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Did the Final Actions of the Female Protagonists in A Doll's House and Medea Demonstrate An Act of Self-Initiative or the Consequences of Domestic Discord

During the closing scenes of both Ibsen's A Doll's House and Euripides's Medea, the female protagonists, Nora and Medea respectively, take drastic courses of action. The question might be asked, do the final actions of these female protagonists display an act of self-initiative, or are their actions the consequences of domestic discord? To fully comprehend the obstacles faced by these women and the driving forces behind their decisions, the topic may be addressed in a Socratic dialogue. Two people participate: an Eleatic and an Athenian. The Eleatic, who asserts absolute being, argues that the final actions constituted self-initiative. The Athenian, on the other hand, a relativist, believes them to result from domestic discord.

Eleatic: If you were to consider the perseverance and determination exhibited by Medea in pursuing her scheme to completion, you would agree that it all was an act of self-initiative, not the pressures and consequences of domestic discord.

Athenian: Simply the fact of her thoroughness in realizing her plans does not stipulate self-initiative. It merely shows that she had the courage to carry out her plans. However, the factors that caused her to assume such a drastic course of action directly resulted from domestic discord. She would not have gone to such extremes if she had not felt jilted by Jason. Her anger at being betrayed led to her actions.
Eleatic: Is this anger, and the actions resulting from it not self-determination, for she chose to pursue such a course at all costs? This can be clearly seen when she says: "...but my pain's a fair price to take away your smile." (p. 591). She clearly professes her determination to pursue her revenge, no matter what dark course it may take, and regardless of the cost to her and the consequences to others. Instead of leaving Jason, or pleading for justice, she constructs a meticulous scheme that only self-initiative could produce, and not the indirect, and thus weaker, results of a domestic dispute. The fact that she has been abandoned only makes her aware of her predicament; her subsequent actions are all self-initiated.
Athenian: We must not confuse perseverance with initiative. While she was mostly unwavering in her actions, she was driven by the rage resulting from the discord within the family. She had no other course to take, considering she was in a foreign land with foreign and even alien laws. The king was prejudiced against her, making it impossible to pursue any sort of legal or logical action. Her children, another aspect of the family, were also a hindrance in that she had to protect them, and whatever actions she took would result in punishment for her offspring as well as for herself. The Greek society she lived in, which was run by men, did not allow her to obtain any measure of retaliation. The only option available to her, due to the fact that Jason and the family had created these unique circumstances, was direct and violent revenge. The Chorus captures this lack of choice when is says

"Deceit is men's device now,
Men's oaths are god's dishonor.
Legend will now reverse our reputation,
A time comes when the female sex is honored;" (p.291).

To specify self-initiative as the cause ignores the fact that the conflict within her family left her with no other option, so any initiative was taken out of necessity, not by choice, as implied by the phrase "self-initiative." In other words, we say she took the initiative simply because she completed her plans, but in fact, it was not self-induced, it was a reaction to her circumstances.

Eleatic: The factors of Medea's, and also Nora's, family problems does cause some action on their part, as does every environment on every organism. To isolate this as the driving force, however, is completely absurd. If we were to consider Nora's case for a moment, the factor of self-determination would again be presented.
Nora was content in her existence as Torvald's quiet and happy wife. She was a kind and smiling face for him to come home to after a tiring day at work. Again, there is a stimulus presented by the environment: the blackmail attempt by Krogstad. The family discord resulting from this, as in Medea's case, serves to awaken Nora to the true state of affairs in the household. Once she is aware of her position, she resolves, for the first time in their relationship, to talk about a serious matter. There were no forces pressuring her to bring these feelings up; she choose to do so. She makes plain her self-initiative when she says:

"No, that's just it. You don't understand me; and I have never understood you either -- until tonight. No, don't in- terrupt me. Just listen to what I have to say. This is to be a final settlement, Torvald." (p. 711)

She is unsatisfied with her role in the family, and once it has been brought to her attention through family discord, she clearly takes matters into her own hands.

Athenian: You are missing the point, and you must take that quote in context. When isolated, it may appear to justify and support the self-determination point of view, but in truth it disproves it.
If we consider the whole sequence of events at the conclusion of the play, when Nora speaks with Torvald and then leaves, we will see that all directly results from discord in the family. She has spent more than eight years with Torvald, suppressing her feelings, desires, beliefs and opinions to match his. She unwittingly played along with his game, assuming her role as a little doll, always smiling and always pretty, but with nothing of substance to say. Once she realizes that she has had an empty and unrewarding existence she leaves the house. However, this realization only occurred in the heat of family discord. When she says:

"It doesn't occur to you, does it, that though we've been
married for eight years, this is the first time that we
two -- man and wife -- have sat down for a serious talk?", (p. 711)

we realize that she has been affected by the lack of communication and shared feelings in her relationship. This discord, and its consequences, caused her to reevaluate her circumstances, and decide to leave Torvald. She did not simply decide to get up and leave. Rather, the discord caused by Krogstad's blackmail attempt jolted her out of her self-deception, and caused her to take that course of action. These circumstances, although unnoticed, accumulated over eight years. Since she was unaware of them, they cannot possibly result from self-initiative, and the actions resulting from them also have no connection to self-initiative. However, even though her circumstances were unnoticed, they still represented family discord, and once they were realized, they led to her actions. The connections and logic are obvious, would you not agree?

Eleatic: I must agree that, when considering your points, the actions of both Nora and Medea appear to be consequences of family discord. However, it is hard to believe that, despite the validity of your points, Medea would choose to kill her offspring as a result of discord in the family.

Athenian: Your point is well taken, however we must consider that Euripides intended to evoke pity and fear in the mind of his audience. The enormity of her actions is indeed overwhelming, especially when we have the time to sit back and contemplate their repercussions. However, Medea was acting under a considerable amount of pressure and strain. The discord in her family left her with no other choice and if we emotionally separate ourselves from the issue, and consider the whole situation logically, we will understand that, however heinous the act, it was her only choice. Combined with the fact that the gods, the final arbitrators in any dispute, supported her actions, proves that she was wrongly treated by Jason, and subject to the strain of a dysfunctional family. This discord fueled her actions. The parallel to Nora's case is obvious as well. She can no longer live under conditions that require her to subjugate her will to her husband's, no matter how much she loves him. She must have the chance to develop and nurture a personality of her own, and this desire creates more discord in the family, the consequences of which is her departure from Torvald.

Corinthian: It is clear to me that, in conclusion to this argument, the final actions of the female protagonists in "A Doll's House" and "Medea" displayed the direct and definite consequences of domestic discord. These pressures resulting in a mixture of circumstances caused them to take the drastic course of action that they took in the end of both plays. Both women were subjected to trying circumstances and they made decisions with which we might not morally agree, but we must respect and realize that they were not intentionally cruel reactions, but a response to stimuli forced upon them by others.


works cited
1) Euripides. Ten Plays. Translated by Moses Hadas and John
McLean. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1966.
2) Ibsen, Henrik. Eight Plays. Translated by Eva Le Gallienne.
New York: The Modern Library, 1982.

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