Gender Role in Henrik Ibsen and Ernest Hemingway Works Research Paper

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Sep 8th, 2020

Gender is a creation of social and gender discourses that create set roles for men and women to follow. These roles distinctly demarcate the boundaries of man and woman’s intellect, ability, and position. Female identity is subjected to innumerable social and familial constructs that force them to lose their individuality and identity. Denouncement of these social mores is the source of escape for women. This becomes the central idea of both in A Doll’s House by Ibsen and “Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. Ibsen’s central theme is the position of women in family and society (Moi 256). Hemingway explores gender roles through gendered communication (or non-communication) between a man and a woman through a dialogue-based short story.

The ultimate decisions taken by Jig (Hemingway’s protagonist) and Nora (Ibsen’s protagonist) are to break the social rules and find their own identity. Both Ibsen and Hemingway agree that women are trapped within the societal dictates and their life is ordained by the patriarchy. Both the works are an appeal to the modern age to deconstruct and change the ideas of love, family, and relationships. This article explores the idea of gender and social roles presented in A Doll’s House and “Hills”. This essay will argue that Nora in A Doll’s House and Jig in “Hills” defies the patriarchal domination and refuse to accede to its dictate, choosing their own destiny.

Simone de Beauvoir argues that men are given a superior position in a marriage by social constructs (484). In a relationship with another woman, man is believed to be socially, morally, and intellectually superior (Beauvoir 484). Gender and social discourses teach women to respect the male superiority that makes her believe that man takes the first place. Beauvoir claims, “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” implies women are not born as a female gender but becomes one through social constructs (295). A woman is formed through the repeated teachings of her society that constructs her roles as a daughter, a wife, and then a mother. These social constructs that stylize the formation of the gendered self create the illusion of a woman (Butler 519). Thus, these patriarchal gender roles and social roles split the identity of a woman (Beauvoir 497). At times, she fails to refuse this perception of superiority in the fear of ruining her family while at other times she rebels against male authority, breaking the social norms. Both Beauvoir and Butler believe that female gender is a creation of social norms that are imposed on a girl-child after she is born. Thus, it creates an ‘other’ that she has internalized and cannot reject.

Gender roles in literary work are discussed through the ideological struggle between male and the female characters. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House focuses on sociopolitical facets of gender roles. The main theme of the play is social and gender roles as perceived by the patriarchy and a woman’s duties and roles in a marriage. A central theme of A Doll’s House is family and gender roles. The play shows Nora breaking the barriers of social and gender roles imposed on her. She was the mother, daughter and wife. Thus, her claim that she is “first and foremost a human being” before she adheres to the social rules (Ibsen 129). This declaration by Nora to assume her identity as a human being resonates the demand for women’s social and political equality (Moi 257).

However, Nora was able to make this claim on her identity as a human being only after she rejects her social and gender constructs. She refused to be the wife or the mother and that is when she could voice her desire to be recognized as a human being. Nora’s refusal to accept her gender roles as a mother and wife is a rejection of gender and social roles. Moi reads the rejection as the refusal to accept “Hegel’s theory of women’s roles” (259). The doll becomes a symbol of humanity and her rejection to become a wife or a mother shows her breaking of the gender and social roles. While discussing Doll’s House, Beauvoir points out that Nora realizes that before she could assume her social responsibilities as a mother or a wife, she must find her own identity (497).

The woman becomes a mere ornamentation for the superior man who offers absolution to the frail woman as is done by Nora’s husband. Ibsen tries to portray a picture of woman as she is perceived by the society and the gender roles that society imposed on them. In Doll’s House men are shown to possess a superior position both economically and ideologically. Their financial independence gives them an element of superiority over women who are confined to their maternal and household duties. Nora’s husband, Torvald feels that women are inferior to men as they lack rational thinking and intelligence. He asserts that men should be in charge and women are supposed to handle housekeeping matters. Women are not supposed to engage in argument with the superior male partner and he must treat her like a child. Torvald’s attitude towards Nora is a mixed bag of materialistic ownership and passionate desire. Torvald treats Nora like a child and ensures that Nora believes that it is her maternal duty to play with their children, decorate their house, and do the things that her husband desires. In other words, Nora is a slave to her husband’s wishes.

Torvald uses this to manipulate Nora to believe that she is inferior to him, and needs a male presence to survive. The deliberate isolation of Nora from the financial and official burdens makes her just a plaything for Torvald. He does not discuss anything serious, legal or social, with her, implicitly emphasizing her subordinate position. Thus, Torvald transforms Nora into a “doll-wife” overpowered by the show of masculine authority. Thus, Ibsen tries to show the metamorphosis of Nora, a docile and doll-wife, to an individual. Her inner-strength remains latent and even she is unaware of it. She feels hurt when she realizes that her husband does not take her seriously like others: “You are just like all the others. They all think that I am incapable of anything really serious.” (Ibsen 13) In the end, Nora comprehends the falsehood of her existence and tries to break-free. Thus, Ibsen tries to show that women, like Nora, are just a toy for men to decorate and show-off in public. This objectification of women makes them lesser to their opposite gender and diminishes their social status.

In the “Hills”, Hemingway creates four stages of development of the character of the female protagonist. First, is the typical submissive and docile character like Nora. The girl is docile which is evident in the very beginning of the story when she asks the man, “What should we drink?” (Hemingway 168). The man orders the drink for both of them. The man’s superiority over the girl is accentuated when he does not take the girl’s consent before he says they will have water with their drink (Hemingway 168). Second, she becomes a strong feminist who agrees to do the abortion as a silent rebellion against the man’s self-centeredness. The third stage is that of self-realization. Hemingway clearly shows the gender roles through the conversation of the American and the girl. The junction of Barcelona and Madrid is shown like the junction of male and female power in “Hills like white elephants” (Rankin 235).

The authority of the man is shown through the language he uses in the “Hills”. It becomes the symbol of patriarchy. The man is in control of the money for it is he who pays for their drinks. He is in control of the language as he translates the girl’s desires from English to Spanish. The man in Hemingway’s story possesses knowledge, especially about the process of abortion. He is the one who is capable of logical thinking. He is one who reasons that the people are waiting for the train but the girl does not think that way. The man shows authority, something he has derived through the cultural sources. His superiority is confirmed through his authority over language, reason, and knowledge. On the other hand, the girl is simply mentioned as “the girl with him”, one who belongs to no nation or creed (whereas the man is specifically called the American).

However, the power the girl shows are not cultural constructs but rather, internal. She is a creative person, as can be gathered from her responses, but her social construct seem to make her submit to the superiority of her male companion. The girl’s simple reliance on her male partner shows the man’s natural power over her, signifying the culturally constructed supremacy of man. The biological superiority of man is demonstrated by his ability to impregnate the girl. The white elephant becomes a symbol of his masculine prowess. However, these sources of authority are undermined throughout the story. When the man translates the girl’s English to Spanish, the waitress shows a working knowledge of the language, rendering the translation unnecessary. Thus, man is the superior being in the story while the girl is just a non-descript other in the story. However, as we move towards the end of the story, Hemingway turns the table adroitly, and breaks each of the man’s sources of authority. Thus, this story too talks of the transformation of the female protagonist from “the girl” towards motherhood.

Both Ibsen and Hemingway show the transformation of their female protagonists from the docile, submissive ‘other’ to the strong individuals in search of their own identity, with or without their masculine partners. The male protagonists, the American and Torvald treat both Nora and Jig as inferiors and they accept it without any argument. The initial position of the female protagonist demonstrated by both Ibsen and Hemingway echoes the arguments presented by Beauvoir and Butler. Social constructs and gender roles are used by the society (in these literary works, the male protagonists) to undermine the natural talent and intellect of women, rendering them inefficient and inferior. Women too willingly accede to their inferior role and try to remain happy. However, as observed in the case of Nora and Jig, they find the discrimination suffocating their self-worth and so, they rebel against the patriarchy. Thus, both Ibsen and Hemingway show how their female protagonists defy male authority and metamorphose into a new individual.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. Vintage Books, 2009.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no.4, 1988, pp. 519-31.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Scribner, 1987, pp. 168-71.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Scribner & Walford, 1989.

Moi, Toril. “”First and Foremost a Human Being” idealism, theatre, and gender in A Doll’s House.” Modern Drama, vol. 49, no. 3, 2006, pp. 256-84.

Rankin, Paul. “Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants.” The Explicator, vol. 63, no.4, 2005, pp. 234-237.

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