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Individual against Society in A Doll’s House and Porphyria’s Lover Kevin Han 12th Grade


Browning’s significant monologues Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess critique Victorian society’s limiting patriarchal worths which reduced a female’s endeavors for individualism. On the other hand, Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House condemns the pretense of an optimistic marital relationship within a social hierarchy through his female lead character, Nora. Both authors eventually demonstrate the implications of their characters’ attempts to subvert society’s expectations.

Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, Porphyria’s Lover, challenges Victorian society’s dominant patriarchal values by critiquing society’s tendency to undermine the role of females. The 1800s in England saw a period of misogynistic worths imposed upon females, leading to the suppressing of their autonomy. Nevertheless, Browning subverts these gender stereotypes through his portrayal of Porphyria, who transgresses social conventions when she visits her fan during the night. The pathetic fallacy of ‘The rain set early in to-night/The sullen wind was soon awake’ establishes the persona’s unsteady state of mind and foreshadows the repercussions of Porphyria’s independence. Additionally, having “laid her soil ‘d gloves by” and “let the wet hair fall”, Browning defines Porphyria as a ‘fallen lady’ who was condemned by Victorian society for being unchaste. Browning asserts Porphyria’s self-determination through the use of polysyndeton in “And made her smooth white shoulder bare … And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair”, evoking a sensuous environment, which challenges Victorian restraints on females’s habits. However, the repetition in “that moment she was mine, mine reasonable” demonstrates a role turnaround, which exemplifies her fan’s objectification of Victorian women and his possessiveness. The effects of female independence are exposed in “yellow string I wound … And strangled her”, where Porphyria’s hair, at first a symbol of her femininity, ultimately silences her, overemphasizing the injustice of Victorian women under patriarchal control. Browning eventually employs the spiritual allusion, “And yet God has not said a word!” to ironically highlight the reputation of her lover’s actions, unlike Porphyria’s sexual autonomy which was condemned by the patriarchal society. Hence, Browning condemns the suppression of women’s sexuality in Victorian England through taking a look at Porphyria’s unconventional conduct.

On the other hand, Ibsen’s play A Doll’s Home transgresses Victorian expectations of bourgeois women’s subservience towards their spouses through Nora’s failure to follow her ascribed domestic function. The male supremacy that restrained a woman’s self-determination is established in Torvald’s patronizing animal imagery, “my little lark … squirrel”, showing the preconceived inferiority of Victorian women. This is strengthened in Ibsen’s phase direction of Nora “having fun with buttons, not taking a look at him”, where her childish frivolity shows her subservient role in her relationship, and demonstrates the patriarchal dominance of late 19th century society. In addition, Torvald’s condescending language towards Nora, “Just like a woman! … you understand what I think about that. No debt! No borrowing!” exemplifies society’s anticipation of a female’s fiscal irresponsibility. The presumed dependence of ladies in this period is more epitomized in Nora’s buddy Mrs Linde’s generalization, “A partner can’t borrow without her husband’s permission”. Yet Nora transcends social expectations by “working and making money. Nearly like a man” to pay back the loan, the simile symbolizing her subversion of standard gender functions, which mirrors Porphyria in Browning’s poem. The mad tarantella dance in addition to Ibsen’s stage directions” [Nora’s] hair falls … she pays no attention” symbolize growing independence and shows her desire to liberate herself from social expectations. Hence, Ibsen condemns the suppression of female conduct and stresses the need to get rid of limiting patriarchal values within society.

Browning’s remarkable monologue My Last Duchess also critiques society’s restrictions by analyzing the repercussions of a female person’s subversion of social pretenses and hierarchy. The Wife’s Home Act in 1882 permitted women to keep their possessions after divorce, subsequently exposing the façade of marriage as ladies abandoned their marital tasks. The reduced value of ladies is developed through the individual pronoun “my last duchess painted on the wall”, where the artwork signifies the Duke’s objectification of his late other half, weakening her existence to mere aesthetics. Through the parenthetical aside, “(given that none puts by/The drape I have drawn for you, however I)”, Browning exemplifies the Duke’s excessive hubris towards his envoy when presenting his deceased better half as an object to verify his social status. The Duke’s displeasure of his wife’s metaphorical “area of pleasure … too soon made happy, Too easily amazed” epitomizes his patriarchal condemnation of her fundamental geniality, which breaches the class boundaries Victorian females were expected to embody. In addition, Browning marks the Duchess’ undermining of the Duke’s social position through the significance in “She liked whate’er she searched, and her appearances went everywhere”, with the unfavorable connotations foreshadowing her downfall. The truncated sentences, “This grew; I provided commands” shows the Duke’s autocratic behavior, and mentions the alarming repercussions of the Duchess’ failure to fulfill her role within the social hierarchy. Browning concludes the monologue with a mythical allusion, “Notification Neptune, however,/ Taming a sea-horse”, where the Roman god’s dominance over a delicate animal foreshadows the Duke’s authority over his next better half. Therefore, Browning condemns the suppression of females in a class-conscious society through the consequences of the Duchess’ unorthodox behavior, and motivates greater female autonomy.

Nevertheless, unlike the submission of the Duchess in Browning’s remarkable monologue, Ibsen denounces the pretense of marital relationship within social hierarchy which suppresses autonomy and advocates for a lady’s subversion of her domestic duties to reinforce her identity. While Nora’s costuming as a “little Capri fishergirl” represents youth and sensuality, traditional for 19th century ladies, the stage instructions of “dancing more and more extremely” signifies her desire for liberation from her marriage facade. Nora’s phase directions as she secretively “puts the macaroons in her pocket and wipes her mouth” shows her forbidden intake of sweets which symbolizes her long for independence within a limiting marital relationship. In addition, Nora understands the pretense of her marriage, epitomized in the symbolic “Changing. No more fancy dress”, where the clothes concept reveals the subversion of social expectations resulting in her empowerment, unlike the Duchess who fails to liberate herself from social confinements. Nora’s surprise that “I’m your dolly-wife, just as I utilized to be Daddy’s dolly child” exemplifies her recognition of social hierarchy that objectifies the female specific and restricts her autonomy. Nora eventually abandons her maternal and marital responsibilities through her use of personal pronouns, “I believe that very first I’m a person, much like you” which marks her self-determination to reinforce her female identity. The final slamming of the door represents Nora’s emancipation from domestic duties in her confining marriage. For that reason, Ibsen challenges the societal restrictions imposed on females through Nora’s individualistic pursuit of her perfects.

Both Browning and Ibsen expose the repercussions of their characters’ individualistic attempts to subvert social expectations. While Browning shocks his audience with the unforeseeable consequences of his female people in their intentions to transgress female propriety and ascribed domestic functions, Ibsen exposes the empowerment that females get after deserting social mores.

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