A Comparative Essay of A Dolls House and Top Girls
Henrik Ibsens A Dolls House and Caryl Churchills Top Girls both are a pillar of critical writing about the society they were originally produced in and have a central theme of the oppression of women, which makes them great sources of feminist reviews. Although Ibsen abandoned the concept that the play was about gender roles (Urban, 1997), the central question is beyond the original context within which the plays were produced and received. A Dolls House can be regarded as criticism of the 19th century marriage norm, the work of the naturalist and the romanticist movement, whereas Top Girls considers gender roles and necessary sacrifices of women to be successful and rise above a masculine world.
Both plays insinuate that to find and stand up for oneself is the most important and hardest challenge in peoples life, regardless of society and political status. To examine these questions, Churchill and Ibsen used a different strategy, language and structure. They use dissimilar supporting characters whose roles are still significant in identifying the protagonist and the problems and situations she handles, forasmuch the stories focus on womens rights and feminist views. However, while Churchill uses Brechts alienation and conversation mainly to emboss the main theme of the play, Ibsens work is a naturalist romantic one, and at many points almost too sentimental, to a degree that makes Ibsen seem unsure of convincing his audience. [...] The all or nothing in Ibsens writing [...] is rather a quality of the melodrama (Gray, 1977. p.43).
We are likely to feel involved in Noras life and feel scorn for Helmer for his arrogance, petty and selfish behaviour. In A Dolls House we face a chronological plot structure, however, the story starts in the late past. It is seemingly a well-built classical tragedy about everyday people, but at the end of the plot, instead of easing the problem we find a quarrel between Nora and Helmer that leads to Noras good buy and she shoots the door in the hope that she would be able to find herself alone.
Following the story, Top Girls seems to be a possible continuation of A Dolls House and Noras life. Marlene, the protagonist of Top Girls is the woman who made all the sacrifices she needed to do in order to become successful, although she does not have a real loving family and feels lonely. Still, she has found her true way in life and became satisfied. This is one of the messages of both plays addressing the society in which they were originally produced especially Top Girls emphasises this issue that women need more to give up in the case of living a fulfilled life and to find out who they really are. The biggest price they have to pay is family and motherhood. The only flaw, the only thing that could have held her back, was when Marlene got pregnant at the age of seventeen. The situation was stressful, and Marlene was in denial for part of the pregnancy (Petrusso). Nora is already married and has two kids when she realises that she is another victim of the man-ruled society (symbolized by her husband) and must break free and leave her family behind.
NORA: There is another task I must undertake first. I must try and educate myself--you are not the man to help me in that. I must do that for myself. And that is why I am going to leave you now.
(Henrik Ibsen, 1985. A Dolls House. Student ed. Methuen Drama, Act 2) All quotations are taken from this edition
Although the central question remains the same, the plays messages to society tie up differently, since the plays were written in different times and under differing political systems and circumstances. In the Dolls House Nora has to face the hardship of womens life in a marriage, where his husband treats her as a child. It means that women themselves were treated as dolls of the masculine world; women have no responsibility and therefore have less right for self-realization and to search for identity. Their only duty is to be pretty and to take care of the household.
NORA: But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa's doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.
(A Dolls House,Act 2)
Ibsens belief about free will and equal rights in marriage is portrayed in the play and he shows a possible way to bring it through while in the meantime he alarms people what may happen if society does not change. Churchill deals with the question differently and puts emphasis on the sacrifice women have to make, pointing out that even if they have the right to live the way they want to - it does not necessarily mean that they have the same facilities.
WIN: Lets face it, vacancies are going to be ones where you will be in competition with younger men. [...]
NELL: Because thats what an employer is going to have doubts about with a lady as I neednt tell you, whether shes got guts to push through to a closing situation. They think we are too nice[...]
(Caryl Churchill, 1984. Top Girls. Post production. Grat Britain: Methuen London in association with the Royal Court Theatre, Act 2) All quotations are taken from this edition
Top Girls tends to show that a pushy woman can achieve everything in life even in business like Nora did when she managed to obtain a loan and pay it back. The same is true for Marlene: Despite her background, Marlene managed to create a good life for herself by working hard and apparently acquiring a decent education (Petrusso). The difference is, still, that for Nora even to obtain a loan without her husbands permission was illegal. By both of the plays we gain a clear insight to the actual era and social system focusing on gender issues. Churchill even goes into political questions by mentioning Thatchers Britain. From a historical context Margaret Thatcher was a model for tough and successful women. Under her ruling more women were able to work and break out than ever before, but she was unpopular among later classes. As Petrusso quoted:
Churchill painted a stark picture of Margaret Thatchers Britain as a place where women could end up in either a cushy but heartless career or a dreary life in domestic servitude. This may sound broadly feminist, but the play finally emerges as a more specific attack on Thatcherite insensitivities towards the girls who arent on top. Shirley includes Angie as one who is not on top, but does not see that she could be.
Both pieces use different dramatic techniques and strategies which seem to be challenging each other. Ibsens play is a naturalistic one with symbols, motives and themes. Concerning Brechts ideas about theatre A Dolls House seems to be rather a dramatic form where the audience takes part in the story and feels empathy or antipathy for the characters. Helmers attitude is symbolically inordinate, since he treats Nora as a silly child.
[Ibsen] makes Helmer grotesque, and reduces the tragic quality of the ending correspondingly. A less stridently, more unconsciously dominating male could have attracted more sympathy without destroying the sense that Nora loves her husband because she must.
(Gray, 1997, p.43)
Helmer radically grows disdain when he calls Nora little squirrel and little songbird repeatedly and tries to maintain his autarchy in the marriagehood by educating Nora as if she was a little nine-year-old, a helpless but beautiful doll. After all, at the first sight Helmer is a successful, caring, and honest husband, at least this is the illusion of the play. But all shown situations and characters are misinterpreted. Helmer turns out to be egoistic and petty, which leads to the final act when Nora leaves him and the family behind, realizing that she has been only an adornment for the family life as the Christmas tree is for Christmas.