A Doll's House and A Streetcar Named Desire

Read the following exam question and the student's response. Apply the assessment criteria and discuss the marks that you would award the script before reading the examiner's marks and comments. How different were your marks and comments from the examiner's marks and comments? What improvements could be made to this student's response, in order to achieve better results?

In what ways and for what reasons do two literary works that you have read appeal to their audiences’ eyes and ears? Compare and contrast the ways in which they appeal to the auditory and visual senses of their audiences.

By nature, plays appeal to an audience’s visual and auditory senses, as they are meant to be performed. The play A Doll’s House, written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879, depicts the struggles of the protagonist, Nora, in a patriarchal Norway. A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams in 1947, portrays a similar struggle, where the protagonist Blanche Dubois is pitted against Stanley Kowalski, a dominating man in a patriarchal New Orleans. Both works criticize the times and places in which they were written through a variety of techniques, such as symbolism, stage directions and music. These three techniques appeal to the visual and auditory senses of the audience and help convey the authors’ message that women deserve equal respect to men.

In both plays the authors have included symbolism, which adds depth to the plays and conveys their messages in both convincing and aesthetic ways. Perhaps the most effective symbol in A Doll’s House is the Christmas tree, which depicts the transformation of Nora, the main character. In the beginning of the play, the tree is decorated, symbolizing Nora’s festive and happy mood. She is happy to be celebrating Christmas without worrying about money. The decorated Christmas tree helps establish a joyous mood with the audience, as it is a symbol that the original target audience, Norwegians in the 19thcentury, could relate to. In the second act, however, the tree is stripped of its decorations, symbolizing Nora’s distressed and disturbed mood after her conversation with her husband, Helmer. At this stage in the play, she feels like poisoning her own children, a mood which is captured by the tree that is stripped of its decorations. The symbol of a bare Christmas tree conveys a very effective message that this marriage is not all that it is made up to be and comments critically on gender roles in Norwegian homes in the 19th century. 

In A Streetcar Named Desire Tennessee Williams employs the symbol of the paper lantern with similar effectiveness. Mitch, one of Stanley’s poker friends, is instructed by Blanche to place a paper lantern over a bare light bulb. Blanche hates bright lights because they reveal the reality from which she is trying to hide. The paper lantern helps distort reality and makes it more difficult for Mitch to tell her age. The paper lantern is also fragile and it tears easily. When Stanley tears down the lantern, the audience feels that a part of Blanche is torn. She is exposed for who she is: an emotionally instable woman who is running away from her problems. The torn lantern is a symbol that signifies that the era of the Southern Belle is over and that men like Stanley Kowalski are now in charge. Like the Christmas tree in A Doll’s House, the paper lantern in A Streetcar Named Desire is a sign that times are difficult for women in a male-dominated world. 

Secondly, the stage directions in both plays help create an atmosphere that appeals to the audiences’ eyes and ears and sets the stage for social criticism. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen states in the beginning that the stage includes “bound books in shelves, polished furniture and firewood by the fireplace.” These stage directions indicate that the Helmers are rather bourgeois, upper middle-class. As the play progresses the audience feels all of the pressures which come along with this setting, where everything must be in its place, restricting one’s freedoms. The nice home also acts as a false façade that covers their marital problems. 

In contrast to A Doll’s HouseA Streetcar Named Desire is set in a rougher neighborhood of New Orleans in the 1940s, which is bordering on poverty. As Williams describes in his stage directions: “The buildings look grey, there is warmth in the atmosphere, the stairs are crooked.” The audience understands that New Orleans has departed from its decadent, aristocratic past, and has become more working class. There is no room for the refined manners of the old South and the world of Blanche Dubois. Although Williams’ set is significantly rougher than that of A Doll’s House, the effect on the audience is quite similar: They show audiences how women are trapped by the order or disorder of the world that men have created. 

Finally, in both plays, music plays an important role in establishing the atmosphere and conveying the authors’ message of social criticism. In A Doll’s House the audience sees and hears Nora dance to the Tarantella, which adds to the tension of the play. The audience of the time would have known the dance and the myth of tarantism. The song is named after the tarantula spider, whose bite would make victims dance wildly. In actuality many women in the 19th century suffered from hysteria, because they were under so much pressure from men. Women were encouraged to dance this dance until exhaustion, as a kind of ‘cure’ for hysteria. The dance, however, is meant to be danced in pairs. Since Torvald shuts himself in his office, Nora must dance it alone. She begs him to watch her dance wildly, so that he is distracted and cannot read the blackmail letter from Krogstad, which would ruin her life and expose her secret. In fact she is dancing to save her life, and, in the context of 19th century Norway, the audience would have realized this. Ibsen included this music as a social criticism of his times, where women were driven to hysteria by the men in power. 

In a similar way, Williams employs music in A Streetcar Named Desire as a means of expressing his social criticism of his times. The Varsouviana Polka is a motif that runs through the play, as Blanche hears it every time she thinks of her dead husband. The Varsouviana Polka is like a carousel tune, which was playing when Blanche’s husband committed suicide. Because it plays throughout the play, the audience understands that Blanche cannot escape his death. The audience feels her shame and guilt as she feels responsible for driving him to his suicide after discovering his homosexuality. ‘Paper Moon’ is another song motif that the audience hears in the play. Its lyrics are sung by Blanche as she lies in the bathtub: “Paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea. It wouldn’t be make-believe, if you believed in me.” The words seem appropriate for Blanche, who tries to keep up appearances with her cheap dresses and paper lanterns. Just as ‘Paper Moon’ and the Varsouviana Polka make the audience of A Street Car Named Desire pity Blanche, so too does the audience of A Doll’s House pity Nora when they hear the dance of the Tarantella, as the music symbolizes the pressures under which the women are suffering in these respective patriarchies. 

To conclude, both playwrights, Henrik Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, employ visual and auditory techniques, such as symbolism, stage directions and music, to create an atmosphere and convey a message that comments critically on society. Both playwrights depict how times are changing in their respective societies. Both audiences can see how the pressures on women in a male-dominated world are hard to bear, and as a result, they are more open to the ideals of feminism.

Criterion A: Knowledge, understanding, interpretation and comparison – 7 out of 10

The essay shows good knowledge and understanding of the works. Interpretations frequently draw on similarities and differences between the works. Comments on the authors’ purposes of challenging patriarchal societies show the student’s level of understanding. Unfortunately, real comparison between the works is rather superficial and not always in relation to the question.


Criterion B: Analysis and evaluation – 6 out of 10

Sentences such as ‘Ibsen included this music as a social criticism of his times, where women were driven to hysteria by the men in power’ are very good in analysing the literary works. While techniques such as music, stage directions and symbolism are explored in some depth, they are not always compared across literary works. Furthermore, the term ‘stage directions’ is interpreted in a narrow sense, as the student’s comments focus only on the set and props and not on the speech directions for the actors.


Criterion C: Coherence, balance, focus and organisation - 5 out of 5

This essay alternates between works very effectively, with two body paragraphs on music, two body paragraphs on stage directions and two body paragraphs on symbolism. There are multiple linking words, which act as signposts for the reader of this essay.


Criterion D: Language - 5 out of 5

The language of this essay is very concise. Grammar, vocabulary and register are all very effective and accurate, expressing complex ideas in a way that is easy to read.

Last modified: Friday, 17 January 2020, 12:57 PM