Essay on Women’s Roles in Two Plays

Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll House” and Frederico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” are two tales of oppression and hardship of a few women who represent a larger scale of problems, such as the unjust treatment that women face, in the societies of their times.

Not only do these two plays tackle similar themes, but they also share the use of a common metaphor, a house that can be seen in the title. The use of the words house rather than home foreshadow the idea that their house is not a home at all, but rather it pays more resemblance to that of prison. The entire duration of Ibsen’s “A Doll House” takes place during Christmas season in the guest warming habitation of the Helmers, a traditional Norwegian family. The themes of this play are largely associated to the sacrifices women make, as opposed to men when accepting family roles and obligations.  Lorca’s house, or “The House of Bernarda Alba,” tells the story of Bernarda Alba, a widowed mother of five daughters. The play develops its themes by focusing on the characters of Bernada, her mother Maria Josefa, and her youngest daughter Adela. These three women tell the story of women at three different stages in their lives and the role that the forms of persecution and adversity such a woman can face plays in shaping one’s growth, personality and mental health.

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In aggregate, these two plays examine how different societies instill fear in women through discrimination, in turn halting them from realizing their dreams and fulfilling their horizons. The following paper will describe and analyze the conflicts, themes, tone, and literary techniques used throughout the acts of these plays, and how they relate to the concept of maintaining one’s freedom and independence.

‘A Doll’s House’ Plot Overview

This play focuses on the story of Nora Helmer taking place in the late 1800s. Our protagonist, Nora, is a timid yet rebellious mother and wife of a pampering, yet patronizing husband, Torvald, who treats her like a doll with whom he can fabricate an environment that suits his personal needs and beliefs. The setting of the play, which takes place in the Helmers’ house, is a metaphor to the prison in which Nora’s emotions and psychological and personal development are being held captive. The other men in Nora’s life are Krogstad and Dr. Rank, both of whom display manipulative tendencies and attempt to use Nora’s trustworthiness to their advantage. Krogstad is a lawyer and colleague of Torvald, who blackmails Nora after he feeds her thirst for rebellion with a secret loan that Nora took to finance the health care of her ill husband, who strongly believes one cannot be truly free in debt. Dr. Rank is Torvald’s best dying best friend, who confesses his love for Nora but does not notify Torvald of his condition. These men all pose challenges to the protagonist’s definition of freedom, which includes the freedom to strive for independent ambitions, identity, and belief.

Development of the theme of Freedom, Self-sacrifice, and Imprisonment

This play is primarily devoted to the victimization of women in a discriminatory society. From a woman’s point of view, the play uses the female characters of Nora, Mrs. Linde, and the family’s nanny to exemplify the various ways in which a society can instill fear into a woman, limiting her freedom and autonomy in life. In the case of Mrs. Linde, we can see a woman who abandoned her true love (Krogstad) for a wealthy man, due to the necessity of fulfilling family obligations such as taking care of her ill mother and younger brothers. One can see another example of sacrifice in the nanny, who left her children in pursuit of economic stability, working for the Helmers. These characters, along with the small rebellions of Norah, foreshadow the falling action comprised of Norah’s realization that her husband does not appreciate her in her right essence as a person. When she realizes that it is the oppressive way her husband treats her that is keeping her from breaking free, she decides to leave him in search for real independence. The play does an excellent job of portraying this theme through symbols such as the Christmas tree in the home and the arrival of New Year’s Day. The Christmas tree symbolizes Nora as eye candy that is nice to look at, but under the decorations, there are pins and needles that are sticking out that could potentially cause harm to those in the house. The arrival of New Years symbolizes change, including the shift from Nora’s sacrificial and dependent role on her husband to the new phase in her life.

‘The House of Bernarda Alba’

This play revolves around a family of women governed by the overly controlling personality of Bernarda Alba, a widow who forces her household into eight years of mourning. Bernada’s mother and five daughters maintain a subservient relationship with Bernada, which creates the metaphorical prison environment for the women. In fact, Maria Josefa, Bernada’s grandmother, is for the most part physically imprisoned in a room, as well as being treated as mentally incapable of providing a constructive contribution to the family. Maria Josefa protests against Bernada’s treatment of her daughters, exclaiming that she will turn their hearts to dust if they are not set free.

Development of the theme of Freedom, Sacrifice, and Imprisonment

The daughters all serve as examples of the various means of imprisonment of a person’s heart, soul, and freedom. The daughters portray a list of negative emotions, directly attributable to their mother, including desperation, depression, a lack of motivation, anguish, weakness, and inferiority. The characters of Maria Josefa, Bernada, and the youngest and most rebellious daughter Adela, can be viewed as the showcase of one woman at different stages of her life. The play uses symbols to further convey the themes of sacrifice and freedom in the context of societal and familial norms and expectation. The playwright utilizes pure sensory perception such as the use of colors, heat, and thirst as well as the use of the characters’ names to illustrate the play’s messages. Bernada forces the daughters to wear the feelings associated with death, mourning, and oppression by limiting them to wearing black dresses only, while the white wedding dress of her contradictive mother, Maria Josefa, idealizes all the opposites in association with life and freedom.


Ibsen and Lorca have created two tales of oppression in which the female protagonists faced with an adverse environment created by authoritative figures in their family. In “A Doll’s House,” the main character is imprisoned by her husband’s lack of respect coupled with societal norms at the time, which indicated that the husband should be the dominant partner in a married couple’s relationship. In “The House of Bernarda Alba,” a house full of daughters live in damaging fear that becomes evidently detrimental to their personal development. The lack of freedom becomes so unbearable that one daughter, Aleda, is forced to commit suicide, a suicide arguably caused by her mother, who has her social prejudices and deficiencies, and in turn, transfers them to her daughters. It is essential to consider the transformation that occurs throughout the rising action up until the climax of these plays. Although both Torvald and Bernada are aware and possibly even appreciative of the beauty of their families, their tragedy revolves around their unwillingness to allow them to pursue their desires and passions, whether it is macaroons in Nora’s case or Pepe’s love in the case of Adela. Their attitudes towards their family are that of ownership and not of love, which is what eventually corrupts this beauty and creates a dangerous, complicated and undesirable situation in both cases.

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