My Muses: Thalia and the Mona Lisa

As the Greek muse of comedy, Thalia is among my favorite of the fair affecters. She sparks a willingness to smile, and knows that a perfectly timed practical joke is worth a more than a picture and its thousand words. At least, that’s what my muse of comedy, Mona Lisa, could tell you!


On August 21st, of 1911, Mona Lisa was stolen from the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Perugia. Most people recognized this as a tragic blow to the art-world, but has anyone ever entertained the possibility of Mona Lisa just needing a little holiday?? I mean, just consider the famed “Mona Lisa smile.” I know that look all too well. That expression means give me a damn break! I’ve been entertaining crowds in the Louvre since 1804, and before that I had to hang about in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in the Tuileries, for da Vinci’s sake! I need to get away!


Here’s what I believe happened. The winsome Mona presented to Perugia her most beguiling smile, and eventually (through her considerable charms) coerced him to take her away to see the sights. She decided to summer on the Riviera, and after getting quite a sun burn, insisted that she retreat to the Alps for some tranquil reflection. Her much needed respite ended in 1914, but reliable sources claim that she’s planning on another vacation, soon! Oh, Mona Lisa, you little minx!




The Victorian Bathing Suit of Winslow Homer’s “High Tide”


Winslow Homer’s Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), which is exhibited in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, represents a transitional period in American art, clothing and society. Embedded within the appearance of the three young women on the seashore, rendered with lively brush-strokes, is a cultural cocktail of change and modernization. When Homer displayed this particular work at the National Academy of Design in 1870, critics reacted with uncertain, if not hostile remarks about his treatment of his female subjects and his overall painting technique. What Homer captured so aptly in this painting was a cultural undercurrent that was traveling just below the surface of Victorian mainstream ideals of “modesty, moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness and industriousness.”Under the veneer of Victorian society, a natural world was pulsing.


Homer was an American-born genre painter, who depicted every-day American life with sensitivity and vigor. Unlike his romantic predecessors who depicted highly polished interior scenes or grandiose landscapes which echoed the sanctity of a holy church, Homer turned his attention to the home-spun American scene, with a “native and personal” naturalism. His illustrations and oil paintings of Americans participating in outdoor leisure sports was a new theme in painting, and for which he produced a prolific number of examples. The fact that he was painting during the height of the Hudson River School Movement was quite influential to his work, since the Hudson River School stressed that artists should go outside of the studio to capture natural light.


However, Homer’s summary hand, and the “unfinished” look of his antebellum paintings was a departure from the Hudson River School tradition, which subsequently drew much criticism from contemporaries. Harper’s Weekly commented on Winslow Homer’s High Tide exhibited at the 1870 Academy show, stating: “The pictures are not wholly pleasing; perhaps the bathing scene—like another he has in the East Room—is not quite refined. But this picture shows a fresh eye and a wholesome independence of conventions with spirit and vigor…If the critics must gibe, it must not be at such work, however faulty, but at the hopeless, conventional, dead and buried commonplace of many of the pictures, but suggest nothing but that the painter has seen nature only in very namby-pamby engravings. In the works of Homer…you are very sure that the painter has really seen what he paints, and really tries to represent it. When he fails, he is therefore a hopeful failure.” Homer was, in fact, just painting ahead of the curve. He is considered to be one of the forerunners to Impressionism, along with Boudin in France and Fattori in Italy.


While critics picked apart the “homeliness” of his subject matter and the lack of refinement in his painting surfaces, the American public embraced his work, and the National Academy elected him an Academician when he was a young man. At least one critic had this generous statement to make about Homer’s work, “Mr. Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism, and cares not for such fantastic hairsplitting as the distinction between beauty and ugliness. He is a genuine painter; that is to see, and reproduce what he sees.”


The swimsuits that appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, are the result of a compromise between Victorian social mores, fashion and function. While it was considered immodest to expose the shape of the female leg, even when it was covered with stockings, weighty swathes of material made it physically impossible and dangerous for women to swim. The bathing suits popular from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1870 were a sartorial settlement between modesty and function, and were typically made of serge (a wool fabric) or flannel. The weighty material was fashioned into a paletot dress, which had a cinched bodice and short skirt that stopped at the knee. Underneath the paletot dress were ‘Turkish’ trousers, or bloomer-style pants.


Around 1848, dress reformers introduced the ‘Turkish trowser’ to lady’s fashion, in an attempt to free the female body up for engaging in more physical activities like popular “water cures”, or, in the case of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, bike riding. Just a few years prior to 1848, bifurcated undergarments had been slowly incorporated into middle-class women’s wardrobe. Such controversial undergarments made headway for bloomers or Turkish trousers.

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However, the look of women wearing trousers in the nineteenth-century did not catch on with mainstream fashion, and magazines like Punch often poked fun at women who wore such emancipated attire.  The satirical cartoons in Punch magazine were a more humorous reaction to male fear that women were “appropriating male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power.” Because the trouser for women threatened the foundational gender codes of the Victorian era, bloomers and Turkish trousers were typically only worn when pursuing genteel pursuits of recreation, and were made less threatening to the male sartorial sphere by incorporating current female fashionable silhouettes and details into the overall look of the sportswear.


Apart from the main body of the bathing dress, oiled linen caps were worn to protects the hair, while straw or sunhats hats were worn to guard the face against sunlight. In addition, lisle gloves were shown in fashion plates of the time to protect the hands from the sun, and gum shoes to protect the feet. While historians and mid-nineteenth century fashion magazines imagined Victorian women in bathing suits which covered them from head to toe, complete with black stockings, gum shoes, a linen cap, sunhats hat, gloves, bloomers or Turkish trousers and a shirt dress over a short dress, an illustration by Winslow Homer, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1858, gives us another glimpse into the world of Victorian sea bathing. Women appear swimming alongside men, and bare feet, naked calves and arms and elbows can be observed bobbing out of the waters in the illustration. Although ladies wear straw hats on the shore, the women swimming in the ocean only wear their linen caps.


Patricia C. Warner uses this particular illustration by Homer to argue that contrary to some historian’s beliefs about mid-nineteenth-century sea bathing, women did not always wear every article of clothing prescribed by fashion plates from the time.  Homer, with his tradition as a genre painter and his acute eye for detail, captured the actual way in which women wore bathing suits, unencumbered by excessive articles of clothing and material, like gloves, straw hats, shoes and trousers. Furthermore, Homer was hired to record what he saw for the magazine, not reinterpret.  The fashions for bathing suits scarcely changed between the 1858 and 1870, so his illustrations of sea bathers for Harper’s Weekly and oil painting, High Tide, reaffirmed this image of young women swimming at the seaside with their bare legs exposed. Victorian art critics, viewing paintings from terra firma, may have been shocked by Homer’s realist rendering of “exceedingly red-legged and ungainly,” young women, but for enthusiast sea bathers, such opinions about the immodesty of bare skin might not have mattered. While the wearing of black stockings with a bathing suit was popular for American women from the mid-nineteenth-century and into the twentieth-century, it is highly likely that some more forward thinking or active women saw fit to remove their stockings while sea bathing.


There were two imperatives for preserving the social status of middle-class beach-going women: safeguarding white skin against sun exposure and conserving one’s modesty, by way of concealing the body’s supple contours beneath ample clothing. The breach of these two precepts in High Tide caused negative reactions in critics after he displayed the piece. In this painting, the maintenance the young lady’s lily-white skin is in jeopardy while the two figures in the foreground expose their bare legs and faces to the sun. White skin was a marker a nineteenth-century beauty and class, indicative of a life spent indoors in the domestic sphere, and also of a woman’s delicacy and refinement. Milky-white skin was preferable.  Evidence of this preference for white skin during the Victorian era can be surmised by looking at the cosmetics which were on the market during the mid-nineteenth-century, such as “Rowland’s Kalydor,” which claimed in its advertisement that it had power to “cool and refresh the face and hands of ladies and all exposed to the hot sun. It removes freckles, tan, sunburn, redness and roughness.” This Victorian beauty ideal for white skin, and a subsequent rejection of tan and red skin, explains the negative reaction one critic had to the exposed red skin of the young woman in Homer’s painting, High Tide, calling one of the figures “exceedingly red legged and ungainly.”


There is one more cultural aspect that can be ascertained from the appearance of the young ladies on the beach: the mid-nineteenth-century development of the idea of leisure time and recreation, in the wake of urbanization and an expanding middle-class. Urbanization and industrialization began to replace agrarian life in America, and thus the way in which time was spent moved away from the rhythms of the natural seasons, and became more in-tune to the rhythms of capitalist industry. The stress from “unnatural” modern life, formed by a shift from an outdoor existence to an indoor existence, created a need for leisure and recreation for the middle-class, and “natural” spaces where the bourgeoisie could retreat to became a necessity.

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By 1840, there was a boom in the creation of mountain and maritime resorts to meet the demand for recreation and leisure. It was also during the mid-nineteenth century that public parks were being constructed to better the lives of urban dwellers, as in the case of Central Park, in New York City, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857. Aside from creating a demand for “green spaces” and retreats to seaside resorts, modernization and industry also made it possible for more Americans to travel and visit remote wilderness areas like mountains and beaches. By 1841, an expanded national railway system enabled the American middle-class to travel to natural havens, like the seaside, in large numbers. These presumably middle-class girls which appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, occupy the space of a beach in Massachusetts because of new middle-class concepts of leisure and recreation, and because of innovative industry and technology which allowed for extensive travel.


These three young ladies represent a number of changes occurring in America during the mid-nineteenth-century. Hidden in the contours of their bodies lies a message about the advent of impressionist painting, the introduction of active-wear for women, and the emergence of leisure and travel for a burgeoning middle-class.




Lois W, Banner. American Beauty. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1983.


Deitz, Paula. “Parks and Public Places,” Of Gardens. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.


Downing, Sarah Jayne. Beauty and Cosmetics: 1550-1950. Shire Publications, Oxford, 2016.


Fischer, Gayle V. “Pantalets and Turkish Trowsers: Designing Freedom in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1. Feminist Studies, Inc. 1997.


Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer Essay. George Braziller, Inc., 1959.


Goodrich, Lloyd. “Winslow Homer.” Published for the Whitney Museum of Art by MacMillan Co., New York. 1944.


Kushner, Marilyn S. and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Linda S. Ferber. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. Brooklyn Museum of Art, George Braziller Publisher, NY, 2000.


Sandiford, Keith A.P. “The Victorians at Play: The Problems in Historiographical Methodology,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 15, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1981.


Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Bloomsbury Publishing, Oxford, 2016.


Sloan, John. “The Origin, Growth and Transformation of Maritime Resorts Since 1840,” Built Environment. Vol. 18, No.1. Alexandrine Press, 1992.


Patricia Campbell Warner, When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2006.


“Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.


“The Hudson River School”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (


Winslow Homer. “The Bath at Newport,” Harper’s Weekly, September 4, 1858. Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Special Collections and Archive.





My Muses: Erato and Anais Nin


Erato. The muse of love poetry. If I were to assign a mortal woman to Erato’s position, I can’t think of any gal more suited to inspire romance than Anais Nin—writer of erotica, memoirist of passion. Born in France to Cuban parents in 1903, Anais began her life amid the peaceful haze of the Belle Epoch (between the tumult of the Franco Prussian War and the First World War), but the modernization of post WWI west would sweep her away into a world of desire and liberation for women.


Anais was not one for conformity. She left school at age sixteen and later became an artist’s model, thumbing her nose at “lady-like” behavior. It was at this time that she also left the Catholic Church in the dust, drawn instead, perhaps, to the temple of love! However, Nin did not cultivate her sense for amore until she happened upon a tantalizing collection of French erotica, belonging to an American man (living in France). While she and her family rented this American man’s apartment for the summer, Nin could pore over steamy sentences of his naughty book collection. The fates had thrown Anais and “smutty” novels together. She would never be the same.


Beyond reading fiction, Nin cultivated a sense of her own sexuality through her various high-profile romances. She was the lover of Henry Miller, and wrote of her desire for his wife, June, in her diary. Clearly, the scope of passion and love were ever growing in Nin, as was her sense of self-possession. Anais Nin had also been keeping a diary since she was eleven years old, and would continue to keep it for over sixty years. Her penchant for writing came in handy when she was strapped for cash during the 1940’s. It was at this time that Nin, Henry Miller and her band of merry writer friends began writing erotica, for an anonymous collector, at a dollar a page. Decades later, Nin published these lust-filled narratives in two books: Delta of Venus and Little Birds.


Here are a few selected excerpts from her erotic novels:


“He was in that state of fire that she loved. She wanted to be burnt.” – Delta of Venus


“He had not touched me. He did not need to. His presence had affected me in such a way that I felt as if he had caressed me for a long time.” – Delta of Venus


“With her eyes alone she could give this response, the absolutely erotic response, as if febrile waves were trembling there, pools of madness…something devouring that could lick a man all over like a flame, annihilate him, with pleasure never before known.” – The Little Birds


Significantly, Anais Nin became the first woman to publish true, fleshy, lusty erotica in the west. As a pioneer of boundless female love in fiction, I honor her as my muse of love poetry. She is the perfect flesh and blood well-spring for inspiration in the bedroom and beyond. Causing readers to stir with lust and leave them dripping with wet anticipation, Anais Nin would make Erato proud.



My Muses: Euterpe and Sappho


Euterpe is the Greek muse of lyric poetry, and while she’s really great and all, she is made of mythic material. Sappho, on the other hand, was a real flesh and blood (well, now, soil and worms) gal who wrote honest to goodness lyric poems. Sappho was born around 630 BC, on the Isle of Lesbos. She was a Greek lyricist, and one of only a handful of female poets known to the ancient world. Supposedly, Solon (Athenian lawmaker and poet) was so moved by her work that he desired to be taught a song by Sappho “so that I may learn it and then die.” Now, Solon is either prone to emotional outbursts, or Sappho was one sweet lyricist.


Unfortunately, we may never know which of Sappho’s lyrical poems had whipped Solon into a frenzy of drama, because much of her work has been lost through neglect.  Medieval Byzantium dropped her works from their standard curriculum in the process of modernization, and copies of her poems ceased to be reproduced by scribes. As if her work hadn’t suffered enough, in an act of textual terror, copies of her poetry had been destroyed in the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Gasp!  


Here’s a lovely adaptation of a poem by Sappho, as translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

One Girl
Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough, 
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, — 
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now. 
Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found, 
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound, 
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.


In modern times, Sappho is known less for her written work, and more for her image as a symbol of female homosexuality. Her romantic poetry, involving female subjects, has made her the darling of lesbian circles. The English words “sapphic” and “lesbian” both refer to Sappho, thus, preserving her in writing, after all. Her ability to morph herself centuries after her death into words which exist in the English language is almost as astounding as her poetry. Truly, Sappho is one inspiring babe, and she has been operating as a muse for many a year.



My Muses: Clio and Anna Comnena


I’ve already mentioned that my ability to enjoy relaxation is limited. So, in an attempt to dampen the sunny fun of my vacation, I’ve created a small project for myself. For the nine days that I’m on holiday, I will assign a real-life, honest-to-goodness lady to an appropriate Greek Muse. So far, I’ve managed to feature Bessie Stringfield as a flesh and blood version of Calliope. Today, I will be looking at the life of Anna Comnena, widely recognized as the first female historian. Appropriately, she will serve as my real-life Clio. My muse of history.


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Anna was “born and bred in the purple,” as she puts it in her historical masterpiece, the Alexiad. She came into the world on December 1st, of 1083, and grew up in the Imperial Palace of Constantinople. Anna’s mention of the luxurious color purple is a nod to her position as a Byzantine princess (her father was emperor Alexios I). In the medieval ages, the color purple was generally reserved for royalty and nobility under sumptuary law. But, even if a poor-old peasant wanted to break the law and don the color purple, the dye-stuff was too expensive and rare for a “commoner” to obtain. The reason: one of the major sources for purple dye at the time were murex snails, which populated the Mediterranean Sea. Divers were required to harvest the sea snail, and then the snail shell had to be cracked open and the hypobranchial gland removed, which secreted the blue tinted chemical, dibromo-indigotin. 10-12,000 murex snails were required to make one gram of Tyrian or royal purple dye, so you can imagine the dye was costly, at the expense of both humans and snails. (Thanks for joining me on this tangent about murex snails!)


Back at the royal palace, Anna was receiving an exemplary education, as she was prepped for rule. She studied astrology, mathematics, philosophy, literature, geography, Greek language, medicine rhetoric and…yes…history. She was a tailor-made royal. She had brains. She had ambition. But, what she didn’t have were balls. You can imagine that she was pretty peeved when her younger brother, John II, was offered the throne. She was preparing to place the royal diadem on her brow and the brow of her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios. And, because she could not tolerate B.S., she formed a conspiracy to murder and overthrow her brother. However, the plot was uncovered and poor Anna was booted out of court.


After her plot to take over the throne was thwarted, and her husband died in 1137, Anna lived out the rest of her days in the seclusion of the convent. This might sound like a grim existence, but any writer knows that living like a hermit in a cloister-like setting is ideal for producing prose. It was during Anna’s time at the convent that she finished the history of her father, Alexios I, known as the Alexiad, which her husband had started before he croaked. Beyond the document’s importance as the first known history written by a woman, the Alexiad contains rare accounts of the First Crusade from the point of view of the Byzantines. Anna’s brilliant mind and brimming ambition could not be suppressed, and the Alexiad is a testament to her glowing talent. Amongst the mortals, she is my Clio. My muse.


My Muses: Calliope and Bessie Stringfield

I’m sitting in a beach-house in Lauderdale by the Sea. It’s my break from school, and I’m having a difficult time slathering sunscreen (SPF 30) and joining my merry holiday party on the beach. Too much relaxation generally scares me, and on this trip I’m terrified. With no papers due or readings to debate, I feel as if I have been unmoored—bobbing about aimlessly in a sea of relaxation and sloth. Ah, well enough about my troubles. To remedy my fear of having fun, I decided to create a project of vacation-size proportions for myself, assigning real-life, honest to Zeus women to the nine Greek Muses: Calliope, Clio (my personal favorite), Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. Today, I begin with Calliope:


Calliope is the Greek Muse of epic poetry. Surely, if one wants to be inspired in an epic way, the bad-ass Bessie Stringfield fits the bill. Now, any epic saga should have a hero born out of strife, and Bessie was certainly met with some hard-times. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911, her parents moved the family to Boston when she was very young, and after their unfortunate passing, Bessie was adopted by an Irish woman when she was five. She found herself an orphaned black girl, lodged in the societally sticky early 1900s. And though she was met with quite a bit of resistance from patriarchal, white-washed America, Bessie didn’t give a damn. She was a spirited lady with a motorbike.


When Bessie turned nineteen, she got herself a 1928 Indian Scout motorcycle and made several cross-country trips, funding her travels by performing motorcycle stunts in carnival shows. It might seem as if Bessie had found freedom on the open road, but she was often denied accommodations at motels because of her skin color, and had to sleep out in the open, on her motorcycle at filling stations. Because she was a female, she was many times denied the prizes that she won in flat-track races.


But, such circumstances did not keep Bessie and her motorcycle down. During WWII, she became the only woman to serve as a dispatch rider for the United States Army, delivering documents to domestic Army bases atop her breezy blue Harley Davidson. It was a grueling and dangerous job—one which bad-ass Bessie was perfectly suited for.


After the beaches of Normandy had been stormed, and WWII passed into the annals of history, Bessie’s job as a courier for the U.S. Army ended. She moved to Miami, Florida: land of sunshine and racism. Bessie was repeatedly pulled over and harassed by the Miami police. Apparently, black women weren’t allowed to ride motorcycles. But, apparently, they had never met Bessie Stringfield before.


Bessie went on down to the police station, and met with the police captain to discuss the issue of her driving her motorcycle. They convened in a nearby empty lot, where Bessie could show off her riding prowess; whereafter, the police chief gave her his approval to ride whenever she pleased, and the police never bothered her again. Decades later, I’m sitting here and wondering what exactly Bessie did to change to police chief’s mind. She must have put on one hell of a show to sway the minds of people living in an area rife with racism and sexism and sink-holes. In that moment, she broke ground for both women and African Americans who wanted to ride their motorcycles in freedom. Known as the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami,” Bessie Stringfield is an epic muse. She rode her motorcycle until the day she died.



Leaving the Cult of Womanhood: Nora’s departure from Patriarchal Convention in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”


The Cult of Domesticity was the invention of late nineteenth-century traditionalists who had become alarmed by the arrival of the “New Woman:” the female who was both financially and intellectually autonomous, and independent from males. As a sort of patriarchal societal back-lash, the Cult of Domesticity was employed and the personality of the “True Woman” was developed to contain the intellectual and physical energy of women to the home, thus, preserving the sacred sphere of public life to men. However, the strict gender roles in Victorian society caused many women to suffer from depression, anxiety, “nervous prostration” and stress—some of the very disorders suffered by Nora, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Throughout Ibsen’s play, Nora is squeezed by the limited confines of the domestic sphere, undergoing a transformation from the nineteenth-century coined “True Woman” to “New Woman.” Galvanized by the pressure of the Cult of Domesticity, Nora emerges a stronger, truer version of herself, unrecognizable to nineteenth-century societal norms. Because Nora’s attitude is no longer congruent to the patriarchal model, she rejects the traditional roles assigned to women and exits the Cult of Domesticity.


The Cult of Domesticity was a phenomenon of the nineteenth-century which defined the role of middle to upper-class white women in the scheme of patriarchal convention. Because women were barred from the male-oriented public realm, women were confined to the realm of home, and the qualities of “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 115) became their hallmark of womanhood. Essentially, this is the formula for making dolls: figures without a will of their own, but replete with accessories like a Bible and a feather duster. The idea that women existed as mere “dolls” is a theme most famously explored by Henrik Isben in his remarkable play, “A Doll’s House.” Just like the actual women who lived during the nineteenth-century, Ibsen’s heroine, Nora, is limited to the role of “wife”: marriage and motherhood being her proper occupation, and maintaining a household and her virtuous appearance her livelihood. As exemplified in the play, many women suffered under the strain of being stripped of their independence, and were tested by the limits of societal roles—one of the most significant shapers of Victorian societal roles being the law of coverture, which not only constrained and distressed Nora’s character in Ibsen’s play, but thousands of nineteenth-century women.


Under the laws of coverture, women were subject to the rule of their fathers or husbands, had little to no chance of supporting themselves financially on their own, and were granted practically no legal rights or protections. Throughout the play, Nora’s realization of the injustices of patriarchal society build, until she snaps in the final act and leaves her marriage, her children and her home. In Nora’s final conversation with her husband, Torvold, she sum up her dissatisfaction with the role which was assigned to her by society: “It’s the truth, Torvald. When I lived with Papa, he used to tell me what he thought about everything, so that I never had any opinions but his. And if I did have any of my own, I kept them quiet because he wouldn’t have liked them. He called me his little doll, and he played with me just the way I played with my dolls. Then I came here to live in your house….Now I look back on it, it’s as if I’ve been living here like a pauper, from hand to mouth. I perform tricks for you and you give me food and drink. But that was how you wanted it. You and Papa have done me a great wrong. It’s your fault that I have done nothing with my life.” (3.1.2204-2209).


The analogy which Nora creates between herself and a doll conjures up strong associations of a nineteenth-century woman’s static, lifeless position as a play-thing for men. This social arrangement between the sexes is an ancient one which finds its roots in the laws of coverture:

“Marriage and property laws, or ‘coverture,’ stipulated that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances. When a husband died, his wife could not be the guardian to their under-age children. Widows did have the right of ‘dower,’ a right to property they brought into the marriage as well as to life usage of one-third of their husbands’ estate. Though a married woman was not able to sue or sign contracts on her own, her husband often did have to obtain her consent before he sold any property his wife had inherited. Apart from such generally applicable laws, many women were in a position of legal dependence as a result of their particular situation, be it youth, poverty, or enslavement ” (Women and the Law)


The laws of coverture which ruled Nora’s existence are the root of her huge dilemma—a dilemma which essentially drives the narrative of the play. Because Nora needs to secure a loan of money to visit her ailing husband, and she does not want to disturb her dying father, Nora decides to forge her father’s signature on the loan document. Although Nora considers her actions to be heroic, other characters in the play, like Mrs. Linde and Torvald, represent the voice of convention and disapprove of her acting on her own accord. When Nora tries to explain her motives to her friend, Mrs. Linde, there is a degree of disconnect between the two women on what makes rational sense in Nora’s situation:

Mrs. Linde: You couldn’t have borrowed it.

Nora: Oh? Why not?

Mrs. Linde: Well, a wife cannot borrow money without her husband’s consent.

Nora: (tosses her head): Ah, but when a wife has a little business sense, and knows how to be clever—

Mrs. Linde: But Nora, I simply don’t understand—(1.1.350-356)

To Nora, it makes perfect sense that if one needs money, one simply should apply for it—especially when the motive for money is a noble and selfless one. Her reasoning places her on an equal playing field with men, which seems “imprudent” to the more conservative Mrs. Linde. Nora raises a valid argument, simply wondering why—why can she not sign documents to save her husband’s life? And if these rules are so, than they do not make any sense. The idea that the laws of the late nineteenth-century are unfairly, if not arbitrarily written, are illuminated by a brief exchange between Krogstad and Nora:

Krogstad: The law does not concern itself with motives.

Nora: Then the law must be very stupid.

Krogstad: Stupid or not, if I show this paper to the police, you will be judged according to it.



  Nora’s challenge to patriarchal convention receives resistance from all who surround her, and, in turn, Nora is made to feel as if she is living in a pressure cooker. Trapped in a world of Victorian social strictures, whose very design was suffocating to women, Nora finds herself bubbling with nervous stress throughout the play as she tries to avoid the consequences of her acting in her own right.  It is ironic that all of her trouble and distress over signing a legal document would have been nonexistent had she been born a century later, in an age where women had obtained legal rights and a great measure of autonomy. However, without the lopsided and prejudiced regulations of patriarchal society, Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” would have no dynamic tension, and the play would have fizzled out, having lost all of its narrative propulsion. The tremendous tension which tugs at the central character of the play, Nora, makes for a great story, but it also points to an injurious truth about patriarchal norms and its effect on women.


 Ibsen brings to the surface the unnatural state which women must live in during the Victorian era not only by comparing Nora to an inanimate doll, but by placing Nora in a situation which could have easily been avoided had the legal rules of the time not been written and benefitted by men. In effect, Ibsen directs his audience to the question, “Is it Nora or patriarchal rules which are causing all of the trouble in the play?” If one takes the view that it is the manmade rules which are the cause of the dilemma in the play, one must then reject patriarchal convention; therefore, Ibsen was posing some very controversial ideas about social reform in his Victorian age play “A Doll’s House.” However, this question of the legitimacy of patriarchal social norms was not uncommon in Ibsen’s time. I would surmise that the playwright was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s essay, “The Subjection of Women,” which had been translated into Danish in 1869—just a few years before the publication of “A Doll’s House.” “Here, Mill claims that women under the Victorian regime are socialized into artificiality. ‘What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced expressions in some directions, unnatural simulation in others.’” (Langas 151) Ibsen’s allusion to Mill’s claim that women were made to assume an artificial identity is demonstrated in his comparison of Nora to a doll living in a doll’s house. It is clear through the writing of both Mill and Ibsen that the limitations of gender roles in society were a widely discussed topic of interest in the second half of the nineteenth-century.


But Nora’s struggle against gendered legal rules are just one of the problems which she faces in the play.  Nora demonstrates her displeasure with a life of little accomplishment in her closing statement to her husband, Torvald, claiming, “It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life” (3.1.2218). Nora, like many women of her time, found the role as mother and housekeeper to be limiting to one’s self-development and happiness. If one looks past the doll-like and twittering façade that Nora has created to please her husband, one can certainly see that Nora is an intelligent women. Nora must have felt stifled and bored by a societally assigned identity which prevented her from pursuing an education, a career and engaging in “serious” conversation. The Cult of Domesticity valued submissiveness to husbands, and selflessness towards nurturing children. This prescription for “True Womanhood” was certainly draining to women, and left little room for her to pursue her own interests or take care of herself. “The canon of domesticity, as Cott argues, ‘prescribed women’s appropriate attitude to be selflessness.’ The conventional cliché ‘that women were to live for others was substantially correct, wrote the author of The Women’s Mission, for only by giving up all self-interest did women achieve the purity of motive that enabled them to establish moral reference points in the home….” (Cutter 384)


 Aside from a woman’s marital obligation of selflessness towards her children, it was a woman’s job to keep her husband happy, above all other responsibilities. This is where the revered virtue of submissiveness came in handy to nineteenth century women; she would forfeit her own inclinations and passions for that of her husband and household. Books, magazines and mothers of the time instilled in a young girl’s mind the importance of accommodating and obedient behavior. “The Young Lady’s Book summarized the necessity of the passive virtues in its reader’s lives: “It is, however, certain, that in whatever situation of life a woman is placed from her cradle to her grave, a spirit of obedience and submission, pliability of temper, and humility of mind, are required from her” (Welter 118). However, an existence of subservience contradicts the natural impulse of human nature: to exercise free will and preserve one’s self. From the very beginning of the play, Nora is exercising the use of her own free will and is finding resistance from the socially conventional around her. For Nora, being submissive is not natural, and so she must assume the character of a doll to survive her experience as a wife and daughter. However, pretending to be something that she is not becomes problematic for Nora as her most authentic self is struggling to rip through the confines of gendered convention.


The way in which Nora views her actions of obedience and submissiveness to her husband differs from Torvald’s perspective. While Nora finds following her husband’s instructions to be a great sacrifice and gift, on her part, Torvald simply views it as a part of Nora’s job as his wife. The contrast between Nora and Torvald’s understanding of female submissiveness can be found in the following exchange of dialogue between the two characters:

Nora: No, it was Christine; She’s helping me mend my costume. I’m going to look rather splendid in that.

Torvald: Yes, that was quite a bright idea of mine, wasn’t it?

Nora.: Wonderful! But wasn’t it nice of me to give into you?

Torvald: Nice— to give in to your husband? All right, you little silly, I know you didn’t mean it in that way. (2.1.1094-1099).


Here, Nora indicates that her decision to do as Torvald wishes was a sacrifice of her own free will. Unfortunately, Torvald looks at Nora’s obedience and submission to him as a part of her wifely duty. This notion that it was a woman’s role to deny herself and submit to the prerogative of men was just one of the many aspects of patriarchal convention which was tearing at Nora’s conscience. Because nineteenth-century women’s identity was bound up with self-abnegation, women found little opportunity to replenish their body, mind and spirit—a social position which caused many women to suffer from depression and nervous conditions. Signs of Nora’s own emotional deterioration can be seen throughout the play, as her role as a domestic doll start to wear on her. There are several instances throughout the play in which Nora is torn between her private inner–world of turmoil and her dizzy role as a doll-wife. In the moments before she has to adjust her behavior to play-acting as Nora the doll-wife, one can see Nora’s troubled state. For example, when Nora realizes that Torvald has dismissed Krogstad, and that she is now in danger of Krodstad revealing the truth about her forgery, Nora falls apart into a state of distress:

Nora: (Desperate with anxiety, stands as though transfixed and whispers): He said he’d do it. He will do it. He will do it. He will do it and nothing will stop him. No, never that! Never, never! I’d rather anything. There must be some escape—some way out–! (The doorbell rings.) Doctor Rank! Anything rather than that—anything, I don’t care! (She passes her hand across her face, composes herself, walks across and opens the door to the hall…) (2.1.1212-1216).


 It is clear that staying in character—as the vacuous housewife who is only concerned with material items—is becoming more and more difficult for Nora to maintain. Nora is a woman of thought and strong free-will, and these characteristics are constantly at odds with her dim-witted alter ego, the doll-wife. The only thing which seems to be keeping Nora together as the doll-wife is her love for her husband and her misconception of her husband’s character. Nora has subscribed to her husband’s illusionary portrait of his brave and supportive character, as she is reminded of his noble traits throughout the play. In act II, Torvald assures Nora, “My dear Nora, I can forgive the anxiety you are in, although it is an insult to me. It is, indeed. Isn’t it an insult to think that I should be afraid of a starving quill driver’s vengeance? But I forgive you nevertheless, because it is such an eloquent witness to your great love for me. And that is as it should be, my own darling Nora. Come what will, you may be sure I will have both courage and strength if they be needed. You will see I am man enough to take everything upon myself….That’s right. Well, we will share it, Nora, as man and wife should. That is how it shall be.” (2.1.1192-1204)


However, that is certainly not how it would be. By the end of Act III, Torvald has revealed himself as a shallow and cowardly man who is incapable of standing by his wife through troubling times; Torvald even goes so far as to call Nora a hypocrite, a liar and a criminal. It is at this point in the play which Nora’s false perceptions of her husband are shattered, and she realizes that there is nothing keeping her in her truly artificial marriage. The last thread which had held her character together as Nora the doll and Nora the wife and mother had been severed in two by Torvald’s sharp and cutting comments towards Nora’s personality, and his incapability of substantiating his claims to possessing a courageous and selfless character. Finding the depths of her marriage to be completely shallow, Nora decides that there is nothing holding her to the Cult of Domesticity. Furthermore, Nora has been transformed by her experience of anxiety and grief, and understands that in her existence as a wife and mother, she has forgotten about her own desires and needs; she has outgrown her role as a doll-wife, and can no longer accept a life of complete self-denial and submission to her husband. Dissatisfied by the position which patriarchal convention has assigned her, Nora rejects her gender-limited role in society, and informs Torvald that she is leaving him and the children. Not fully understanding that Nora is no longer subscribing to the Cult of Domesticity, Torvald tries to appeal to her logic with social strictures that no longer apply Nora:

Helmer: But this is monstrous! Can you neglect your most sacred duties?

Nora: What do you call my most sacred duties?

Helmer: Do I have to tell you? Your duties toward your husband and your children?

Nora: I have another duty which is equally sacred.

Helmer: You have not. What on earth could that be?

Nora: My duty towards myself. (3.1.2263-2269)


By calling attention to her own desires and needs, Nora is renouncing her position as a “True Woman” and embracing her role as the “New Woman.” Her departure from the domestic sphere and all of its trappings is a dramatic one, indeed, but necessary in making a statement about the damaging and unnatural design of patriarchy and the Cult of Domesticity. Although women had a long way to go in the struggle for women’s rights during the Victorian Era, works like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” helped to pave the way for a new way of looking at gender roles in society. Nora’s exit from the confines of patriarchal convention may have been a fictionalized one, but through the power of art and literature, Nora’s character created a template for women to follow wherever the play could be read or performed. In the case of Ibsen’s play, real life would eventually emulate his art, and fiction would become fact.























Cited Works




Cutter, Martha J. “Beyond Stereotypes: Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Radical Critique of Nineteenth-Century Cults of Femininity.” Women’s Studies. Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, S.A. Printed in the United Kingdom, Sept. 1, 1992. 383-395. Web. 2001.


Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” Literature and Ourselves, 6th Ed. Henderson, Gloria Mason, Anna Dunlap Higgins, Bill Day, Sandra Stevenson Waller, eds. New York: Pearson Education, 2009. 367-423. Print.


Langas, Unni. “What Did Nora Do? Thinking Gender with ‘A Doll’s House.’” Ibsen Studies: December, 1 2005. 145-166. Print.


Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” Major Problems in American Women’s History, 2nd Ed. Norton, Mary Beth and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996. 115-122. Print.


“Women and the Law.” Women, Enterprise and Society. Harvard Business School Online. President and Fellows of Harvard College: 2010.