Dolls House & Woman of No Importance: Compare & Contrast
The hypocrisy of ‘Victorian morality’ is a subject of critical analysis in the major literary works of Ibsen. Especially, the notion of moral standards instilled in Victorian males is revealed by Ibsen in a stereotypical manner in his scathing criticism of the traditional roles of men and women in Victorian marriage in A Doll’s House. For, it is the cynicism of the Victorian male to expect his wife of having ‘some moral sense’ even if he has some or none. In comparison, Wilde’s Victorian male is a downright hypocrite in his moral judgment on women, who ‘doesn’t value the moral qualities in women’. Both principal male characters are presented as Victorian male stereotypes. Therefore, the portrayal of the male characters is an interesting phenomenon with respect to the feminism of the female characters, and both Torvald and Illingworth could be considered as two different, yet conventional, images of the Victorian male psyche.
Torvald Helmer represents the conventional Victorian husband who believes a wife should be his ‘doll-wife’, who he would ‘protect’ and ‘shelter’ under his broad wings, and that a man’s role in marriage is to ‘advise and direct’ his wife. So he is smug and rather self-righteous that his wife Nora “can’t get along a bit without his help”. For the 21st Century audience, Torvald is a Victorian chauvinist and a hypocrite who believes in social status more than his wife’s devotion. His chauvinism is apparent in his ‘sweet talks’ with his wife as he addresses Nora throughout the play as “my little lark” and “my little squirrel”. Ibsen portrays Torvald as an emotional and intellectual superior, one with ‘sufficient knowledge to judge’ others and ‘to smell out moral corruption’ happening around, in contrast to his ‘little’ Nora, his ‘child-wife’. Therefore, Ibsen depicts Torvald’s superiority to women through the institution of marriage.
In contrast, Wilde presents his character of Lord Illingworth as hedonistic, a rogue, ‘wicked’ yet ‘charming’ womanizer, cynical of the marital institution, who thinks marriage makes a woman something like ‘a public building’ and prefers the licentious pursuits of younger women – Illingworth is Wilde’s dandified amoral character, using women as mere playthings without any importance; a person with no respect or value for women. His lustful behavior prompts Lady Hunstanton to suggest that Lord Illingworth “does not value the moral qualities of women as much as he should”. Wilde also explores chauvinism through Lord Illingworth in his statement that “all women become like their mothers”, and also through his description of Hester as he “doesn’t mind plain women being Puritans, it is the only excuse they have for being plain”. The chauvinism of Illingworth is apparent in his language as well as cynicism for women. For him, women are usually better without memory as “memory in a woman is the beginning of dowdiness.” He regards women simply as a toy without any moral qualities. Illingworth’s cynicism lies in his typical Victorian outlook of woman as a ‘sentimental’ and ‘selfish’ individual with a poor ‘sense of humor’.
Both characters demonstrate palpable hypocrisy. Torvald constantly instructs Nora on morality and is critical about the morality of other characters throughout the play. He refutes and undermines the reputation of his employee Krogstad as he believes that the latter is “an unscrupulous man” who “has lost all moral character”. However, Wilde attempts to illustrate the secrets of the upper classes through the class system, hypocrisy, and morality which is adeptly revealed through Illingworth’s love child – illegitimacy being a scandalous secret of the aristocracy. Torvald focuses on Ibsen’s artistic creation of the idea of a Victorian sense of propriety and is portrayed as a righteous person who lectures on the morality of other characters while Illingworth is totally immoral. Illingworth plays the role of a romantically carefree male probably similar to that of his author Wilde. In contrast, Torvald is depicted as a romantic, who tells Nora at a holiday party how much he cares for his “dearest treasure”, a “beauty that is mine, all my very own”. But his romanticism comes to an end when Torvald finds the truth about his wife and claims that his wife has “destroyed all my happiness”. He once again lectures on her late father’s weak morals, as having “no religion, no morality, no sense of duty”. This is Ibsen’s representation of the typical Victorian hero, who mixes his emotional outpours with his blatant hypocrisy.
In comparison, Wilde’s flamboyant style of living and writing was often targeted with moral outrage, but despite controversies, Wilde was successful in making his mark as a man with great style and wit and probably created Illingworth in the same mold. To enhance the understanding of Illingworth’s personal opinions and philosophies, Wilde filled his speech with witticism and aphorisms, linking the two men to an extent that the audience cannot tell whether the words are that of the character or directly from Wilde himself. Being a socialite, Wilde was very much part of high-class social gatherings and perhaps through the character of Illingworth, Wilde was also able to express his own views, in terms of sexual indulgence and flirtation. Wilde’s series of aesthetic ideas stretched out to encompass a number of different literary genres and sub-genres including the most controversial yet widely read The Picture of Dorian Gray, which Wilde considers to be his self-portrait painted by all the main characters of the novel. The novel is a perfect example of Wilde’s conception of aestheticism combined with the idea of a double life, also an important part of Victorian society.
Both Ibsen and Wilde are critically vocal about the Victorian mindset in general and the societal hypocrisy in particular. Their plays invariably explore the Victorian attitude toward women while emphasizing the male outlook on moral standards. In both cases, hypocrisy prevails as the most stereotypical feature of Victorian society. The different stage versions of the plays of Ibsen and Wilde are remarkable testimonies to the Victorian mentality and morality. Both A Doll’s House and A Woman of no Importance largely examine the morality of the Victorian society as well as the marital institution, and its correlation with the individual moral standards of Victorian men and women. In the latter, Wilde portrays a dark comedy looking at the English upper-class society. While drawing woman characters, Wilde depicts the varied nature of the Victorian woman – Lady Hunstanton, a typical Victorian aristocrat but lacking in knowledge; Lady Caroline with her aggressive traditionalist attitude as opposed to Mrs. Allonby, the female version of Victorian hypocrisy; the intellectually restricted Lady Stutfield with her lack of vocabulary but her desperate attempts for male attention. Then there is Mrs. Arbuthnot who comes up stronger than Lord Illingworth at the end when she refuses to marry him. In her, Wilde articulates the image of a ‘modern woman’ who can take decisions on her marriage and independence based on moral judgment. This is indeed a realization that modern women are equally powerful and even stronger than their male counterparts in their judgmental opinions and other practicalities.
The Victorian era brought tremendous change in drama, especially by following farces, musical burlesques, comic operas, and serious drama penned by the likes of James Planchè, W. S. Gilbert, and Thomas William Robertson. What changed the scenario of the London stage was the beginning of the Edwardian musical comedies pioneered by Gilbert and Wilde that followed the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. Critics consider Wilde as one of the most outstanding playwrights of the nineteenth century. One of the main reasons for his highly acclaimed reputation was that nobody had staged a particular social class, especially the high society in plays before him. Arthur Pinero, an English dramatist, and contemporary of Wilde was one of the many playwrights who gained notoriety for presenting characters from middle-class life. Besides, there were other dramatists who produced popular dramas. In other words, the Victorian aristocratic class was never a part of the popular dramatic tradition. Wilde’s plays, particularly The Importance of Being Earnest are considered by critics as an ironic mirror to the Victorian aristocracy while displaying brilliant mastery of wit and paradoxical wisdom. In this context, both Ibsen and Wilde can be highly regarded as significant dramatists representing the much-debated Victorian hypocrisy with artistic wit and aesthetic wisdom. The plays of these two dramatists are perfect images of high society written with elegant comic wit told in a sophisticated satirical style.