Discuss some of the ways in which plays challenge boundaries of race/ethnicity, class, and/or gender. In your answer make detailed reference to one or move plays you have studied.
Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, is a realist drama written in 19th century Norway. The social context of this time meant his play was seen as a radial piece and theaters often refused to play it, afraid of backlash from the conservative Lutheran community. This is due to the boundaries of class and gender which are constantly challenged throughout this play, in both a historical and modern context. In respect to class, this is achieved primarily through the use of characterization and a fundamental theme of deceit, which highlights the juxtaposition between different classes.
In terms of gender, the challenging of traditional roles is created due to the confronting nature of many events depicted in this novel, particularly those surrounding euthanasia and character of Mrs. Alving. This is a prime example of how the challenged boundaries can be easily related to modern times as euthanasia is a controversial modern issue. This modern context once again helps to cement the ways in which boundaries are challenged constantly by Ibsen in his work. However, the issues of class mentioned in this drama relate directly towards the context of Ghosts.
Regina is a fundamental character used by Ibsen to challenge the gender boundaries of his authorial context. In 18th century Norway, women held a significantly lower position in the societal hierarchy. The influence of the conservative Lutheran Church meant that they were primarily the property of the husband, and motherhood was seen as the epitome of their existence. Martin Luther, the pioneer of the Lutheran Church, split from the Catholic Church, and has been quoted as saying “If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.”
And this, alongside bible references such as Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. (Tim. 2:11-14) and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. (Genesis 3:16), illustrate the social conditions for women during this context. The idea of Victorian morality, that is, a code of morality in which sexuality is repressed and unpleasantness is often ignored, is identifiable within the context of this drama.
Regina is an ambitious character who wishes to raise her status in society- that of a commoner or proletariat, to that of the bourgeois. The intense manner she attempt this change, alongside the fact she is a woman, challenges the gender mores of this society. She knows what she wants, and will do all that is within her power to achieve it. Through the use of language, she successfully creates a persona in order to manipulate Pastor Manders, revealed in the text when she says Why, good morning, Pastor.
Is the steamer in already? [p27], and insults her father, a man whom is of a lower status, by stating What do you want? Stay where you are. [p21]. In addition to this, Regina often inserts French vocabulary into her everyday speech in order to raise her perceived status among her peers, demonstrated in the lines Im not going to stand here and have a rendezvous with you. [p22] and Pied de mouton [p24]. The contradictions between her actions towards Pastor Manders and others of a lower status, as well as the manner in which she attempts to raise her social standing cause tension within the play, and the juxtaposition highlights the challenging nature of her character.
Her actions also speak loud, and the defiance Reginas character holds over traditional gender boundaries are proven clear. Despite of the fact Pastor Manders is a religious elder, she flirts with him in order to raise her position in society, evident when she says Mrs. Alving says Ive also filled out [p29], and Its terribly lonely out hereand I think that I can honestly say Im both willing and able.[p30].
Later in the play, once she discovers the true identity of her father and her plans fail, she reverts back to what the audience may assume is her true nature and agrees to join Engstrands brothel, shown when she stated A poor girls got to make the best of her youth, or before she knows it shell be left out in the cold. Ive got the joy of living in me, too, Madam. [p94]. This quote exemplifies how she manipulates those around her; as she was outraged at the idea of working as a prostitute when her Engstrand suggested it at the beginning of the play, exemplified when she says Outside and quick about it! Youre a fool! [p27]. Overall, Regina is a character who utilizes any means necessary to gain power conventional or otherwise.
Similarly, Mrs. Alving also demonstrates a competence in defying the gender boundaries of the authorial context. She is very outward in her views, not hiding her challenging thoughts. This is demonstrated early on in the play, when confronted by Pastor Manders as evidenced below.
Pastor Manders: Tell me, Mrs. Alving, how did these books get here?Mrs. Alving: These books? Im reading them.
Pastor Manders: Do you read that sort of thing?Mrs. Alving: Of course I do. [p32]Due to both her ease in admitting her part in reading literature, which can be assumed to be challenging in the era and her confidence in admitting it, Mrs. Alvings character is formed. In addition, the audience is also shown the way in which she takes hold of the family before and after her husbands death. She holds the family together, controls the finances and monetary aspects of their life, and chooses to send Osvald away both when her husband was alive and dead, this is evident in the quote I took over control of the house complete control [p51] and it was I who encouraged him when he had his few good days; and it was I who was left to manage everything when he went back to his debauchery, or when he relapsed into self whining pity. [p52]. In a society in which women have little power and are often see as property of their husband, this notion is highly challenging.
The encouragement of outward views and actions is not Mrs. Alvings only challenging action within this drama. At the end of the play it is implied that she euthanizes her son after he succumbs to syphilitic madness, evidenced by If its ever necessary. But it wont be necessary no no, thats not possible [p100]. The concept of a mother killing her son is an extremely confronting one in both past and present social climates, as mothers seen as have a nurturing and kind nature. This is one gender norm which Mrs. Alving does not challenge and throughout the play of Ghosts, as she is seen as a loving mother who cares deeply for her son as shown in the below quote.
Mrs. Alving [beaming with pleasure]: I know someone whos kept both his soul and body unharmed. Just look at him, Pastor Manders. [p39]The idea that she kills him (abate, mercy kills him) subverts the typical gender bonds Rather than classing euthanasia as a negative action, it classes it alongside something motherly. Ibsen, through equating these two notions creates an idea portrayed through a character which is extremely challenging. In 18th century terms, this is a country dictated by a religion whose main beliefs system rides on ten commandments, one of which is Thou shalt not kill and womens role in society is, as stated previously, dictated by the demands of males and motherhood.
In 21st century terms, westernized society, whilst maintaining a secular nature still leans towards Christianity as a moral code. Euthanasia is currently illegal in Western Australia, and people found assisting someone to end their life can face life imprisonment . In addition to this, whilst females are not as constrained to the same familiar bounds or the property of their husbands as they were in the 18th century, there is a clear trend towards women being the homemakers and cares. To have a women go against this trend and partake in something considered barbaric by some is clearly challenging to the gender boundaries of a modern context. Take the case in France where Marie Humbert was arrested for trying to euthanize her son , or in the UK where devoted mother Kay Gilderdale was arrested and facing possible life imprisonment for the suspected mercy killing of her chronically ill bedridden daughter.
Not only does Mrs. Alving challenge the gender roles, but class structures and boundaries also. This is achieved not through the direct actions on Mrs. Alvings part, but through showing the audience the effects which attempting to live a moral life can have on a person. Mrs. Alving is, in effect, a martyr to her duties. She abandons her own integrity to do what the religious leader says, shown by her vehement speech stating when you praised as right and proper something that my whole soul revolted against as an abomination [p62] she forgoes her own happiness for her son I had to endure it all for my little boys sake[p51]and she manipulates others in order the preserve the memory of her debauched husband. She obeys the class conventions of the era, and ends up with nothing. Her son goes mad from hereditary syphilis, her step daughter becomes a prostitute and the orphanage which she invested time into is burnt down. Her deceit, enacted within the boundaries of the context, leads to actions and events which are clearly detrimental to her person both in the physical world and the spiritual one.
Pastor Mander also helps to demonstrate the deceitful nature of the class structures in the 18th century. He is representative of the traditional value system which at this time is the majority. However, he is used to undermine the same ideals he portrays. He, a religious leader, values public opinion above common sense, encourages a perpetuation of falsified information evidenced by his words We musnt lay ourselves open to misrepresentation, and weve no right to offend public opinion.[p37] ,Dont you, as a mother, hear a voice in your heart forbidding you to destroy your sons ideals? [p59] and Youve planted a beautiful illusion in your sons mind, Mrs. Alving and that is something to be proud of.[p60] respectively, and is manipulated by a proletariat, Engstrand, into framing someone for the fire and building his Seamans Home (that is, a brothel) as shown below.
Engstrand: Remember by Seamans Home, sir.
Pastor Manders: Yes indeed, thats a suggestion. Well, I shall have to consider it.
Engstrand: To hell with consider oh lor!Engstrand: Jakob Engstrand is like a guardian angel, sir, thats what he is.
Pastor Manders: No no, I certainly couldnt allow that.
Engstrand: Ah, you will in the end. Someone I know has taken the blame for another man once before.
Pastor Manders: Jakob! Youre a man in a thousand! Well, you shall have help with your Seamans Refuge you can rely on that.
By showing a character who is traditionally is seen in a positive light, in a negative one, the audience is encouraged to see the faults in his belief system and actions. In doing this, the weaknesses in the class structures which Manders holds so dear to him are exposed and challenged.
Engstrand, the manipulator of Manders also challenges the fundamentals of class structures. Ibsen utilizes him in order to challenge class boundaries by contrasting the overall perception of Engstrand with who he is in reality. Being of a lower-class with a physical disability, he unable to raise his social status by accepted means and Endstrand has embraced this assumption. He is often shown as being brash and uncouth he even suggests that his daughter become a prostitute and says Well then dont marry that can pay just as well [p26]. However, despites these misgivings the audience is shown that he intelligent and able. He constantly influences Manders, whether it be through encouraging pity at his alcoholism, convincing him that he started the fire [p86] or persuading him to sponsor his Seamans Home. This is shown respectively by the following quotes Ah, its a sad failing. But he tells me hes often driven to it by his bad leg. [p38] but I saw you quite distinctly, sir, take a candle and snuff it in your fingers, and throw the wick into the shavings., Remember my Seamans home? [p88]
This clear manipulation encourages the audience to then further question the societal bonds. Why is such an intelligent and able man in such a low position in society, and why is Pastor Manders, a clearly fallible and fickle person in such a powerful position?Lastly, Captian Alving is the facilitator of the conflict within the drama without ever being actively involved. In addition, he represents someone who the audience may blame for the conflict however, due to his non-appearance this blame must be shifted elsewhere. In the case of Ghosts it is shifted towards encouragement of criticism of social boundaries. This is achieved through the character of Captain Alving being shown as amoral and mean spirited. Proven by his Osvalds reflective words smoke it, boy,! he said go on, by, smoke away! And I smoked as hard as I could, till I felt myself turning pale and great beads of sweat broke out on my forehead.
Then he burst out laughing. [p41] He lives a dissolute and debauched life, as stated by Mrs. Alving The truth is this: that my husband was just as dissolute when he died as he had been his whole life. [p49] and yet is still highly regarded in the community due to the layers of deceit active in hiding his transgressions. When Pastor Manders, after being told my Mrs. Alving of his exploits sends her back to him under the guise of duty, he starts the cycle of deceit which Mrs. Alving then adopts. She hides his misdemeanors and pools her efforts into creating a monument in his honour. The audience, as an observer to this can see the negative associations. How is it that this can be allowed to happen? How is it that Mrs. Alving can lose everything due to the actions of her dead husband, who is seen as a saint in the community? The unfairness of the situation encourages audiences to see the social mores constraining the characters in a negative light and thus challenging the boundaries of class in the authorial context.
This pushing of the class boundaries through the use of deceit and exploitation is a motif which is repeated throughout the play. Ibsen uses a range of dramatic techniques in order to challenge audiences. He pushes boundaries, particularly of gender and class in an attempt to depict his view of society. These challenging concepts and ideas, ranging from a mother euthanizing her son to a Pastor donating funds to a brothel succeed in challenging audiences of both 18th century and modern contexts. A truly radical play, Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen depicts a perception of society which is free from typical social conventions.
http://www.ffrf.org/nontracts/women.phphttp://www.news.com.au/perthnow/story/0,21598,22774987-948,00.htmlhttp://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/mother-arrested-for-trying-to-end-sons-living-death-with-overdose-581208.htmlhttp://www.wmaker.net/jencquel/Mother-of-paralyzed-girl-charged-with-attempted-murder_a211.html?comGhosts and other plays by Henrik Ibsen
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Topic: The Issues of Class and Gender in the play of Ghosts
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