This paper compares and connects three works belonging to two different genres: two dramas and one poem. The paper attempts to find a common element among these works of art belonging to different genres: Hamlet by Shakespeare, A Doll’s House by Ibsen and The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. I have chosen conflict as the connecting link that binds the three works together.
This paper is based on the assumption that all literary works are connected by a common element. Three works belonging to three different workers from three different eras have been taken up for study: one is Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the medieval age, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House from 1879 and Frost’s A Road Not Taken. The study attempts to connect the three works by finding a similarity of conflict among them.
In all the three works we have observed that a tension, in varying degrees, runs throughout. In a work of art, conflict can happen when the protagonist finds himself fighting for his or her principles and set of beliefs. His conflict can be in the form of a father or a brother or mother who wishes the protagonist to toe their line. Conflict can arise when
contemporary living…….put obstacles in the way of free and unfettered self-realization: the hypocrisies of commerce, the dead hand of convention, the compulsion to do the done thing, the fear of what people will think, the bigotries of institutionalized religion, and all those related factors which, under the guise of duty or loyalty or moral obligation, stunt the personality, inhibit a natural development in the individual, and shut him off from genuine living (James Walter Mcfarlane, 1969).
Nora’s and Hamlet’s conflicts are of the subtle kind. Other characters in the dramas are unaware of their suffering. In Act I Scene II the newly wed king asks Hamlet, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?”. His selfishness and cunning prevents him from feeling the pain of a son who has seen his mother marry the brother of his father who died a couple of months ago and was not done with mourning. Similarly, Nora’s husband Helmer thinks of himself as the provider of the family and assumes that giving money can keep Nora happy. He never bothers to understand his wife, feel for her and love her. His idea of love is based on the convention that man is the provider and protector of the family. He doesn’t worry about the emotions of other family members. With supreme authority he rules without ever caring to ask Nora what she likes. Immediately after the tarantella he whisks Nora away from the party so as not to “spoil the effect” (Act three, 69) of a very good dance. What bothered him more than Nora’s satisfaction was his willingness to show off. He wanted Nora to leave the party so that “—the beautiful vision vanished” (Act three, 70).
In Nora’s case even the audience is led to believe that she is happy (Act One, 11). She needs a Mrs. Linde to articulate her troubles. When Krogstad agrees to call back the letter he sent to Helmer Mrs. Linde prevents him, “No, Nils, don’t ask fort it back” (Act three, 68). For “it’s quite incredible the things I’ve witnessed in this house in the last twenty-four hours” (Act three, 68).
When Nora’s so called transgression is discovered her husband Helmer shows a fit of temper that makes her decide to take action—a drastic action that requires her to leave home, her children and family: “I must take steps to educate myself. …….That’s why I’m leaving you” (Act three, 83).
Frost’s is a problem of choice and is more explicit. His choice is between black and white, sin and holiness, morality and immorality, chastity and impurity, between innocence and guilt. Likewise Nora goes through a similar dilemma. The conflict in this drama is between tradition and novelty, society and the individual, between law and a woman’s pure love. The only difference is that she is not aware of the conflict in the beginning. She thinks herself ‘gay’. She is happy doing her duties to her husband, her family and her children. She is happy in her straitjacketed role of a compassionate wife, caring mother and a sacrificing woman. In her eagerness to keep her family happy she has to sacrifice her individual needs and happiness. She is left with nothing for herself after fulfilling all the needs of her husband and her children. But she denies herself the simple pleasures of life. She buys Christmas gifts for everyone in the family but does not buy anything for herself: “ Puh, I don’t really want anything” (Act One, 5). Actually nothing is left for herself after meeting all the demands of the family members.
Out of love for father and duty to husband she borrows money from a moneylender to save her sick husband. As a security she was required to have the bond signed by her father as a guarantor. To relieve her father of the trouble as he himself was sick she forges her father’s signature, which she wrongly dated after her father’s death. In the eyes of the law, and Helmer too, this was a heinous crime. But when considered from a humane point of view the motive or intention was anything but criminal. She did this out of love for a father and duty towards a husband. She asks, “Isn’t a daughter entitled to try and save her father from worry and anxiety on his deathbed? Isn’t a wife entitled to save her husband’s life?” (Act one).
But Helmer, like the law is blind to the sublimity of the motive. His blindness and indifference forces Nora to take a path that is quite unconventional— a path that Nora is not aware of, a path totally unknown to her or to the society. Robert Frost’s the Road not Taken is similar to the previous works of art discussed above in the sense that the protagonist takes a path “no step had trodden black” (The Road Not Taken, line number 12). He walks into terra incognita. In the beginning he too, like Nora and Hamlet, looks on, waiting “long I stood /
And looked down one as far as I could” (The Road Not taken, lines 3 and 4). Mind filled with confusion and fear, the protagonist hopes to come back and start over from the beginning. But he knows that is not possible because “way leads on to way” (The Road Not Taken, line number 14). The decision he makes today will affect the future course of action.
From the beginning to the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, intellectual or internal conflict pervades the drama. Hamlet cannot accept that his mother loses no time to marry her dead husband’s brother. He had not done with mourning that his mother tied the wedlock. In act i scene ii, the King asks the courtiers to return to everyday tasks “With mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage”. For a son, though, marriage between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law is acceptable to society; Hamlet finds the act a moral disgrace. Despair runs so deep that he is driven to the point of suicide but cannot commit suicide because: “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew ! / Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!” (Act I Scene II).
His conflict is further aggravated when he learns from the Ghost that his uncle killed his father. But a learned man as Hamlet cannot take the Ghost’s witness as conclusive evidence. He has to find tangible evidence to indict his uncle. To do this he has a drama called Mousetrap enacted where a king is killed by his brother by pouring poison through his ear when the king was sleeping. Hamlet observes the reaction of his uncle and is convinced that his father was killed in a similar manner. But then the only evidence that Hamlet can gather is the king’s reaction to the play. And human behavior cannot be taken as conclusive evidence to indict someone. So his conflict remains. He cannot act. His resolve to take revenge is blunted. To remind him of his duties the Ghost appears again in act III scene IV: “Do not forget: this visitation is to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
All the three works discussed here is bound together by a similar internal conflict. The protagonist is confused to the point of inaction. Hamlet acts on a sudden impulse. Instead of being proactive he waits for Ophelia’s brother Laertes to provoke him. He challenges Laertes to a duel little knowing that his uncle has already incited Laertes against him. In the scuffle of the fight Hamlet happens to pick up the poison dipped sword and mortally wounds Laertes with it. Meanwhile the queen drinks the poisoned drink that the king kept for Hamlet. Having seen his mother dead and learning finally of the king’s conspiracy Hamlet kills his uncle. The protagonist meets such a violent death because of his inaction and his inability to act or his failure to find conclusive evidence of his uncle’s guilt.
Nora too puts off her day of reckoning by thirty-one hours (Act two, 63) when the tarantella will be over. She implores Helmer not to check the post box where Krogstad’s letter informing of Nora’s guilt lay: “You mustn’t think about anything else but me until after tomorrow … mustn’t open any letters …. mustn’t touch the letter-box” (Act two, 61).
Frost’s protagonist takes a decision because he too has no other option. Given the chance they all would have waited for the dust to settle. No one was willing to leave his or her comfort zone. They go through an ordeal, an ordeal by fire. Like Hamlet and Nora here too the end is not happy: “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence:” (The Road Not Taken, line numbers 16 and 17). We can sense his sadness in the second line of the poem too where he is “sorry” because he “could not travel both”.
As in the other two works the speaker in Frost’s poem is confused as to what course of action he should take. Like the other two he is somewhat afraid, afraid of the unknown. His predicament is like that of a man who is the custodian of a large sum of public money and has a to pay off a debt to preserve his reputation and social standing. Should he use a part of the money to pay off the debt? He can always replace whatever he has used from the amount in his custody without anybody knowing. What if he is not able to replenish in time what he has used to service his own debt?
Frost’s problem is like that of the sister who lets her younger brother to drink a little from the milk she is supposed to sell. But she cannot tell her customer that she let her brother to drink some of it. To hide the fact she adds some water to the milk (Munshi Premchand). Like Nora’s we can call it a “sublime crime” (Schiller). The girl commits this crime out of love for her brother. But in the eyes of the law and society it is a crime.
The characters in all three works suffer because the law does not condone a crime because the motive or intent is bona fide. This is the single most striking feature that binds all three works together. When seen through the eyes of Hamlet we cannot but agree that a ghost’s witness cannot be taken as conclusive. Looking through Nora how can we not take a drastic step to save a near and dear one? Can we wait to see our loved one go thirsty when we can quench the thirst?
This depth of looking at human nature has made the above-mentioned works universal and given them a greatness that transcends time. Outward suffering is nothing when compared to internal and moral dilemmas that we face in our everyday lives. These works reinforce that heroism does not require extraordinarily dangerous situations. A simple act of omission or commission can offer us a chance to prove our mettle, to prove that we have come of age, that we have become adults no longer needing the protective or domineering attention of a father or a mother.
Ibsen Plays, A Doll’s House, ISBN 0195610970, translated and edited by James Walter Mcfarlane.
Shakespeare, Volume 3, The Tragedies, ISBN 1-85926-004-7.
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.
Munshi Premchand (1880-1936), writer and novelist from India.