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Representation of Females: A Thousand Splendid Suns and A Doll's House

Info: 3154 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 10th May 2021 in English Literature

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Compare and Contrast the ways in which Khaled Hosseini and Henrik Ibsen represent females in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ (2007) and ‘A Doll’s House’ (1879).

Examine the view that in both texts ‘women’s voices are silenced and suppressed’.

In the novel ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini and the play ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen, It could be argued the representation of women is a recurring theme that is presented in patriarchal societies in the two texts. Arguably, women in both texts face obstacles that disempower and silence them due to men’s treatment of women, the societal view of women, and the oppression and objectification of women. I believe women’s ability to overcome this disempowerment is particularly challenging due to being oppressed by men. ‘A thousand splendid suns’ is a post-modern text set from the early 1960s to the early 2000’s suns represent women in Afghanistan In the 1960s when some of the biggest strides were made towards a more liberal and westernized lifestyle whilst still trying to maintain a respect for more conservative factions. ‘A Doll’s House’ on the other hand, was set in the 1870s, in the Victorian era, where the distinctions between men and women and their gender roles became more sharply evident than ever before.

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Ibsen presents the women in ‘A Doll’s House’ as silenced and suppressed through the male treatment of women. It can be argued that Torvald’s treatment of Nora depicts this view through Torvald’s constantly patronizing his wife Nora with seemingly innocuous comments and metaphors such as “my little squirrel” which is objectifying her to a point where he suppresses her as he doesn’t even regard her as a human which therefore silences Nora by making her feel inferior to him by not even regarding her as a human. By using the possessive pronoun ‘my’ Ibsen highlights the idea that Torvald feels as though he owns Nora which further depicts the objectification of Nora in this case.   Perhaps this is deliberately done by Ibsen as his beliefs on how a relationship should be like, that rather than two people dwelling together in a Victorian patriarchal society they should live as equals, “free to become their own human beings” and consequently, Ibsen’s critics attacked him for failing to respect the institution of marriage. Therefore, this could link closely with Nora and Torvald’s lack of respect for her and through her character, present the idea of women tolerating inhumane behaviour that is ratified on them by men. Like Ibsen’s private life, his writing tended to raise up sensitive social issues, and some parts of the Norwegian society also frowned upon his work. ,therefore, this could have been a deliberate move by Ibsen to highlight the suppression between Torvald and Nora to highlight the realities of what women face to make them more aware and push people away from the ideas of suppressing and objectifying their wives and therefore silencing them and pushing for more equal relationships between husband and wives. This could link closely to Nora’s empowering actions at the end of the play when she left Torvald and defies all expectations of her as a wife and therefore is not silenced and suppressed by the end of the play. Furthermore, Krogstad’s manipulation and control over Nora further reinforces the silencing of women through the male treatment of women with the blackmail ‘But I tell you this. If I get thrown into the gutter for a second time, I shall take you with me.” This controlling and blackmailing behaviour has silenced Nora’s voice to a point where she feels threatened and bullied by Krogstad for her secret being revealed throughout the whole play. However, Nora finally overcoming the disempowerment and silencing of these controlling and manipulative men at the end of the play, when she leaves and defies not just Torvald’s expectations of her but society’s expectations of her as a woman to subdue and fulfil ‘her duties’ as a wife, not solely does this empower Nora but also the women audience in the Victorian Era who, like Nora, may have experienced suppression and silencing through men. Ibsen depicts the empowerment of all women at the time as Nora represents the struggles of women in the Victorian Era and so her being able to overcome the male treatment of women by leaving Torvald highlights Nora’s strength and power.

Similarly, in the novel ‘A thousand splendid suns’ Khaled Hosseini portrays the female characters in the play being silenced and suppressed through the treatment of women through Rasheed’s manipulative and controlling behaviour on Mariam shown through the long list “It wasn’t easy tolerating him talking this way to her, to bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. But after four years of marriage, Mariam saw clearly how much a woman could and tolerate when she was afraid”. The long list shows an aspect of female suffering in the novel which emphasizes what many females in the Afghan society had to go through in the 1960s due to the way that men treated them and they were forced to just accept it and were silenced as they felt as though they had no other choice and were just destined to go through the vicious cycle of the mistreatment of women. Hosseini does this deliberately to make the reader understand and sympathize with the female characters in the play by depicting them as oppressed and helpless characters through the expectations that are put on them. This is further emphasized through Nana’s words ‘Learn this now and learn this well, my daughter: like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman’, these words become a refrain for Mariam as she gets older due to the experiences she undergoes especially with Jalil and Rasheed who always seemed to accuse Mariam of everything. This reflects the view of men in the 1950’s in Afghanistan, that women were in the wrong and always seemed to accuse them no matter what shown through many male characters such as Jalil who shifts the burden of Mariam onto Nana and Rasheed who blames Mariam for everything that goes wrong in his life and just like the female characters in the novel, Mariam, Nana and Laila who all portrayed a struggle to overcome this. Alternatively, it could be argued that due to Jalil leaving Nana leading to Nana raising Mariam all on her own, did not silence and suppress her and nor was she disempowered, but as a single woman, which was a shocking thing at the time, raised Mariam on her own which is deliberately depicted by Hosseini as it is empowering women by showing her strength and determination.

The societal view of women plays an immense role in the play ‘A Dolls House’ as in the Victorian period men and women’s roles became more sharply defined than at any time in history and this played a huge impact on the way that society viewed women, as they were only expected to fulfil their gender roles which consisted of domestic duties while the men at the time commuted to their place of work in for example the factory, shop or office and were the breadwinners. This is reinforced by the title of the play itself ‘A Doll’s House’ which is an extended metaphor presents this idea as Nora is confined in this ‘House’ which would reflect the societal view of women and their roles at the time as Torvald expects her to be perfect and Nora is once again objectified as a ‘doll ’in societies eyes. This is reinforced when Nora is leaving and Torvald tries to persuade Nora stay in order to fulfil her ‘sacred duties’ to her husband and her children as if that is the only thing she is valued for in the house her ‘duties’ as all women were in the Victorian era when their husband’s went to work and they were expected to fulfil their “duties” as wife’s by completing their domestic duties. Moreover, the fact that Nora is referred to as a ‘doll’ is a deliberate move by Ibsen to reflect the societal view of women as objectifying them by referring to her as a ‘doll’ as she is just expected to do her domestic chores and can reflect the idea of women in society seen as something that men and society can just play around with and use just like a doll. Furthermore, the character of Mrs. Linde reinforces the idea of the societal view of women silencing and disempowering women to a point where they are suppressed when she is forced to marry a man due to her financial circumstances, despite loving another man (Krogstad) leading to her having a loveless marriage which is representing of the women in society at the time who were expected to make sacrifices in their happiness and to play the submissive role in society which forced her into believing that she ‘did not have the right’ to refuse her husband’s marriage proposal. Yet, could also be that Ibsen presents society and it’s view of women as women having a voice and are not silenced shown through Nora having so much dialogue in the play this is presented through Ibsen view when Ibsen stated in his notes for the Modern Tragedy that ‘a woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view’. This view shows the characters in the play are therefore presenting the patriarchal society at the time where women, even in the law were seen as inferior to men just like Nora which makes it difficult for women to overcome this. Despite this, Nora having the main lead role in the play and having so much dialogue reinforces her importance and Ibsen gives Nora a voice by doing this and helps draw attention to her struggles and the many other women in the Victorian society with similar struggles. Futhermore, the fact that the play ended in Nora being able to overcome this by leaving Torvald despite him begging her to stay with his ‘face in his hand’ and calls out ‘Nora! NORA!’ empowers women even more as despite being oppressed by the whole of society Nora broke through the stereotypes and the gender roles and overcame the disempowerment. Therefore I agree Ibsen empowered women through the character of Nora and depicts the views of the suffragette Louie Bennett who declared that ‘more than any other modern writer (Ibsen) has proved himself a prophet and apostle of women, no other ….. has shown more sympathetic comprehension and its latent powers’.

Similarly, in ‘A thousand splendid suns’ the societal views of women also become an obstacle that disempowers and silences women and plays a significant part in the novel. Nana perceived herself as a source of shame and disgrace after being abandoned by her fiancé, disowned by her father and propelled away after her affair with Jalil who blamed it entirely on Nana and continued living his life normally and leaving Nana to deal with the aftermath of the shame and abuse from society. She was obliged to take all the responsibility alone while Jalil freed himself by telling his wife that is was her fault as Nana tells Mariam, “You know what he told his wives by way of defence? That I forced myself on him. That it was my fault. Didi? You see? This is what it means to be a woman in this world.” This shows that society just expects women to take the blame and it is worse if a woman breaks the norms of society rather than a man and Nana is disempowered as men always have the upper hand in this patriarchal society. This also reflects the same themes that were portrayed in Ibsen’s A Dolls House and therefore shows this disempowerment of women in society has not changed over time from the Victorian era and even to the postmodern era and women are still by society viewed as being less than men and therefore are always put to blame and is easy to point fingers at them to shift blame. Moreover, the societal view of women is presented through a key character, Rasheed. Rasheed is considered an antagonist however it could be argued if he really is at fault or is he just representing the views of the society that they lived in, in Afghanistan. The culture and society led to women being confined and constricted as they would be beaten shown through the alliteration in ‘if they laughed too loudly’ and therefore led to Rasheed being the way he was to Mariam and Laila because he was only reflective of society and its views and is relatable to the Afghani readers at the time who experienced these same views and confinement from society in the 1960s. The key character of Nana further depicts the societal view and expectations of women“It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have. Do you understand?’’. The silencing of women through the societal view of women is shown through the short sentences‘ it’s all we have’ and ‘We endure’ which shows it silences women in the sense that they feel helpless. This shows that Nana knows what society expects of her and also understands that they are expected to be silent and ‘endure’ and she understands in the society in the society in the 1960’s women’s were voiceless and also understand that they have no other choice.

In both the texts oppression and objectification was a major theme presented throughout. A Doll’s House presents the objectification and oppression of women through the sexualizing of Nora when he dressed Nora in a costume of his choosing and coaches her to dance the tarantula in the manner that he finds “desirable” and therefore she is over sexualised. These actions of Ibsen portraying Torvald over-sexualizing Nora links in closely with Gubar and his views that if everything is written by men, then men only write what they want us to see, therefore by Ibsen writing this it is clear to see that this is done deliberately by Ibsen to create an image of women that men at the time would expect and want to see, which is a woman being objectified and being over-sexualized and therefore Ibsen just conforms to societies view of women by creating this image of Nora. This links in closely with the play being written in a third-person perspective which is also is alluded to as the ‘camera lens’ which can portray the idea of the male gaze. The Male Gaze represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer and in this case, Nora was over-sexualized and objectified entirely for the pleasure of Torvald and the male audience. This explains why Ibsen ‘stated that it is not about women’s rights as such: rather, the drama is about Human rights. In a speech at the festival of the Norwegian Women’s Rights League in 1898, he asserted firmly that he was not a member of the league and had no conscious aim of creating propaganda when he wrote A Doll’s House:  I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general.’ And therefore did not even intend for it to be seen as empowering for women as it was.

Arguably, A thousand splendid suns portrays the objectification of women through the symbolism of the Burqa which potrays the silencing  and suppression of female physically. Mariam feels them literally as the ‘cloth kept pressing against her mouth’, silencing her and making it difficult for her to breathe therefore Mariam feels oppressed not only because she is physically silenced but also due to the fact she is forced to conform to society’s expectations of a woman concealing herself and not being able to express their views and voice opinions openly. The symbolism of the Burqa is significant as in the 1960s the Burqa became optional for a while, regardless of this many women still didn’t have the option whether they wanted to wear the burqa or not, such as Mariam, due to society and men still oppressing women to wear it like Rasheed who had a rather strong view on the burqa and women who didn’t wear it. However, it could also be argued that the burqa was like a safe haven to Mariam from society, “Still, she found some comfort in the anonymity that the burqa provided. She wouldn’t be recognized this way if she ran into an old acquaintance of hers. She wouldn’t have to watch the surprise in their eyes, or the pity or glee, at how far she had fallen, at how her lofty aspirations had been dashed.” This long list, therefore, depicts the idea that in the end, the burqa is not an oppression on females that silences them, in fact, it empowers them by listing many ways in which women can be themselves without any judgment and be free in their own space.

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In conclusion, both texts A Thousand Splendid Suns and A Doll’s House portray the silencing and suppression of women throughout the many different ways, of the male treatment of women, the views of society and the oppression and objectification of women, however, in the end, it is all empowering for women as this mistreatment and inequality is highlighted to make people more aware of female treatment in the Victorian era and even the postmodern era to push people away from it. Moreover, both texts end in an empowering way, in A Doll’s House Nora takes a stand and leaves her husband and in A Thousand Splendid Suns with the fact that it could be viewed as a male bildungsroman showing the growth of these two girls, Mariam and Laila, into marriage and maternity illustrates the travail of Afghani women and Mariam and Laila’s familial love triumphs and Mariam’s love lives on even after her death.

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND REFERENCES

D) PRIMARY TEXTS

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, 1960
  • A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, 1879
     

E) SECONDARY SOURCES: BOOKS AND ARTICLES

  • Stephanie Forward, ‘A new world for women?’ in English review, 19.4 April 2009, p24
  • ‘The Archetypal image of women in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and pinters the homecoming’ – Zainab Abdulaziz Al Suhaibani
  • A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood

REFERENCES

  1. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3ae6a99513.pdf
  2. Stephanie Forward ‘A New world for women’ p25
  3. Stephanie Forward ‘A New world for women’ p25
  4. Stephanie Forward ‘A New world for women’ p25
  5. http://hozir.org/a-thousand-splendid-suns-the-burqa-as-a-symbol-of-both-the-soc.html-

 

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