Gender Roles in “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen and “Fences” by August Wilson

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 Society has a way of defining the roles of men and women, husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers. Some couples fall comfortably in these defined roles and can have fulfilled lives, while others struggle within this stereotypical structure that constitutes a happy family. In the two dramatic plays “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen, and “Fences” by August Wilson gender role is an important theme. The female characters in each of the plays, Nora and Rose, stay home and are portrayed as unable to work to support their families. The male characters, Torvald and Troy, are shown as the financial providers who control the household but have no meaningful family relationships. As husbands, Torvald treats his wife like a doll while Troy expects his to be a dutiful woman. And as wives, Nora and Rose are mentally and physically controlled by their husbands. As fathers, both men exert opinion and power over their children, while the mothers nurture in the case of Rose, or become their playmate like Nora. Both playwrights develop their characters, use exposition, and institute language, (dialogue) to effectively explore how stereotypical gender roles can create conflicts in relationships that become unrepairable.

 Characterization is used successfully in both plays to illustrate the conflicts that arise with gender role restrictions. In “A Doll’s House” Torvald is the only one who works in the family, which is a traditional role for a man. He tells Nora “You talk like a child. You don’t understand the conditions of the world in which you live.” (Ibsen, 814) His character believes in the traditional roles for women as staying in the home and caring for the children. Nora does not have outside employment, and her character is considered a homemaker. However, because of the household income level, Nora does not have to perform the typical female responsibilities. Instead, she has a maid to perform the cleaning and a nanny to take care of her children. If Nora needs money, she must ask Torvald for it. This includes money for everyday household expenses, as well as things she may want like a new gown or money to buy the children Christmas gifts. Before marrying Torvald, Nora is described as an obedient daughter who was “transferred from her father to her husband.” (Ibsen, 817) Similarly, in “Fences” Troy is the sole provider for his family. However, while Nora must ask her husband for money, Troy gives his pay to Rose each Friday. He is raised by a father who tells him that he doesn’t care for him out of love, but instead it is out of responsibility. Troy’s character is proud of his success in providing for his family, but he is weighted down carrying the burden of all these responsibilities, which includes building the fence. Rose is the classic housewife. Unlike Nora, she is expected to perform the traditional household duties such as cleaning, cooking and caring for the children. She loves Troy and wants to be a good wife and sacrifices in order to meet society’s expectations. Rose says “Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes?” (Wilson, 884) She allows Troy to control her in exchange for giving her protection by saying “that’s what life offered me in the way of being a woman and I took it.” (Wilson, 886) With these lead characters, the storylines in each of the plays then focuses on a conflicted plot where, because of gender roles, relationships are damaged.

 In both “A Doll’s House” and “Fences” Nora and Rose make sacrifices for their husbands strengthening the exposition and theme surrounding gender roles. However, instead of earning their husbands’ respect and love, both women ultimately end their relationships. When Nora’s husband becomes ill, she borrows money, forging her father’s signature on the promissory note. This action goes against typical gender roles, because women are not allowed to borrow without their husband’s consent. She squanders money in order to make the monthly payments, because Torvald would not allow her to work stating “Socially, only widows got jobs.” (Ibsen, 837) Then, in the final act, Nora reveals to Torvald her secret. She imagines that Torvald will see her sacrifices and is “waiting for the miracle” (Ibsen, 835) that their marital bond will be stronger after her secret is revealed. However, instead of recognizing her sacrifice, Torvald’s ego is damaged. “I would gladly work night and day for you, Nora –bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.” (Ibsen, 833) After hearing this, Nora decides to leave Torvald and her children realizing that she doesn’t even know who she is. “I have learned that when a wife deserts her husband’s house, as I am doing now, he is legally freed from all obligations towards her.” (Ibsen, 842) Similarly, Rose is asked to make sacrifices for her husband in “Fences.” However, her sacrifice comes out of the actions of Troy. Rose is expected to be the mother to all of Troy’s children, but their relationship is tested when Troy confesses to Rose that he is having an affair with a woman named Alberta. Rose is performing her daily activities of taking care of the family and preparing the meal when Troy announces, “I’m trying to find a way to tell you…I’m gonna be a daddy.” (Wilson, 908) An argument begins, where Rose asks Troy “why?” and he responds that he feels free with Alberta and he can “just be a part of himself that he ain’t never been” (Wilson, 913) And, even as Rose explains that that she has given up her needs and wants and “buried them inside” (Wilson, 917), Troy refuses to end his affair. But Rose’s ultimate sacrifice comes six months later when Troy asks Rose to take care of his child, Raynell, after Alberta dies in childbirth. She agrees but says “From right now…this child got a mother. But you a womanless man.” (Wilson, 923) While different than Nora, who completely freed herself from Torvald in “A Doll’s House,” Rose only cuts her emotional ties from Troy by agreeing to stay and care for his children.

 Finally, the language/dialogue used in both “A Doll’s House” and “Fences” directly supports the importance of gender role and its damaging effect it can have on relationships. Rather than calling his wife by her name, Torvald has nicknames for Nora such as “my little squirrel,” “songbird,” and “lark” which are patronizing. He also states that Nora should be “Before all else a wife and mother. (Ibsen, 845). Torvald’s control over Nora is also stated, when Nora lies about eating a macaroon by saying “You know I could never think of going against you.” (Ibsen, 850) And, because Nora needs to act like a helpless songbird, she could not tell Torvald about her forged loan because it would damage his “masculine pride” and “just ruin their relationship.” (Ibsen, 853). When Nora realizes Torvald’s dominance over her and makes her decision to leave, she says “I believe that, before all else, I’m a human being, no less than you-or anyway, I ought to try to become one.” (Ibsen, 879) Similar to Torvald in “A Doll’s House,” Troy, in “Fences,” doesn’t call Rose by her name. Instead, he calls her “woman” which feels distant and cold. As Rose reflects on her life with Troy, she has stayed with him, although the road has been “hard and rocky” (Wilson, 924). After confessing to his affair, Troy won’t give up Alberta saying that he is a “different man” (Wilson, 925) with her where he doesn’t have the weight of his family burdens. And, when Rose makes the ultimate sacrifice to stay with Troy and raise Raynell, she says “I been standing with you!…I gave you eighteen year of my life to stand in the same spot with you.” (Wilson, 917).

In conclusion, in using characters, exposition, and language both Henrik Ibsen in “A Doll’s House” and August Wilson in “Fences” effectively explore how stereotypical gender roles can create conflicts in relationships that become unrepairable. In both plays the women are expected to stay home and sacrifice their own wants and needs for their husbands and children. The men have a duty to provide for their families, and both have expectations as to how their wives and children should perform in life. The men never have the realization that their roles lack partnership and depth, so that in the end, both women are forced to take a stand that changes their marriages forever.

Works Cited

  • Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. New York: Norton, 1953. pp. 813-871.
  • Wilson, August. “Fences.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. New York: Norton, 1953. pp. 874-933.
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