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In this presentation, I will be examining how gender inequality and the ways in which women work against gender bias are presented through Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Thetis' and Henrik Ibsen's Play 'A Doll's House.'
Thetis is a poem taken from Carol Ann Duffy's contemporary anthology: The World's Wife, which takes historical female figures and subverts the power dynamics of their respective relationships. This notion is also animated by 'A Doll's House', a Norwegian play produced over 100 years earlier in 1879, proving the timeless nature and importance of both texts. Here Jeanette Winterson's description of Duffy's poetry as being a 'conversation across time' is truly substantiated by this confluence of Thetis and A Doll's House.
The absence of gender equality results in unequal access to education, abuse, and significantly, even in supposedly 'developed' countries such as the United Kingdom, a stark gender pay gap can be noted. From this the question arises: How do women survive in societies where they are expected to be subservient?
The differing authorial choices of form converge in their presentation of gender inequality as dynamic and pervasive, while simultaneously creating a narrative proximity between the audience and characters. As a consequence, these audiences are unsettled and urged to empathise.
Thetis is a poem while A Doll's House is a classical, narrative play. Duffy's choice of form allows for a fragmented and elliptic portrayal which is representative of the pervasive nature of gender inequality. Alternatively, the absence of a narrator and extensive dialogue in Ibsen's play allows for greater internal focalisation, and also realism which allows the audience to better empathise with the female characters. This can be evidenced by Act 3 with the stage direction 'In a hurried and breathless whisper' where the descriptive adjective 'breathless' symbolises how draining the patriarchy can be. The extensive half-rhyme of Thetis is atypical, as in contrast to extensive full rhyme, it creates a subtly discordant tone. Thereby unsteadying the reader and opening them to questions about their preconceptions.
Both authors utilise the titles of their works to question the ability of women to work against societal confines. The title of Duffy's poem, Thetis, references the persona of the poem. From Greek Mythology, Thetis was the Goddess of the Water who was forced to enter an arranged marriage despite trying to avoid it through shapeshifting. Consequently, the title is symbolic of Thetis' failure to escape male dominance and the reader's conclusion is that women don't survive in these patriarchal societies unless they conform and renounce their hopes of independence. Another reader interpretation could be that Thetis is a symbol of female independence, as she is afforded her own name instead of being referred to as an addition to a man. Other poem titles from the anthology include Mrs Midas and Pilate's wife which reduce these characters to possessions.
With Ibsen's title 'A Doll's House,' synecdoche is employed to present the house as representative of the greater setting of the play. 'House' connotes the domestic confines of Nora's life while lacking the warmth that the audience would associate with a home. Alternatively, 'Doll' connotes artifice and childlike innocence which could be interpreted as reflecting the way in which Nora is infantilised by her husband Torvald who refers to her as 'poor little girl' and his 'little songbird' throughout Act 1.
In both extracts, birds are used to symbolise female powerlessness. In the first stanza of Thetis, Duffy disconcerts the reader through her employment of the verb 'shrank.' 'Shrank' connotes something unnatural and modified, yet this is juxtaposed against the imagery of the bird with its intrinsic organic nature. Here, Duffy addresses and accentuates the artifice of the patriarchy and the unnatural behaviour it inspires in humanity. This is then underscored by the repetition of the adjective 'sweet' which the reader attributes to the bird's song. This bird song is a metaphor for women trying to escape their environments through gentle, sometimes unnoticed protest.
Ibsen also draws on this image of the bird and distorts the audience's perceptions of it. While birds are ordinarily considered to be the archetypal symbols of freedom, in Act 1 page 47, Ibsen places the image of the bird next to the possessive pronoun 'my.' This appears to be oxymoronic. Furthermore, Ibsen extends this imagery through Torvald demanding that Nora produce 'no false notes.' This is ironic, because the only characters who enforce artificial conditions on other characters are male. This greatly undermines Torvald and could be Ibsen highlighting the hypocrisy of the patriarchy to a male audience with wives who were unable to take out loans in their own name. Thereby causing these men to question their ethical frameworks. This questioning is then further encouraged by Ibsen later in the text during the resolution of Act 3. When Nora utilises the declarative sentence 'Goodbye.' The audience could perceive this as a form of direct address, where Ibsen exhorts the male audience to change their ways for fear of being left behind, just as Nora leaves Torvald.
In the second stanza of Thetis there is a moment of symbolic repression shown through the metaphor of 'wings' being 'clipped.' The plosive double 'pp' consonant sounds of 'clipped' are symbolic of the uncaring violence of this action. Accordingly, this metaphor shows how even when Thetis tries to escape the confines of societal expectation, she is forcibly cut short. This is paralleled by this extract from the exposition of A Doll's House in which Torvald interrupts Nora with a forceful tone saying 'Well, out with it' in line 10. Cutting Nora off before she has finished speaking. In comparison to Nora's consistent use of uncertain interrogative sentences such as line 10's 'Wouldn't that be fun?', Torvald's imperative interjection is powerful. The exclamation mark further enhances this and the lack of dashes as found in line 6 and 9 in Nora's dialogue, demonstrates his self-assurance. Duffy and Ibsen thereby suggest that women are consistently working against gender bias, but their efforts are silenced.
Despite illustrating the powerlessness of women in patriarchal societies, Ibsen and Duffy also depict the power intrinsic to women. In Thetis, in line 1 of the third stanza there is a marked tonal shift in which Thetis is strengthened through nature. Duffy constructs an extended metaphor of Thetis being 'wind' and 'gas' which are two powerful natural elements. Through this metaphor, Duffy seems to suggest that women are closer to nature than men and this affords them power. Furthermore, this is juxtaposed against the artifice of societal confines as highlighted earlier. This notion is further substantiated by line 30 of the A Doll's House extract where Nora is described as having 'soul' which is notably absent from male figures. While women are presented as a continuation of nature and the spiritual world, men are depicted as being concerned with their own destructive forces.
The first-person narrative perspective of Thetis reflects the power she possesses in her life; however, this is simultaneously contradicted by the enjambment that is prevalent in every stanza. Consequently, the poem takes the form of a stream of consciousness. Although the prevalence of the first-person pronoun 'I' suggests Thetis' control over the poem, the enjambment connotes words falling from her mouth with little control. Moreover, the fourth stanza anchors this idea that Thetis is actually less powerful than Nora of A Doll's House. While 'flame' connotes strength and nature, the textual proximity to 'asbestos' which is heat-resistant undermines Thetis' strength. It is suggested to the reader that she cannot win in this society, because for every weapon she has, the patriarchy has a counter.
On the other hand, in A Doll's House, Ibsen portrays Nora as being smarter than the male characters. This is evident when we look towards line 28 where the stage directions suggest that she smiles 'quietly.' Although Nora is consistently referred to as a 'little, sweet person' by her husband, her quiet smile indicates knowing. This is then further enhanced by the dramatic irony of 'You have no idea' which is enabled by the separation of audience knowledge and character knowledge unique to plays. While the audience is aware that Nora is the protagonist who has taken out a secret loan, Torvald sees her as being his pawn. Ergo, Torvald is undermined and the woman is afforded greater power. Here, the audience's perception of gender bias as creating weak, subservient women is challenged.
The endings of 'Thetis' and A Doll's House are poignant as they suggest two different conclusions for women in patriarchal societies. Despite Duffy's lyrical form and figurative language, this beauty is not transferred to the storyline of Thetis. Rather in the final stanza of the poem Duffy creates an image of a 'child burst(ing) out.' The plosive b of 'burst' coupled with the lack of warm visual imagery connotes pain and suffering as a result of this birth. Similarly, 'child' connotes continuity, growth and a natural cycle. Accordingly, Duffy suggests that for Thetis there is no escape from societal confines. In contrast, at the end of 'A Doll's House,' Nora's earlier questioning tone is replaced by the resolute 'Goodbye' which signifies her abandoning the confines of her life and walking out. To the question arising from the global issue: How do women survive in societies where they are expected to be subservient? Duffy asserts that they conform, while Ibsen suggests that they challenge it. Ultimately the reader of Duffy's poem is left with a sense of melancholy which could encourage them to seek change, whereas Ibsen's audience is left with a sense of optimism which could encourage them to take part in the contemporaneous existing change.
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