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A Doll’s House by Henrik IIbsen and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller are popular plays written in 1879 and 1949 respectively. Both literary works have received wide critical acclaim and are studied by scholars worldwide due to the relevance of the works to the issues of the present time. Despite being written in different centuries and different countries, the plays explore similar issues affecting middle-class families, such as financial struggles, intergenerational conflict, gender inequality, and many others.
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House follows the story of a Norwegian family on a Christmas Eve. Torvald Helmer, a bank manager who has recently earned a promotion, and his wife Nora Helmer are visited by family friends, Kristine Linde and Dr. Rank. Their presence, as well as the appearance of Torvald’s employee Nils Krogstad, reveal many hidden truths about the Helmer family and uncover an entire cycle of complex relationships between the characters as they try to resolve their problems and conflicts. At the core of the conflict in A Doll’s House is the loan that Nora Helmer borrowed from Krogstad, fabricating her father’s signature on the document. Krogstad threatens Nora to reveal the information about the debt to her husband, who is unaware of the arrangement, in case he is fired. Nora asks Kristine to pacify Krogstad, who used to be the latter woman’s lover in the past; however, the truth is still revealed, forever changing the relationship between the Helmers.
Similarly, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is focused on the life of Willy Loman, a middle-aged salesman who struggles both to succeed at work and to maintain good relationships with his wife Linda and two sons. He revels in illusions where he is younger and more successful, with a happy family that conforms to his high expectations; when these illusions are confronted by the much darker reality, he becomes upset and contemplates suicide, while his loving wife and the younger son are trying to help him. The main conflict of the play is thoroughly intergenerational and lies in Willy’s inability to accept the decision of his older son Biff, as the latter is willing to leave town to go to farmland in the West instead of pursuing a business career like his father. In the end, Willy’s death by suicide becomes the only way to set his family free.
Financial problems are present in both plays. Right from the start of A Doll’s House, the author states that the Helmer family has been living in rough financial conditions for many years: “Torvald, this year we really can let ourselves go a little. This is the first Christmas that we have not needed to economise” (Ibsen, 2004, p. 3). It is later explained that ever since Nora and Torvald got married, they both had to work long hours to sustain their family’s life (Ibsen, 2004, p. 12). Due to his exhaustion, Torvald developed an illness and required a trip to Italy to correct his health. Having no money to pay for the trip, Nora arranged a loan with Krogstad and told her husband that the money came from her father, who was ill at that time. Financial problems fuel family conflict when Torvald finds out about Nora’s debt and the fact that she fabricated her father’s signature to obtain it.
In Death of a Salesman, on the other hand, Miller pays less attention to money. Willy’s lack of success at work is more important emotionally than financially, as it drives the main character further into depression. Similarly to A Doll’s House, however, financial issues – specifically, problems at work and unemployment – are one of the key causes of the conflict between Willy, deeply invested in his dream of successful lineage, and his sons, who did not fulfill his expectations: “[Willy] deceived himself into thinking that the values of the family he cherishes are inextricably linked with the values of the business in which he works (Centola, 2007, p. 27).
Both of the plays also use financial situations of the families to define the terms of gender inequality in the text. Thus, in Death of a Salesman, Linda has no additional income and depends solely on the success of her husband. Seing financial struggles as an obstacle to her freedom, she is concerned about the lack of sales and acts as Willy’s conscience by trying to help him solve both family troubles and work issues (Centola, 2007, p. 30). However, she has a smaller influence than her husband on both issues due to her traditional gender role: unable to openly confront her husband about his conflict with Biff or his lack of stable income, she influences Willy discreetly, whereas her visible role is limited to household duties.
In a similar way, A Doll’s House establishes women’s inferiority to men: “As exposed in A Doll’s House, men are in a financially and ideologically superior position over women while women are kept in a subordinate position and are confined to their homes as they are not economically independent and have to rely on their husbands for support” (Yuehua, 2009, pp. 80-81). Indeed, Nora depends on Torvald both financially and socially. Similarly to Linda, she is confined to a certain set of ‘feminine’ duties, such as housekeeping and taking care of children, which is one of the reasons for Torvald’s indignation when he finds out about his wife’s debt.
It is not the fact that she kept it secret from him, but a blow to his dignity that causes such a reaction; Yuehua (2009) argues that by searching for money elsewhere, Nora implied his financial impotency and thus challenged his role as the head of the household: “It is Torvald’s assumption that it is men’s duty to guarantee that material wealth will render his wife ‘free from care,’ allowing her to play with her children, keep the house beautiful, and do everything the way that he likes” (p. 81). Despite her seemingly passive position throughout the play, Nora is the one character who controls its entire plot. Her position challenges the patriarchal setting of the play and, eventually, she is relieved of her husband’s control as she finally decides to leave him, after accusing Torvald of treating her like a “doll-wife” (Ibsen, 2004, p. 109), and openly defying his authority: “Torvald, you are not the man to educate me into being a proper wife for you” (Ibsen, 2004, p. 110).
Contrary to the similarities between the families portrayed in these works, the means by which the characters arrive at a conclusion differ a lot between the two plays. For instance, in A Doll’s House, Kristine and Nora are the two characters who drive the plot to its resolution: Kristine facilitates the revelation of Nora’s debt to Torvald, whereas Nora makes the final decision to leave her husband in order to reach her happiness. In Death of a Salesman, on the other hand, it is not a gender struggle, but the intergenerational conflict that has to be resolved for the play to arrive at its conclusion. Thus, the main drivers of the resolution are Will and Biff, the father and the son who finally make peace with each other. Biff forces Willy to realize that he will never conform to his high expectations: “I’m not bringing home any prizes anymore, and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!” (Miller, 1994, p. 101), which, surprisingly, causes Willy to admit that his son is not as hopeless as he had thought: “That boy—that boy is going to be magnificent!” (Miller, 1994, p. 102). Having reached the resolution of his central conflict, Willy decides to commit suicide – not out of desperation, but out of the desire to free his family (Centola, 2007, pp. 32-33).
Overall, both playwrights pay significant attention to the issues of family and marriage in their works. However, despite the fundamental similarity of the portrayals of family conflicts in the works and, to some extent, the reasons for these conflicts, their resolutions give the two plays different symbolic meanings and outcomes. A Doll’s House challenges the patriarchal family setting, which was prevalent in the society of that time, whereas Miller combats the issue of misunderstanding that has always undermined the relationship between generations. The plays, therefore, explore two different aspects of family conflicts and provide a solution for both of them, effectively conveying the authors’ views on family structure and communication to the audience.
Centola, S. R. (2007). Family Values in Death of a Salesman. In H. Bloom (Ed.), Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations (25-34). New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishiners.
Ibsen, H. (2004). A Doll’s House (W. Archer, Trans.). Web.
Miller, A. (1994). Death of a Salesman. Oxford: Heinemann.
Yuehua, G. (2009). Gender Struggle over Ideological Power in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Canadian Social Science, 5(1), 79-87.