Social Criticism in A Doll’s House and Look Back in Anger
The term “social criticism” refers to a type of condemnation that reveals the reasons for malicious conditions in a society which is considered deeply flawed. Indeed, both Ibsen and Osborne, in their respective plays A Doll’s House and Look Back in Anger, use theater as a means of voicing their opinions on the imperfections of their societies, and the crippling effects these flaws will inevitably cause. The plays’ corresponding protagonists Jimmy Porter and Nora Helmer are presented as “realistic human individuals” through the literary genre of social realism, which, as George Shi accurately expressed, unveils the “the ugly realities of contemporary life.”
Nora is presented as the epitome of a nineteenth century Norwegian wife, “An Angel in the House,” enslaved by marriage in order to submissively adhere to the needs of her husband and children, while trapped within a household of chauvinism. The title “A Doll’s House” acts as a metaphor for Nora’s confinement and lack of humanitarian rights within the patriarchal society of 1870’ Norway. Social criticism is effectively conveyed through Nora’s treatment as “a doll,” “a child,” and a “silly little girl,” and is further reinforced through the diminutive, misogynistic simile “just like a woman.” Yet, Nora’s dramatic “door slamming” climax taints her title as a “realistic human individual,” as her ephiphanic moment of anagnorisis could be deemed as too bold and unrealistic for the masculine sphere of 1870’s Norway.
In contrast, the statement that Jimmy Porter is “little more than a mouthpiece for the playwright’s protest against society” can only be deemed totally and irrevocably unjust. Jimmy’s raw passion that “permeated British Culture in thousands of ways” (Aleks Sierz) exemplifies him as a “realistic human individual,” effectively conveying social criticism of 1950’s Britain, in utter contrast to Nora’s atypical actions. On the other hand, one could argue that Ibsen effectively conveys social criticism of the discriminatory treatment of women in A Doll’s House, through Nora’s initial introduction in Act One. Due to Nora’s lack of autonomy, she is forced to embody the façade of a metaphorically “featherbrained” female, and the alliterative, onomatopoeic, sensory detail of her “happy humming” is suggestive of her enforced pretense. Ibsen effectively presents Nora as a “realistic human individual,” as women were expected to be socially, politically, and economically dependent on men. Furthermore, Ibsen uses Nora to convey social criticism, as he reveals that Nora was situated in an “exclusively male society with laws drafted by men and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.” Nora was very much trapped under the cruel misogyny of society, as like other women she was deemed to possess no reason or logic. For this reason, women did not gain the right to a university education until three years after the first performance of A Doll’s House in 1879. Ibsen presents Nora’s estrangement from the possibilities of the outside world, as she is confined to “Helmer’s Apartment” throughout the entire play. This domesticated setting, as well as the abundant use of the visual metaphor “doors,” serves as a symbol for Nora’s utter lack of autonomy. Thus, Ibsen’s somewhat flawed portrayal of Nora as a “realistic human individual” in the patriarchal society of nineteenth-century Norway is nonetheless an effective demonstration of social criticism.
Similarly, Osborne reveals his social criticism immediately in Look Back in Anger through the shabby setting of the couple’s simplistic and isolated “one-room flat.” The oppressive environment, reinforced by the “smoke filled room,” creates a stifling atmosphere for conflict, whilst the smoke also serves as a symbol for Jimmy’s inability to seek clarity and contentment within 1950’s class divisions. Although there are three windows mentioned in the description of the “Mid-land flat,” they prove to be a metaphor for Jimmy and Alison’s inertia, as they simply fail to function. Instead of serving as an outlet for elemental exposure, two windows are “covered by a large oak dressing table,” whilst the other “looks out onto the landing,” revealing Osborne’s criticism of the immobility the working class of 1950’s Britain. Jimmy and Alison are simply “boxed” away in an attic, revealing a complementary social criticism of the ignorance of the upper echelons of society towards the working class. Members of the latter are treated as though they are a complete humiliation. Furthermore, Osborne’s stage directions cleverly present Jimmy’s paradoxical nature as a “realistic human individual” through repetitive oxymorons, “a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice…tenderness and free-booting cruelty.” Thus, Jimmy must be more than just a “mouthpiece for the writer,” as Osborne goes to great lengths to reveal social realism and criticism through his personalized characterization. The play was in fact the crucible in which the idea of “Angry Young Men” was forged: a group of mostly working and middle class British playwrights and novelists who became prominent in the 1950’s for their disillusionment with British culture.
Like Osborne himself, Jimmy was a member of the “Non-U intelligentsia” who possessed a potent intelligence, as exposed through the metaphor “jungle of newspapers” and repetitive references to T.S Eliot, who ironically was the author of “The Wasteland.” In this poem, T.S Eliot reveals how he survived “never living, nor dead,” an idea which simply echoes the cyclical existence of Jimmy. Furthermore, Osborne divulges social criticism on the indolence of 1950’s Britain, through Jimmy’s deep desire for “a little ordinary human enthusiasm,” which he reveals through his powerful yet rambling monologues. A sense of nihilism is created due to the social criticism of Jimmy’s position in the downtrodden classes of society, as like Nora he is ultimately limited by his identity, rendering him a victim of post-war torpor. However, one could also argue that Osborne’s initial description of Jimmy emphasizes his ambiguity, projecting him as “nothing more than a mouthpiece.” Thus, he is simply a character of antithesis, somewhat true to life but lacking the credibility needed to be declared socially realistic in all respects.
Contrastingly, Ibsen’s portrayal of Nora presents her merely as a “mouthpiece” for his opinions, and not as a largely though not completely realistic human individual, like Jimmy. Nora’s opinionated sentiments, outlandish courage and climatic confrontation provided Ibsen with a platform from which he could critique the ills of nineteenth-century Norway, but not necessarily in a socially realistic manner. Ibsen’s social criticism can be seen through Nora’s projection of the law as “a fool” because “it’s not interested in reasons,” and diagnosis of society as a metaphorical “nursing home.” She is simply a “mouthpiece” for Ibsen, as the tragic reality is that women had such few rights, that their opinions were overlooked. Torvald undervalues and dehumanizes Nora, labeling her as a diminutive and metaphorical “little featherbrain.” The repetitive, derogatory language and birdy imagery “little songbird” allows him to appear powerful, in contrast to the powerless Nora. Nora does eventually transform into a new independent woman of Norway, although Ibsen uses Nora’s psychological development as a means of conveying his own social criticism on Norway’s misogynistic society. Realistically, Nora should have been detained by the philosophies of a docile, submissive female, yet because Ibsen labelled himself as a “humanist writer,” his social criticism was forced onto the character of Nora, creating an unrealistic set of circumstances. This statement is further reinforced by Nora’s famous epiphany, “first of all, I am a human being,” projecting her as a “mouthpiece” for Ibsen’s struggle for sexual equality. However, one could argue that for the romanticized nineteenth century A Doll’s House was very much a true representation of society, in comparison to the typical “Scibbean Plays” which had taken over Norwegian theatre.
Osborne’s own social criticism was so successful that Look Back in Anger proved to be an icon of British Theatre, leading to the popularization of the term “Kitchen Sink Drama,” a type of writing which sought to critique social inequality in a manner which had never before been attempted on stage. Jimmy Porter was more than just a “mouthpiece” for Osborne, as by the end of the 1950’s the “Kitchen Sink Drama” had become an established theatrical genre. However, one could argue that Jimmy is much too “full of fire,” to be a realistic human individual, as seen through the eccentric stage directions, such as “banging his breast theatrically.” Jimmy’s interactions with Alison present him as scathing and satirical, while he understands her as a “delicious sloth” and critiques her lack of enthusiasm, suggesting, “why don’t we have a little game? Let’s pretend that we’re human beings and we’re actually alive.” Unlike Ibsen, who had been accused of being a “feminist writer,” Osborne filled Look Back in Anger with language of misogyny, exemplified through the plosive, profane language of “stupid bitch,” violent metaphors such as “butchered by the women,” and the wordplay of “White Women’s Burden.” Jimmy’s antagonism reveals Osborne’s social criticism of women, who had gained their right to vote, which many middle-class men struggled to accept. Jimmy deems Alison “pusillanimous,” criticizing her for her cyclical existence through litany, “always (doing) the same ritual. Reading the papers, drinking tea, ironing.” Yet, the irony is that Jimmy is a total hypocrite who fails to find an emotional outlet for his left-wing passion, instead forcing Alison and Cliff to endure his abuse. One could say that the strong biographical links between Jimmy and Osborne are what justify Jimmy as a “realistic human individual,” acting as Osborne’s pedestal for social criticism. In fact, The Times revealed that Jimmy was “the spokesperson for the younger generation,” and due to his abundant similarities with Osborne, he is much more than just a “mouthpiece.” Jimmy nostalgically revealed that watching his father die taught him at an early age “what it was like to be angry – angry and helpless.” In stark similarity to Osborne, Jimmy is an “angry young man,” one who struggles with the slothfulness of society, presenting him as an accurate embodiment of the playwright’s social criticism.
Ultimately, social criticism is presented effectively in the depictions of both Nora Helmer and Jimmy Porter as “realistic human individuals.” Both characters do possess certain unrealistic traits, such as Nora’s idealistic rebellion and Jimmy’s ranting monologues, yet there are times when they transcend being “mouthpieces for their writers” – even though they may have other artistic flaws and inconsistencies. Ibsen was perhaps too focused on Nora as a fictional character, and thus her actions were too unconventional to make her a realistic human individual. Whereas, in juxtaposition to Ibsen, Osborne was led by his interest in social criticism to create a protagonist who is much more believable. Thus, Osborne’s play could be deemed the more satisfying work of social realism, even if the conclusion is much less satisfying for the modern day reader.
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