Antigone by Sophocles and A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen are both plays that illustrate the use of power in society. The motivations, and use of, this power are situational for the characters of each story and depend greatly on gender. The male roles of both Antigone and A Doll’s House exercise their dominance with incentives rooted in image and self-fulfillment. In contrast, the female roles of both plays initially act on their power with reasons that are self-sacrificing, benefit others, and challenge social ideals.
The masculine representation of power, the traditional and historical, is shown throughout both Antigone and A Doll’s House. In Antigone, this is best represented through the role of Creon. Creon relies on his image to fuel most of his power and is concerned with the way he is viewed by Thebes. Because Creon expects men to be the primary actors in society and women to take a secondary and subservient role, Antigone’s defiance is especially troubling to himself and his image. He shows this concern when speaking to Haemon:Order now
So we must stand on the side of what is orderly;
we cannot give victory to a woman.
If we must accept defeat, let it be from a man;
we must not let people say a woman beat us. (Sophocles 2053)
With this statement, Creon is revealing that he is threatened by Antigone’s power. This is the foundation for his harsh punishments against her. Because she is a woman, if defeated, it would detriment his image greatly. However, if she were a man, it would not hurt his image as badly. He cannot allow himself to look weak, or powerless, to his citizens. In order to maintain his power he must follow through with his word. His tyrannical and sexist ways support a historical notion of male control and dominance. Ultimately his hubrus tragic flaw: Creon holds the law of the state, laws he proposed based from personal beliefs, above every other aspect of life. Creon makes a statement to Haemon on this view:
There is nothing worse than disobedience to authority.
It destroys cities, it demolishes homes;
It breaks and routs ones allies. Of successful lives
The most of them are saved by discipline. (2053)
Creon directly states that he believes the worst action one can commit is to defy authority. This position juxtaposed to Antigone’s actions, respectfully burring her brother Polyneices, over law, is the catalyst of the external conflict between the two characters. This conflict presents a realistic portrayal of male vs. female views of exercising power. Creon takes the conventional male viewpoint of disregarding ethics and emotion and taking action according to what is believed to be the logical way.
Similar to Creon; In A Doll’s House, Torvald Helmer’s masculine representation of power, the traditional and historical, is shown. From the beginning, in Act I, Torvald’s condescending feelings towards his wife, Nora Helmer, are exposed to the audience. He refers to Nora by animalistic names such as “spendthrift” or “squirrel” to display his dominance (Ibsen 1448). Torvald believes a man’s role in marriage is to guide and protect his wife. A wife who, he believes, is unfit to do so on her own. He reins power over most aspects of their lives, especially money. Torvald, in speaking to Nora, on debts and borrowing money:
Nora, Nora, how like a woman! No, but seriously, Nora, you know what
I think about that. No debt! Never borrow! Something of freedom’s lost-
and something of beauty too- from a home that’s founded on borrowing
and debt. (1448)
This statement supports Torvald’ conventionally masculine mindset that men are better accustomed to dealing with financial affairs. He is directly denouncing the very action Nora committed, borrowing a loan, even though it was the action that saved his life. He is associating the need to borrow money with weakness and femininity. Money as a symbol for power throughout A Doll’s House is evident. Torvald maintains power by controlling the way money is used in the household. Nora is desperate for money to relieve her of her debts and grant her freedom. Therefore Torvald, initially, has complete power over her happiness and freedom. Also similar to Creon is Torvald’s obsession with acquiring and maintaining an ideal image to the public. After Nora admits she has a secret loan, Torvald’s response is less than supportive:
From now on happiness doesn’t matter; all that matters is saving
The bits and pieces, the appearance. (1489)
Torvald is very conscious of other people’s perceptions of him and of his standing in the community. His power is fueled by this idealistic façade and he will put it at utmost precedence. This statement to Nora shows that he prioritizes his reputation, and predetermined views, over his wife’s desires and happiness and furthers the representation of male roles as being persuaded by power through what they see as logical alternative to ethical.
The female roles of both plays are motivated in a different way. In contrast to Creon’s exhibition of power, Antigone extends her ability beyond, taking the conventional female viewpoint of morality over logistics. Antigone buries her brother in spite of his actions. Antigone’s power, motivated by her loyalty to her family, is the best representation of complete sacrifice to benefit others. Antigone rebels against Creon’s orders; challenging patriarchy in its entirety. In doing so, she protests social conventions of what a powerful woman manifests. Her sister, Ismene, is antithetical to this embodiment. She best shows this during her conversation with Antigone when she first confronts her about the law:
You ought to realize we are only women,
Not meant in nature to fight against men,
and that we are ruled, by those who are stronger,
to obedience in this and even more painful matters. (Sophocles 2039)
This statement can represent societies realistic discourse of man vs. woman in regards to power. Ismene represents societies expectations of a dutiful woman. Many aspects of Ismene’s statement are later contested by her sister’s actions, against Creon, later in the play. Similar to Antigone, Nora Helmer’s actions are prompted by sacrifice and the benefit of others. In speaking to Torvald:
I found out,
for one thing, that the law’s not all what I’d thought-but I can’t get it
through my head that the law is fair. A woman hasn’t the right to protect her
dying father or save her husband’s life! I can’t believe that. (Ibsen 1492)
In this dialogue we can see the sacrifice exemplified. Nora is proud of, but burdened by, the loan. She took the financial power into her own account in the hopes of saving her husband’s life, something more important to her than herself. This typifies the traditional view of women subservient and sacrificial to men. She is questioning the law and societies views on the power of women, ultimately questioning why what men say is logic overrules ethics. This causes the climax and transformation by the end of the play when Nora decides to leave her family in pursuit of independence. She begins to take on the pursuit of the role of “The new woman”. Best represented through Mrs.Linde; A powerful, educated, and independent woman. Nora is challenging societies views on what it means to be powerful.
With any good story, whether it be a play or novel, it must speak to a greater cause. Antigone by Sophocles and A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen questions power and how it relates to the sexes. The conflict of man vs. woman in each of these plays speaks to the realistic conflict, or mimesis, of man vs. woman. It creates a higher social impact and can improve contemporary societies views on the power of women. Through the observation of the way these characteristics are transformed; the audience can reach catharsis and learn from the experience.