The construction of the female characters in the book text of ‘My Brilliant Career’ was different from their representation in the movie text.  In the book we are exposed to the narrator’s biassed view of the relevant characters, while in the movie, despite Sybilla still acting as narrator, we are presented with a more general characterization of women in turn-of-the-century Australia.

In the story women were portrayed as of lesser importance than men, with various roles according to their status – Sybilla was fair game to Harry Beecham as a servant in a blossom tree, yet out of bounds as the grand-daughter of the house.  Within her household Sybilla’s mother is a powerful figure, but her husband still dictated where they lived and worked.

Sybilla’s grandmother was also a powerful figure at Caddagat (with authority even over Uncle Jay Jay in relation to Sybilla), Aunt Helen below her, then Sybilla, followed by the maids on a much lower level and having power only between themselves and their relative positions in the work-force.

Yet they were all women, with feelings, needs, hopes and desires, all of which were considered, by themselves as well as by men and society in general, as secondary to those of the men around them.

. . . it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate, while women, metaphorically speaking, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither, battering and bruising without mercy. (Franklin, M. 1979, p.33)

Against this second-rate status Sybilla rebelled openly.  And she saw, as the main culprit for maintaining this, marriage that subjugated a woman’s independence of thought and personality.  She stated “Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going . . . . I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 31 & 32)

In the movie Sybilla’s mother was portrayed as she’d have been in reality – with the film-makers’ hindsight of the period – as hardworking, weighed down by the struggle to keep the family fed and together, despite the drought and a lazy, drunk husband, yet maintaining a semblance of refinement.  As evidence of this, although the house was little more than a timber shanty, there were clean lace curtains at the windows, photos in silver frames, and an in-tune though honky-tonk piano in the parlour.

She remained practical in the face of a continually growing family (due to no contraception), yet could not face the humiliation of fetching her husband from the pub – that was for Sybilla to bear.  She saw the need to send Sybilla away to work, to help support the family, as an obvious practicality, rather than as Sybilla saw it – as a punishment.

In the book her Mother was shown as hard, unyielding, lacking in kindness and under-standing, and intolerant of Sybilla’s ideas and desires.  She appeared to treat Sybilla as a possession to be packed off to Grandmother, then redirected to the M’Swat’s as it suited her.  Yet we do see, underlying this characterisation of her mother by Sybilla, the latter’s understanding of the forces that have reduced her beautiful refined mother to behave as she did.  We see this from Sybilla’s point of view and are sympathetic with her (from our own position of acceptance and equality in society).  Yet we are able to recognise her mother’s hardships, her subsequent bitterness, and her need to take this out on her eldest daughter, who she saw as unmarriageable due to a lack of beauty, and a rebellious and outspoken nature.  She saw her as being an indefinite burden on her stretched resources.

Sybilla’s grandmother was characterised, in both book and movie, as very Victorian, with rigid views about a woman’s place in society and the home, how she should behave with decorum and modesty, show refinement and manners.  She was affronted at the idea of Sybilla going on the stage – but more because it was her granddaughter – and totally disregarded Sybilla’s views on the matter.

Against this arbitrary decision-making by others, on her behalf and without any concern for her thoughts or feelings, Sybilla also rebelled.  Likewise, upon receiving her mother’s letter informing of her transfer to the M’Swat’s as a governess, her indignation and horror was extreme.  “The steel of my mother’s letter entered my soul.  Why had she not expressed a little regret at the thing she was imposing on me?” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 162)  When asked by her grandmother for her response she exclaimed, “Say?  I won’t go!  I can’t!  I won’t!  Oh, grannie, don’t send me there – I would rather die.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 162)

In the movie Grandmother was shown as caring for Sybilla, but as less kindly than she was portrayed in the book – as a foil for the character of Aunt Gussie, who though out-spoken was more understanding of Sybilla, in whom she seemed to see herself as a girl.  In the book she was a less dominant, more formal figure – Sybilla called her Miss Beecham – and seemed to be there only as a chaperone in the background to add respectability to Sybilla’s visit.

While the movie portrayed these characters a little differently, and compressed the events to suit its running time it did portray the M’Swat family perfectly.  Although it omitted details such as Mr M’Swat’s diary, it did show Sybilla’s degradation, as she gradually became dirtier and more depressed.  The power struggle between Sybilla and Mrs M’Swat was clearly shown, as was the futility of the existence in the cultural desert of the M’Swat’s squalid home.  However, in the scene where the children read the story from the pages of newspaper that lined their walls, the movie also left the viewer with a feeling that Sybilla’s time had not altogether been wasted.

In the book, I was held captive by Sybilla’s misery and frustration with the injustice of her situation.  It was hard to believe in the kindness of the M’Swats, although Sybilla stated quite clearly that they were kind, or in the degree of their squalor and ignorance – the movie, however, clarified this giving it reality.  Aunt Helen and Grandmother could not believe in this squalor when they received Sybilla’s pleading letters.

Just as the M’Swats were ignorant of the refinement and better quality of life and possessions to be gained by the use of their money, so was the wealthy Grandmother at Caddagat ignorant of how base the lives of others, like the M’Swats, could be.  Both the book text and the movie text showed this fact clearly – the movie with a cut to a quick scene at Caddagat, its lush green formal surroundings a stark contrast to the mud and haphazard hovels of the M’Swat’s farm.  Aunt Helen, in her elegant clean gown was seen discussing another letter from Sybilla with Grandmother, their disbelief apparent.

Miss Derrick was portrayed in both media as representing everything that a woman should be in society:

Miss Derrick brought herself and her dress in with great style and airs. . . . She sat down with great indifference, twirled her bracelet round her wrist, languidly opened her fan, and closed her eyes as she wafted it to and fro. . . . She would adorn the head of his [her husband’s] table.  She would never worry him with silly ideas.  She would never act with impropriety.  She would never become a companion to her husband. (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 121, & 122)

Obviously, Miss Derrick was everything that Sybilla rebelled against being.  In both media the latter was represented as a strong character, outspoken, intolerant of the attitudes of society towards the downtrodden generally, and women in particular.  She was treated as an adult, expected to marry well to help the family , yet sent to her room like a child as punishment for a prank.  Another example of this dual treatment was evident in the ultimatum she was indirectly given – marry Harry Beecham or be sent to the M’Swat’s farm as a governess/servant.  She was expected to make a decision about marriage, but not allowed to make a decision against going to the M’Swat’s.  Virtually all other decisions were made for her by her mother or hergrandmother.

Sybilla’s character in the book text was more confused and unpredictable, less outwardly loving and maternal than in the movie.  In the book she hated being touched by a man, resisted all attempts at being kissed – one very violently with a whip, which  symbolized power throughout the story, and male dominance over female – and yielded antiseptically to a parting kiss from Harry when he left, broke – it was accepted, but not enjoyed.  Yet in the movie she was shown romping in the parlour in a man’s arms, and pillow-fighting in the meadows, openly trying to provoke Harry into taking some form of action.  When he finally did she rebuffed him, as mentioned, with a whip.

Later when Harry came to claim her, in the movie she turned him down compassionately, and maternally kissed his forehead.  Yet in the book this scene was much more passionate.  In answer to one of his many pleas she said bitterly, “. . . leave me; go and marry the sort of woman you ought to marry. . . . A good conventional woman, who will do the things she should at the proper time.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 221 & 222)  There was no farewell kiss – instead, she wrote him a note which she gave to him as he was leaving the next day.

At this point in the narrative, I as a reader lost some sympathy for Sybilla.  Admittedly she was very confused – she seemed to want to marry him, yet resisted, believing “I am not good enough to be your wife, Hal, or that of any man” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 222)  To me this statement was hypocritical – she did to him what she resented being done to her – she made a decision on his behalf.  In the movie, however, the audience’s sympathy is maintained as her reason for not marrying was quite clear – she wished to remain independent, and believed that by marrying and joining her life with someone else’s she would lose this independence.

As a sixteen year old would probably be, Sybilla was very confused, and constantly referred to her egotism, which she didn’t want to become sublimated to a man.  Her egotism seemed to be a lifeline – a means of preventing her from becoming just another woman in society if she could manage to keep it intact.  In the movie egotism was not mentioned, her character was much clearer, less confused and more mature, and her objectives in life were more defined.

The movie ended with her standing at the gate in the peaceful and greening landscape.  A feeling of hope for the future and contentment with choices made was the overriding effect.  Sybilla seemed to be finally at peace with herself.  Although the ending of the book was similar, I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction for things left unresolved.

In conclusion I believe that the differences in the construction of the female characters between the book text and the movie text were important and justified.  The film-makers needed to portray the story that Miles Franklin wrote in a believable and balanced fashion.  An audience would not really credit Sybilla’s mother as being as hard as her daughter depicted her, and it was important that this audience be kept in sympathy with Sybilla.

The Directors, by being able to cut from scene to contrasting scene, to make their visual and audible media work for them, were able to show in moments what Miles Franklin took pages to describe.  After all, they had a limited time in which to tell their captive audience a story that could be read over any period of time at liesure.  So despite needing to compress scenes, omit characters, events and symbols ( e.g. the power symbol of the whip), the Directors were able to portray the essential elements of the book – in particular the struggle needed to attain womanly independence in the Victorian society of turn-of-the-century Australia.

(C) Jud House 28/08/2005


Clancy, Jack  Bringing Franklin up to Date: The Film of My Brilliant Career Jack Clancy in ALS, Vol 9, 1979-80, pp 363-367

Coleman, Verna (1981). Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career. London: Angus and Robertson.

Franklin, Miles Childhood at Brindabella, My First Ten Years  Sydney: Arkon (paperback), Angus and Robertson.

Franklin, Miles (1979).  My Brilliant Career.  Sydney: Arkon  (paperback), Angus and Robertson.

Franklin, Miles (1981).  The End of My Career.  New York: St.  Martin’s Press.

Mathew, Ray (1963) Miles Franklin, Australian Writers and Their Work series, Melbourne: Lansdown.

McInherny, Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career and the Female Tradition, ALS, Vol 9, 1979-80, pp 275-285.

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CINDERELLA:  Selected variants from different historical periods and the way in which stories reflect the culture out of which they arise.

Although hundreds of variants exist of the fairy tale, CINDERELLA, I have chosen, for expediency and as representative of four historical periods, the following versions (course hand-outs):  THE CHINESE CINDERELLA, 850 AD; Charles Perrault’s  CENDRILLON and d’Aulnoy’s FINETTE CENDRON, contrasting pair, late C17th; Grimm Bros.’ CINDERELLA, C19th; and Disney’s CINDERELLA, C20th. The pairing of the seventeenth century stories will provide a clearer picture of the culture of their era.

There were variants of THE CHINESE CINDERELLA story, but although the heroine’s name may change from Shih Chieh to Yeh-Shen, the components of the fish, magic bones, and slipper remained a constant.  There were many elements within the story  which disclosed historical cultural information to the reader, who was informed in the opening paragraph that the story was set in pre-dynastical times, among cave-dwelling country and island folk.  These were ruled by a chieftain, Shih Chieh’s father, while the more military and powerful of them are ruled directly by a king.

Culturally the reader learns that the status of women was very low in China at that time.  The women were under the control of the patriarch/father, or when he was no longer there – as in Shih Chieh’s case – the matriarch/step-mother, unquestioningly carrying out designated tasks.  The women were bound together in their subordination to the patriarchy, just as their feet were bound.

Thus in China, where the “lotus foot,” or tiny foot was such a sign of a woman’s worth that the custom of foot-binding developed, the Cinderella tale lays emphasis on an impossibly small slipper as a clue to   the heroine’s identity. (Yolen, 1977, p. 298)

The beauty of tiny feet was only in the eye of the male beholder.  And when a king decided to marry a woman – in this case, Shih Chieh – it was as good as done.  Chinese women were passive, and compliant:   “when he [the king] demanded to see her, she appeared ….” and “the king bore her away to his kingdom to be his wife.” (Hume, 1962, p. 2)  There was no suggestion of choice for Shih Chieh concerning her future.

Shih Chieh was depicted as “not only beautiful … [but] clever, as well, and always happy” (Hume, 1962, p. 1) – when her father was alive.  She showed herself to be obedient to her step-mother’s demands, no matter how unreasonable or dangerous.  Yet she was secretive  – she hid the fish in her room, then in the pond.  Later, when the bones had also been secretly buried, she decked herself in azure gown and gold slippers and, disobediently, followed her stepmother and stepsister to the festival.

Thus the reader sees that she was not completely passive, though obviously subordinate, economically, to her stepmother and step-sister.  However, her degree of self-help is founded on the aid rendered to her by the ‘magic’ fish and the ‘angelic’ male stranger who advised her.

Finally, Shih Chieh was incidental to the ending of the story, which was primarily about the fish and the slipper.  But her beauty, passivity and luck was rewarded by marriage to the king, who, due to greed, lost the magic bones.

In late seventeenth century France, Charles Perrault and Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy wrote their versions of the Cinderella story – Perrault’s being the most well-known.  At that time it was fashionable to take oral folk tales, previously and traditionally told by older women to young girls to prepare them for and assist them over the turbulent initiation into adulthood, and transcribe them to written tales for the entertainment and formal socialization of the aristocracy, and Bourgeoisie, both adults and children.

Perrault’s CENDRILLON/ CINDERELLA OR THE LITTLE GLASS SLIPPER was written tongue-in-cheek, not to be taken seriously,

primarily intended for adult reading, as [he] had made obvious; they were a reflection of the artificial world of court life, though each story was dutifully provided with a moral. (Whalley, 1980, p.141)

He introduced into the tale a godmother, an extra stepsister, animals, a magicked pumpkin, and a time limit set on Cinderella’s ball-attendance.  While the fish was omitted from the tale, he made much of the slipper motif.

Cinderella was shown as obedient, compliant, passive and beautiful, only able to get her prince with the assistance of her god-mother, and her magic.  Her beauty of face and nature were rewarded, including her forgiveness of her stepsisters’ unkindness and ill-treatment of her.

Cinderella was as good as she was beautiful and she brought her two sisters to live in the palace, and they were married on the self-same day to two great lords at the court. (Perrault, 1697, p. 100 – Hand/Out)

The characteristics of “gentility, grace, and selflessness” Perrault considered socially acceptable for “the well-bred seventeenth century female” (Yolen , 1977,p. 296), and he promoted these in his tales.  With the right attributes a woman could attain her highest reward – that of marriage, and financial security – essential for women in that insecure period.

Contrary to Perrault’s version was that of d’Aulnoy, FINETTE CENDRON, which incorporated elements of other tales, such as the Cyclops and Minotaur Greek myths, Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk.  A much longer, more complex story than Perrault’s, it involved the journey, both actual and symbolic, of the heroine towards maturity (a right-of-passage story) and marital security.  As a female writer, d’Aulnoy presented a different picture of women at that time.  Her heroine, Finette Cendron, was “the best-hearted girl in the world” (d’Aulnoy in Zipes, 1989, p. 404), obliging, considerate, mindful of customs, loyal, virtuous, practical, grateful, not greedy, accepting of advice (by her godmother), secretive, gullible, vulnerable, resourceful, courageous, ingenious, lucky, obedient, forgiving, polite with good manners, possessed of common sense, (these attributes are supported throughout the text) and, finally, was able to recognize and use her power to restore her family’s fortune.

And when she told them the names of her father and mother, they recognized them as sovereigns of dominions they had conquered.  When they informed Finette of this fact, she immediately vowed that she would not consent to marry the prince until they had restored the estates of her father. (d’Aulnoy in Zipes, 1989,pp. 415 -416)

Finette was a multi-facetted, three-dimensional character, able to control not only her own destiny but that of her family, unlike Perrault’s Cendrillon who had few attributes/facets and was one-dimensional.

D’Aulnoy’s story was to be taken seriously, demonstrating to readers, paricularly girls, that they could control their own destinies, even if marriage and financial security was still the ultimate reward.  Her version touched on issues of subordination – women to men, younger to older, lower class to upper class – and that of abandonment, a common economical occurrence at that time.  She showed, through Finette, that women were actually far removed from the ideal that Perrault strove to enforce.

In the Grimm Bros.’ version of CINDERELLA the heroine was portrayed as passively submissive to the step-mother and step-sisters.  The idea of mother-protection was introduced into the story, in the form of a magic tree planted on her mother’s grave, with a little white bird that “threw down to her what she wished for” (Grimm,1975, p.122).  Cinderella was shown to be a little more human, weeping when sad, begging her step-mother to allow her to go to the festival, and endeavouring to complete the allotted tasks, no matter how impossible they seemed in order to do so.  The Grimm brothers also introduced the complicity of the birds, without whose assistance Cinderella would have remained in her subjugated position.

Cinderella was rescued from her degradation by the intervention of the King’s son who did not give up his search until he had found the true wearer of the shoe.  In this story the depiction of self-mutilation that the step-sisters undertook in order to get their prince, was a reflection, if perhaps an exaggeration, of the lengths a woman would, and should go to, to achieve married status.  The tale ended with reward for the heroine for her goodness, beauty, and patience, and with punishment for the step-sisters of blindness meted out by the birds.

Writing in the nineteenth century, the Grimm brothers wanted to use their tales to educated and socialize children, who were to take as their role models the heroes and heroines of the tales.  They were precursors for the perfect Aryan race, where all were blonde and blue-eyed, the women passive and domesticated, and the men strong, clever, and in control of society.  Their message of reward and punishment was just as important as that of the desired character traits for male and female children.

Disney’s story, CINDERELLA, was a composite of Perrault’s and the Grimms’ stories, with some twentieth century bowdlerization and romanticism added.  As Disney’s version was created visually simultaneously with the script, his illustrations depicted his notions of the perfect female character, as did the text.  His Cinderella was shown as “the sweetest and most beautiful girl in the world.” (Disney, 1965, p. 193)  She had blonde hair, and blue eyes, and a shapely figure under her tattered gown and apron.  Disney utilised the animal element, not merely for magical effect with the pumpkin, but as companions for Cinderella in her lonely kitchen and attic, to show just how loveable she was – even all the animals and birds loved her.  “She made little clothes for them, and gave them all names.” (Disney, 1965 p. 193)

In Disney’s version the stepsisters were portrayed as ugly, physically as well as in character – they were rude, sarcastic, lazy, and jealous of Cinderella’s beauty.  The step-mother’s cruelty was shown by the way she treated Cinderella as a servant, the way she spoke to her and locked her in the attic.  The only violence in Disney’s version was the scene where the sisters snatched the decorations from Cinderella’s first gown.  Sympathy for his heroine had to be established in the reader/viewer, but not at the expense of frightening the children/audience.

Disney retained the godmother, but made her a fairy to help explain her magic to a twentieth century audience.  He retained the slipper and its loss, and the search by the prince for the owner of the slipper.  He borrowed from Grimm the idea of the tasks to be completed before his heroine could have permission to attend the ball, although he updated them to house-cleaning tasks rather than the picking out of grains from the ashes.

Up the stairway she carried breakfast trays for her stepmother and her two lazy stepsisters.  And down she came with a basket of mending, some clothes to wash, and a long list of jobs to do for the day. (ibid, p. 195)

The ‘Happily ever after’ ending belonged entirely to Cinderella, and to any young girl who was as sweet of nature and beautiful of face and figure as she.  The message was clear – if a girl is prepared to be these things, and be patient and wait, then one day her prince would also come and reward her with marriage and security.  The message for boys was that

[t]he goal of every prince (every man) [was] fulfilled by a beautiful, long-haired young woman, with a fair complexion, especially if she is connected to a castle, money, and power. (Zipes, 1986, pp. 160 – 161)

Throughout the Cinderella versions the message has remained the same – except for d’Aulnoy’s version, which even so still ended in marriage and security.

In the early to mid-twentieth century women were still not in control of their own destinies.  They were considered subordinate to men and to each other, both economically and generationally.  A woman’s place was in the home, doing housework and taking care of the family – child-minding.  She was to be protected by her male/father/husband/son, and be patient, hard-working, uncomplaining, virtuous, sweet, loveable, and if possible as beautiful as cosmetics would make her.  Disney reflects and upholds these attributes with his version of Cinderella, although at the time he produced it he was merely reflecting the ‘normal’ society in which he lived.

All these versions have done just that, while retaining and modifying the original to suit the changes in their societies’ attitudes and their own particular views and biasses, regarding the behaviour of both sexes within these societies.  The authors

retained (or inserted) [various elements into their tales] because … [as] narrators, [they] instinctively or unconsciously, felt their literary ‘significance’. Even where a prohibition in a fairy story is guessed to be derived from some taboo practised long ago, it has been preserved in the later stages of the tale’s history because of the great mythical significance of prohibition.  (Tolkien, 1990,p. 142)

Despite its historical setting, the actual historical period and culture of the written tale is textually obvious.

(C) Jud House  19/08/2006 & 7/01/2013


Babbitt, N. (1970)  “Happy Endings?  Of Course, and Also Joy.’  in Haviland, V. Editor(1973)  CHILDREN  AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Buchan, J. (1931)  ‘The Novel and the Fairy Tale’.  in Haviland, V. Editor (1973) AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Butler, F. Editor. (1975)  CHILDREN’S LITERATURE VOL 4.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press.

Gilbert, R. (1990)  ‘Endings’  in  MEANJIN  Vol. 49 (1990)

Haviland, V.  Editor. (1973)   ‘Folk Literature and Fantasy’  in  CHILDREN AND LITERA -TURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Le Guin, Ursula. (19   )  ‘This Fear of Dragons’  in  THE THORNY PARADISE: Writers  on Writing for Children.  Blishen, E. Editor.  Harmondsworth, UK: Kestrel Books

Lewis, C.S.  (1952)  ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children.’  in  BOURNEMOUTH  CONFERENCE PAPERS AND DISCUSSION.  Library Association Proceedings.

Liberman, Anatoly. (1985)  ‘Between Myth and the Wondertale.’  in  MYTH IN LITERA-TURE. Kodjak, A., Pomorska, K., Rudy,S. Editors.  Columbia, Ohio: Slavica Publishers Inc.

Kegan, Paul  Editor.  (1975)  ‘The Six Swans.’  from  THE COMPLETE GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES.  London:  Routledge. (H/O)

Perrault, Charles. ‘Cendrillon.’  from Zipes, J. Editor (1989) BEAUTIES, BEASTS AND ENCHANTMENT.  Meridian:  Penguin.

Philip, Neil. (1989)  THE CINDERELLA STORY; The Origins and Variations of the Story known as Cinderella.  Penguin Books Ltd.

Shavit, Z. (1986)  ‘The Notion of Childhood and Texts for the Child.’  in  POETICS OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE.  Athens & London: University of Georgia Press.

Tolkien, J.R.R.  (1964)  ON FAIRY-STORIES.  in  POEMS AND STORIES.  Williamson F.R. & Tolkien C.R. Editors.  London:  Harper Collins Publishers (1992)

Yolen, Jane. Editor. (1986)  FAVOURITE FOLKTALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD.Pantheon.

Zipes, Jack. Editor. (1993)  DON’T BET ON THE PRINCE; Contemporary FeministFairy Tales in North America and England.  U.K.: Scolar Press

Zipes, Jack. (1983)  FAIRY TALES AND THE ART OF SUBVERSION.  London: Heine-mann Educational Books Ltd.

Zipes, Jack.  (19  )  ‘On the Use and Abuse of Folk and Fairy Tales with Children.’  in BREAKING THE MAGIC SPELL: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.  H/O London: Heinemann.

Zipes, Jack. (1986)  ‘Fairy Tale as Myth  Myth as Fairy Tale.’  in  THE BROTHERS GRIMM:  FROM ENCHANTED FORESTS TO THE MODERN WORLD.  New York  & London: Routledge.

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ROMANTICISM – Issues of Gender and/or Sexuality

Romanticism was a literary period of change, a breaking away from the rules that governed thought, and creative endeavour.  There was a freeing up of subject matter, writers using the common man and experience instead of lofty unrealistic plots and characters.  This use of the common subject also released the writers from constraints re sexuality and gender presentation.  They became free to utilise previously taboo topics, such as confinement, adultery, and physical seduction.

For women … the nineties … the comparatively new idea of “free love” as well as …. a new kind of literary era, one whose spirit was, if not dominated by literary women, at least shared and shaped by female imagin- ations.  (Gilbert, Chopin, 1994, p. 277)

Writers focussed on individual psychology, the inner lives of their protagonists as they dealt with the tribulations and complications of their external lives.  They were seen not only as part of their society, affected by its rules and attitudes, but also as having a personal identity separate from the social.  Self-contained individuals at one with the natural landscape in which they operated, Romanticists questioned their own relationship with their world and universe.  They believed that Nature had a spiritual power, a moral agency, which American Romantic writers used symbolically in the lives of their protagonists.

According to Abrams, gender “constitute[s] what is masculine and what is feminine – … largely … cultural constructs that were generated by the omnipresent patriarchal biases of our civilization.” (Abrams, 1993, p. 235)  He goes on to say that  “the masculine in our culture has come to be identified as active, dominating, adventurous, rational, creative; the feminine, by systematic opposition to such traits, has come to be identified as passive, acquiescent, timid, emotional, and conventional.” (ibid, p. 235)

As a result of Romanticism, the question of personal fulfillment, personal identity, the right to expression and individual freedom, and the stress on individuals as individuals, came about. Individual psychological entities of increasing complexity were written about, with needs and sexual desires which drove them into conflict with society. In the upper classes, women who became aware of their sexuality and broke the social rules were punished or destroyed.  A wife’s adultery was an affront to the patriarch of the time, resulting in imprisonment, while male adultery was unofficially sanctioned, resulting only in fines. If women left their relationship then they needed to be able to support themselves, to earn a living.

In her novel The Awakening, Kate Chopin looked at Edna’s struggles against the patriarchal society, her relationship with her husband as an owned possession, not allowed to initiate sexual relations, but expected to comply whenever her husband wished her to, and her role of wife and mother.  Brought up in Presbyterian Kentucky, Edna’s

marriage to Leonce Pontellier was purely an accident …. He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her. Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives which led her to accept [him].” (Chopin, 1994, p. 18)

With her puritanical upbringing, she found herself among the Creole society whose characteristics as the book demonstrates were openness, sensuality, hedonism, and a kind of mixed gender game.  The role of the mother was central to the family – Creole women were brought up to be “tender, loving mothers, [who] care for the health and beauty of their children [and to whom] …. Women’s rights… are the right to love and be loved, and to name the babies”. (Shaffter, 1892, ibid, pp. 138-9)  She found their openness and lack of prudery difficult to deal with, and failed to live up to her French speaking Creole husband’s expectations.

Edna’s sexual awakening began with Robert Lebrun.  Culturally and linguistically outside the culture in which she grew up, Edna misinterpreted Robert’s intentions and attentions, although the flirtation was accepted by her husband and the other Creoles. In the social role-playing she was inadequate to the situation, not bred or educated to it, and cut adrift from the Protestant constraints.  Psychological motives caused Edna dis-satisfaction with the society she was in, her misreading of it and her mis-recognition of its boundaries prompted her to search for new love.  The learning situation into which she was placed, involved her loosening of the ties that bound her.

Another outlet for breaking the patriarchal social mould was her unchaperoned trips to the races with Arobin. Later when making love with him at home “[i]t was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded.  It was a flaming torch that kindled desire. …. Edna cried a little that night after Arobin left her.” (ibid, p. 80)   Edna was unashamed of her relationship with Arobin felt no guilt for her infidelity to her husband, but regret that it had not been her love, Robert.  This is an example of how social and literary rules were broken by the Romantic writers.  Prior to them love in literature had remained as an idealised rather than a physical reality.

Edna followed her instincts when leaving Leonce – it was not carefully planned, but impulsive.  She let fate dictate her actions. Edna gained power by learning to swim, by her painting, and by her new home, the pigeon house.  At that time these were big steps for a woman to take. In 19th century novels of adultery, women were constructed as individuals with desire for fulfillment that overrode any other facet of their lives.  Edna was the epitome of this – she wanted sexual fulfillment.  Sex was something to be acknowledged and valued, not just as society dictated for procreation and man’s pleasure.

According to Donald Ringe, in his article ‘Romantic Imagery’,

Edna Pontellier feels contradictory impulses impelling her, impulses that … reveal that she is “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” …. – an awakening of [her] self as important …. [that] resembles the transcendent- alist theory of self-discovery”. (Ringe, ibid, pp. 222-3, 224, 223)

Realising her relationship with Robert would eventually be a repetition of that with Leonce, Edna turned impulsively to the sea. Nature and culture were intersected by the sea, Chopin using it symbolically as a signifier of her unconscious, of seduction, of her own sexuality/femininity.  By her acceptance of her sexual awakening, Edna rid herself of the constraining society.  Defeated by society and its demands, by turning her back on them she also triumphed.

          An acceptable ending for a Romantic novel, even one that pushed the boundaries as this one did, Edna’s suicide was ambivalent.  It was realistic – the patriarchal society placed women in impossible often intolerable situations with only one apparent solution; and because women’s success without a man was a threat to male society, male authors could not allow it to occur, without being seen as encouraging immorality, and a break-down of law in society.

The use of Nature in the form of birds to symbolise Edna’s condition and her stages of awakening, was Romantic.  Initially aligned with the caged parrot, she moves to the Pigeon house “which pleased her…. There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual.” (Chopin, 1994, p. 89)  She was free to come and go but was domesticated.  Finally Chopin aligned Edna with the maimed bird as she swam to her death.  This symbolism represents the condition of women at the turn of the century, constrained to fit specific gender roles dictated by the patriarchy.

(C)  Jud House  15/11/1998


Abrams, M.H. (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Sandra M Gilbert – ‘The Second Coming of Aphrodite’ in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994)  The Awakening  New York:  W W Norton & Company

Donald A Ringe – ‘Romantic Imagery’ in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994)  The Awakening  New York:  W W Norton & Company

Mary L Shaffter – ‘Creole Women’   in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994)  The Awakening  New York:  W W Norton & Company


George Arms – Contrasting Forces in the Novel’

Cyrille Arnavon – ‘An American Madame Bovary’

Jules Chametzky – Edna and the “Woman Question”’

Kenneth Eble – ‘A Forgotten Novel’

Marie Fletcher – ‘The Southern Woman in Fiction’

Lewis Leary – ‘Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman’

John R May – Local Colour in The Awakening’

Elaine Showalter – ‘Chopin and American Women Writers’

George M Spangler – ‘The Ending of the Novel’

Per Seyersted – Kate Chopin and the American Realists’

Helen Taylor – ‘Gender, Race, and Region’

Larzer Ziff – ‘From The American 1890s’

* * * * *


According to Ian Saunders “the crux of Marxism is … the way in which it insists that the economic, political and social be read interactively, and its recognition of the powerful ideological function of cultural texts.” (Saunders, 1993, p. 70)  David Malouf’s novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek falls as easily into this category of cultural text as it does as an historically fictional text.

Whether the location was Australia or Ireland, the division of wealth and health was allotted to a small class-based portion of the community. Arranged in conversation-induced flashbacks to Ireland, interspersed throughout the social and historical representation of Australia via the character identities, Malouf’s text deals with socio-economic beliefs and values.  I will deal first with Adair’s childhood home in Ireland.

Orphaned by the death of his lower class travelling opera-singing parents – his mother originally from a higher class having attended Miss Bonnifer’s Academy for young ladies in Dublin – Adair was taken in by her old schoolfriend, Aimee Connellan.  Within the household of Ellersley there were a mostly absentee Master, and Mistress, the Connellans (lower upper class); butler, coachman and chief counsellor to the Mistress, Paddy Mangan; the housekeeper, Mrs Upshaw (upper lower class); and the maids/kitchen hands, Lizzy and Katie (lower class – no surnames for them!).

This household heirarchical arrangement was typical of the class structure that permeated all English and hence Irish society at the time.  A similar arrangement prevailed at the neighbouring landowner, Eamon Fitzgibbon’s property, the Park, a richer, larger and consequently higher class establishment. Adair and later Connellan’s son, Fergus, were sent there for their education with Fitzgibbon’s daughter, Virgilia.  An understanding of the precarious position in which Adair stood socially was provided by Malouf.

Adair had always understood that the position he occupied in Mama Aimee’s household, however completely he was accepted and however fond they might be of him, made his prospects very different from those that Fergus [the heir] could look forward to…. ‘…I may have to go away … I can’t live off Mama Aimee all my life.  I have to make my own way in the world.  You will inherit Ellersley -‘ (Malouf, 1997, pp 92 & 93)

Another example of the power that the moneyed upper class had over the lower classes was supplied via Carney’s conversation of an Irish memory to Adair.  He acknowledged that Adair might not know how men were employed, a blatant affirmation of their social difference:

‘That’s how it happens, sir, in case you don’t have experi- ence of it.  You stand there and the farmers come, or the stewards if it’s a big place, an’ they look you over like, to see what you might be good for…’ (ibid, p. 56)

He goes on to tell Adair how he was scrubbed, clothed and taken to see a young blind woman.  As he was forbidden to speak, deception was obviously the motive, and the experience made him feel low and degraded.  This incident not only shows the exploitation of the lower class by their moneyed ‘superiors’, but also the exploitation and subjugation of the women who had less rights no matter what their class than the men.

A glimpse at the lives of the lowest class people was given to Adair, Virgilia and the reader, via a visit with Fergus to the hovel of the O’Riordans, turf-cutters living on the edge of the peat-bog.  Within the strong-smelling daub-floored hut, which housed Mrs O’Riordan, “a shapeless woman with thin hair and no teeth who might have been any age from thirty-five to sixty” (ibid, p. 154) and her five children, were the meanest furnishings and a tethered cow.

The poverty and degradation was suffered stoically by these people, resigned to their lives without husband and father – transported to New South Wales penal colony for alleged involvement in sheep-stealing – and sustained by her basket weaving, and her elder sons, “Donagh and Sean [who] worked fourteen hours a day cutting turf to keep a roof over their heads and to feed them.” (ibid, pp. 157-158)  Later the girl Marnie, at Fergus’s urging, went into service as Virgilia’s maid, where her attitude was fierce: “she ha[d] her dignity to protect.  She remember[ed] the conditions” she came from. (ibid. Pp 171-172)

          This inequity of socio-economic class structure was transported along with the first fleet to Australia.  As a cross-section from highest to lowest class citizens. there were the powerful administrators, the officers (usually the second sons of upper class families – like Adair whose orphaned position placed him in that category), the ticket-of-leave business and trades people, the freed convicts, and the still imprisoned convicts.  According to Saunders:

the colonising of Australia seemed perfectly reasonable to the British because they read their actions through an ideology which included a belief in the intrinsic superiority of European culture, and an assumption that land not ited to the legal system of one or another of the European nation- states was in fact unowned, and therefore available for appropriation. (Saunders, 1993, pp. 49-50)

This sociological arrogance was the possession of the upper class British, the ruling moneyed class – not the marginalised (by economic disadvantage) lower classes.

Malouf provided in his fictionalised history several examples of the class structure in Australia.  The indigenous inhabitants of the land, like Jonas the Aboriginal tracker, had no status at all which meant they had no class standing within the social structure.  Carney was at the bottom of the white heap – a condemned escaped-convict bushranger, originally from the working lower class of Ireland.  The other bushrangers in his gang, except Dolan (if he was Fergus), were of the same class.

Next in status were the troopers, the young Garrety, and Langhurst, and the near forty year old Kersey:

recruits to the new force that was to police the colony and keep a watch on the western [Aboriginal] tribes …. Before Jed Snelling was killed they had been four – the black who was with them, Jonas, did not count. (Malouf, 1997, p. 7)

Brought up in Australia Garrety lived alone by his wits in the city streets “sleeping in bins and doorways and in odd corners …. his lips were sealed … on the worst things that had happened to him.” (ibid, pp. 8 & 9), while Langhurst grew to manhood with his family on a farm.  Like most lower class, working class, uneducated people at the time these troopers were superstitious, believing easily the tales of retributive ghosts told around the campfire.  Jonas too knew them to be true. By informing us that Langhurst’s twin sister was “an old married lady of nineteen” (ibid, p. 15), Malouf demonstrated the fate of all women of the era, no matter what their class.

Adair, in his position of officer, and therefore of the upper echelon of society, was given begrudging respect by troopers under his brief command, and by Carney condemned to hang next day under Adair’s official edict.  He suffered the same physical discomfort as his men, but that was temporary – theirs was not.  In the ‘Epilogue’ we are introduced to a member of the middle class, the professional workers – doctors, solicitors, teachers.  At a dinner, surrounded by the trappings of the moneyed class of England – imported furniture, paintings, engravings – the guest is Adair, “the host, an ex-army surgeon and veteran of the Peninsular, James Saunders.” (ibid, p. 203)  At table they are waited on by “a dark young woman, whom the observant guest suspects of standing in a closer relationship to the other than might be suggested by the eyes, in both cases lowered” (ibid, p. 202) – a fate of indigenous women, giving them an apparent ‘working’ class in which to fit – yet did it?

Within his historical narrative with its twin settings, Malouf juggled the interaction of the socio-economic beliefs and values of the era with his development of personal and national identities for his characters.

(C)  Jud House  16/11/1997


Malouf, D. (1997)  The Conversations at Curlow Creek.  London: Vintage

Saunders, I (1993)  Open Texts, Partial Maps.  Nedlands: Centre for Studies in Australian Literature

* * * * *


In An Enemy of the People Ibsen deals with the conflict between the various perceptions of ‘truth for the public good’ – the altruistic blinkered perception of Doctor Stockmann; the political, social and financial interest of his brother, Mayor Stockmann; the “editorial opportunism” (McFarlane/Ibsen, 1994, p. xiii)  of the local paper’s editor, Hovstad; the political timidity/moderation of the printer, Aslaksen; the blatant dishonesty of the tannery-owner and foster-father, Kiil; the clear-sighted vacillation of Stockmann’s wife, Katherine; and the idealistic zeal of his daughter, Petra. These perceptions result in personal attitudes, some of which are status driven, some financially driven, some idealistically driven, and yet others driven by the need for social acceptance and political safety.  Thus, as each character sees and deals with the situation from his own perspective, the personal and the social/political are interwoven within the play.

While the universal themes of pollution, official corruption, and materialism are explored within An Enemy of the People, we can’t take anything at face value in Ibsen plays.  In the public sphere this play deals with public issues of health, politics, honesty, proberty in public life, and both public and personal responsibility and irresponsibility.  But the polluted water of the baths stands as a metaphor for the political and ethical pollution in the Norwegian society within which the play is set.  It deals with both internal and external issues, and the interplay and tensions between them.

The internal issues deal with the ramifications within the Stockmann family – the interactions between the various family members, their division, and their effects on each other.  In particular, it forefronts the difference between the brothers and the tensions that causes.  Doctor Stockmann is socially generous, physically vigorous, is not political, and embodies idealism, honesty, and integrity. His impetuosity, and passion for the truth proves counter-productive in the political town environment to which he is a newcomer.  Fond of young people, “with initiative and minds of their own” (ibid, p. 9), he believes, ironically, that he has finally come to a community to which he can belong.

“I can’t tell you how happy I feel, surrounded by all this growing, vigorous life …. [T]hink of me, living all those years in the North, cut off from everything, hardly ever seeing a new face, never the chance of any decent conversation … for me it’s like coming to some great metropolis.” (ibid, p. 8)

However, he does not understand the machinations of its society.  The Mayor is mean and frugal, with poor digestion and no apparent family, lives for politics and business, and links his fortunes with the town’s prosperity.  He is “the influential representative of entrenched authority, not without courage … and horribly experienced in the manipulation of others … masks self-interest and self-preservation as ‘the common good’”. (ibid, p. xiii)

The external issues revolve around the pollution of the burgeoning tourist attraction, the public spa-baths that offer ‘cures’ and social activity to tourists and townspeople. As the Mayor remarks to Hovstad:

“Mark my words!  The prosperity of the town will come to depend more and more on the … splendid new Baths. ….Just look at the quite extraordinary way things have improved in the last year or two …. with plenty of visitors, and lots of convalescents to help give the place a reputa- tion…. recommending the place generally as a very healthy spot.” (ibid, p. 5)

With the threat of closure to this lucrative attraction, the external issues broaden into a very real conflict between public health and public and private prosperity. As a nineteenth century doctor, Doctor Stockmann is a researcher, representing rationality, scientific method, rejection of superstition, and a commitment to clear sight, truth in one form or another.  His discovery, that the water piped to these baths is polluted, triggers the action of the play and the revelation of the various personal perspectives of what constitutes the ‘public good’.  Before learning of this discovery, the Mayor ironically and prophetically lectures his brother on following the correct procedure when dealing with public issues:

“I cannot permit any dubious or underhand methods. …. You have a chronic disposition to take things into your own hands … And in a well-ordered community, that can be equally reprehensible.  The individual must be ready to subordinate himself to the community as a whole; or, more precisely, to the authorities charged with the welfare of that community. …. [T]hat’s just the thing you don’t seem to want to learn.  But mark my words; one of these days you’ll pay for it …” (ibid, pp. 10-11)

As a rationalist with a scientific issue at stake, the Doctor cannot foresee the political twists and turns:  the actions of Hovstad and Aslaksen, the Editor and Printer of the newspaper; the fickleness of public opinion, or even the vehemence that his discovery arouses in his brother.  Based on turning Stockmann’s idea of the Baths into reality, the Mayor jealously guards his reputation as an astute and practical business man with always the public good in mind.  Besides, the cost of mending the pipes and the sewerage system is prohibitive, the task will take two years, and a neighbouring town could easily entice away their tourists.

Believing in the urgency of warning the public about the health-risk of the pollution, Doctor Stockmann notifies Hovstad. Favouring an article on the findings, the editor suggests “[t]he sooner the public hears about this, the better”. (ibid, p. 20)  Billings, the journalist, ironically adds: “[y]ou’ll be the leading light of the town, Dr. Stockmann,” (ibid, p. 20) and asks Hovstad to initiate the town “to organize something to show its appreciation “ (ibid, p. 20) of the Doctor.  Aslaksen, agrees, putting the weight of the compact majority, comprising the Temperance Society and the Ratepayer’s Association, behind the Doctor.  Initially Hovstad wants to use the information to further his:

“intention of breaking up this ring of obstinate old buffers who’d got hold of all the power …. a certain group of officials …. [their] friends and hangers on … – the wealthy ones of the town, and the well-connected …. the people in control.” (ibid, pp 27 & 26)

But upon discovering that the Mayor – the most influential – is against its release, and will use his position to their detriment, they change their minds to agree with him.  Motivated by the necessity for a viable paper, reliant on the public for sales and advertising – a public, who, according to the Mayor, will be irate when they discover that their prosperous baths must close – Hovstad buckles.  Aslaksen, through political timidity, and fear of the Mayor’s power, withdraws the support of his compact majority.

Believing in her husband’s integrity, and his need to prevent an epidemic, Katherine Stockmann can, however, see the inherent dangers to her family’s prospects by opposing the Mayor.  More practical than her husband, she acts as a reality check – her common-sense responses indicate how little Stockmann understands the situation, politically.  She is prepared to compromise – not to preserve political power like the Mayor, or to stay inside of authority like Hovstad, but to maintain the status quo and possible safety of her family.  Wary of the fickle support of the compact majority, she correctly gages the Mayor’s reaction to the news, even suggesting that her husband “share the credit with [the Mayor, and]…. drop a hint that it was he who first put you on the track…” (ibid, p. 22)

As an independent woman with a reputable teaching job, Petra, with more commonsense than her father, has a social conscience that aligns her with his cause.  When he is threatened with dismissal from his Baths employment, Petra berates the Mayor: “Uncle, this is a disgraceful way to treat a man like Father!” (ibid, p. 40)  With her mother’s sensitivity, and knowledge of society’s fickleness, she supports both parents alternately.  However, at the end of the play, Petra, for having “extremely advanced ideas about all sorts of things” (ibid, p. 89), and being her father’s daughter, is given her notice by Mrs Busk, who ”didn’t like doing it.  But she daren’t do anything else.” (ibid, p. 88)

A form of blackmail to force Stockmann to withdraw his claim that the tannery has polluted the Baths, Kiil locks the inheritance funds of his foster-daughter, Katherine, and her children, into shares in the Baths.  Bought while low, he intends to profit when they rise again.  To his family’s detriment, Stockmann refuses to be bought off, putting his naive social interests for the good health of the town before the vested financial interests of the townspeople, Kiil, and the ruthless Mayor.  Ironically, as a man standing up against corruption, Stockmann stands alone – except for the unusual support of Captain Horster, in whose house the meeting is held, and who suffers ostracism from the community for his alliance with the Doctor.

But if we see Stockmann as a lone embattled admirable figure with the courage of his convictions against all society, we’re overlooking his political naiveté, his misreading of the signs. An erratic character, Stockmann gets carried away, zealously rushing into publication of his findings, and when thwarted sees only the political ramifications in terms of corruption and vested financial interests of his brother and foster-father-in-law.  Finally disillusioned by them and all they stand for, Stockmann states: “[w]e live by peddling filth and corruption!  The whole of the town’s prosperity is rooted in a lie!” (ibid, p. 41)  As with his narrow-focuss when discovering the pollution, he still does not see the complete or personal picture of financial ruin.

Towards the end of play, Stockmann’s character becomes more complex and ambivalent.  His sense of intellectual superiority erupts with his anger at his impotence at the public meeting which he called but could not control.  In fact, Stockmann internalises the external issues – takes personally the social/political perspectives – when he castigates those he wants to sway to his side of the debate.  Instead of talking about the “petty business about the water-supply being polluted and the Baths standing over a cesspool” (ibid, p. 73), he belittles the “so-called leaders … [as] a lot of goats in a young forest – there’s damage everywhere they go” (ibid, p. 75), then attacks the compact majority, which he says is “[t]he worst enemy of truth and freedom in [the] society …. trying to prevent [him] from speaking the truth.” (ibid, p. 76)

His speech develops into a dangerously elitist, anti-humanist (with his analogies to mongrels and poodles) diatribe which alienates both the audience on stage at the meeting and the one in the theatre watching the play.  The latter still believe he is right to publicize the water-pollution, but are appalled at the politically Fascist nature of his speech.  As an intelligent man, he believes he has a right to judge his audience.  They, in turn, form into a mob, jump to conclusions driven by the emotive speeches given by the Mayor and Hovstad, and very quickly turn to violence.  Thus Stockmann and the fickle mob are manipulated by the tensions created by those in power to behave outrageously.

In contrast with their opulence at the beginning of the play, where they show their enjoyment in their new-found wealth, and their generosity in sharing it with others, at the end of the play the Stockmann family have no jobs, no money, no house of their own.  Their home is barren, with broken windows in stark contrast with the warmth of the house in the opening scene.  Taken in by Captain Horster they plan a future based on impracticality and idealism, of which Katherine is skeptical but which Petra embraces with her father.  After the curtain goes down the audience is aware that more action is to follow.  The play, with its interplay and tensions, an interweaving of the personal, social and political issues, ironically highlights the idea that possession of the truth, “its establishment and its promotion” (ibid, p. xxiii) does not equal or entail the public benefit.

(C) Jud House  26/04/1998 & 30/10/2012


McFarlane, J. (trans. & ed.) (1994) Henrik Ibsen – An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

* * * * *


In The Oxford Paperback Dictionary, reality is defined briefly as: ”the quality of being real, resemblance to an original.” (Oxford, 1979, p. 532)  Illness as reality refers to the actual physical illness – in the case of Ghosts, that of Oswald’s physical weakness and mental instability caused by inherited venereal disease.  The reality of syphilis is that it does not always reach its final tertiary stage in all who contract it.  Thus, via a mother who shows no trace of it, “the  sins of the fathers are visited upon the children” (McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 138), passed from generation to generation.  As reality, illness brings about anguish and madness for Oswald and Mrs Alving respectively.

According to Abrahms:

[i]n a metaphor, a word or expression which in literal usage denotes one kind of thing or action [subject or tenor] is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing or action [object or vehicle]….  In an implicit metaphor, the tenor is not itself specified, but only implied …” (Abrahms,1993, p. 67)

Illness as metaphor refers to anything in the play that can be represented as a particular form of illness:  heredity; and social malaise in the form of power, hypocrisy, respectability, concealment and morality.

As a metaphor, Oswald’s real illness highlighted the illness of narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy that infected the Norwegian society. The plays of Ibsen, reflecting these social attitudes, are “characterised [realistically]… by representing complex characters with mixed motives who are rooted in a social class, operate in a highly developed social structure, interact with many other characters, and undergo plausible and everyday modes of experience.” (Abrahms, 1993, p. 132)  His plays depict not only specific political and moral problems/themes via his characters, but also their place in society, and its controlling effect on their lives.

The Norwegian society, in which the authority of the church dictated morality, comprised: “the hollowness of great reputations, provincialism of outlook, the narrowness of small-town life, the suppression of individual freedom [internally and externally] … and the neglect of the significance of heredity.” (Meyer, 1980, p. 22)  As the church’s representative, a deeply conservative Pastor Manders was an instigator of repression and hypocrisy, seeking to avoid scandal at the cost of truth and morality.  Unable to accept new ideas on sexuality, new social ideas, family matters like unmarried couples with children living as a family: “[t]o think the authorities tolerate such …. blatant immorality” (McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 111), Manders demonstrated the narrow constraints of his church.

His concern about other’s opinions of him, and fear of scandal, led to him not insuring the Orphanage: “men in independent and influential positions …. [might believe] that neither you nor I had a proper faith in Divine Providence.” (ibid, p. 104)  In turn, this led to his blackmail by the thoroughly disreputable Engstrand, who though a cheat, was honest about it, and with himself.  Because Manders was gullible, and dishonest with himself and others, he concealed from himself the reality of funding a brothel by believing Engstrand’s description of it as a home for sailors.  Both Manders and Engstrand “talk[ed] and th[ought] in cliches” (Northam, 1973, p. 78). Manders “believe[d] in the validity of appearances and platitudes that Regine and Engstrand exploit[ed] to hide unseemly realities …. he belong[ed] to … the world of moral cliches.” (ibid, p. 79)

Ibsen didn’t provide answers – he posed questions.  After all, he ascribed to:

[t]he idea that the writer has a mission to perform, that he should endeavour through his work to create new currents in the stagnant waters of contemporary society, [that] was widely accepted among liberal minds around 1880.” (Aarseth, 1989, p. 51)

By his metaphorical and real use of illness in Ghosts, and his choice of characters from the various social classes, Ibsen brought to the attention of his society the masculine hypocrisy that ruled it.  Begun in his play, A Doll’s House, he continued to disclose the inequality of the role expected of women in society compared with that practised by men. As women Nora and Regine’s plights were similar – both were financially dependent on others and were thus disempowered. Reliant on Mrs Alving for her livelihood, Regine’s choices were marriage, service, prostitution, or shop-or-factory work.  Needing to exploit every opportunity, Regine first ‘made a play’ for Manders then for Oswald, as possible solutions to her elevation in society.  Faced with the knowledge of her parentage and Oswald’s illness, she opted to join her stepfather, Engstrand, in his enterprise, despite her doubts as to its moral status.

A wealthy widow, Mrs Alving had more control over her financial affairs, although she left the running of the trust for the Orphanage to Pastor Manders.  Upright, admirable, wealthy, hard working, she increased her work through her wealth and vice versa.  She was charitable, accepted social responsibility, and was considered, by all who were ignorant of the real state of her married life, to be a pillar of society.  The fact that she read books that challenged church teachings and bourgeois restrictions came as a shock to Pastor Manders, and led to a lecture on proper behaviour.  Her enlightenment gave her confidence and the courage to reply against the force of Manders rhetoric – “his rebuke [wa]s massive and in its way impressive …. we recognise[d] a demonstration of society’s power to coerce and it [wa]s not negligible.” (Northam, 1973, p. 84)

Naturally, Ibsen’s society reacted vehemently to his exposure of their failings:

Among the things that shocked delicate readers was … the implicit reference to a hereditary venereal disease, the idea that incest may occur in many a decent-looking family, and possibly also the dramatic irony aimed at a naive clergyman. (Aarseth, 1989, p. 52)

Add to that the notion that euthanasia was the proposed solution to Oswald’s and Mrs Alving’s future burden of coping with his physical incapacities, and it becomes apparent why society reacted in the way they did.  These topics are still controversial today – his play was set prior to the turn of the  twentieth century!

In Ghosts, Ibsen exposed “the connection between heritage and decadence.” (Meyer, 1980, p. 22).  He dealt with the ghosts “not [of] superstition, but rather … of destiny” (Aarseth, 1989, p. 59) of the past, in the form of inherited family traits and congenital disease/illness, that returned to haunt his characters and expose hidden truths. Powerful in the nineteenth century, this notion of heredity strongly permeates Ghosts .  Not only did Oswald inherit the venereal disease from his father, but also his physical features and innate characteristics, apparent to Manders on seeing him with his father’s pipe.  He had Captain Alving’s “aversion for walking in bad weather … his taste for liqueur and cigars as well as his expressed attraction to the maid …. Inheritance [wa]s not as easily abolished as Mrs Alving ha[d] been assuming.” (Aarseth, 1989, p. 73)  Oswald’s grasping at Regine symbolised his grasping at life, as his father did before him.

Thus Oswald’s congenital disease acts as a metaphor for the way the past continued to affect the present.  It is a metaphor for the inescapability of the past.  Mrs Alving was forced to return to her husband by Manders’ rejection, and his inhumane and hypocritical notion of duty: “[w]hat right have people to happiness?  No, we have our duty to do”. (McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 113)  For the sake of respectability, she tried to hide the true nature of her marriage, and of her husband’s depravity, from Oswald, and the society in which she worked and lived.  “Mrs Alving may, with half her mind, be a radical, but with the other half she … chose to act by the social standards she s[aw] to be false … she … kept appearances society demand[ed].” (Northam, 1973, pp. 86-7)    Initially led to think of Captain Alving as honourable, the audience gradually realise he was dissolute.  Oswald told his mother and Manders that he had been forced to smoke his father’s pipe as a child:

‘Smoke, lad,’ [Father] said, ‘go on, lad, smoke!’  And I smoked as hard as I could, till I felt I was going quite pale and great beads of sweat stood out on my forehead.  Then he roared with laughter …. Then I was sick, and I saw you were crying .… Did Father often play tricks like that? McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 109)

Mrs Alving put up with her husband‘s behaviour for the sake of her son who was ironically already poisoned by his father, when sent away to escape his pernicious influence.  Turning to the power of work to inure herself against him, she “took control in the house … complete control … over him and everything else.” (ibid, p. 118)  With the “weapon” of her knowledge of his affair with her maid, and the evidence of Regine’s existence, “he didn’t dare say anything” (ibid, p. 118) for the sake of respectability.  With Oswald’s return from Paris, just as the culmination of her concealment was in sight, the past re-emerged in the present:

The insidious brain illness which Oswald has inherited from his father … buil[t] up to its final attack exactly when Mrs Alving [wa]s making the final arrangements to ensure that her son d[id] not inherit anything from his father. (Aarseth, 1989, p. 72)

As a catalyst, the past impacted on the present and set the action of the play, and the inevitable exposure of the truth, in motion.

According to Meyer, “Oswald’s inherited syphilis may be regarded as a symbol of the dead customs and traditions which we inherit, and which stunt and cripple us and lay waste our life.” (Meyer, 1980, p 24)  Inherited from his father, the ‘Joy of Life’ – not only “to live for the satisfaction of appetite, for drink, art, love, beauty … but [also] to throw one’s life away” (Hornby, 1981, pp. 128-9) contributed to Oswald’s mental illness.  The conflict between this energy and vitality of the ‘Joy of Living’ and the gloom of Duty in Ghosts, foregrounded the already mentioned social malaise of the puritanical, pietous Norwegian church and polite society that, as a result of its bastions’ timidity and hypocrisy, imposed restrictions, and repressions on individuals.  Believing in doing her duty by her husband, Mrs Alving thus stifled his vitality, his ‘Joy of Life’ which he then channelled into excesses – drinking, smoking, adultery, and debauchery.  Not only did he throw his life away, but also that of his son – “Oswald is so passionate about joy and bliss because they are lost to him.” (Northam, 1973, p. 92)

Using her “purchase price …. the [exact] amount that made Lieutenant Alving such a good match in his day …. [she] donated, year by year, to this Orphanage” (McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 119) in an attempt to expunge her “bad conscience” (ibid, p. 118) and conceal the past.  A monument for man who was publicly concerned for children, but, ironically, in reality fathered indiscriminately, the Orphanage stands as a metaphor for concealed truth.  Although it was for the good of the underprivileged, the lie of naming it after her husband undermined her altruism.   A false monument to a false past, it burned because it was a lie.  And the fire that devoured it was a metaphor for the light of truth – the past, with its guilt, could not be got rid of by burning it down.

As the vehicle of the curse of the past, Oswald brought home the true nature of his father’s character, his mother’s concealment of it, and Regine’s parentage, in the form of his illness.  The cure for this curse was worse than the disease (of Mrs Alving’s dishonesty and lies) had proved to be.   With the dawn-light – a powerful metaphor revealing the darkness that finally surrounded Oswald as his idiocy set in – her inability to wipe out the past was revealed:

The rays of the sun penetrating the glass walls of the conservatory …. are not to be understood as a sign of warmth and protection, but rather the sharp, cold light of truth without mercy … the irony is evident: she ha[d] been hiding the truth for so long that when the light of perception [wa]s finally illuminating the stage, what bec[ame] visible [wa]s … the human wreck, the consequence of misguided protection and lack of openness and social courage.”
(pp. 74-5)

Faced with two choices, Mrs Alving must terminate her precious son, Oswald’s life as requested with morphine – or face life filled with the personification (the ghosts) of her past as he slowly died. Leaving the question hanging, unresolved – an insoluble problem – Ibsen makes the audience confront this and bear the burden.

“[T]he gloom beyond the windows is a fitting image of the social and moral climate of Norway.” (Northam, 1973, p. 81) With its shroud-like appearance presaging death, the gloom metaphorically hung like Oswald’s illness over the action of the play and the characters of Oswald and Mrs Alving.  “When Oswald complain[ed] of [this] gloom, we know how much more he mean[t] than the physical darkness.” (ibid, p. 92)  In reality and metaphorically he felt and was doomed.

(C) Jud House  29/10/2012


Aarseth, Asbjorn  (1989) Peer Gynt and Ghosts: Text and Performance.  London: Macmillan Education Ltd.

Archer, William, (ed.)  Four Plays: A Doll’s House – The Wild Duck – Ghosts – The Master Builder : Henrik Ibsen  London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.

Farquharson Sharp, R. (trans.) (1961)  Henrik Ibsen: Ghosts – The Warriors at Helgeland –An Enemy of the People.  London: J M Dent & Sons Ltd.

Hornby, Richard. (1981)  Patterns in Ibsen’s Middle Plays.  London & Toronto: Associated University Presses.

McFarlane, James, & Arup, Jens (trans) (1990) Henrik Ibsen: Four Major Plays – A Doll’s House – Ghosts – Hedda Gabler – The Master Builder.  Oxford: World’s Classics: Oxford University Press.

Meyer, Michael (trans) (1980) Henrik Ibsen: Plays: One – Ghosts – The Wild Duck – The Master Builder.  London: Eyre Methuen

Northam, John.  (1971)  Ibsen’s Dramatic Method.  Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Northam, John. (1973)  Ibsen: A Critical Study.  London: Cambridge University Press.

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