In Between the Lines

Sampurna Datta

Sampurna Datta

Parallels in literature can be enthralling for any reader or learner. This essay and the thoughts expressed in it spontaneously came to me while I was reading The Inferno of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Henrik Ibsen’s most critically acclaimed work, A Doll’s House. In doing so, it wonderfully came upon me that, not only British literature, but world literature abounds with such likeness, only waiting to be derived. In my attempt to unveil some of the parallels, I have been, at times, guided by my emotions more than my purpose which only explains my attachment to the characters cited. The four immortal works cited in this essay are The Iliad, Inferno, Hamlet, and A Doll’s House.
                                                                                             --Sampurna Datta
                                                In Between the Lines
Separated by centuries, Inferno of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Ibsen’s perennial drama, A Doll’s House, certainly intrigues irrefutable similarities in both structural and thematic levels that are worth analysing. Each of the pieces, written in different language and undoubtedly with different intent, are severe yet brilliant descriptions of torn, tattered and trapped human souls. Their agony irrespective of their inherent and telling flaws, have managed to move the readers for centuries to empathise (occasionally identify), with them. What also binds these marvels together is a well-studied design to vent out the fumes of resentment of the pen against the then society.
Throughout the middle ages, Dante’s part of the world was in pieces - split between the papacy and the Holy Roman emperor, as each claimed a divine derivation. This chasm within the society was further augmented by the political factions, Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Guelphs, being the face of papacy was per se the choice of the rising middle class of Italy, engaged in a ceaseless acerbic struggle with their counterpart, the Ghibellines. The repugnant intensity of this clash of ideologies slowly but certainly managed to disintegrate the society and even its basic unit, family. Dante, a Guelph, was clearly mortified at this sight and took upon the onus upon himself to set the ‘chaos’ right.
Hell, as designed by him, in Inferno, is a gigantic funnel comprising of circles, giving it a slimy and grotesque depth, running all the way down to the kernel, where Satan dwells. Miscreant souls were eternally placed in these circles, to suffer, after carefully weighing their sins. Interestingly, the sinners were however, not God-picked, but handpicked by Dante himself. In doing so, he almost takes a divine stand and chooses the people whom he held politically, philosophically and theologically wrong; even if he personally admired some of them. Farinata, a proud Ghibelline leader of Florence, for instance, was inflicted into the circle meant for heretics, even though he was Dante’s friend. This emotional detachment brilliantly adds to the quality of the epic allowing the readers a comprehensive view of hell. Taking a divine stand, however, did not rob him of the humane virtues. In fact, Dante the poet and Dante the man, descending down the circles are two defined individuals – the former being a didact to a spiritually lost man who is visibly tormented to behold the corporeality of the punishments inflicted on the sinners. It is through the voice of this man that the souls voice themselves.  Nevertheless, as he leads us down the circles, Dante, both the man and the poet, matures along with the readers as the grave tone is often interspersed by the inescapable comic bent of his mind.
The penal scheme that Dante sketches up –where each sinner is subjected to a punishment that is either synonymous or an antithesis of his or her sin- is not only didactic but also provides the much needed comic relief to the readers.  Considering one such ‘Divine Retribution’ in Circle IV of Inferno, where ‘Misers’ and ‘Spendthrifts’ are housed together to put up with each other in perpetuity, we are reminded of a similar entrapment in Henrik Ibsen’s ‘rebel’ doll, Nora Helmer.
Commenting on his work, Ibsen had always maintained that he was not writing a feminist drama, instead his aim was to make people aware of their ‘existence’ and ‘being’. Composed during the latter half of the nineteenth century, this modern tragedy seeks to inquire the individual position of a man and woman in marriage. Considered to be sacrosanct, Ibsen directly attacks the contemporary image of marriage, which would often strangle ‘life’ and ‘individuality’ under its unquestioned domain. The Helmers are shown to be a sanguine household, with Torvald Helmer, the idealist and educated protector to his ‘pet-wife’ and children. Arguably, it is more of Torvald’s sense of superiority as a man and the bread earner and Nora’s practiced submissiveness, than husbandly love, that he addresses his wife as “my lark twittering” or “the squirrel frisking”. Even before Nora herself realises, her entrapment is evident to the audience.  It resonates a hellish cage that she has mistaken for marriage. Yet, she is happy to be treated like a doll or a pet - which not only diminishes her physically but also demeans her place in Torvald’s life. Unlike Dante, whose narrative would often resort to a comical repose, Ibsen seizes any such chance. In fact, as the play advances, Nora is caught both body and soul.
In order to pay off a debt she secretly took some time back, to cure Torvald, she voluntarily takes up the veneer of an insouciant spendthrift, who “makes money fly” from her hands but functioning on the inside as a miser, squeezing and saving every penny. In the character of Nora therefore, we witness a living Inferno, nesting conflicting souls. In this dual play, the only pleasure she derives is from her illusion of a social security, she calls ‘marriage’- in which she has been trained (by a man, her father) to (pretend) be happy, to sacrifice, to praise and glorify her man, look attractive (physically) and hide every little storm inside her bosom. This pretence has so consumed Nora that she never wails or cries like the inhabitants of Dante’s hell. Her marriage, in a way, is like the Lethe, the mythical river of forgetfulness. Using trivial yet deliberate symbols, Ibsen brings to light Nora’s self-delusion and the fallacy of an apparently functional marriage. Her Christmas shopping list, for instance, includes everyone in the house, even the servants, but herself as she is content with the macaroons hidden in her coat pocket. She moves about with a childlike disregard when Torvald calls her a “Spillefugl” which in English translates to ‘a gambler’ or ‘a playbird’; exhibits the least bit of hurt pride when her blood is censured for her slippery hands, and fails to display the courage to even own up for those humble macaroons she devoured. This shows her lack of faith in her own illusion of happiness, which will perhaps last as long as her pretence does. Her constant humming is again a deliberate action, a forced refusal to hear her inner voice. On the other hand, like the heretic Farinata, she refuses to give up on her purpose, and acts unabashed in the face of the least human consideration by Torvald, craftily manipulating him to slip out some money every time.
The catastrophe finally hits when Krogstad, a low-level employee at the bank where Torvald works, puts Nora in an impasse to either save her marriage or his job by influencing her husband not to fire him. It is thus revealed that Krogstad is the source of Nora’s secret debt (in acquiring which she forged the signature of her father) and also the keeper of her secret. The desperation shown by Nora thereby, to keep her secret from being revealed is that of a cornered animal - she is ready to play the “tricksy squirrel” and the “twittering lark” for the rest of her life - for Torvald to consider her plea. Sadly, it does not happen and the squirrel hops from one trick to another, trying everything in her kitty to save her nest. But was it her nest at all, is the question that Ibsen asks the audience
Ironically, this storm inside Nora hardly touches her husband, who marches in and out with a peremptory indifference throughout the play - never really emerging as a loving husband. Instead, is a much defined product of a patriarchal society; a man who is aware (believer) of the limitations of a woman in a marriage and takes all the liberties to manhandle her. Unfortunately (for Nora, the doll) when the truth comes out, Torvald fails to see her sacrifice and most essentially her selfless love for him. Like Dante, he plays the ‘Divine’ and disowns her as his wife, simply refusing to see anything beyond his own ideology and reputation. The sheer sham of his ideology comes out naked when he revises his penal scheme and agrees to allow Nora in his house for the sake of society and the upbringing of his children.  This ruthless savagery, ultimately kills the ‘Doll’ and breathes life in Nora the woman, for the first time. Having done with her pretence, not only the audience, but she also sees herself in a new light. She could detest, deny and openly challenge Torvald’s authority over her. The painful dual play of conflicting identities in a single body gets over, and the individual comes out purged, ready to seek her Paradise.
From the structure of Inferno, it was quite clearly impressed upon the readers that the tortured souls led a life on their own volition, even in sinning, before their death, an opportunity never proffered upon Nora by Ibsen, or arguably never accepted by Nora herself. She too, like Torvald, comes across as a pretty tough product of her society and is definitely guilty of ignoring her inner voice. More than herself she invests her faith and dedication towards her apocryphal marriage. In comparison, some of the burning souls in Dante’s hell, own stronger individual voice than Nora, like Capanious in Canto XIV, who even amidst the brutal torment, retains the voice of a heretic. Yet, this tragic flaw in Nora makes her more human and her evolution from a ‘Doll’ to ‘Being’ look natural.
Talking of tragic flaw, one is naturally reminded of two more heroes in European literature – who were initially crippled by hamartia, but became immortal in overcoming them. Detached by time, the Greek hero, Achilles and the prince of Denmark, Hamlet, join hands in comparison - one delays action and another delays to act.
While tracing their path, in both the pieces, a number of congeneric phenomena brings them closer.  Structurally, a connate struggle can be observed within and without; a conflict that swells within Achilles to either protect his hurt pride or his countrymen, is akin to the battle between the Achaeans and the Trojans just as Hamlet’s “distracted globe” is reminiscent of the turmoil inside his mind and Denmark. This structure enables both Homer and Shakespeare, to breathe in more human virtues in Achilles and Hamlet, than simply showcasing them as a ‘Hero’, preparing the reader and the audience, to see them fall, falter and finally rise above their inherent tragic flaws.
Though Homer in Iliad, narrates the Trojan War in great detail, documenting every element, human and divine, their valour, triumph and loss, yet it is primarily a study on the wrath of Achilles and its effects on the war. In the exordium, Homer is in all praise for him. A true statesman, he feels the pain of his countrymen and does not hesitate to supersede the hierarchy of Agamemnon, to find out the real cause of plague upon Greece. For the reader, this strong sense of social order immediately makes him admirable. Paradoxically, this same sense of social order is later overpowered by hurt pride and honour, as he indifferently watches the killing of Greek soldiers in Trojan hands.  In the first wrath cycle of Achilles, Homer gives the readers enough reason to sympathise with him. Agamemnon’s decision to take Briseis, Achilles’ war prize, is an affront to his honour and a public show of disrespect by the Achaean leader. This petty treatment of Achilles turns him hostile. Fuming with hurt pride, he prays to his mother, Thetis, the sea-goddess, to influence Zeus to ensure a Trojan victory over Achaeans. His immediate motive is fulfilled as the Trojans, bolstered by the news of Achilles’ withdrawal begins to look threatening. The Trojan hero, Hector, manages to wound the Achaean confidence, making Agamemnon realise his fault. Consequently, in a desperate attempt to win Achilles back, he returns Briseis to him, along with many other gifts shedding his vanity.  At this juncture of the epic, when the reader would have expected the Hero’s comeback, he falls from grace. Blinded by hubris, his better judgement is handicapped. The chivalry and honour, which he aptly wore in the beginning, begins to disintegrate. Arrested by his own vanity, the almost invincible Achilles crumbles into an ordinary man thereby adding many more years of futile war to the fate of all. Though he maintains an apparent detachment from the war, yet he keeps an observant eye on it – often split between his concerns for his comrades-at-arms and a self-imposed incapacity to help them. The sheer genius of the epic comes alive as the two battles become synonymous.
If wrath was what pulled Achilles down, Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, was caught in a duel of dilemma. A scholarly and soulful youth, Hamlet turns out to be a tremendous misfit as the hero of a revenge play, mostly suffering within instead of inflicting much upon others. His affections are split even when he is not aware of his father’s murder, as he sarcastically equates his father’s funeral to his mother’s wedding. The climax is reached with the ghostly visitation of King Hamlet, whose cry for revenge ruthlessly inflicts the sensitive youth into a “distracted globe”. He swears revenge on Claudius but remains hesitant within regarding the ghost’s honesty at first and then arrested by his moral. His chief concern was to find a way to convert the ghost’s injunction into action without being stained by the corruption of Denmark. This also explains his refuge under the mask of madness, which however, does not efficiently steer the action towards a resolution.  When on the one hand Hamlet’s dilemma lengthens the play, on the other hand, it furnishes a splendid insight into his psyche. He almost steps out of the pages of the manuscript voicing his dilemma to the audience: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” One cannot help but feel the chasm in his mind and cry with him. Being a moral man he would have remained ever hesitant in killing Claudius, had Laertes not revealed that the sword for the duel was deliberately poisoned by his uncle.
The role of women and Fate in the complex and pathetic journey of these men towards their end is again an element of comparison. Helen and her caprice started the feud between the Greeks and Trojans, symbolically shown in the beginning of Iliad – when she weaves a tapestry depicting the war. The role of stretching the war, however, could be conferred upon another woman, Briseis, the war prize of Achilles. Such women were more of a trophy than a woman to these brave men; a difficult connotation of credit for the modern reader to perceive. The difficulty only increases for the reader when Agamemnon and Achilles selfishly fight over these human symbols of their glory and ignores the bigger picture. Though she is the cause, Briseis is merely an instrument, invested with no scope of choice at all; Gertrude, the queen of Denmark, on the other hand, had a bosom as foul as the air of Denmark. Aptly attacked by her son, “Frailty thy name is a woman”, she is the epitome of weak sexuality who surrenders to Claudius and becomes his instrument to usurp the throne of Denmark. She never qualifies as the mother to her bereaved son, instead is the source of his troubled mind. Unlike Homer’s Briseis, Shakespeare allows some individuality to Gertrude but eventually frames her as nothing but a trophy queen, who came along with the throne. Fate for Homer in Iliad is an omnipresent entity, which even the somewhat anthropomorphic gods cannot deny. Like a perennial cloud hovering above, both the Achaeans and Trojans can see what lies in the end and yet the eternal human struggle to evade it goes on beneath. Homer has used Achilles in a very instrumental way in this context. If the first cycle of Achilles’ wrath delays fate, the second cycle is the harbinger of it; thus making his wrath a determining factor for destiny to prevail. It is not only the fate of the war but also his own (death) that he knowingly embraces, for avenging the killing of his dear friend Patroklos – emerging back as a hero again. Homer’s acceptance of fate thus, is more direct and unquestioned than Shakespeare in his Danish tragedy, where fate takes a backseat and individual free will prevails. King Hamlet’s ghost and his behest can be taken as the voice of fate, which overturns the sanity of Hamlet’s mind. His moral and education as a pious Christian oppose the cry of fate, caging his free will as he vacillates awkwardly between the two. Unlike, Achilles, Shakespeare allows Hamlet the freedom of ignoring or even to that extent determine the fate; by acting according to the ghost’s command and face the consequence or resort to inaction and save his conscience. Marching against his own soul, Hamlet ratcheted up the ladder to become a hero while avenging the “murder most foul” of his father. What remained of him is the cry of a modern tragic hero against the inescapable Fate, while not knowing whom to blame for it.

A comparative plane, where immortal characters like these meet and interact, thus abounds in English literature. Authors too seem to come down to the same level and see their creations. Immortal but somewhat forgotten works often get a new lease of life and their acceptance to a generation is facilitated.

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