How important is change of fortune in a tragedy? Does a character need to fall from a high place for a work to be considered a tragedy or can the protagonist start from a lower place and remain there? choose two contrasting works and discuss.
Change of fortune plays a significant role in the enactment of a tragedy. Unlike Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, which deals exclusively with protagonists from the ruling or the noble class, A Doll’s House explores the realms of tragedy touching the lives of ordinary people, showing that the misfortunes and travesties of so-called ordinary people can be poignant and touch the hearts of the audience. What it basically signifies in this case is a sense of loss and pathos centered around the main characters in the play. Henrik Ibsen has been able to drive this point home very powerfully in A Doll’s House. Nora and Torvald, the main characters, belong to an ordinary middle-class family and the tragedy that befalls them is of a very private nature but whose enactment has implications for the whole society. This play has been called a tragedy of two endings because after the publication of the first version, Ibsen was forced to write an alternate ending to the play in order to appease the German audiences (Hanssen).
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A tragedy means that there is a conflict of characters, values and morals in the play. This involves development of the storyline in such a way, that it brings about a change in fortune of all the characters within the play. Ibsen provided an ending to this play that teases the mind of the audience and leaves it open for subjective interpretation. He wove brief but important events into the story which also showed the tragedies existing within characters, their society and traditions. The original tragic ending of the play was highlighted by Nora leaving her husband and her children. Nora resorted to taking a path that was lonely and fraught with difficulties in order to discover her self and fulfill her “duties to herself” before she was ready to fulfill her responsibilities as a wife and mother. The option she chose was rather unusual for her contemporary society and one that conservative and conventional people would not easily accept. This event demonstrates Ibsen’s predilection towards feminism and creating strong feminine characters in his plays.
This theme is also used by Susan Glaspell in her one-act play called Trifles. However, the treatment of this sensitive subject is very different in these two plays. On the one hand, Nora decides to take on the male dominated society and equip herself to face it boldly and on the other, Minnie opts for the dangerous, yet short-term goal of murdering her husband in order to escape oppressions. One of the most important quotes to support the change of fortune in Nora’s case was: “You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life” (Doll’s House, III).
She realized that neither her father nor her husband had given her enough credit to be a responsible and mature human being and be taken seriously. She laments the fact that she had remained a doll-child and a doll-wife all her life. She had passively accepted this role to conform to the norms of society. She knew that she was expected to play the role of a pretty “featherbrained” woman who needed to be petted and taken care of constantly. She did not think that the oft repeated plea “But I can’t get on a bit without you to help me” (Doll’s House, II) was in effect a result of her utter dependence on her husband; a dependence which was encouraged by Torvald and the society at large. Torvald was protective and caring of Nora but what he actually was trying to achieve was have complete control over her thoughts and actions. At the end of the play, the tragedy is more about Torvald’s failure to maintain the illusion of his being the most upright, principled and in short, the most perfect man. His realization that he had fallen in the eyes of a woman whom he felt condescendingly about heightens the sense of tragedy. He would often preach to Nora about her lack of principles which she had apparently inherited from her father and reprimanded her by calling her “a hypocrite, a liar-worse, worse–a criminal! The unutterable ugliness of it all!–For shame! For shame!” (Doll’s House, III). The unmasking of his own hypocrisy and the ugliness of being exposed to be a petty, judgmental and selfish man makes the audience understand that in spite of all his sermonizing, he was the one who lacked any principles as he was ready to drop everything and forget about the whole incident as soon as his own back was covered.
We can observe a definite change of pace in the story towards the end of the second act which is heightened by the flurry of activities right at the end of the play after Doctor Rank’s cards have been discovered. Ever since Nora confided in Mrs. Linde and she decided to step in and play fairy godmother, things began to precipitate and move towards a more decisive conclusion.
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With regard to the question of characters falling from a high position, this was the approach towards tragedy in the age of Aristotle and classical Greek tragedies. This theory is being challenged by Ibsen’s play as the protagonists are not highly placed in society. Falling from a higher place down to a lower one is very subjective and does not really relate to tragedy. In actual analysis of the original tragic ending, Nora was actually in a “lower place” during the beginning of the play and was elevated to a “higher place” due to her realization of her identity. The realization and recognition by Nora of her transformation from being “simply your little songbird” to a whole human being who had the potential to grow to be a woman of more substance. She also understood that Torvald had always maintained a certain facade with her, which was contrary to his actual being. She says, ” I realized that for eight years I’d been living here with a strange man…” (Doll House, III) and that steeled her determination to begin from scratch and live up to her potential.
In the original ending, Nora appears to be strong and determined to the point of being heartless as she abandons her home, husband and children in quest of her true identity and knowledge of the ways of the world. In the alternate ending, we can see that societal pressure has forced Ibsen to modify the last scene and the play ends rather tamely. Compared to a more open and contemporary portrayal, this ending is rather traditional and helps to soften the message Ibsen wanted to convey. In conclusion, it is indeed necessary for a change of fortune of the characters in a play to make it a tragedy but this does not necessarily mean that the characters must fall from a high place down to a lower one. Tragedies are distinguished as going against convention and ending on a happy note. In the original ending, though a clear happy ending was not evident, the audience was left to interpret Torvald’s hope for a “most wonderful thing” as a silver lining to an otherwise grim ending.
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