Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Pollock’s Blood Relations Similarities and Differences in the Female Leads

A Doll’s House written by Henry Ibsen, a play set in the 1870’s in Norway and Blood Relations written by Sharon Pollock, a play set in the 1890’s in America both have a strong female lead who are faced with situations uncommon today. The conditions which they face, although extremely different, are products of a society where women are not valued as equals. Although written with different intentions the two works each play an important role in the understanding, sympathizing, and critiquing of women in a man-dominated society. The two protagonists, Nora in A Doll’s House and Lizzie in Blood Relations, are faced with a test of their aptitude, and resilience of their own beliefs in order to succumb to or defeat the gender roles put in place for them. Nora and Lizzie an unlikely pair share a victim’s testimony to barrier-filled life due to patriarchal society. They both, through their dissimilarities and comparisons, reveal some of the different ways one of these victims could reclaim their lives. Nora plays into her role as a domestic woman while Lizzie refuses to surrender to her pressures, yet they both are independent and strong willed; Nora’s actions push forth her rights and reputation as a woman, while Lizzie’s actions impedes on her privileges and reputation, yet both of their actions are taken to liberate and free themselves.

Nora and Lizzie are both strong independent women who are able to take care and advance themselves despite the civilization into which they are placed. Nora is passed on from one patriarchal-authority figure to another and she has the usual expectations but an unfamiliar obligation for a woman of the household placed upon her. She makes challenging decisions to fulfill her undisclosed duty of finding a way to pay for Torvald’s life-saving vacation, although dealing with her means of payment are outrageous for a woman of her standing. Even though she knows the consequences of such engagements she is brave enough to complete them and follow up paying monthly installments without help or advice from those who view her as helpless. Lizzie also showcases her strong-willed nature and is able to be obnoxiously herself despite what is attempted to be forced upon her. She does not identify with other women who play the role assigned to them such as Abigail and Emma, instead she entertains herself with distasteful stories from Bridget and scandalous fantasies shared with Dr. Patrick. She often finds herself the subject of distress in the family but has the capability to overcome the pressure placed on her by being an unapologetic self-governing woman. She also shows complete determination in her independence by exclaiming to her father, “You can’t make me do one thing that I don’t want to do. I’m going to keep on doing just what I want when I want- like always” (Pollock 41). Like Nora, Lizzie strives to be outside the control of authority but unlike Nora, Lizzie is unpersuaded by the possibility of acceptance.

Lizzie’s attempt to pursue happiness relies on her nonchalant individuality while Nora’s relies on her inconsequential ability to embrace and adhere to her expectations as a woman. Nora plays her role as a domestic housewife and appears to find happiness and peace with it. She, to an outsider’s perspective, would appear to be a model figure for other women in the society, so Nora cooks and cleans and finds joy in shopping, decorating her home, and other stereotypical matronly interests. She even begs and acts dim-witted for Torvald’s entertainment: “Oh, Torvald, surely we can let ourselves go a little this year! Can’t we? Just a tiny bit?” (Ibsen 1320). She seems to be content with spending life under the scrutiny of husband and being viewed as a mother, a wife, and of lesser importance. Lizzie, however, finds that she is too important to behave regardless how her family urges her to act. She refuses to bend to what is expected of her and thus becomes an innocently defiant character to gender roles. She spoke in confidence with outsiders of the town and shows herself as disgusted by marriage and motherhood with the man her parents have chosen for her. She does many unladylike actions such as raising and loving pigeons, throwing tantrums, and being self-absorbed even as her family pleaded her not to do so. The characters’, although radically different, possess personalities which guide them to take action against the culture which they exist in.

Nora and Lizzie’s final actions tell of the breaking point of their patience and their breaking free from a society which cages them; audacity is needed in both instances to defy the gender roles and to challenge and take on the possible suffering of the unwritten consequences. Nora chooses to leave her husband after he accidentally reveals his true character to her. Leaving her husband seems to brand her with an unwanted reputation and will bring further strain for the rest of her life, yet, without any appearance of regret, Nora leaves her life with Torvald and begins her exit of the manipulative community which housed her. Lizzie also shocks the reader and presumably the world as she decides to fight for what she believes in as she exposes her certainty that “not all life is precious” (Pollock 63). Lizzie breaks stereotypes with her actions of supposed murdering her parents showing an obvious strength in character for a woman and she is thought to have grotesquely demanded her independence and freedom. Lizzie is able to within a few scenes alter outsider’s thoughts of the capabilities and vigor she possesses. While both women are motivated by their possible liberation, Nora’s and Lizzie’s actions cause two opposing responses.

In retrospect Lizzie does not create an admiral response from the readers with her final action like Nora does nor does Lizzie advance women the way Nora did. Nora breaks away from her stereotypes making her an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. When she leaves her husband, she is composed and makes intelligent comments on why she can no longer be satisfied living the life that is set up for her. She does not break down or throw a tantrum to satisfy misogynists, instead she stays level headed and leaves the safety and security of a man who could not provide her with the decency she believes she deserves as she reveals that “the miracle of miracles would have to happen” (Ibsen 1367) for her trust to be restored to Toravald. Nora is respected because it appears she left for the pursuit of meaning in her life and to take care of herself without any assistance from the patriarchy. Lizzie’s action however dismantles her own standing and causes the reader to become uncomfortable. Lizzie has the opportunity to create a difference like Nora, but Lizzie instead enables others to view her as a ravenous animal a lesser being. She makes the reader wary and frightened of the uncontrollable nature of women similar to herself and halts the progression of impartiality towards genders. By calculating and committing a gruesome crime while taunting, tormenting and abusing her unknowing victims, Lizzie provides herself with a shameful disgusting legacy. Lizzie, threatened by the patriarchy, imprisons herself further and disappoints on a large scale; Nora, also vulnerable to authority, liberates herself and inspires tremendously.

Living in a patriarchal culture, the two characters, Nora and Lizzie, are unhappy with their roles as women, and find a way to succeed by unshackling themselves from society’s expectations. This makes one of the women a hero and the other a villain. Nora and Lizzie reveal the significant accomplishments stimulated by and achieved through the relentlessness of women, favorable or not. Pollock and Ibsen both provide an unforgiving political statement about the necessity of equality. A Doll’s House provides how one can achieve equality, while Blood Relations offers why one needs equality. These two plays set an ocean and decades apart serve as a fundamental statement about the importance of acknowledging and understanding a victim’s crises.

Works Cited

Ibsen, Henrick. A Doll’s House. Trans. Michael Meyer. The Heath Guide to Literature. By David Bergman and Daniel Mark. Epstein. Third ed. Lexington (Mass.): D.C. Heath, 1992. 1320-1367. Print.

Pollock, Sharon. Blood Relations. Blood Relations and other plays. Second ed. Edmonton: NeWest, 2002. 13-70. Print.

“I Was Born Defective”: What It Means to Be a Woman in Sharon Pollock’s Blood Relations

“Regardless of what we might think of our gender, we can only live that gender through the body we have.”

Throughout Sharon Pollock’s play Blood Relations, the plotline focuses on the life of Lizzie Borden and her day-to-day experience as a woman who does not conform to feminine expectations. The play is set in the late nineteenth century, a time when women were viewed as a subordinate group within society. The bodies that people were born into determined the gender roles they were supposed to fulfill. Those gender roles, however, were created by the men of the society. In Blood Relations, Lizzie is pressured to conform to the feminine gender role simply because she has the body of a woman. The play chronicles Lizzie’s resentment of and rebellion against the male-structured ideology in an attempt to change what it means to be a woman in her society.As the protagonist of the play, Lizzie Borden is faced with the stereotypes of women during her era. She was born and raised in the nineteenth century, when women were expected to be complacent daughters and obedient wives and homemakers. Lizzie, however, refuses to conform to those societal conventions despite the body she was born into. She is very headstrong throughout the play; her constant battle against societal norms constricts her life and ultimately leads to the murder of her parents. Throughout the play, the convention of “being a lady” causes conflicts between Lizzie and those around her, especially Mrs. Borden: “She’s incapable of disciplining herself like a lady and we all know it” (Pollock, 22). Mrs. Borden constantly badgers Lizzie throughout the play because Lizzie does not conform to feminine gender roles. From the beginning of the play, it is evident that women faced well-defined boundaries that they were unable to cross. Mr. Borden, Lizzie’s father, refers to keeping women in line as a task like “training horses”:

Now Andrew, I’ve spent my life raisin’ horses and I’m gonna tell you somethin’ — a woman is just like a horse! You keep her on a tight rein, or she’ll take the bit in her teeth and next thing you know, road, destination and purpose is all behind you, and you’ll be lucky if she don’t pitch you right in a sewer ditch. (17-18)

Mr. Borden believes that men ought to keep their women in line in order to stop them from interfering with their “man’s world.” Being born into a woman’s body during the nineteenth century limited the options available to an individual — women were not allowed to do what men could. Lizzie, however, often refuses to do what the men around her tell her to do.The constant discord between Lizzie and her father makes it evident that she refuses to adhere to societal conventions. Lizzie is constantly forced to listen to her father bring up the idea of marriage: “Just listen to me, Lizzie… I’m choosing my words, and I want you to listen. Now… in most circumstances… a woman of your age would be married, eh? Having children, running her own house. That’s the natural thing, eh? [Pause.] Eh, Lizzie?” (34). Because Lizzie is a woman, it is only “natural” for her to conform to the convention of marriage even if she is not interested in the suitor, such as Johnny MacLeod, an old widowed man. That convention appears to be quite one-sided: Harry, Mrs. Borden’s brother, does not seem to be married, nor is he pressured into getting married. Instead, he is commended for not having to bear any children: “You’re lucky you never brought any children into the world” (32). Because Lizzie was born female, though, she is considered a failure for the very thing Harry is being praised for. Lizzie, however, refuses to marry someone just for the sake of doing so. It is not something she naturally feels, and ultimately will not do despite wanting to please her father. “Papa? … Papa, I love you. I try to be what you want, really I do, I try… but… I don’t want to get married. I wouldn’t be a good mother, I–” (37). The idea of being forced into motherhood is not something which comes naturally for Lizzie; she does not have the nurturing maternal instinct that she believes women meant to be mothers should have. When Mr. Borden speaks to Lizzie about marrying Johnny MacLeod, Lizzie refuses the idea and says that she does not want to be married or assume the role of a “housekeeper” (36). Lizzie’s natural instinct blocks her from “performing” what everyone else expects of her.Lizzie recognizes that something is different in herself compared to the other females around her. She sees that she is nothing like her sister Emily, who is completely complacent and often adheres to the social norms of what it means to be a woman. Because of the contrast between Lizzie, Emily, and even Mrs. Borden, Lizzie questions herself and wonders if something could possibly be wrong with her:

[D]o you suppose there’s a formula, a magic formula for being a “woman”? Do you suppose every baby girl receives it at birth, it’s the last thing that happens just before birth, the magic formula is stamped indelibly on the brain Ka Thud!! […] and through some terrible oversight… perhaps the death of my mother… I didn’t get that Ka Thud!! I was born… defective. (32)

This quote perfectly describes Lizzie throughout the play. She was born into a body and given a socially constructed role for which she is not suited. All of the women around her have a certain perception of what it means to be a woman. Lizzie, however, defies all of these social conventions — not out of spite, but because it does not come naturally for her to act the way society expects her to. Even if she tries to make her father happy, the part of her that rejects these social norms leads her to believe that she must be defective — that she can only be considered normal by adapting to the gender role she was assigned when born a girl. That quote leads the audience to believe that if those who do not fit into the neat categories of entirely male or entirely female are “different” and should be considered as “outsiders.” Lizzie is segregated throughout the play to the point where she is made to feel alienated by even the closest members of her family.This segregation by Lizzie’s family leaves her with more resentment and only pushes her further away from her assigned gender role. Naturally, during the late nineteenth century, women could not work, nor did they have the option to live on their own away from their families. In contrast, that is all Lizzie desires:

Lizzie: I want out of all this… I hate this house, I hate… I want out. Try to understand how I feel. Why can’t I do something… Eh? I mean… I could… I could go into your office… I could… learn how to keep books?

Mr. Borden: For god’s sake, talk sensible. (37)

Lizzie strongly dislikes living at home around the very people who stop her from being herself; she is desperate to break free from the world in which she is confined. While Lizzie does appreciate the material comforts that her family provides to her, she ultimately craves the acceptance and encouragement to live her life freely. Instead, Mr. Borden constantly tells Lizzie to smarten up and “think sensibly,” as though what she is saying is completely ludicrous. At the time, however, Lizzie’s dreams were slightly farfetched. As a woman, she only had what her father or husband provided to her. Lizzie’s nonconformity hinders her ability to have what her father would naturally have given to her. She loses her property rights to Harry, and her inheritance slowly diminishes as she refuses the idea of marriage. It is as though Lizzie’s refusal of gender roles creates the necessity of punishment by her father as a way to shock her into conformity. Even Mrs. Borden, the woman who constantly quarrels with Lizzie, is aware of the inequalities between men and women: “You know, Lizzie, your father keeps you. You know you got nothing but what he gives you. And that’s a fact of life. You got to come to deal with facts. I did” (40). By saying “I did,” Mrs. Borden admits to having, at one point or another, questioned the gendered norms of what it means to be inside of a woman’s body; over time she inevitably learned to settle and conform to the societal conventions around her. The men surrounding Lizzie and Mrs. Borden are the ones who create meaning for the female gender. Therefore, Lizzie ought to listen to what her father tells her because, ultimately, he provides for her and financially supports all that she does, something she could not do on her own.It is evident from the play’s use of symbolism that the female body is controlled by the men around them. Lizzie’s freedom to be who she wants to be is constricted by Mr. Borden. That relationship can be seen through the symbolism of Lizzie’s birds, which represent the freedom she wishes to have but is unable to attain. The birds have the ability to fly away, but they are constricted by the cage in which they are enclosed. The cage represents society’s conventions, which restrain Lizzie from “flying away.” Lizzie’s father is aware of what the birds mean to Lizzie, and he tries to protect them from others: “It’s those little beggars next door. Hey! Hey get away! Get away there! … They break into the shed to get at my birds and Papa gets angry” (28). Similarly, Mr. Borden tries desperately to protect Lizzie’s “differences” from others who want to break into her cage. In a strange way, it is almost as though he understands Lizzie’s conflict and has sympathy for her. In many parts of the text, he scolds her for being the way she is and immediately after consoles her by saying, “There Lizzie” (38). The symbolism of such exchanges is that in a male-dominated society, women have only as much freedom as the men around them permit:

Mr. Borden: [I]f Lizzie puts her mind to a thing, she does it, and if she don’t, she don’t.

Harry: It’s up to you to see she does. (31)

Mr. Borden has the ability to constrict Lizzie because she is a woman, showing that females are a subordinate, powerless group. With the same power that Mr. Borden has to give Lizzie freedom, he also has the ability to take her freedom away. He realizes that although he may be able to protect her, the rest of society would ultimately not be able to understand her. Characters such as Harry and Mrs. Borden refuse to accept Lizzie and push Mr. Borden to constrict her. In fact, it is Harry who causes Mr. Borden to crack. After having an argument with Lizzie, Harry returns with an axe, saying that someone had gotten into the birds. Mr. Borden, furious with Lizzie because of their altercation, goes to the birds with the axe and kills them one by one (46) in an attempt to kill her freedom and shock her into conformity. As a female, Lizzie only had as much leeway as her father provided her; her “freedom” as a woman is constructed by a man. Sharron Pollock’s Blood Relations is a play used to show how women are expected to live out their lives according to a preset formula simply because of the bodies into which they were born. However, Pollock uses Lizzie Borden as a way to push those conventional norms of what it means to be a woman. Women are not all the same, just as men are not. Some will not marry, while others go on to have many children. Inheriting a woman’s body does not provide preset guidelines of how one ought to live. Instead, it provides a means to live depending on personal preferences. That is what Lizzie Borden longs for, and what she ultimately achieves only after the murder of her parents.