Effect of Moral and Values on Nineteenth-century Dramas and Novels

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To what extent did traditional moral values affect the writing and production of nineteenth-century dramas and novels? Answer this question using the set texts.

In examining the ways in which traditional moral values affected the writing and production of nineteenth-century dramas and novels, with reference to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and The Master Builder, context must be explored. The nineteenth century was a time of societal interest in propriety and civic morality and encouraged a resistance to literary realism. This desire for a return to idealistic writing was, as Oscar Wilde observed, ‘the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass’.[1] French philosophy, influenced by Cartesian dualism, made realism technical to nineteenth-century literature. Realism, encouraged in Taine’s 1858 essay on Balzac and responding to Charles Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species, questioned existing modes of representing human experience. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, accused of criticising the institution of marriage and endorsing adultery, shocked its nineteenth-century readership by subverting idealism and opposing accepted social conventions. Such opposition helped galvanize the antagonism of the court and led critics to equate realism with immorality. The Second French Empire, with its philistine policies, encouraged such hostile reactions to realism; the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences recognised the immoral influence of the serialised novel, the roman-feuilleton. As Harry Levin notes, ‘adultery is not subject to computation; but crimes of passion seemed to be breaking out more and more shockingly; while the suicide rate more than tripled during the years between 1830 and 1880 in France’.[2] Such evidence prompted the courts to question the role of literature in nineteenth-century moral contagion.

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Indeed, the French novel, its accepted immorality reinforced through symbolic yellow covers, dismissed traditional ‘moeurs’(established manners and morals) in favour of realistic representation. As this literature evolved, especially with narratives of women violating the Christian codes of marriage (Madame Bovary anticipated Zola’s 1868 Thérèse Raquin), the heroine had outdated its eighteenth-century characterisation. Realists, like Flaubert, presented marriage as the source of female oppression and the incentive for the rise of the New Woman. As George Becker observes, ‘as the whole of human behaviour and experience…was examined and portrayed with increasing exactness, realistic writers could not escape making statements about man and (society)…which were in violent opposition to those traditionally accepted’.[3] Even with Enlightenment promotion of individual rights, marriage held women as property. Thus, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, although acquitted, was accused of abrogating the codes of marriage and challenging traditional nineteenth-century moral values.

 Similarly, nineteenth-century dramas challenged the accepted moral doctrine of contemporary society. Historically, in Scandinavia throughout the 1880s, Ibsen’s plays so shocked their audience on moral grounds that even to discuss them in polite society was a violation of social propriety. Ibsen’s early plays were so controversial that he was forced to leave Norway for Germany, and in 1880 actress Hedwig Niemann-Raabe refused to act the last scene of A Doll’s House after having critically objected to Ibsen’s female lead abandoning her children. Additionally, when Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler was performed in London in 1891, Ibsen-phobiac (a term used by William Archer) Clement Scott criticised actress Elizabeth Robins for having accepted the part, noting that she had glorified crime and ennobled an immoral woman.

Ibsen wrote for and about the middle-class who, he maintained, were governed by the bureaucratic institutions of marriage, religion, and law. Thus, Ibsen’s opposition to traditional moral values and romanticised ideals, alongside his writing about a recognisable bourgeois society, was deemed a breach of artistic propriety. Indeed, Ibsen’s realism appropriated Jean Jullien’s tranche de vie philosophy and fulfilled Zola’s desire for a theatre of observation. In challenging the traditional function of women and the sanctity of marriage, Ibsen and his fellow realists were able to write about, as he mentions often in letters to Edmund Gosse, the realities of married life. As Michael Egan notes, Ibsen was thought of as ‘the Ibscene dramatist, spearhead of the insidious attack on traditional morality’.[4] Whilst Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was prosecuted for moral outrage, Ibsen’s realism was similarly attacked for its moral indifference and faced bowdlerisation. Thus, both Flaubert and Ibsen, as this essay will demonstrate, faced literary censorship and challenged traditional nineteenth-century morality in a transgressive way.

 In the mid-nineteenth century, realism was equated with a vulgarity that had not previously been accommodated in idealist literature. At the trial of Madame Bovary, Flaubert and his novel were accused of exceeding the limits of propriety and outraging public morality; although acquitted, Ernest Pinard (Flaubert’s prosecutor) condemned the novel for its deviation from the image of Christian morality and the holy family, which was considered the foundation of society. Indeed, Emma Bovary’s infringement of the seventh commandment gave rise to an expression indicative of such immorality: Bovarysme. Flaubert’s first presentation of Emma comes in chapters two and three when Charles Bovary visits her father’s farm: ‘she kept pricking her fingers, which she then put in her mouth and sucked…on the bare skin on her shoulders you could see little beads of sweat…the tip of her tongue, poking between her beautiful teeth, delicately licked at the bottom of the glass’ (pp. 16-22).[5] Emma is introduced in parts, as though the speaker fetishizes her body and foreshadows a future glorification of adultery. Another passage that shocked Flaubert’s prosecutors describes Emma enraptured by adultery: ‘Never had Madame Bovary been as beautiful as she was at this time…Her desires, her sorrows, her experience of sensual pleasure, and her still-unspoiled illusions had, by slow degrees, brought her on, the way a flower is brought on by fertilizer, by rain, by wind, and by sun…she was blossoming in the fullness of her nature…As in the early days of their marriage, Charles found her enchanting, utterly irresistible’ (p. 173). In his employment of pastoral imagery, equating Emma’s beauty to a flower prospering in natural conditions, Flaubert’s account asserts an organic source for what prosecutors saw as a breach of moral values. As Pinard noted, ‘What the author shows us is the poetry of adultery, and I ask you once again if these lascivious pages be not a profound immorality’.[6] Flaubert exacerbates this description of the ameliorative nature of Emma’s adultery by ending with an account of Charles’s admiration for her.

Consequently, the famous scène du fiacre of part three, in which Leon apparently seduces Emma, was found so outrageous to public morality that the Revue de Paris censored it. As Harry Levin observes, ‘when the novelist has not arranged for the triumph of virtue, or modified the conduct of his characters to suit the ethical prepossessions of his readers, they have held him responsible for immoralities which he has simply attempted to describe. Mrs Grundy equated “realistic” to “pornographic”’.[7] Indeed, such insinuating texts, aided by circulating libraries and read almost exclusively by women, were thought by many contemporary critics, including Marx-Aveling, to be the most immoral.

 Similarly, Ibsen, in his A Doll’s House, was condemned by critics for attacking the institution of marriage. The nineteenth-century public criticised Nora on moral grounds and Ibsen on literary ones, for having overstepped the limits literature allowed. In act one, Nora returns home with her Christmas shopping and a forbidden bag of macaroons: ‘Nora: hide… (She puts the bag of macaroons in her pocket and wipes her mouth)…Helmer: You’re sure that sweet tooth didn’t make a little stop at the bakery? Nora: No, Torvald, I swear’ (pp. 147-150).[8] Disobeying her husband even in such a minute way as secretly eating macaroons suggested to Ibsen’s bourgeois audience that Nora was deceitful from the very start, and the ominous verb ‘hide’ was indicative of such defiance and immorality. A Doll’s House was, for most middle-class critics, a subversion of sound art in its presentation of an insubordinate woman. Additionally, Nora forging her father’s signature to borrow money was a profound example of transgression within patriarchal society: ‘Mrs. Linde: No, a wife can’t get a loan without her husband’s permission. Nora: (Tossing her head) Well, but a wife with a head for business, a wife who knows how to be a little clever…it was also great fun, sitting and working and earning money like that. Almost like being a man’ (pp. 155-157).

In their well-known feminist text, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Gilbert and Gubar reference a long history of association between authorship and patriarchy in traditional hegemonic culture (indeed, the pen acts as a phallic symbol). This transgressive act eventually inspires Nora to reject patriarchal authority, that which defines the moral codes and public laws to which she is subjected by her husband. As Joan Templeton notes, ‘The witty title of Granville-Baker’s essay “The Coming of Ibsen”, suggesting the “coming of doom,” perfectly characterizes the apocalyptic effect of A Doll’s House on the English Victorian mind. Ibsen was accused of not merely advocating the destruction of the family, and with it, morality itself, but a kind of godless androgyny; women, in refusing to be compliant, were refusing to be women’.[9] Indeed, whilst critics such as August Strindberg viewed Nora as unwomanly, years later, Freudian criticism considered her abnormal. Thus, Ibsen, through Nora, was frequently accused of opposing nineteenth-century moral values, as well as the sanctity of marriage, which followed the ‘two spheres’ philosophy; an authority which defines the ideal of marriage as based on the subordinate wife.

 Whilst the publication of Ibsen’s 1892 play The Master Builder faced less censorship than both A Doll’s House and Madame Bovary, the drama certainly questions nineteenth-century gender ideals and the institution of marriage. In act two, the conventional moral values of Ibsen’s nineteenth-century audience are enforced through reference to gender: ‘Solness: In the sagas you learn about Vikings who sailed to distant lands…Hilda: And captured women. Solness: – and kept them captive…and behaved with them like the – like the worst of trolls. Hilda: …I think that must have been thrilling…To be carried off’ (pp. 399-400).[10] As Penny Farfan observes, ‘whereas Nora’s plan after she slams the door on her doll’s house is to rethink “what’s written in books”, in The Master Builder, (Hilda Wangel) and Solness…represent their relationship in terms of the marauding men and willingly conquered women of the (Viking) sagas, suggesting that Ibsen saw archetypal gender roles as being deeply and indeed tragically inscribed in the modern imagination’.[11] Such irony, challenging the legitimacy of gender ideals, troubled Ibsen’s bourgeois audience; opposing established order was considered profoundly immoral.

Mrs Solness attempts to uphold a religion of wifely duty (‘Only my simple duty’, p. 403) and blames the distance in her marriage and the death of her children on her failure to adhere to the duties of a wife and mother: ‘Mrs Solness: Yes, for I had duties on both sides. Both to you and to the little ones…if I had only had the strength!’ (p. 386). However, Farfan’s previous criticism is reductive: elsewhere in the play, as we will discover, Ibsen presents Hilda as transgressing this conventional gender ideal by controlling Solness. Also, Mrs Solness’s guilt at having broken society’s moral code is erroneous, as it was her overwhelming sense of duty that caused the death of her children. Thus, like Flaubert, Ibsen questions nineteenth-century moral values through realism in an unprecedented way, disturbing middle-class audiences and affecting the production of his dramas (through censorship and reinterpretations).

 Like Ibsen’s critics, Madame Bovary’s prosecution objected to Flaubert’s treatment of marriage and motherhood. The indictment of established gender ideals is present in both Madame Bovary and Ibsen’s plays: subordinated by her husband and eclipsed by the stereotype of motherhood, society will condemn Nora for leaving her family, whilst Mrs Solness’s devotion to duty and morality orchestrates the breakdown of her marriage. Emma’s reaction to motherhood caused public outrage and prompted censorship: ‘this idea of bearing a male child was like an anticipated revenge for all the powerlessness of her past life…At once passive and compliant, she had to contend with both the weakness of her body and the subjection imposed by the law…always there is desire inviting her on, and, always, convention holding her back’ (p. 79-80). Emma complies to the female role only as a refuge: she conceals her affair with Leon and the shock of Rodolphe’s betrayal in her forced solicitude, but this societal stereotype does not fulfil her for long.

The prosecution also objected to the pejorative phrase, ‘Emma was rediscovering, in adultery, all the banality of marriage’ (p. 258). Here, as elsewhere, the narrator employs free indirect style as a distancing technique; the narrative voice is often expressed through use of ‘Emma’, or the French subject pronoun ‘on’, but never the personal ‘je’. For Senard, Flaubert’s defense, the narrator is an objective guide, one who morally condemns Emma’s behaviour and details her deserved retribution. In this light, the novel becomes a bildungsroman, condemning immorality and acting as an object-lesson for Flaubert’s readership. For Pinard, however, the novel does not present Emma’s death as punishment for her crime; her suicide is a wilful act, as was her adultery, that serves only to compound her behaviour.

 Like many nineteenth-century censorship trials, the trial of Madame Bovary was an attempt to censor examples of crude realism in a society that held morality as the most powerful ideal. However, Senard frequently notes the mistake made by the prosecution in attributing opinions written in free indirect style to Flaubert. As Levin observes, ‘(Flaubert) is not above making sententious and aphoristic pronouncements upon the behaviour of (Emma): “A request for money is the most chilling and blighting of all the winds that blows against love”. Nor does he shrink from stigmatizing Emma’s acts as phases of “corruption” and even “prostitution”’.[12] However, this point is made redundant when Flaubert sympathises with Emma’s plight: ‘poor little woman’ (p. 181) and ‘her poor hands’ (p. 288). The adjective ‘poor’ proved to the court that Madame Bovary was indeed an undermining of marriage and a glorification of adultery. Though acquitted, the court accused Flaubert of outraging public and religious morality and saw such realism as a negation of the ideal. 

 In the years after Ibsen published A Doll’s House, his controversial ending was rendered inconsequential by rewritings and ‘improvements’ that saw Nora return home to her family. Ibsen reluctantly agreed to an alternative ending, which saw Nora remain home, but his effort went unappreciated; Nora relented on hearing her children’s voices, but considered this a sin against herself. Consequently, a new German version titled Nora appeared, in which a fourth act presents an apologetic Nora return to Torvald, who shows his forgiveness and gifts Nora with macaroons as the curtain falls. Again, in 1886, British playwright Henry Arthur Jones produced his Breaking A Butterfly, in which a penitent Nora fails to leave her doll-house and condemns her own immorality: ‘(I am) no wife for a man like you. You are a thousand times too good for me’.[13] Here, Ibsen’s challenge to traditional moral values are censored; this serves as an attempt to revive the well-made play, a bourgeois mode that would successfully reflect established class values and reject examples of such crude realism. 

A century later, An Anthology of Norwegian Literature published another alternative ending, rendering Nora powerless once more. Ibsen’s denouement ends thus: ‘Helmer: (Sinking down into a chair by the door and burying his face in his hands.) Empty. She’s not here. (A hope flares up in him.) The most wonderful thing of all -? (From below, the sound of a door slamming shut)’ (p. 206). The 1976 anthology substitutes a new final scene: as Torvald cries for Nora to return, she hopes for a miraculous reunion. In such revisions, the offensive slamming of the door is removed and we are expected to believe that, as Nora is forced back home, the Helmer marriage can be saved. Additionally, Nora’s exit directly attacked motherly solicitude and the institution of marriage as Ibsen questioned the authority of the idealised family. When Nora realises that she has duties other than those of a ‘wife and mother’, those she recognises as ‘duties to myself’ (p. 203), Ibsen’s bourgeois audience accused Nora of immorality and rejecting nineteenth-century ideals.

 Like Madame Bovary, Ibsen’s drama renounces the female stereotype and divorces maternalism from childbearing. In abandoning her family and realising how ill-equipped she is to raise children, Nora is accused of rejecting her ‘most sacred duties’: ‘I’m not equal to the task. There’s another task I have to get through first. I have to try to teach myself’ (p. 202). In fact, Ibsen’s nineteenth-century audience was so disturbed by A Doll’s House that many critics deliberately mistook it for a comedy, and twentieth-century critics continued to view it as such. In his 1925 study, Hermann Weigand interpreted Ibsen’s drama in this way, as Joan Templeton observes: ‘The erratic behaviour of this “daughter of Eve” leaves us laughing heartily, for there is no doubt that she will return home to “revert, imperceptibly, to her role of song-bird and charmer”’[14]. Bourgeois philosophy encouraged idealism, preferring the ‘visible to the invisible’; thus, Ibsen’s rejection of the well-made play, a bourgeois form reflecting the moral values of this middle-class society, was repudiated through such rewritings and bowdlerisations.[15]

 Similarly, the production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder was criticised for its portrayal of an immoral seductress, which challenged contemporary assumptions about the proper subject of art. Though reactions were not as hostile as those A Doll’s House and Madame Bovary received, Hilda Wangel was considered a threat to social order and a physical representation of Ibsen’s attack on marriage. In act one, Solness fears God’s punishment after having dedicated his work, not to churches for the glory of God, but to secular homes: ‘youth will come here knocking at the door’ (p. 372). Thus, Hilda, on arriving at that very moment, was viewed as the retributive force whose immorality destroys not only a marriage, but a life. Indeed, the vein of childlike idolatry that characterises the account of Solness’s climb implicates a sexual experience; Hilda’s excitement at the possibility of Solness falling to his death follows a narrative of ‘la petite morte’, a reference to sexual orgasm. Hilda’s sexual amorality is thus associated with Solness’s coming fall: ‘It was so wonderfully thrilling to stand below…Imagine, if he should fall. He, the master builder himself! (p. 377).

Hilda’s rejection of contemporary moral values, in seducing a married man, shocked Ibsen’s bourgeoise audience: ‘Hilda: …duty. Oh, I can’t stand that hideous, vicious word… (Very fiercely.) And why not a bird of prey! Why shouldn’t I go hunting, too? Take the prey I want? (p. 389; p. 400). As an unsigned review from the contemporary Saturday Review observed, ‘(Hilda) reminds us…of the sorceress Matilda in The Monk’.[16] Like the Valkyrie Hild, Hilda uses flattery and sexual allure to influence Solness’s decision not to climb: ‘Mrs Solness: Oh God, Miss Wangel, don’t even imagine such a thing! My husband -! When he gets so dizzy! …Hilda: Is it true, or isn’t it?…That my master builder dare not – can not climb as high as he builds? (p. 404). Hilda, in persuading Solness to ignore the warnings of his wife and climb the tower, was considered an amoral siren, directly attacking the values of duty and Christian morality. Thus, Ibsen’s The Master Builder, although not subject to critical revision, was considered a scandalous drama, which criticised social convention and directly attacked the sanctity of marriage.

Ultimately, both Flaubert and Ibsen’s rejection of nineteenth-century moral values affected the writing and production of their work. The prosecution for the 1857 trial of Madame Bovary accused Flaubert of outraging public morality and undermining marriage; although acquitted, Flaubert faced censorship from a prosecution that held morality as the most salient point of reference when judging the legitimacy of a novel. Additionally, the publication of A Doll’s House so shocked Ibsen’s bourgeoise audience that the show’s German actress refused to act its last scene, and the original script was frequently bowdlerised, forcing Nora back inside her doll-house and encouraging societal edification. Similarly, Ibsen’s The Master Builder was criticised for its abrogation of marriage vows; Hilda’s amorality greatly offended a society so influenced by social order and propriety. Thus, even to mention such texts in polite society was an affront to civic morality and, in this way, the writing and publication of such nineteenth-century dramas and novels was greatly affected.


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[3] George J. Becker, Documents of Modern Literary Realism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 34. 

[4] Michael Egan, Henrik Ibsen: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1997), p.9.

[5] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[6] Ernest Pinard, quoted in Peter Brooks, Realist Vision (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 59-60.

[7] Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 75.

[8] Henrik Ibsen, ‘A Doll’s House’, Ibsen’s Selected Plays, ed. by Brian Johnston(New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), pp. 143-206.

[9] Joan Templeton, Ibsen’s Women (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), n.pg.

[10] Henrik Ibsen, ‘The Master Builder’, Ibsen’s Selected Plays (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), pp. 357-422.

[11] Penny Farfan, ‘Reading, Writing, and Authority in Ibsen’s “Women’s Plays”’, Modern Drama, 45.1 (2002), 1-8 (6).

[12] Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 264.

[13] Ibid, n.pg.

[14] Ibid, n.pg.

[15] Richard Gilman, The Making of Modern Drama (New York: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 69.

[16] Saturday Review, quoted in Michael Egan, Henrik Ibsen: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 292.

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