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Women and Society in 'Porphyria's Lover' and 'A Doll's House'


The composers, Henrik Ibsen and Robert Browning both challenge the values of their society by examining the relationship between the women in their literature and their respective societies. In the poem 'Porphyria's Lover' by Browning and Ibsen's play A Doll's House, the women challenge the 19th century notions of how women were expected to remain as passive and subservient figures. The Duchess in 'My Last Duchess' by Browning and Nora in A Doll's House resist mainstream attitudes and perspectives that accustomed males to value their honour and reputation above all, which victimised women to attain the expectations of the 'ideal' household and marriage.

Browning's poem 'Porphyria's Lover' explores the tension between the individual and social convention of the 19th century by subverting the social expectation of women to be passive and docile. The patriarchal society of Victorian England suppressed the outward manifestation of female identity and sexuality, by objectifying women and treating them as inferior. The shift in narrator voice in "Porphyria worshipped me... That moment she was mine, mine, fair" reflects the patriarchal nature of Victorian society, with the repetition of the possessive pronoun mine revealing that males would ultimately assert dominance over females. In "murmuring how she loved me... and give herself to me forever" suggests that Porphyria is entrapped in the passive role in which society expects her to remain. Porphyria's sexually forward behaviour is demonstrated in the vivid imagery, "her smooth white shoulder bare" which challenges the preordained ideas that women were to inhibit their sexuality and establish their value on their chastity. The church's role in instilling and consolidating values of female submissiveness is demonstrated in the biblical allusions, "And yet God has not yet said a word!" further emphasising the society's expectation of women. Hence, 'Porphyria's Lover' challenges traditional ways of thinking in 19th century England in which the society's perception of female behaviour and gender interactions were in place.

Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House also encapsulates how the values placed within female submissiveness and subordination transcend time. In 19th century Europe, a woman who stepped out of her domesticated role in the home and entered the outside world of the labour force was censured. Torvald's condescending manner when addressing Nora as "squirrelkin" or "songbird" ostensibly gives off the impression of being affectionate, however has paternalistic undertones which fix Nora's inferior status in the relationship. Torvald's displeasure at Nora's agitated dancing of the tarantella commenting, "Not so violently", " It isn't right" reflects how the patriarchal society of 19th century Europe suppressed a woman's desire to fulfil her need for self-expression and lead a full and satisfying life. Nora questions the possessive attitude of men in "It pleased you, that's all- the idea of loving me" which demonstrates how she challenges the social conventions that a woman must remain subordinate to men. Nora's assertive exit at the end of the play undermines the role of women staying faithful to their husbands, challenging the norm that women will eventually submit to the male suppression of their independence and identity. Through Nora's transformation from a woman, belittled and undermined by the males in her life, into a strong-willed and independent being, Ibsen's A Doll's House explores the tension between the individual and the society with set the behavioural standards.

Browning seeks to challenge the conservative Victorian mindset in his portrayal of tyrannical and rabid power, highlighting the materialism and commodification of life within his society. The ruthless and despotic power portrayed in Browning's 'My Last Duchess' elucidates the moral inadeqacy of the patriarchal Victorian era, where social stratification encouraged obsession with power, in which women were characterised as either the Madonna or the whore. Motivated by wealth, privilege and punctilious pride of rank, ‘I choose never to stoop’, the Duke is a complex figure of artistic cultivation and consuming acquisitiveness. His aristocratic need for absolute control is disguised by his indifferent, almost affable tone, highlighted through the tension between the enjambment and the consistent rhyming couplets . Nevertheless, he ironically damns himself while attempting to discredit his naïve and unsophisticated wife who did not appreciation the ‘gift of a nine hundred year old name’, revealing his chillingly casual and unmerited cruelty manufactured by his jealousy . Browning challenges societal expectations as he articulates the fallibility of humankind through the desire of material comforts as equalled signs of achievement and power.

A Doll's House also challenges the 19th century way of thinking about how women's identities were determined by predefined roles within households resulting in feelings of suppression. The bourgeoisie men of 19th century Europe were socially conditioned to place obligations on their wives to uphold their reputation of their family and assume responsibility for all domestic affairs and difficulties. The emotive language when Torvald says “Almost always when people go bad young in life, the cause is a deceitful mother” reveals how women were expected to bear all responsibility for the children and familial affairs, which contrasts with Nora’s later decision to abandon this domestic life. Nora's confrontation of social norms by prioritising her own self-respect and need to express her identity is revealed in the motif of clothing during her final conversation with her husband, "Changing. No more fancy dress." This contrasts with Torvald's patronising tone in "But no man sacrifices his honour for the lone he loves," which implies that society has conditioned men to regard their reputation as more important than human emotions or interpersonal relationships. During her final conversation with Torvald, Nora's assertion in "But I'm going to find out which of us is right, society or me," further reinforces how she defies the social norm that a woman should dedicate herself to maintaining the public image of the household and marriage so as not to threaten the values of the male. Thus, A Doll’s House presents ideas reluctant to mainstream attitudes as Ibsen explores the need for resistance against society, especially the expectations of women, in order to move forward.

The individuals in Robert Browning’s poems ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘My Last Duchess’, as well as Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House behave in a radical and confronting manner as viewed by 19th century society, overcoming the constraints placed by the world they live in. They challenge society’s ideals regarding the accepted behaviour for women as passive figures whose identity and sexuality are suppressed, and as wives and mothers who must place their obligations to their husband and social reputation before their need to express themselves respectively.

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