Examining Henrik Ibsen’s Torvald and John Updike’s Sammy Essay

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Examining Henrik Ibsen’s Torvald and John Updike’s Sammy

Some men seem to like their women simple. The man who desires the simple woman sees her as easier to manipulate and as a more positive reflection on himself. A man who has a simple woman can believe himself superior in almost all things; such is the case with John Updike’s character Sammy in the short story “A & P,” and Henrik Ibsen’s character Torvald Helmer from his play A Doll’s House. Each of these men views the world as merely an extension of himself, and the people in the world, especially the women, as decorative items purely for his personal manipulation and amusement.

Ironically, by the end of both Updike’s short story and Ibsen’s play, the women have turned the men’s worlds on edge and taken control of the universe. Sammy is a checker at the local supermarket, and he spends his days watching his world go by while standing in judgment of those who enter his domain. The world that goes by Sammy is populated by a variety of customers—all seemingly women—who he describes as “witches,” “sheep,” and “this one[s]” (Updike 959, 960).

That he feels superior to women—all women—is made obvious by the way in which he sizes them up. The three bathing-suit-clad girls who are about to change Sammy’s life are described in terms of their physical attributes and the degree to which Sammy is attracted to each. While he initially admires the girl “in the plaid green two-piece” who has a “good tan and [the] sweet broad soft-looking can with [. . . ] two crescents of white just under it,” he later realizes she and girl number two are merely preludes to the one he presumes to be their leader—the one he calls “the queen” (959, 960). Torvald Helmer is no different from Sammy; he too objectifies women—specifically his wife—and he lives happily presuming that females are simple and will always remain so.

Ibsen’s play opens with Nora entering the home and Torvald’s greeting her shortly thereafter. During their brief exchange, Torvald uses the terms “little lark,” “little squirrel,” and “little spendthrift” in reference to his wife, only bothering to use her name when he is busily chastising her for her many errors in judgment—most of which he attributes to her inability to handle money (Ibsen). Sammy and Torvald are each comfortable with the subordinate role into which they place women; in fact, both characters seem completely unaware that they are objectifying and marginalizing the women around them—it is a matter of their natural make up.

Additionally, both men express a clear understanding that women’s brains are a bit empty. Sammy wonders whether or not “it’s a mind in there or just a buzz like a bee in a glass jar”; Torvald is more direct, calling Nora a “little featherhead” (Updike 960, Ibsen). There is no doubt that both men are whole-heartedly mocking women as if doing so is part of the reason they exist—part of the world’s natural order. Neither character expects the carefully structured universes over which they each rule to be altered let alone collapse, but that is exactly what happens to both Sammy and Torvald.

It never dawns on Sammy, as he is tucked safely behind his register, that the actual power dynamic is the antithesis of what he believes it to be: he is merely a servant to the customers who enter the store. In fact, he operates like a man who can alter the very natures of the customers he helps. The “bold” move Sammy makes at the end of the story isn’t an act of independence but an act made “hoping [the girls will] stop and watch [him], their unsuspected hero” (Updike 963). Likewise, Torvald long remains unaware of the debt he owes his wife—a debt physical and financial.

Having spent his life smugly satisfied over his wife’s dependence on him and her general ignorance, he is thrilled to gain possession of the letter that contains the forged contract Krogstad held over Nora. In his mind, order will be restored; however, Nora confronts Torvald about her unhappiness and his constantly treating her like a “doll” (Ibsen). Just as the presence of the bathing-suit-clad women drove Sammy to quit his job in an act of pointless chivalry; Torvald’s actions—actions that were designed to cage his wife—led him to his mistaking “saving” her for his own good for “saving” her for her own.

The carefully controlled and structured worlds of each has been undone—in both cases by the male character’s own unskilled hands. Sammy and Torvald meet their ends, but not before groveling, and grasping one last time for the control each has let slip away. Sammy’s struggle is relatively private. He exists the A & P “looking around for [the bathing-suit-clad] girls,” but all he sees are a woman and her “screaming” kids (Updike 964). There is no one to observe his recent, self-serving act of heroism, and he pathetically mollifies himself by thinking “how hard the world was going to be [thereafter]” (964).

Torvald’s end is a bit more public—much as was his mocking of his wife. Declaring that “[he has] it in [him] to become a different man,” he is shocked to learn that Nora has long been a different woman, and has neither need nor desire for him to remain a part of her life; his attempt to placate himself is to hang on the words “the most wonderful thing of all? (Ibsen) It may be that some men wish their women simple, but it is in the simplest things that the greatest truths are most often revealed. The safety some men seek in the weakness of those with whom they surround themselves is often only a pit of quicksand.

This was the case for both Sammy and Torvald Helmer. Where Sammy privately observes and judges women he does not know, Torvald is far more obnoxious: he diminishes his wife openly. Whether or not Sammy ages into a Torvald is anyone’s guess, but certainly the potential for it is present. As one man walks out of a grocery store and the other man tries to guess the answer to a riddle, the women have entered the world on their own, presumably to live happily, contentedly, and idependently ever-after.

Works Cited

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Ed. E. Haldeman-Julius. 1923. Project Gutenberg. 29 Mar. http://www.gutenberg.org/

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