The True Role of Women

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It is interesting how plays illustrate the social relationships of the time they were written. Through those plays we can understand and see how those relationships and the role of members of society evolved through time.

Submitted: June 20, 2011

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Submitted: June 20, 2011

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15 April 2010
The True Role of Women
Plays often depict the importance and behavior of members of society. They may describe or criticize political view points, social standings, relationships, or historical events. Plays are known for bringing characters to life to make a point, to raise a question, to make us, the audience, think or review some concepts and attitudes. It is interesting how plays illustrate the social relationships of the time they were written. Through those plays we can understand and see how those relationships and the role of members of society evolved through time. It is particularly interesting to compare plays and analyze one aspect depicted in them, as for example the role of women in society. We can identify those roles well in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex with Iokaste, in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House with Nora, and in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Managerie with both Amanda and Laura. The female characters in those plays give us a glimpse of how women were expected to behave and act in those days, what was acceptable or not by society in general, and what was acceptable or not by those close to them in particular.
The standard characteristics found in women at the time of the three plays -- 430 B.C., 1879, and 1944, respectively -- were dependent, obedient and fragile. Women could not stand by themselves. They needed someone, especially a man, to support them, to tell them what to do. They were not expected to handle non-domestic problems, have responsibilities, take big steps, make important decisions.
We can see that in the first play through Iokaste. She is the queen, but the king is the sole ruler and determines the future of his people, his country and his family. She does as she is told and gives away her baby as the king, her husband, wished. Even later in life her voice is not heard. When she tries to convince Oedipus to stop the search for Laios’ murderer -- “For God’s love, let us have no more questioning! Is your life nothing to you? My own is pain enough for me to bear” -- Oedipus dismisses her request and carries on with the questioning anyway. Her fragility is shown when the burden of the truth and the consequences of knowing who Oedipus really is are too much for Iokaste to handle; with details of her life revealed to her people, shame and guilt make it unbearable for her to live. She goes to her room for the last time and takes her own life.
In the second play, those characteristics show through Nora who depends on her husband’s salary, who lives off her husband’s success, and who needs her husband’s approval on how to spend the money. Her duties and tasks and even what to eat (macaroons) or wear (dance costume) are determined by Torvald, her husband. Her duties, defined by her husband, comprise all simple female jobs -- she is the one doing all the shopping and taking care of the children. Torvald sees her as part of the house decoration, an accessory, a pretty face that loves him and is there to beautify the house. That is made clear in the way he addresses her, as if he was talking to a little child. He always talks down to her, calling her his squirrel, little goose, little thing, lark, songbird and so on. She accepts all that and refers to herself the same way -- “If your little squirrel begged you, with all her heart and soul, for something --?” she says when trying to persuade her husband to do her a favor. She is treated like a child who begs for things she wants, who “could never think of going against” her husband, and who needs to be cared for. On the other hand, Torvald poses as her protector, the strong one who has “strength and courage enough as a man to take on the whole weight” himself.
Like Torvald, Tom in the third play, The Glass Managerie, takes on the responsibility of providing for the two female characters, his mother Amanda and his sister Laura. Both Laura and Amanda depend on Tom’s financial support. He works at a warehouse against his will just to be able to provide for his family after his father left them. Laura is the character who materializes dependency, obedience and fragility in the story. She is seen as the poor crippled and shy girl who had no husband, no job; therefore, no future. Laura lives behind that shield, playing the role of unfortunate girl as her mother and her brother see her. She gets sick every moment she faces a challenge, like at her typewriting class when at the first speed test “she broke down completely -- was sick at the stomach and almost had to be carried into the washroom!” Her dominant mother, worried about Laura becoming a lost spinster with nobody to help her function or live, nobody to direct her steps or to lay out her future for her, suffocates her with her controlling attitude. Amanda controls Laura’s posture, table manners and even her outfit options. She wants to make Laura as attractive as she can so a man may get into her trap because “All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be.”
That is all those characters have in common: the expected characteristics of a woman. However, as their stories develop, they share one more thing in common: consciousness, realization. They all come to realize, in one way or another, what they really are, what they can really do. From that point on, their lives change. In Oedipus Rex, Iokaste does not know in the beginning that she was her husband’s mother. She does not see any problems in Oedipus trying to find out who Laios’ murderer is. As time passes, the more she learns, the more she insists with Oedipus to stop the search. From the facts they gather, she already suspects what really happened to Laios and is afraid it will all come to light. Iokaste’s turning point is when she confirms her fears: her husband is also her son and he is the one who has killed Laios. That is simply unbearable for her. She, for the first time, makes her own decision on what to do with her life; she commits suicide.
In A Doll House, Nora, with the help of her friend Kristine, comes to realize what her marriage is. She is like a doll wife for her husband; they do not really know each other. She gets to know the real selfish Torvald after he finds out about her borrowing money and forging her father’s signature in the loan documents. She has the first serious talk with her husband after that. She wants him to know how disappointed she is with his attitude over the problem presented to him. She expected more from her husband of eight years. She expected him to try to protect her, but instead he just accuses her of being a criminal and describes to her how he was going to punish her for her wrong-doing. That hurts Nora, but also makes her recognize that they do not really love each other. She does not see any future with him, now a stranger to her. She decides to change her life, to live her life and learn about living. Nora chooses to leave Torvald and her old life behind.
In The Glass Managerie, Laura, respects and obeys her mother. Her mother, Amanda, determines every aspect of her life to the point that she wants to set up a marriage for Laura in order to secure her daughter’s future. She convinces her son, Tom, to invite one of his friends over; someone who is a gentleman, does not drink and has a future in the warehouse -- all requirements of a good husband prospect. Tom does bring a friend over, Mr. O’Connor, Laura’s only gentleman caller. He engages in a conversation with Laura, kisses her and then confesses that he is already engaged and he will never come over to see her again. In that conversation Laura is told about her inferiority complex, something she needs to overcome in order to show her true colors to others and start living her own life, making her own choices. From the story, it is not clear what happens after that, but maybe once her brother leaves her and her mother to go on find his own place in the world, she has no alternative but to do so.
Even though their stories are different and the choices they made on how to move on with their lives are nothing alike, Iokaste, Nora and Laura painted the picture of what it was like to be a woman in their time. Happy and sad, courageous or not, young and old, those women carried out an important role in those plays: the true role of being a woman.


Works Cited
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll House. Literature. A portable anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 777. Print.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Literature. A portable anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 733. Print.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Managerie. Literature. A portable anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 970. Print.


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