While Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Ibsen’s A Doll House are the products of two very different cultural epochs, they both approach the question of individual identity within the confines of a restrictive social world. As it shall be seen, Oedipus the King echoes archetypal patterns of the conflict between the individual and the society. Its core theme, the incest, reveals the complex relationships established between individual identity and the social environment. The incest that Oedipus commits inadvertently is one of the most abhorred sins from a religious and social perspective.
As a tragic hero, Oedipus fights not only his inexorable destiny but also society and its judgment. A Doll House revolves around the same theme of the clash between the individual and the surrounding society. In Ibsen’s play the conflict arises from the gender discriminations which inherent in patriarchic communities. Nora struggles with the expectancies that society has of her. Like Oedipus, she also committed an error: she borrowed a certain sum of money to save her husband’s life, without his knowledge.
The social standards and the gender prescriptions do not allow her to take the position of a man and have economical responsibility and therefore she has to struggle with her debts in secrecy. Thus, the two works portray the individual’s struggle to find his identity and his conflict with the unflinching social norms. In both cases, the protagonist faces the challenge of establishing an identity within the maze of social expectations and rules. Sophocles’ Oedipus King is at once the paragon of the Greek classical tragedy, one of the essential myths of mankind and a great esthetic achievement.
It is moreover a play full of riddles, juggling questions of identity, destiny, guilt and innocence, blindness and clairvoyance, at the same time. The extraordinary and ineluctable coincidence which forms the plot of the play is the core of its fundamental significance. The tragedy knows no respite and no resolution for itself; it is an unanswerable riddle, where all the elements converge at different points. Oedipus becomes king and marries his mother after he symbolically manages to solve the riddle of the Sphinx which threatened the life of the inhabitants of Corinth.
A wise man, Oedipus identifies the creature that has sometimes two feet, sometimes three and at still other times four as man himself, in his evolution from infancy to old age. By solving this riddle, Oedipus becomes the savior of the city and is proclaimed king as recompense. Interestingly thus, the riddle of the play is reflected in the riddle of the Sphinx, as solved by Oedipus. The curious young man learns from external sources that the parents he knows may be only his foster parents. He therefore sets out to solve the riddle of his own life: his origin and identity.
Oedipus’ almost paranoid search for the truth of his birth shows him as a social nonconformist who is urged to seek answers rather than meekly accept ignorance and his given lot. It is very significant that Oedipus considers that no truth about himself can really change what he is. Normally, such a statement would be true in most cases, even the tragic ones, but Oedipus really finds out that he is different from what he had thought himself to be. He is the involuntary murderer of his own father and a son and husband to his own mother. If few situations in life could determine a radical change of identity, this one surely does so.
Oedipus’ conflict with society is a complex one. At his birth, he is given away by his father, in order to avoid the doom promised by the prophecy of murder and incest. When Oedipus hears the same prophecy, he leaves his home in the attempt to escape his destiny. While intending to run from his fate however, he actually races to meet it. What makes him a tragic hero is the fact that his greatness does not prevent him from failing and being terribly defeated. The path he follows in life is bitterly ironic, since he strives to act justly and he achieves all the victories that would be achieved by any other great mythological hero.
However, all his strengths turn into weaknesses when the truth of his past emerges. Oedipus is indeed remarkable and has the virtues of a mythological hero, such as kindness, a righteous character, intelligence, wisdom, inquisitiveness and many more. His honor and his natural goodness however are not a barrier in front of his inevitable doom. Oedipus is therefore a representative tragic figure, who is caught in the maze of his own destiny and who errs unconsciously, while actually trying to avoid making the terrible mistakes that were predicted for him by the oracle.
Despite the fact that he struggles to be find his own identity and to achieve only good things, he is eventually vanquished. The hero owes his defeat not only to his relentless destiny but also to the unappeasable society. Although he plays the role of a savior for his people when he delivers the city from the terrible monster, he cannot escape social opprobrium when the truth of his incestuous relationship comes out to light. Oedipus the King can be regarded as the tragedy of a virtuous and courageous man who will still have a conflictive relationship with his community because he is guilty of two major crimes: parricide and incest.
A Doll House will reach a similar conclusion regarding the clash between the individual and the social world. The moral issues in A Doll House are very complex. The play tackles human freedom in the form of gender discrimination, moral corruption in the family and deceit, duplicity and unlawful erotic games through the “menage a trois” theme, the offence against motherhood and fatherhood as sacred duties as well as many other subjects. The title of the work is very significant as it reveals part of the conflict in the play.
There is a double meaning attached to the image of the “doll house”: at first sight, the marriage of the Helmers seems to end because of the lies that had crammed up their lives. In this context, the doll house is an allusion to the artificial life the family has always led. The more prominent reading however, is that the doll is Nora herself. Ibsen describes in his work the typical form of discrimination against women. The central conflict therefore is that between Nora as an individual and the social view of gender. Nora is the beautiful, young, pampered wife who is never taken seriously by her husband.
He believes she is spendthrift and childish and treats her with a truly paternal feeling: “Nora, Nora! Just like a woman! But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that sort of thing. No debts, no borrowing” (Ibsen 149). The diminutive names he calls her are all indicative of the way he thinks about her: “It’s a sweet little bird, but it gets through a terrible amount of money. You wouldn’t believe how much it costs a man when he’s got a little song-bird like you! ”(Ibsen 151). It is truly dramatic that Nora carries with dignity the load of many more cares and concerns than her husband could ever imagine.
Torvald misinterprets her sacrifice, taking her for a child woman, a mere doll, an ornamental object that he only plays with. To him, Nora has very little reality as an individual. in spite of her cares, Nora is delighted when she has the opportunity of earning money on her own, just like a man: “Still it was tremendous fun sitting there working and earning money. It was almost like being a man” (Ibsen 162). At the end of the play, Nora herself realizes she has been nothing but a doll to her husband all her life: “Helmer. I have it in me to become a different man. Nora: Perhaps–if your doll is taken away from you” (Ibsen 230).
The fact that Nora hides a strong and determined character behind her doll-like appearance, reveals how unjust this view of women as mere objects or as frivolous creatures is: “I was simply your little songbird, your doll, and from now on you would handle it more gently than ever because it was so delicate and fragile” (Ibsen 230). Moreover, the gender discrimination is perpetuated from one generation to the other. Nora feels as if she were an object or a plaything that was merely passed from the hands of her father into those of her husband. From an ethical point of view, Nora’s relationship with Torvald is very complex.
First of all, she behaves and is in turn treated as a doll that lives in an artificial world. She is allowed no part in the world of men, where the ‘action’ takes place. As a woman, Nora cannot act independently so as to save or spare the ones she loves. Her forgery of the bond is easily explained because she as a woman and an individual is not allowed to make a loan without male consent. Nora acts recklessly but she is also given little choice in the matter, because the law does not give her any right to conduct business of any kind as a woman. In a way, Nora is compelled by the social environment to act as she did, for lack of independence.
From a moral point to view, the gender discrimination that Nora suffers deprives her of her natural right to freedom as a human being. As a discriminated woman who has had no power to act independently, Nora appears to be right in taking a radical step towards self-discovery and recognition of her identity. The fact that she leaves both the husband and the children however questions the very idea of motherhood, at least in its traditional understanding. Nora differs from her duty to her husband and children when she decides to become independent.
While from a feminist point of view, Nora is entitled to pursue the means for regaining her identity, she is also contravening to the moral norms of family and motherhood. Therefore, her conflict with society is similar to that of Oedipus: she is also forced to make a fatal error from a social point of view, namely to desert her family. Both of the works analyzed here study the conflictive relationship between the individual and society. Oedipus endeavors to avoid his doom and to be an exemplary man from a moral point of view, but this does not spare him the sufferance and the social condemnation.
Nora also struggles to be a perfect wife and mother, while taking upon her the responsibilities belonging to a man, according to the social standards. She is not repaid for her sacrifices however and her husband does not understand her. In the two texts, the individual’s struggle with society is an arduous and complex one, revealing his dependence on the social environment. Works Cited: Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House”. Ibsen: The Complete Major Prose Plays. Trans. Rolf Fjelde. New York: New American Library, 1996. Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Trans. by F. Storr. New York: Heritage Press, 1965.
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