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Representation Of Gender Difference English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1934 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This essay will discuss the representation of gender difference in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Ibsen was writing in the late Victorian period and his work reflects the inequalities of that time. He was seen as one of the first feminist playwrights, however Ibsen himself denied this (Finney, 1994). Ghosts is an anti-idealist play that shocked its initial audience as it challenged social norms and values (Moi, 2006). To explore how Ibsen represented gender difference this essay will look at how the characters are associated with different places before going on to analyse the interactions between the characters.

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One of the ways gender difference is presented is the setting of the characters. Ibsen’s Ghosts is set in rural Norway, in the home of Mrs Alving. The weather outside her home is dark and stormy for most of the play, except in the last few moments when the sun finally breaks through. The atmosphere in Mrs Alving’s house, where she lives with her maid servant – Regina, is equally dark and oppressive. While all the action takes place within that house, all the males in the play have come from or are going to somewhere else and there is a sense that they do not belong in that place. Oswald Alving has just arrived from Paris, where he makes his living as an artist. Pastor Manders and Engstrand both normally live in the city, which although not described in the play appears to be more liberal. This can be seen as representing a woman’s world as oppressive while a man’s world is more liberated.

In the opening conversation between Engstrand and Regina, his supposed daughter, both characters can be seen to be manipulating those around them. However while Engstrand is overtly manipulative Regina is more discreet. Engstrand tries to use a child’s duty to their parents to manipulate Regina while Regina only hints that she has her own plans. When Engstrand departs and Pastor Manders arrives Regina becomes more overt in her manipulations, using her burgeoning sexuality to try and gain her a place in his household in the city. Pastor Manders is flattered but discomforted by her attentions. This shows how both genders deal may with female sexuality. To women it is a tool while to men it is something to be feared and denied.

When Pastor Manders first speaks with Mrs Alving she is almost playful in her teasing of him ‘(suppresses a smile) I can’t persuade you to spend a night in my house even now?’ (Ibsen, cited in Meyer, 2008:10). In contrast Pastor Manders is more business-like and concerned with duty and propriety.

When Mrs Alving’s choice of reading material is discussed she is revealed to be of an open-minded, liberal disposition, whereas Pastor Manders is shown to be more interested in public opinion than exploring new ideas ‘I’ve read enough about these writings to disapprove of them’ (Ibsen, cited in Meyer, 2008:12). This shows Mrs Alving as a radical, in thought if not in action, in contrast Pastor Manders appears to be reactionary (Hemmer, 1994)

When the conversation turns to the matter of the orphanage Mrs Alving is shown to be a pragmatic business woman in her wish to have the orphanage insured. In contrast Pastor Manders is shown to be an idealist, who is more concerned with public opinion of him than sound business practice. His desire not to have the orphanage insured is not because he believes that his God will protect it but because he wishes to give that impression to others (Worrall, cited in Meyer, 2008). Mrs Alving bows to Pastor Manders’ pressure demonstrating how women submit to the dominant patriarchy.

When Oswald enters the conversation the impression of Pastor Manders’ preoccupation with reputation and public opinion is reinforced by his acceptance of Oswald’s profession now he has gained some public recognition (Worrall, cited in Meyer, 2008). The conversation turns to family and Oswald reveals his only memory of his father, being made to smoke a pipe until he was sick, while his father watched and laughed, until his crying mother returned him to his nursery. This is a poignant representation of the gender roles in parenting. Despite this Oswald is revealed as sharing Pastor Manders’ idealistic view that children should be in the parental home. In contrast Mrs Alving believes that ‘it is bad for them to stay at home with their mother and father and be pampered’ (Ibsen, cited in Meyer, 2008:18). However this gender divide is subsequently broken down when Oswald speaks of his experience of the homes of unmarried couples and how they can be as moral, or more so than those of married couples. This is a view that Pastor Manders vehemently disagrees with, and when pressed Mrs Alving agrees with her son.

Despite the challenge to his values Pastor Manders remonstrates with Mrs Alving, emphasising the ideal of marriage, in particular her own, and duty, to her husband and to her son. Rather tellingly a husband’s duty to his wife is never mentioned and this omission by Ibsen reflects the attitudes within the society which he was writing about. In response to Pastor Manders Mrs Alving reveals the truth about her unhappy marriage to Captain Alving, culminating in the revelation that Regina is in fact Captain Alving’s illegitimate daughter. Mrs Alving’s reality is a direct challenge to Pastor Manders’ idealism.

In spite of this there is no re-evaluation of those ideals instead Pastor Manders is more shocked at Mrs Alvin’s deception, despite that fact it was done to protect her son (Hemmer, 1994). However Pastor Manders agrees to continue the deception so that he may not become connected to any scandal that may arise. This demonstrates differing attitudes to reputation. For Mrs Alving it is important to maintain her husband’s reputation for her son’s sake while for Pastor Manders it is important to maintain his own reputation.

Act two begins with what may be the greatest gender difference, the double standard regarding Captain Alving’s infidelity with Regina’s mother, Johanna. Pastor Manders characterizes Johanna as a fallen woman but rejects Mrs Alving’s contention that her husband was also a fallen man (Finney, 1994). He also condemns Engstrand for accepting a sum of fifty pounds to marry the disgraced Johanna but does not appear to see anything wrong in Mrs Alving accepting ‘an entire fortune’ (Ibsen, cited in Meyer, 2008:29) to marry Captain Alving. Rather he sees it as her doing her duty and following her mother and aunts’ instructions. This demonstrates the vast difference in the treatment of both genders when concerned with the act of sex outside of marriage. For a man it is seen as a moment of weakness, for a woman it is seen as immoral.

Mrs Alving longs to reveal the truth to her son and be free of the web of lies she has created. However Pastor Manders counsels her to continue to keep the family secrets in order to maintain Oswald’s idealized view of his father, which she created through her letters. This again contrasts Pastor Manders’ idealism with Mrs Alving’s realism. However Mrs Alving is not yet able to break her silence for fear of the pain it would cause her son and that she would be blamed (Templeton, 1997).

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So great is the concern for her sons’ happiness that Mrs Alving reveals that she would even accept an incestuous marriage to his illegitimate half-sister, Regina. The only thing stopping her is the belief that Oswald’s interest in Regina is not serious and it would not make him happy. The Pastor condemns the idea and Mrs Alving for deviating so far from the accepted social norms which he represents. Mrs Alving then reveals that it was his rejection of her, when she left her husband after the first year of marriage, which led her to re-evaluate everything she had been taught to believe. From the Pastor’s point of view his rejection of Helen was his ‘life’s greatest victory’ (Ibsen, cited in Meyer, 2008:33).This demonstrates how Mrs Alving has grown and changed in the intervening years and this has been informed by her life experiences. In contrast Pastor Manders seems to have changed very little, if at all; he still holds to the same values. He has felt no need to re-evaluate those values, but rather sees it as his place to uphold them (Hemmer, 1994).

This is emphasised when Engstrand returns and Pastor Manders questions him with regards to his marriage to Johanna. The Pastor accepts Engstrand’s glib explanation for his behaviour and acceptance of the money at face value while Mrs Alving’s response is more sceptical, but does not voice her doubts. She can even see how much she has matured while the Pastor remains naive and guileless (Salomé, 1985).

Mrs Alving’s realism is challenged when Oswald returns. Despite all the hints of Oswald’s ill health she steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with Oswald. When he reveals the cause of his tiredness, she denies that it is possible and when he blames his own lifestyle she is unable to reveal the true source of his illness until Oswald reveals his intention of marrying Regina and returning to Paris.

Act three opens with the aftermath of the fire at the orphanage. Mrs Alving’s to the fire reaction is unemotional; she is more concerned with the devastation of her family life while Pastor Manders’ reaction is also unemotional this is due to his concern over the effect to his reputation. The Pastor’s fears are fuelled by Engstrand’s manipulations and soon both leave for the city leaving Helen to finally reveal the truth about Captain Alving and the nature of Oswald’s relationship to Regina. However Oswald’s previous revelations have shed a new light on Helen’s relationship with Captain Alving and she accepts some of the responsibility for the past (Hemmer, 1994).

Regina’s reaction to this revelation is to question her family’s duty to her; seeing that they failed her she refuses to nurse her sick half-brother she leaves for the city. When Mrs Alving questions Oswald as to his duty to his father he similarly feels that he has no duty to a man he did not know and has only one bad memory of.

In the final scene of the play Oswald uses his mother’s duty to him to force her to agree to euthanize him before he is unable to care for himself, thus making him the innocent sacrifice to the society that created the situation (Hemmer, 1994).

It has been shown that Ibsen presented many of the gender differences inherent is the society about which he wrote. The greatest of these being the double standard for men’s and women’s behaviour. Another is the male concern for reputation and duty while a woman’s main concern is her family and her duty to them. The other string gender difference represented was the practicality and flexibility of women, who needed to adapt to society, while men were more rigid and dogmatic, as they had less need to change. He also demonstrated how these gender differences were created by the structures of society and how both men and women were responsible for creating that society. It has also been shown how men as well as women were victims of the inequalities of that society and both would benefit from change.


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