During the Victorian Era, living in the middle class, many people were strongly influenced by society, especially in Europe. People felt that they needed to look perfect in the public eye and everything they did had to be something that society would approve of, otherwise it was out of the question. Henrik Ibsen uses the main characters of Nora and Torvald, in his play, “A Doll’s House” just as Leo Tolstoy uses the main characters of Ivan and Praskovya, in his novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, to convey what it was like to live in a middle-class society in nineteenth century Europe. By showing that society is what drives these characters to make their decisions, that these characters have values purely based on society’s values, and that society shapes their identities by telling them where they fit in the world based on their gender.
Society specifically drives Nora, Torvald, Ivan and Praskovya to make all of their decisions. Nora stays at home and doesn’t work, while Torvald holds a respectable job at the bank because that is what society has shown them is right. Nora even acts a child toward Torvald and they never have a serious conversation throughout their whole marriage. Nora does not know any better and society has shown her that she does not have to be anything but a “doll” for her husband. Although Torvald is an intelligent and successful man, Nora feels that it is good to act this way because it gives him a feeling of power. Torvald feels the same way and encourages her behavior by calling her pet names all the time. In the beginning scene of the play Torvald gives Nora money almost as a parent would give to their child, he calls her over by saying, “Come, come, my little skylark must not droop her wings. What is this! Is my little squirrel out of temper? Nora, what do you think I have got here?” (Ibsen 7). Ivan and Praskovya even made the decision to get married based on the fact that it was “the right thing” to do and society would approve of it. Although they were in love, Ivan had no intention of getting married, but it was the fact that society would think kindly of them being married that made him want to marry Praskovya. Tolstoy shows this by writing, “Ivan Ilyich married for both reasons: in acquiring such a wife he did something that gave him pleasure and, at the same time, did what people of the highest standing considered correct.” (Tolstoy 49).
The values that Nora, Torvald, Ivan, and Praskovya possess are values that society has given them. They all share the idea that even if a marriage is falling apart, no one should know about it and it should always appear as if they are happy and in love. Ibsen shows this after Torvald has found out that Nora went behind his back and took out a loan from the bank by forging her father’s signature. In the nineteenth century women were not allowed to take loans out from the bank, and forgery was considered a despicable crime, therefore Nora goes completely against Torvald’s values by doing this. Even though he can no longer trust her and does not even want her around their children so that she cannot corrupt them he tells Nora, “The matter must be hushed up at any cost. And as for you and me, it must appear as if everything between us were just as before-but naturally only in the eyes of the world.” (Ibsen 77). After Ivan finds out that marriage is not all easy and that he can no longer have the carefree life that he had before, he begins to close himself off from his wife and his family, but never thinks to leave them or show anyone that he is not happy. This displays the fact that he and Torvold share the idea of valuing appearance over happiness. Tolstoy shows this by saying, “Of married life he demanded only the conveniences it could provide-dinners at home, a well-run household, a partner in bed, and above all, a veneer of respectability which public opinion required.” (50). They also share the value that they must have help around the house, because in the Victorian era people’s success was also measured by how much help they had in the house, the more they had, the more respected they would be. Nora and Torvold had a nanny for the children, and Ivan and Praskovya had a butler and pantry boy who became very important to Ivan in the weeks of his life.
Gender played an enormous role in shaping Nora, Torvald, Ivan, and Praskovya’s identities. Society had very clear views of what a man should be and what a woman should be. The men were to be the providers for the family, they had to have a respectable job and take care of all the family’s financial needs. The women were to stay at home and tend to her husbands and children’s needs, whatever they may be. Nora and Torvald were the perfect example of this. Nora stayed home with the children and the nanny and decorated the house and made everything comfortable for everyone while Torvold worked at the bank. When Nora took the loan out from the bank she had to hide it from everyone because that was a very disrespectful thing to do in society’s eyes at that time, which is why when Torvold found out he was infuriated. When Torvold realized that if anyone found out their reputation would be destroyed and everything he worked hard for would be gone because it would have seemed that they have stepped out of their gender roles and gone against society, he said to her, “Now you have destroyed all my happiness. You have ruined all my future.” (Ibsen 77). Ivan and Praskovya were also a good example of this. Ivan worked hard, even over-working himself at times to make a good living for his family both because he felt an enormous pressure to be successful, and because he used work as an escape from his family. At one point in the story, Ivan was awaiting to get a promotion when another man received it instead of him. When he began struggling from this he felt very angry and almost as if he was being persecuted, because it was not commonplace for men to struggle, or at least for it to be seen, in nineteenth century Europe. Tolstoy shows this by writing, “He alone knew that the injustices he had suffered, his wife’s incessant nagging, and the debts he had incurred by living above his means, his position was not normal.” (54).
Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy clearly show in their works, “A Doll’s House” and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, that society strongly influenced the decisions that people made, the values they possessed, and how their identities were shaped based on gender in nineteenth century Europe. Society drove Nora and Torvald to act they way they did when they were married to each other, and it drove Ivan to make the decision to marry Praskovya. Society also influenced both couples to have the value that no matter what is really going on in a marriage or in their home lives, to everyone else things must seem perfect. Lastly, society strongly influenced the men to be the main if not sole providers for their families, as Torvald and Ivan were, and it influenced the women to stay home and not worry about anything but their children and husband’s needs.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. New York: Pocket Books, 2005. 5- 88. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. New York: Bantam Dell, 1981. 39-113. Print.