Medea, in ‘Medea’, and Nora, in ‘A Doll’s House’, are both women who seem to suffer badly at the hands of their husbands in two male-dominated societies; the former in ancient Greece, the latter in nineteenth century Norway. Each does something important for her husband involving personal sacrifice, for which she expects certain treatment in return, but when this is not forthcoming, how do they react? Do they accept the roles of conventional wives, demure and weak? Or do they rebel and behave unconventionally?
Medea’s culture dictated that women had almost no rights, and were regarded as little more than possessions: “we have to buy a husband [and] what we buy is someone to lord it over our body.” Although Nora’s culture allowed women more rights, they were still forbidden certain privileges; for example, “a wife can’t borrow without her husband’s consent.” This shows the male dominated societies the two women lived in, and the inferior role the wife was expected to play.
Medea was not, however, quite the conventional female of her culture for she is described as, “a lioness, not human, wilder than Tyrrhenian Scylla.” Her use of masculine language – “I would rather fight three times,” – suggests she is almost male despite being a ‘model’ wife of her time: “I have borne you sons.” Nora also acts unconventionally for her era, “[borrowing] without her husband’s consent,” but is still a stereotypical wife in a sense, playing with her children and being her husband’s inferior, a ‘featherbrain’ and ‘skylark’.
The sacrifices made by Medea for her husband Jason are considered “evil arts” in her society, and cause her banishment. It is interesting to note that Medea made those sacrifices because her heart was, “smitten with love for Jason.” She even lists them to Jason: “it was I who killed the sleepless serpent . . . . I betrayed my father and my home. . . . I killed King Pelias.” The severity of her sacrifice would be great in any culture, but to be stateless represented a death sentence in the Ancient Greek world. It is discernable from the above that Medea’s sacrifices were to protect Jason’s life and destroy his enemies, which mirrors the society they lived in, as it revolved around war and violence.
Nora’s sacrifices seem mediocre in comparison to Medea’s, since they do not involve murder. “It was I who saved Torvald’s life,” is a simple statement, which gives the audience Nora’s motive for borrowing the money. Throughout the play, it is obvious that Nora loves Torvald, as she says, “if anything as horrid as that were to happen,” when Torvald jests about his demise. Nora borrowed the money to enable Torvald to go to Italy to recover his health, but she obviously did not wish to worry him: “[she] told him how nice it would be to have a holiday.” Nora accepted the roll of the ‘skylark’, even though it was demeaning, to hide the truth from Torvald. This reflects her society too, because keeping up middle class appearances was essential.
After all the sacrifices made by Medea, and when she has come “to live . . . with her husband,” Jason refuses to acknowledge anything she has done for him, and claims, “that [his] only guardian on [his] travels . . . was Aphrodite, she alone.” In this sense, Jason expects Medea to be a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in their marriage, and to do his bidding without a thought of decent treatment or appreciation from him. He also becomes, “the traitor who has betrayed her bed,” by his marriage to the princess. He twists the facts of their lives to create the illusion that Medea is unjust in her expectations of him, and even goes so far as to say that it is for her own good: ” I did it to safeguard you.”
Furthermore, after Medea’s heart is broken, she is dealt a cruel blow when Creon tells her, “take your two sons and go, into exile.” Because of her love for Jason, and the sacrifices she has made for him, she is hated and feared by men; as she says, “I am alone and stateless.” Medea’s path seems to make her a ‘sacrificial lamb’ for Jason, since her situation is so hopeless: “plundered from a barbarian land, I have no mother, brother… “
In Nora’s case, when Torvald finds out about the borrowed money, he does not appreciate what she has done for him either, and does not reassure her as she anticipated. He overwhelms her with his reaction, not even allowing her to speak: “you wretched woman what have you done?” He insults her by saying she has, “no religion, no morality, no sense of duty.” This is ironic because it is her love and ‘sense of duty’ that compelled her to break the law and borrow money in order to save his life. He rages at her, forcing her to see the reality that he only cares about himself: “you wrecked my happiness…my future.” He even asks her, “do you realize what you have done to me?”
When Krogstad returns the bond, Torvald displays his selfishness further, and shocks Nora by declaring, “I’m saved!” But he then insults her and demeans her position by asserting that Nora’s ‘feminine helplessness’ made her, “twice as attractive to him.” Throughout this whole event Torvald exhibits his true self to Nora, astounding her by being a manifestation of selfishness and cowardice. Nora had expected him to be willing to sacrifice himself for her, as she had been willing to do for him. The harsh reality, however, was that Torvald was fully intending to sacrifice her to save himself.
Therefore, Medea and Nora both expect a certain treatment from their husbands, which they do not get. In Medea’s case, Jason knew of her sacrifices, and refused to acknowledge them. Torvald did not know what Nora had done for him, but when the time came, he failed her in his reaction.
In this, it is obvious that Torvald and Jason are very similar. Both wish to benefit from their wives’ sacrifices and refuse to commend them for their evident love. Their selfishness reflects the fact that in their respective societies the men expected their wives to do their bidding. Jason is typically male in his reaction, accusing Medea of being sex-crazed. Torvald, likewise, is the typically middle class husband concerned only with his own position, not his wife’s.
Both Nora and Medea, after realizing the true characters of their husbands, seem blatantly to refuse to accept their roles as conventional victims of male dominance, and react in their own ways. They behave against what was expected of them. Medea’s reaction is not as astounding for an audience as Nora’s in my opinion, because Medea has a degree of blood lust and vengefulness about her, whereas Nora had been behaving like a ‘good’ wife throughout the whole play, so her reaction is more powerful.
Because of Medea’s character, she is, in my opinion, expected to take revenge on her husband: “let no one think me weak… I am made of different stuff.” Nora does the exact opposite. She does not leave Torvald as an act of revenge, but does this for herself, as an act of self-discovery. This may again be linked to the societies the two women lived in. Medea’s culture was very violent and warlike, almost primitive, whereas Nora’s culture was not at all violent, and offered more opportunity for her to break free.
Medea declares that she will, “triumph over [her] enemies,” and murders Creon and his daughter. The use of the words ‘triumph’ and ‘enemies’ is rather sinister imagery, which reinforces her vengeful spirit and masculine language. The two murders come as no surprise as that has been Medea’s method of treating her enemies. Her second bout of revenge truly shocks readers, for infanticide is completely against maternal principles. She is willing to sacrifice her own sons to torture Jason, as she coldly decides that, “Jason will never see alive again the sons he had by me.”
Nora’s reaction is more modern and feminist, as she resolves that her most sacred duty is the, “duty to [herself].” She simply informs Torvald that she is leaving him and her children. Though this may not be so controversial today (at least in the West), in Nora’s culture, the family’s reputation would suffer greatly, and her own reputation would be almost certainly lost.
Through the sacrifices the two characters willingly make for their husbands, whom they love, the two women act conventionally. After they see their husbands in their true lights, they each react in their own unconventional ways, and refuse to play the role of victim often given to women. In this, at least, they revolt totally against the stereotypes enforced by their respective patriarchal societies two thousand years apart, and behave similarly to women in more modern egalitarian societies.