The School for Wives
A Comparison of Female Leads: Agnès and Nora
Moliere’s The School for Wives and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House were written centuries apart, but both have plots that feature women in less-than-ideal situations that defy social norms in order to get out of it. School for Wives is a comedy, and A Doll’s House is a drama, yet comparisons between the two reveal strong similarities regarding themes of deception, defiance, and love, or the lack of it. They are plays about the gap between expectation and reality when it comes to love and marriage. They are about men who expect submission, fragility, and naivety from their wives, and are shocked and upset when they are faced with anything contrary to their expectations. Ultimately, the women in both plays get the chance to break through the strict rules of femininity set upon women at the time. What makes these two plays different is the way that this self-actualization comes to these women and how much they sacrifice to get it.
According to both plays, an ideal wife should honor and obey their husbands, because their husbands are the ones who are supposed to educate them. Education is a key plot point in both plays. The central female, Agnès, in Molière’s The School for Wives, is expected by Arnolphe to read and obey The Maxims of Marriage because he is trying to prepare her for marriage to him. Essentially, she has been conditioned her entire life to please him in the future. She is only given education that he provided for her, and she really does end up naive, simple, and innocent, just the way Arnolphe wants her. She does speak of the way she resents her oblivion and is aware of it, but plot-wise, she isn’t able to do much about it. Molière really lays the entire concept of female submission down for the reader and helps us to understand that in the world of this play, marriage is a compromise of the woman’s entire self, and little sacrifice for the man. This idea is confirmed when Arnolphe clearly gets bored of reading all the Maxims with Agnès and tells her to finish reading what we assume to be a lengthy list of rules while he goes off to attend to some business. As much as the reader wants Agnès to be self sufficient and smart and get herself out of that situation, she really doesn’t know much better. Agnès really doesn’t know what love is until Horace comes along and infatuates her, and even then, one could argue that she still doesn’t understand love, but Horace is all she has to base her knowledge on, so she falls for him instantly. She starts to pursue these feelings and is liberated by them not by her own doing, but by a surprising and convenient appearance by her real father, and through his interference she is able to wed Horace. The audience roots for Agnès, but in the end, it wasn’t by much of her own doing that she came to be free to make her own choices and be with Horace. In regards to the plot, most of the decisions that she makes are made with the influence of an outside force. Her one big decision is to send a love message to Horace down with the brick of rejection Arnolphe made her throw down to him. From that point on, its Horace’s courtship, Arnolphe’s failure to court Agnès, and Enrique’s intervention that help Agnès get what she wants. This is either very smart or very sexist writing on Molière’s part. Ideally, Molière did in fact write an intentional social commentary on how everything in a woman’s life, whether happiness or unhappiness, is dependent on a male and the decisions he makes for her; even if a woman ends up with what she wants, it was never her choice to determine her future because of the extremely patriarchal society that controlled the every move of women.
In A Doll’s House, we have a woman as the central character, instead of a woman as a featured character who things happen to. Nora has an interesting point of view because she is given more room to navigate her own life, but she doesn’t realize until the end that it was all within a certain limitations placed upon her by the men in her life, her father and her husband. Nora, at her core, isn’t the submissive, obedient wife that Molière describes with the Maxims in School for Wives, though she has functioned as one for so long. Unlike Agnès, she is able to make more risky and self-motivated decisions, like the loan she took out to save her husbands life, the several tactics that she tries to keep him from finding out her secret, and the final choice she makes to leave him. Nora’s inner conflict is center to the plot of the play- Agnès wasn’t written to have this kind of inner journey. Nora’s secret is her pride and joy, something that fulfilled her and made her feel smart, and yet we continue to see her put down by her husband in every other sentence he speaks to her. Ibsen carefully constructed these first few pages of the show so that the audience will understand her intellectual capabilities from the first few start, though it takes Helmer eight years of marriage, and he still doesn’t understand her by the end of the play. The topic of education rolls around in the final scenes, during a discussion between Nora and her husband. She is about to leave him, and he still is certain that he, as a man, will be able to educate her on how to “be a fit wife” for him, and somehow fix the entire situation with his superiority. Nora realizes there is no way to take back what he said, no way to reverse his anger at the actions she took to literally save his life, and no way to become truly educated other than by her own terms (“I must try to educate myself. You are not the man to help me in that”). Through the structure of Ibsen’s plot, though it ends in isolation and sadness instead of a pending marriage, like in School for Wives, this play stands out because it’s the woman who simultaneously loses everything and still gain so much. It’s her decision to lose her children, but it’s also her decision to find herself. For the first time in her life, she isn’t being led blindly or treated like a fragile little doll for men to play with or observe for their own amusement.
Ibsen was concerned with promoting ideals of freedom and change through the conflict in A Doll’s House. Molière’s play was meant to show through mayhem and deception what can happen when freedom and change are ignored as possibilities. Though they go about it in different ways in completely different genres, both plays can support a feminist argument that women are capable of more than men think they are and should be allowed to choose their own fates rather than let them be determined by men, as they have been for so long.