Pygmalion and A Doll's House:

A Comparison of Attitudes Towards Women

      From our society's view in the beginning of the twenty-first century of women as strong and capable, it is difficult to fathom the degree of constriction in the lives of women of little more than a century ago. Two plays written during this era--the 1879 play A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion--depict the general attitude of western culture towards women and their role in society. The general concept of women during this era is represented well by the main male character in both plays--Torvald Helmer and Henry Higgins--and their interactions with the female characters. The cinematic adaptations--the 1973 films of A Doll's House, directed by Joseph Losey and Patrick Garland respectively, and the 1938 film Pygmalion, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, plus the 1964 film My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor--reflect the same attitude.

      Although the relationship between the male and female characters in the plays and films differs--Torvald (David Warner/Anthony Hopkins) and Nora (Jane Fonda/Claire Bloom) are married, while Henry (Leslie Howard/Rex Harrison) and Eliza (Wendy Hiller/Audrey Hepburn) have a teacher-student relationship--the behavior of Torvald and Henry is very similar. Henry "bribes" Eliza with chocolates to get her to agree to take part in the bet, while Torvald, father-like, forbids Nora to ever bring her favorite sweets--coconut macaroons--into the house. Torvald constantly refers to Nora as his "little songbird" or his "squirrel." Perhaps because he also holds an egotistical position on social class, Henry feels completely justified in calling Eliza anything that occurs to him--such as a "squashed cabbage leaf." Neither man even considers entering a "serious" conversation with the respective woman. Literally, Torvald and Henry are treating Nora and Eliza as one might treat children--considering the women as if they are of lesser intelligence and understanding.

      Just as Torvald and Henry misjudge Nora and Eliza, society of that era misjudged women in general. For instance, Nora is unable--because of societal and legal restrictions--to borrow money without her husband's consent. Even after her "transformation," Eliza is stressed by the thought of "what will become of her" because she knows the limited employment opportunities available to women. When considering the plight of many women during this era, we, as a society, can indeed claim that we have come a long way.

      Of course, the climaxes of both Pygmalion and A Doll's House come when the women realize their position in the minds of Torvald and Henry, resist it as unfair, and leave with a more independent outlook, although Eliza comes back to Higgins but with a new respect for herself in the movies. These plays were written at the beginning of a time when women started to demand their rights--like simply being considered enough of a citizen to be able to vote in government elections. Certainly works like Pygmalion and A Doll's House must have had an effect on the society of those times--exposing "new" ideas and gradually altering the general attitude toward women.

Melody Enoch

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