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During the beginning of the 19th century, women have emancipated and rebelled in their own ways against the norms and values of the society. We can notice that the theme of rebellion has been depicted in both ‘A Doll's House' and ‘Antigone'. In ‘A Doll's House' by Henrik Ibsen, it is Nora Helmer who is first introduced and in ‘Antigone' by Sophocles, the girl who rises up alone against King Creon and dies young is first presented. We can thus say that in both plays, the dramatists have used female characters as their main protagonists to put forward the theme of rebellion and to show its outcome each in a male dominant society.
In ‘A doll's house' and ‘Antigone' both Antigone and Nora step into the spotlight as the female hero who has been put in a compromising situation and is forced to decide whether it is more important to follow what society dictates, or go with what they feel is moral and just. They go against the accepted social and legal norms of a woman's role in their respective society. They do so for several different reasons. Nora in ‘A Doll's House' rebels at first to keep her world intact and then again to throw away that world which she ends up seeing as a lie. In ‘Antigone', the female protagonist rebels because she understands that after having lost all that she held dear; the only option left for her is to do what she knows is morally right, that is to bury her brother Polynices though it was illegal.
Nora's first rebellious act against the social restrictions placed on women is to secure a loan. She does this to ensure that she and her family can take a long vacation in Italy so that her husband Torvald can recover his health after being sick.
Not only has she secured a loan, but she has also managed to meet all the monthly payments without her husband's consent. At that time, a wife could not borrow money without her husband's authority but Nora while acting childish all the time has managed to do the impossible. Nora accomplishes all this by simply constantly lying to Torvald, her husband. She states, when speaking to Mrs Linde, that her husband must not know of her deceptions because of how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence to know that he owed her anything.
Nora prides herself on doing all that she can do to protect her husband, but she is also protecting her doll-like existence unconsciously. She does not say anything in order not to hurt Torvald. What Nora does not realise yet is that by going against the social and legal expectations of her day to secure her happiness at any cost, she is beginning to let out her rebellious side. Although she plays the fool for her husband, she is an extremely resourceful woman. This is the side of Nora that has eventually enabled her to leave her family and false existence to become the person she was meant to be or that she wanted to be or else as she says to Torvald at the end of the play, ‘understand myself and everything about me'.
Nora's act of leaving her husband and children to discover herself is an ultimate act of rebellion against the accepted social, legal and moral norms of her day. This act is foreshadowed when while explaining to Mrs Linde how she has earned, some of the money to pay off her monthly dept, Nora says ‘but all the same it was a tremendous pleasure to sit there working and earning money. It was like being a man'. She is a person who is starting to see her own abilities and wants more out of life than what she is being offered.
In ‘Antigone', the main character's strength, determination and courage are evident as soon as the reader meets with her in the play. She has survived the shame that Oedipus has brought to the family and the death of her two brothers Eteocles and Polynices.
Antigone has the ability to go against Creon's orders and tells him that his laws mean nothing to her and that she must follow the ‘immortal unrecorded laws of God'. She thus dares to go against King Creon to stand by what she considers to be just and morally equitable, that is to give his brother a decent and deserving burial even if it means her own death. Antigone even refuses to allow her sister Ismene to die with her since Ismene might be martyred for something she did not have the courage or conviction to stand up for the first place.
The expectations of the society Antigone lives in, are challenged just by the fact that it is a woman who is acting against the law. She takes advantage of the fact that she is a woman, not a man, to transgress the laws of the land. Creon himself says ‘no man is to touch him (Polynices) or say the least prayer for him', and upon learning that someone has defied him and is trying to bury Polynices, ‘the man who has done this shall pay for it'. Ironically it was a ‘woman' who had done this. It is not expected for a woman to behave in such a way where she breaks the norms and values of the society.
Antigone also rebels in her own ways against the lack of consideration given to the feelings of women in political matters. Antigone therefore decides to stand by family ties and to discard purely political matters. The feelings that Antigone and Ismene have for their brother are not even taken into account by Creon as he sees Polynices as nothing more than a traitor and someone to be dealt with as the law indicates. The fact that the dead man is his own nephew is not an issue to Creon. Family means far less to him than being a powerful King so he cannot grasp the extent of Antigone's feelings. He foreshadows Torvald, Nora's husband who puts his honour above family. Unlike the men in their lives, Nora and Antigone pledge their allegiance to family and finally the sense of self that enables each one of them to do what they feel is right no matter what the consequences or outcome and the consequences for both are extreme as Nora tells Torvald ‘that is what women have been doing for years'. Thus this shows that Nora uses her capacity to act ignorant to turn the situation to her advantage.
While Antigone defied Creon's orders, this led her to commit suicide in the end. This death is highly symbolical to a rebellious act as she stood by her choice till the end. She succeeded in confronting against Creon's orders and moreover Creon could not take any action against Antigone as she chose to end her life on her own. Thus we can say that Antigone has succeeded in breaking free from the martyrdom that she was going to endure. On the other hand, Nora's defiant act of leaving her husband and children has also led to her loneliness. She is courageous and through a gradual process she achieved liberty. Both Torvald and Creon realize too late the consequences of their behaviour. After yelling at Nora, and revealing to her in not so many words that she is merely a doll in his dollhouse, Torvald tries to apologize. Likewise, after much debate, Creon heads to the cave where he had exiled Antigone to free her. In both instances their apologies are too late. After Torvald's soliloquy, Nora walks out on her family to find a new life and discover herself. On the other side, when Creon arrives to his destination, he finds Antigone hanged, and his son dead by his own hand. It is due to both men's' stubbornness that both stories take this tragic turn.
We can thus say that, in both texts the female protagonists have triumphed in different ways and had different reasons for going against society's norms. They both in fact know that they will end up alone, but their love for justice and rebelliousness are too strong for them to abandon. Hence in their rebellion they opened the door for many other women to defy social norms, which they can no longer accept.