Essay: Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and The World

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  • Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and The World
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Ostensibly, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and The World are two texts that are disparate in form and subject matter, each dealing with the consequences of a rapidly changing world in different ways. However, both texts share a concern with exploring the diametric relationship between the home and the outside world. This piece aims to demonstrate how the distance between the two spaces is gradually corroded by the influence of external forces. In order to achieve this, there will first be a focus on the initial harmony of the household in each text. By comparing both Bimala and Nora’s domestic spaces it will be emphasised that Ibsen’s doll house, unlike Bimala’s marital home, bears the marks of capitalism and financial consciousness from the outset. The discussion will then branch towards exploring the roles of Sandip and Krogstad as invasive forces that corrupt the interior of the household by introducing foreign ideas and concepts to both women. This segment will focus specifically on the ideological corruption levelled at Bimala, and the introduction of capitalist ideals that reduce Nora’s private household to a public spectacle. At this point, the essay will turn towards assessing Nora and Bimala’s situations at the end of each text. It will reveal that they are dislodged from the sanctity of the household and must attempt to reconcile with the perils of the outside world alone. This conclusion will ultimately assert that the divide between the home and the outside world is corroded as an irreversible process of modernity.

At the outset of each text, Bimala and Nora are firmly grounded in the domestic sphere. Both women are positioned as housewives whose concerns do not extend beyond the narrow frame of their household “I would cautiously and silently get up take the dust off my husband’s feet without waking him.” (Tagore 18). This effectively removes each woman from matters of the outside world and suggests that there is a sense of privacy and security attached to the domestic household. In doing so, a distinct divide is created between the outside and inside spaces in both texts. This can be seen explicitly in Ibsen’s choice of setting for A Doll’s House, “A comfortably and tastefully, though not expensively, furnished room.” (109), which is clear in its exclusive focus on the middle-class, bourgeoise household. This claustrophobic setting is overt in its marked isolation. It is, at first glance, untouched by the influence of the outside world. However, a close reading of the “tastefully, though not expensively, furnished room.” (109) reveals an unmistakeable consciousness surrounding financial matters. In other words, the pressures of capitalism can already be spotted within the household. In this light, the room’s interiors appear to be a calculated facade imitating comfort yet bearing marks of concern towards matters of wealth and appearance. Mark Sanberg expands upon this idea of innate corruption within the bourgeoise household by stating that Ibsen’s text is concerned with “dislodging the home from its privileged association with domestic ideals and the testing of the “house” as a modern alternative.” (85). Indeed, the distinction between the home and the house is an important one. The house is stripped of its elevated position as a secure space and instead occupies a more liminal position, prone to change and invasion. This differs from Tagore’s text which has no apparent engagement with capitalist affairs at the outset. Instead, Bimala’s household is initially unmarred by the influence of external forces “It transcended all debates, or doubts, or calculations: it was pure music.” (18). However, it would presumptuous to suggest that this state of bliss is indefinite as the looming presence of the outside world is certainly visible within Bimala’s narrative “What do I want with the outside world?” (23). Such allusions are important as they highlight the threat of what lurks beyond the safety of the household. In this sense, Berman’s vision of modernity as “a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration” (15) does not coalesce neatly with how it is presented in Ibsen and Tagore’s texts. This is because a maelstrom is indicative of a vortex, consuming the matter that surrounds it. It is not subtle, it is antagonistic. Yet, in both pieces it is more akin to an infection, spreading outwards and contaminating all that it touches. It is not an aggressive force, like a maelstrom, as much as it is an inevitable process of change.

The agents of this change manifest themselves in the forms of Krogstad and Sandip who are representatives of the external world. Each of the men transgress the boundary between the domestic household and the world outside it. Sandip’s introduction to Bimala is a markedly intrusive one as he takes up a place in her home and complicates her marriage to Nikhil “it vexed me to think that he was imposing on my husband.” (30). It is at this point that Bimala’s concerns surrounding her role as a dutiful wife begin to shift. This is because she becomes conscious of, and participates within, the ideological debate occurring in Bengal. Sandip’s nationalist ideology is infectious, forcing Bimala to turn her gaze outwards, away from her household. This change can be traced in her newfound concerns surrounding how Sandip perceives her “would Sandip Babu find the Shakti of the motherland manifest in me? Or would he simply take me to be an ordinary, domestic woman?” (33). Indeed, Bimala’s emphasis on the monotony associated with being housewife shows a noticeable departure from her earlier contentment within the role. It is logical to infer that the boundaries between Bimala and the outside world have been breached, pushing her towards engagement with the explosive politics of her country. Rahul Rao expands on Bimala’s newfound position by stating that her complicated relationship with Nikhil and Sandip is “a metaphor for the relative attractions of cosmopolitanism and nationalism as seen from the vantage point of a nation attempting to wrest its freedom from imperial rule.” (112). Indeed, Rao’s point is significant in highlighting the importance ascribed to Bimala within the context of the ideological debate. Where she was previously disconnected with the space beyond her household, she now assumes the role of Bengal itself and struggles to decide on the means of her liberation. It is crucial to remark upon the rapid and uncompromising nature of this change. This is because it illuminates the fragility of the domestic space and its propensity for invasion “We had no time to think about it, or understand, what had happened, or what was about to happen.” ( Tagore 25). However, Rao’s suggestion that Tagore’s text is solely concerned with reflecting the political situation in Bengal is a limited one. This is illuminated by Saha Poulomi’s stance that Tagore’s worldly experience led him to internalise the destructive nature of nationalism on a global scale, and that his text is reflective of “the intersection of imperial constraints, modernist aesthetics, and national attachment.” (8). This assertion is relevant when the context of The Home and The World is examined. Published in 1916, the text arrived in the midst of the First World War which is significant because the destructive capabilities of nationalism would have been visible on the global stage. Nationalism was a driving force that triggered conflict worldwide and reshaped pre-existing illusions of geographical separation. This is because participation in the Great War was not an isolated event. It was not contained to a handful of warring countries. Rather, its influence spread globally, involving an unprecedented number of nations in a single, devastating conflict. This departs from Rao’s limited assertion that the text is solely reflective of Bengal’s national discord and points to a larger, global issue concerning the spread of ideology through conflict. Indeed, this widened focus on global impact coalesces neatly with the idea of modernity as an unstoppable force that spreads across geographical margins, consuming boundlessly.

In a similar sense, Krogstad’s introduction to Nora’s household is a metaphor for the spread of capitalist ideology in Europe, and the consequent corrosion of the security attached to the domestic household. Krogstad is introduced as he enters through an unlocked door in the Helmer’s household “Now the door is pushed ajar, and Krogstad appears.” (130). Like Sandip, Krogstad’s arrival is sudden and unforeseen. By focusing on the unlocked door, it is clear to see that the bourgeoise household is defenceless in keeping intruders out. It is a facade of security that is easily compromised. Furthermore, Krogstad’s silent observation of Nora’s game with her children “what shall we play? Hide and seek?” (129) provides an unsettling sense of voyeurism as he intrudes on an emphatically private moment. This casts Nora’s household from its preconceived notions of seclusion and exposes it to be scrutinized by the outside world. Nicholas Grene extends this line of thought by stating that “the revolutionary innovation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was to turn that scene of the glass-walled conservatory the other way around, to put the audience of the play in the position of the townspeople, gazing in at the middle-class marital home.” (16). Grene’s point is a significant one as it illuminates the importance of staging in corroding the distinct lines between the interior and exterior world. The set of the bourgeoise household may be constructed to appear superficially private but it is, in fact, a stage. This means that it is designed for the sole purpose of being gazed upon and dissected. In this sense, there is a definitive and noticeable breach between the domestic household and the external world as the audience observes the bourgeoise home. This, Branislav Jakovljevic posits, means that “the reality of the stage is always measured against the truth of the outside world.” (432). In other words, the facade of the ideal household is exposed by means of the audience witnessing its gradual undoing. But the inhabitants of outside world are not embodied solely by the audience. Instead, they can also be seen in Krogstad’s letter which is an artefact of the outside world. The letter is inimitable proof of Nora’s fraud, which makes it a distinctly financial object. This links closely to ideas of capitalism and financial security that are already deeply rooted in the household. Similar to Krogstad’s first appearance, the letter arrives through the front door and sits, out of reach, in the letterbox “There it is. – Torvald, Torvald – we’re beyond rescue now!” (159). Nora’s inability to access the letter is indicative the fact that her household is longer a private space. It is open to the influences of the outside world and cannot be shielded from them. As a result, Nora is forced to face the reality of her deception, knowing that resistance is futile. The futility of Nora’s predicament is significant as it points towards the irrevocable change that the household has undergone. It is utterly compromised by the pressures of debt and capital and, despite Nora’s best efforts, it cannot be concealed. In this sense, the contamination of the household by outside forces is an inevitable process of change that cannot be placated.

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