaviour as juvenile.
Ibsen's Works: An Overview
In each of his plays, Ibsen has tried to bring to the fore the concerns plaguing the Victorian bourgeois society and has succeeded on multiple fronts. He wrote plays that would invoke the public psyche to question constructed ideals without overtly bringing them to their notice, making him the master of Realism. In A Doll's House (1879), Ibsen broke the barriers of societal notions of the 'angel in the house'2 by letting Nora assert agency and leave her family behind in order to educate herself. Doubtless, it created an uproar in the audience on hearing a woman say that her most sacred duty was not to her husband and children, as her husband Torvald believes, but "to myself." (Ibsen 228)
Two aspects with regards to male conjugal behaviour need to be looked at, in surveying hegemonic masculinity. First, Torvald Helmer is perceived as a man who is proud of the high position society has bestowed on his gender in being able to make decisions not only for himself, but also his wife, which Nora confirms: "Torvald has his pride- most men have- he'd be terribly hurt and humiliated if he thought he owed anything to me. It'd spoil everything between us, and our lovely happy home would never be the same again." (Ibsen 161) He believes that the only way to assert his masculinity is by completely detaching the two genders and not letting the 'weaker' one influence his actions as that would be disgraceful: "suppose it were to get about that the new Manager had let himself be influenced by his wife [...] I'm to make a laughing-stock of myself before the whole staff" (Ibsen 188). He asserts dominance not because he particularly wants to but because he feels he needs to, in order to not get ousted from society which through the construct of hegemonic masculinity (discussed later), ensures male dominance with all men benefitting in terms of acquiring absolute power even though they may not be on the 'front-lines' (Schippers 87) advocating for it.
The above actions lead to Torvald Helmer taking control of his wife and resultantly diminishing her role as a separate human and authorising her as his child as that guarantees parental guidance:
Being a man, a husband, a lawyer and an educated member of society, gives him the right to judge what is bad or good for Nora, forbid her certain actions and encourage others. In fact, in all these capacities, Helmer takes upon himself, according to the bourgeois tradition, the function of a father figure. This is significant inasmuch as Nora accepts Helmer as such and painlessly undergoes the transition of moving from her father's house to her husband. (Zmijewska-Emerson 113)
He treats Nora not as an equal but an adolescent, giving her silly pet names and making her decisions, by becoming "both your will and your conscience" (Ibsen 224). By addressing her constantly as "scatterbrain", "little song bird", "skylark", etc. he reduces her worth to that of an object, which is something she points out towards the end of the play by saying that in the eight years of their marriage, they never sat down to discuss anything as adults do.
A lot can be inferred about the Victorian customs through Torvald's dialogue that teems with an arrogance accompanied with his sex, and a condescension of the other. He likes the idea of being the 'knight in shining armour' for Nora by asking her if she "wants someone to rescue her?" (Ibsen 178). It satisfies his ego when his wife diminutively submits to his views on any aspect and gets affronted when she does not, as, he believes, it should come with the marital territory:
TORVALD: Now wasn't that a good idea of mine?
NORA: Splendid. But wasn't it nice of me to do as you said?
TORVALD [lifting her chin]: Nice? To do what your husband says? All right, little scatterbrain, I know you didn't mean it like that. (Ibsen 186)
Connell delineates men like Helmer as being sly in asserting patriarchy whose dividends they draw out. These are men who supposedly "respect their wives and mothers, are never violent towards women, do their accustomed share of the housework, bring home the family wage, and can easily convince themselves that feminists must be bra-burning extremists." (Connell 79-80) This form of hegemonic masculinity has more to do with an unprecedented claim to authority rather than the enforcement of direct violence (77). Through Helmer's domination over Nora, Ibsen has articulated the reasons for Nora's want to break free in search of freedom by not being a "dukkebarn" (doll)3.
Another such play of Ibsen's that portrays the shortcomings in the marital relationship of a couple is The Lady from the Sea (1888) in which Ellida Wangel expresses her helplessness when it comes to her household as she longs for a lifestyle that she cannot have. While Nora craves the freedom to learn and experience the world, Ellida wants the simple pleasure of being able to make her own decisions. To her, it is not about the choices that she makes but about being able to make them. In the past, she had no "free will" when it came to consenting to marry Wangel, as she was "helpless and bewildered and utterly alone. it was only natural that I should accept- when you came and offered to provide for me for the rest of my life." (Ibsen 304-05) She outright accuses him of buying her for the position of a wife, making their marriage invoke the quality of a business deal. This prior dissatisfaction looms over her and, not wanting to be put in a similar situation again with her past lover, she asserts her agency in wanting to choose for herself whether to go with him or not:
ELLIDA: I must talk to him myself. I shall make my choice of my own free will.
WANGEL: You have no choice, Ellida. I won't allow it.
ELLIDA: No one can stop me from choosing- not you, nor anyone else. You can forbid me to go with him, or follow him, if that is what I choose. You can keep me here by force, against my will. Yes, you can do that. But you cannot stop me from choosing in my innermost heart. (Ibsen 313)
Her husband Wangel follows the character traits of Torvald in suppressing his wife's longings by dismissing them as a child's whims and fancies. Here too, the man perceives Ellida not as a woman but a child that can be twisted around to meet the requirements. When she expresses her marital discontentment, he restlessly remarks "I should have been like a father to her. I should have guided her." (Ibsen 298) He does not provide his wife with any choice to decide how she wants to spend her life and instead, like Torvald, takes it upon himself to "take the choice out of your hands, and act for you." (Ibsen 314) However, he does eventually let her go as he believes his actions to have been "selfish". Through this, it can be deduced that even though Wangel perhaps does not prefer behaving in a dominant manner, societal hegemonic structures that dictate this power play compel him to, by justifying it as legitimate: "Even if few women and men actually embody these characteristics in relation to each other, the symbolic relationship established through these hierarchical complementarities provides a rationale for social practice more generally." (Schippers 91) This excerpt which was written in talking about Connell's hegemonic masculinity, links to the attitudes of the husbands in the two plays. The women in both the dramas want nothing more or less than the right to think for themselves without being shunned for it, which is what led to the rise of Feminism, through the unleashing of such 'New Women', and which was a culmination of the abovementioned masculine characterisation in societies (Ledger 3). Both the plays embody the principles of this theory that elucidate the role of societal patriarchy in shaping masculine privilege.
Conception of Hegemonic Masculinity
R. W. Connell extensively researched on the traits that make men who they are and wrote a book as a compilation of the data found, proposing the 'Hegemonic Masculinity' theory as a configuration of male actions in a societal space. In her book Masculinities, she provides a clinical knowledge of masculinity by looking at the psychological theories proposed by Sigmund Freud, Father of Modern Psychology. The Oedipus Complex proposed by Freud, of a son having sexual feelings for his mother, sits at the heart of the driving force for men to suppress women as they face difficulties in coming to terms with their inability to control the desire for their mothers, putting them invariably in a position of authority over them. Thus, they exude this anxiety towards their wives and daughters by keeping them in check (Connell 11).
Derived from Antonio Gramsci's "analysis of class relations, [which] refers to the cultural dynamic by which a group claims and sustains a leading position in social life" (Connell 77), Connell applies it to the concept of gender by saying that a similar imbalance is created positioning the males on a higher ground. Hegemony of one gender over the others is an ideology that caters to the current socio-political scenarios and changes accordingly. "As individuals, groups, and societies use masculinity and femininity as the rationale for what to do and how to do it, and collectively do so on a recurring basis in different institutional settings, not just gender difference, but also the implicit relationship between genders become a taken-for-granted feature of interpersonal relationships, culture, and social structure." (Schippers 91) The men in the two plays have been conditioned to act in the way that current ideological state apparatuses4 of matrimony and family dictate. Mimi Schippers on researching on this topic, attests to Connell's thinking of hegemonic masculinity coming about as a prevalent practice of both men and women: "Masculinity and femininity are configurations of meaning and not practice, but it is only by identifying how putting these ideals into practice results in unequal power relations and distribution of resources that we can truly know if they constitute hegemonic femininity and hegemonic masculinity." (100) In understanding this theory, the hand it plays in substantiating the play's character analysis becomes evident, as it provides the necessary rationale behind it.
I. Middle Ages
While looking at masculinity and its effects, it is essential to trace the roots of the concept through its evolution. Many of the questions regarding this research go back to the origins of gender disparity that led to men enforcing power and control. McNamara argues that since masculinity has indefatigably been associated with the biological sex, men have had a dominant stance since the myth of the Fall of Man into disobedience in the Bible when Eve tempted Adam to fall to shame. Ever since, monarchs have viewed the female race with scepticism and apprehension, thus adopting a doctrine that "relegated women to the status of perpetual children" (McNamara 4) which has as already been seen, is what the husbands of the plays also follow.
The assignment of social roles and status on the basis of biological sex has customarily been justified as resting on the bedrock of natural law, decreed by God and nature and therefore, beyond the reach of historical change. This has made the gender system almost impervious to change. (McNamara 3)
Men found the need to prove their masculinity by keeping their women in check and the only way to do that was by applying ‘rough’ techniques such as violence. The wife learnt to submit herself to her husband's wishes in order to restore the sanctity of marriage. The usage of such procedures saw a rise in 1050-1150 and weathered the Crusades but underwent changes in passing from the Middle Ages into the later periods.
II. Victorian Age
This advent of masculinity entered its next phase during the Victorian Era in the 1700-1800s where masculinity found ground in social discourses and practices. The Industrial Revolution enforced physical segregation of work causing the men to seek employment in the outer sphere while the women were confined to theirs home, tending the children, contributing to the 'separate spheres' ideology of division of the two accepted genders5 (Alderson 635) which dichotomises the private and public spheres for the first time. To be a middle-class woman in Europe during that time meant a denial of the self in order to provide for the man of the house who in turn brought in the financial means to survive as articulated by Nora: "I wouldn't do anything that you don't like." (Ibsen 151). As pointed out by Ann Arbor, the domestic boom saw the man becoming the "autonomous economic agent pursuing profit" (65) providing him with an edge.
This identification of oneself as provider, of course, served many kinds of interests: it reinforced gender hierarchy, and, in transforming a self-interested pursuit of profit into a demonstration of disinterested love, it also helped to reconcile religious and secular goals and to establish the moral and cultural authority that middle-class men [...] claim in relation to women. (Arbor 65)
In The Lady from the Sea, Ellida vividly expresses how Wangel having the financial means reserved for his gender, "came out here and - and bought me" (Ibsen 304), focusing on the helplessness of the female population regarding free will. In A Doll's House, Nora is not expected to worry about the financial affairs as it is assumed that she cannot be of any help, without providing her with the benefit of the doubt, as stressed by Torvald: "Was I to keep forever involving you in worries that you couldn't possibly help me with? (Ibsen 225).
Both the men and women acted according to the social code prevalent in the Victorian culture contributing to their respective behaviours. As argued in this paper thus far about the husbands' parental instincts towards their wives, Hannah Zmijewska-Emerson contests the notion of painting the former as being villains as they just conform to established practices (122). Even the women, such as Nora, are conditioned to give up their agency on constantly being taunted for doing otherwise. Salome on noticing this, wrote:
As the sole daughter of a widower who in his carefree ways spoiled her instead of bringing her up seriously, Nora grew older only in age. The transformation from her care-free days as a girl to marriage meant no more to her than a change from a small doll house to a larger one. (qtd. in Zmijewska-Emerson 98)
This adoptive attitude of both the men and women corroborates to Connell's hegemonic masculinity as it exclusively states that male domination is an accepted, rationalised practice through constant reiteration in society and that both genders are victimised by it.
Biological Grounds for Male Superiority
In looking into the history of masculinity, one must also look at the roots of the distinction between man and woman from a standpoint other than that mentioned in the Bible of a woman being created out of flesh and causing the Fall of Man (as seen in the Middle Ages). Vern L. Bullough discusses the biological reasons behind the superiority that men assert which are archaic notions mostly gone obsolete today due to advancements in science. The first argument is made with respect to the two genders' intellectual capacities. Alexandrian-Jewish philosopher Philo proposed the medieval idea of a male being superior because he represents the more rational parts of a human body, such as the soul, whereas the female represents the less rational. These views solidified after being incorporated into Christianity: "Thus a woman in order to progress had to give up most aspects of the female gender, the material, the passive world of mind and thought, and the easiest way for her to progress was to deny her sexuality, to remain celibate." (Bullough 32)
Another reinforcement of this hegemony was with regards to the body temperatures as emphasised by Galen. He believed that males have a warmer body temperature allowing their sex organs to grow out of their bodies and fully develop, whereas "the women's organs, like the eyes of a mole, could never fully develop and only remained embryonic." (Bullough 32) Therefore, women were bound by these beliefs to serve men and elevate them to a status above them.
While Bullough spoke about the physiological perspectives prevalent in the Middle Ages, David Alderson extends this to the Victorian Age by saying that women were seen as weak due to their "nervous instability" such as swooning at the sight of blood, or hearing of some mishap. These were proven by the medical discourses conducted at the time (Alderson 634). Ledger spoke about this as well, by arguing that a reviewer of The Lady from the Sea attributed Ellida's attraction to the Stranger as a symptom of a madness which was more clinically termed as 'hysteria' by Freud (Ledger 38). This trend during the 1800s constituted the backing for women going 'haywire' as evident in the character of Mrs. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. If women deviated from their assigned path, they were considered mentally deranged. This meant that any female that did not conform to societal notions of hegemonic masculinity by associating men with superiority were exiled, one way or another.
Conditions in Norway
The period covering Ibsen's works is classified as the Victorian era whose scope has already been covered:
Although this term is directly connected to English culture, its presence is justified by the influence of Victorian values and life style on Western Europe, and the resultant similarities between Victorian value patterns and the ones depicted by Ibsen. Even though it originally referred to English society, it expanded into a term used in several other European countries, where the indigenous attributes of the bourgeoisie were often different. (Zmijewska-Emerson 4)
Ibsen's plays fall under the Victorian umbrella despite his never having visited England in his lifetime. They represent the sentiments of a people as casualties of their bourgeois upbringing, individuals failing to understand their mutual dilemmas, fulfilling instead the societal expectations.
James Leigh looks at the scope for a feministic discourse in Ibsen's plays by commenting on the impact they had on the 'Woman Question' in Norway and how following the publication of A Doll's House, women were accepted into universities to fulfil their educational aspirations in 1882. Ibsen makes his women speak out against men, even though "women in Norway at the time were not really expected to think" (Leigh 129), providing a pondering gap to the audience. This very audience expected the protagonists to act according to the established social code, showing them their own reflection (Zmijewska-Emerson 94) but instead, Ibsen showed a different, unexpected reality. Writing to his contemporary, Ibsen condemned of his native country, the "prejudice and narrow mindedness and short-sightedness and subservience and unthinking trust in authority" (qtd. in Ledger 6). The men found this female agency preposterous as they were brought up believing its absence. Their only method of taming the wife was by treating her like a child, in order to not provide them with any power whatsoever.
Law Enforcement of Male Hegemony
When it came to legislation, women were at the mercy of men, much like every other aspect of their lives. It was only close to the turn of the century that conditions marginally improved for married women. It was in 1870 when the Married Women's Property Act was passed, guaranteeing them the right to keep £200 of their earnings (Bloy). Apart from this, they were not allowed to carry out any transactions independently "because a wife can't borrow without her husband's consent." (Ibsen 160) This timeline coincided with Ibsen's works who brought these issues up strategically. Both Nora and Ellida leave/threaten to leave their husbands only because it had recently been enabled through the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857). Moreover, because of their precarious financial conditions, the women had no other option but to depend on their men for security as "I didn't feel I could refuse his offer" (Ibsen 157).
Ibsen spoke about women being governed by laws formulated exclusively for men and how that led to unjust conclusions. In 1878, he wrote:
There are two kinds of moral laws, two kinds of conscience, one for men and the
other one, quite different, for women. They don't understand each other; but in
practical life, woman is judged by masculine law, as though she weren't a woman but man. The wife in the play ends by having no idea what is right and what is wrong; natural feelings on the one hand and belief in authority on the other lead her to utter distraction. A woman cannot be herself in modern society. It is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint. (qtd. in Zmijewska-Emerson 90-1)
This blatant acknowledgement highlights the hegemonic masculinity theory of a patriarchal structure by concentrating on the then-current socio-political aspects of women being treated like children that need to be handled carefully, lest they revolt against the strict norms. So long as women are perceived as being part-and-parcel with their husbands, male hegemony will prevail, as, like Mimi Schippers pointed out, it is putting the meanings to practice that concretise and legitimise them.
Ibsen's Views as Concluding Remarks
Henrik Ibsen saw himself as a forerunner for human rights at large as opposed to only the women's causes. Yet, seeing the injustices at the time, he exclusively incorporated the latter into most of his works as a message to society to aspire to believe in "love, honesty, truthfulness, forgiveness and taking the responsibility for one's actions" (Zmijewska-Emerson 218). He confronted socially relevant stigmas and practices, most of them invariably pertaining to women as their downtrodden position was a culmination of the above-mentioned idealistic values not optimally reached.
Ibsen's words on women being judged from a masculine viewpoint perfectly highlight the toll hegemonic masculinity took on the civilians of the Victorian era as the entire society functioned through the 'male gaze'6. By this, women did not have the authority to voice their opinions and their every move was penalised if not approved by men. Jacques Derrida coined the portmanteu 'phallogocenticism' meaning an understanding of social relations through a masculine standpoint which is unanimously considered to be right. (Dely) This privilege that the men get over various aspects links to the already-mentioned 'male gaze', and attests to Ibsen's comments on women finding it difficult to be themselves. Thus, the husbands take it upon themselves to carry the ‘burden’ of extending the family and raising their wives as if they were their own children, placing them at a higher position of power, granting them the benefits of conforming to hegemonic masculinity.
 Theory stating the domination of a ruling class over a diverse society.
2A concept popularised by Coventry Patmore through his poem of the same name.
3 Word used in the original text in Danish, meaning 'doll' in English.
4 See Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970)
5 Proposed by Aristotle, this concept saw a distinct rise during this age.
6 Depiction of women from a masculine point of view, as objects of pleasure.
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