A Doll's House and "Moonlight": A Comparison
Not THOSE Two Men
The Shortcomings of Two Men
Though Achilles died from an arrow wound to the heel, arrogance is what killed him. It is often the case that a character’s downfall, fall from grace, demise, is not usually imposed on them from the outside, but rather, it is their inherent characteristics that send them to their fates. Henrik Ibsen, in his play, A Doll’s House examines the quintessential male figure, the patriarch. Guy de Maupassant, in his short story, “Moonlight,” examines another male archetype, the priest, a member of a group notorious for their male-dominant leadership. Torvald Helmer, the father and husband in Ibsen’s play represents a generalized image of men in 19th century Norway. While it cannot be said that Abbe Marignan represents all priests, he does embody the piety of which all priest subscribe, including the belief in the Bible’s unquestionable validity. Both works first establish these characters as hyper-masculine. Consequently, both works label these men as misogynistic, if not outright spiteful of women, at least condescending towards them. Lastly, their environments also heavily influence these characters. Torvald upholds the 19th century’s social conventions concerning marriage, while Marignan’s entire existence is influenced by his hatred of women. Though the collapse of Torvald’s family and the rebuke of Marignan’s are scarcely tragic, both characters are predisposed to their own downfall.
Ibsen and Maupassant take care to label their male leads as hyper-masculine characters. Through action and dialogue, they establish Torvald and Marignan as stubborn, domineering men with an excess of machismo. When Nora calls his dislike of Krogstad calling him by his first name “petty,” Torvald takes offense and brashly sends out Krogstad’s dismissal from the bank. Torvald reproaches Nora for her “transgression” and says, “When the real crisis comes, you will not find me lacking in strength or courage. I am man enough to bear the burden for us both” (Ibsen 1058-1059). Torvald feels it necessary to defend his masculine pride. It is unacceptable for him to be criticized by his wife. This scene displays his masculinity complex, as it is impossible for him to be considered “petty,” a weak trait indeed. Nevertheless, Torvald is an intelligent person who does not feel the need to express his masculinity through violence, while Abbe Marignan knows only violence when displaying his macho disposition. Maupassant uses very violent diction to describe the priest. His walking stick, which he always takes with him for his priestly business around town, is a “formidable oaken cudgel” which he carries in his “great countryman’s fist” (Maupassant 178). This image depicts Marignan as possessing the characteristics of a man with too much testosterone. In preparation for thwarting his niece’s “sinful” rendezvous with her lover, the priest, “raised [the cudgel] and, gritting his teeth, brought it down on a chair, knocking its splintered back to the floor” (179). This aggressive act shows that Marignan is indeed a chauvinistic male, enraged by the simplest of infractions against his convictions, he cannot bear the thought of his niece participating in premarital relations and the only solution he comes up with involves aggression and harshness. The hyper-masculinity of these characters lays the groundwork for their eventual downfalls because they are both stubborn and chauvinistic. However, this flaw is not the only one each possesses, it is also necessary to consider their views on the opposite sex.
Misogyny is a quality that often works its sordid craft in concert with hyper-masculinity, and to no great surprise, Torvald and Marignan hate women, though they possess it in different forms. Torvald’s misogyny is subtler and is largely an effect of the marriage conventions of 19th century society, where gender roles are static and the man, as if by right, always has dominance. Marignan exhibits an overtly sexist attitude fostered out of his Christian piety. To mask her actual crime of forgery, Nora plays along with Torvald’s assumption that she only intended to put in a good word for Krogstad. Torvald is staunchly opposed to this idea because he would regret to, “give people the idea that [he is] open to outside influence” (Ibsen 1057). The “outside influence” he is referring to is his wife, or more generally, women. His sexist attitude makes him blind to his wife’s distress, consequential, because her discontent eventually causes her to abandon him. Perhaps more telling of his misogyny is his condescension of Nora. His seemingly innocent pet names for Nora, such as “little songbird,” “little squirrel,” and “skylark,” represent his view of their relationship, one with inherent dominants and subordinates. Marignan displays his disdain for women more readily, “he had often felt the yearning affection of women, and, even though he knew himself invulnerable, he was exasperated by this need of love which always trembled in them” (Maupassant 177). He feels that women cannot control their impulses and their incessant temptation drives him mad. Marignan is “sickened” by this condition he believes all women possess, which catalyzes his determination to seek out his niece and rebuke her. Upon discovering her and her lover in a scene of breathtaking beauty, he unwittingly provokes his sense of shame and his overzealous convictions are dismantled.
Works by Maupassant
So from what source do Torvald and Marignan inherit these lowly attitudes and behaviors? It is the environments that the characters are born into that supplies that answer. Torvald is dignified and respectable, with a significant managerial position at a bank, in 19th century Norwegian society. His reputation is dependent on maintaining the status quo, and he never questions it (well, the play concludes with him contemplating Nora’s decision, feasibly leading him to understand that her transgression was necessary, but it is not realized within the context of the play). When Nora posits that Torvald’s reputation may be in jeopardy if he fires Krogstad, he responds, “Your father was not a man of unassailable reputation. But I am; and I hope to remain so all my life” (Ibsen 1057). He implies that Nora’s father was somehow inadequate in terms of social clout, and Torvald goes to great lengths, such as abstaining from incurring debt, to maintain his status. Marignan, as a man of God, is not subject to misinterpreting God’s intentions, as absurd as that sounds. Therefore, he not only rigidly adheres to the Word, but reasons, “ ‘I am a servant of God, I should know his purposes, and if I don’t know them I should divine them’” (Maupassant 177). In his mind, he is always righteous, and this leads him off a sharp cliff. His overzealous, chauvinistic piety leads to a complete reversal of his attitudes of women and love. Spying his niece in the field by the river, he comes to the realization that love is a facet of God’s beauty, and not one of God’s trials. So the “warlike” Abbe is lost in remorse for his skewed beliefs.
For these reasons, Torvald and Marignan are destined to fall from their lofty comforts. Their hyper-masculinity facilitates their stubbornness. Their misogyny makes them ignorant of the truth: Torvald’s negligence of his wife’s sufferings and longing for independence and Marignan’s blindness to one of the world’s most precious beauties. Their milieus: Torvald’s 19th century society, and the Abbe’s overzealous faith are the cornerstones of their negative characteristics. These three factors are the main cause of both character’s upsets at the end of each work. Had they both strove for a little more open-mindedness and a little less negligence, Torvald would still have his wife (and she might be a trace happier) and Marignan would have kept his dignity.
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