A Doll’s House and The Piano Lesson

Published 14 Jun 2017

The two plays, Ibsen’s A Doll House and Wilson’s Piano Lesson are constructed around social realist themes. In fact, the texts deal with two different types of discrimination: discrimination against women in Ibsen’s A Doll House, and discrimination against the African-Americans in Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. The works share a common view on the discriminated categories: both African Americans and women are treated as objects possessed by their masters, either for trade or for mere entertainment and play. Thus, both plays treat of the effects of sexual or racial discrimination and focus on awakening and the regaining of independence.

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First of all, The Piano Lesson and A Doll’s House and are built around two metaphors which are also contained in the titles of the works. In The Piano Lesson the title is in fact a pun: Wilson does not attempt to give his audience a lesson on music or on how to play the piano, but a lesson on the effects of slavery on the already liberated African-Americans. The plot is quite simple, and revolves around the dispute between Berniece and her brother Boy Willie with regard to the selling of an old family piano. The history of the family piano is the metaphor around which the story is weaved: before the Civil War, when the Charles family was still in slavery to the Sutters, two of the family members were sold in exchange for the piano. Miss Ophelia, Sutter’s wife, for whom the piano was intended as a gift, started to miss her Negroes and tried to get them back by returning the piano. This was not possible, so Sutter found another solution: he ordered Doaker’s grandfather to carve the figures of the Negroes on the piano:

“When Miss Ophelia seen it (…) she got excited. Now she had her piano and her niggers too.” (Wilson, 51)

The piano inscribed with the history of the family and constantly traded among people is a symbol for the condition of the African-Americans who were being sold like mere objects. As Boy Willie’s father believed, the piano had to be recuperated because as long as Sutter had it the family would still be in slavery: “Boy Charles used to talk about that piano all the time. He never could get it off his mind. Two or three months go by and he be talking about it again. He be talking about taking it out of Sutter’s house. Say it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it he had us. Say we was still in slavery.”(Wilson, 51) The piano is moreover a symbol for music, one of the most powerful traditions associated with black culture. This is why, at the end of the play, Sutter’s ghost is exorcised out of the house by playing the piano, that is, by emphasizing African American identity:

“Hey Berniece if you and Maretha don’t keep playing on that piano ain’t no telling me and Sutter both liable to be back.”(Wilson, 108)

Thus, in The Piano Lesson, Wilson teaches about discrimination and the regaining of independence. The lesson here is that as the piano, the blacks have been mere objects of trade between the white people, and that even after having been set free, they are still trying to regain their independence.

The discrimination in Ibsen’s play is not obvious from the beginning. The work opens with the image of an apparently happy family life, in which the husband and the wife seem to be very much in love. Soon however it is revealed that Nora and Torvald Helmer have a very insincere marital relationship. Nora has been constrained in the past to appeal to a creditor, named Krogstad, for a large sum of money that would help her husband out, without his knowledge. The climax of the play comes when Krogstad reveals the truth to Torvald. Torvald’s pride is hurt and he reacts violently, in spite of the fact that Nora had borrowed money and lied only out of love for him.

Thus, there is a double meaning connected with the doll house: at first sight, the marriage of the Helmers seems to end mainly because of the lying, the doll house hinting thus at the artificial life they had been living. The more prominent reading however, is that the doll is Nora herself: Ibsen describes thus in his works the typical discrimination against women. Nora is the beautiful, young, pampered wife who is never taken seriously by her husband.

He believes she is spendthrift and childish and treats her with a truly paternal feeling: “Nora, Nora! Just like a woman! But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that sort of thing. No debts, no borrowing.”(Ibsen, 149) The diminutive names he calls her are all indicative of the way he thinks about her: “It’s a sweet little bird, but it gets through a terrible amount of money. You wouldn’t believe how much it costs a man when he’s got a little song-bird like you!”(Ibsen, 151) It is thus truly dramatic that Nora carries with dignity the load of many more cares and concerns than her husband could ever dream. Torvald thus misinterprets her sacrifice, taking her for a child woman, a mere doll, an ornamental object that he only plays with. To him, Nora has very little reality as an individual. The situation is thus very similar to that in Wilson’s play: both the former slaves and Nora are treated as objects, for trade or for play and ornamentation.

The discriminated individuals have no identity of their own, in the views of the others. Thus, in spite of her cares, Nora is delighted when she has the opportunity of earning money on her own, just like a man: “Still it was tremendous fun sitting there working and earning money. It was almost like being a man.”(Ibsen, 162) At the end of the play, Nora herself realizes she has been nothing but a doll to her husband all her life: “Helmer. I have it in me to become a different man. Nora: Perhaps–if your doll is taken away from you.”(Ibsen, 230) The fact that Nora hid a strong and determined character behind her doll appearance, reveals how unjust this view of women as mere objects or as frivolous creatures is: “I was simply your little songbird, your doll, and from now on you would handle it more gently than ever because it was so delicate and fragile.”(Ibsen, 230)

Thus, Wilson’s and Ibsen’s plays share a common view of discrimination: the black people are traded for a piano and Nora is treated as a doll with no mind of her own.

Works Cited:

  • Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Penguin Books: London, 1965.
  • Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. New York: Plume, 1990.
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