The Problem of Social Unawareness –
Examples of Socially Aware Characters in Walsh and A Doll’s House
October 9, 2001
English 103 – Rick Coe, Kerry
While the plays Walsh by Sharon Pollock and A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen take place in apparently opposite social settings – the former in the sometimes wild and savage environs of a frontier trading post of early Canada, and the latter in the “refined” world of European bourgeois respectability of the late 1800’s – they both act as problem plays when they illustrate aspects of the problem of acquiring individual human understanding. Although both plays shape this theme through many examples of characters who have obvious flaws in their human understanding, the plays also offer examples of characters who have generally successful social awarenesses. It is these “successful” characters that attempt to build a solution to the problem of acquiring human understanding.
Much might be gained from examining the traits of the major characters, but in this discussion it is the supporting characters of both plays that lead to greater insights into the theme of acquiring individual human understanding. It is beneficial to observe the social awareness displayed by the characters Christine in A Doll’s House and Louis in Walsh, and the manner in which these characters show their knowledge of the world. In Walsh, Louis’ understanding of the world is effectively a bridge between two cultures which gives him a fuller-encompassing world view. But his cross-cultural background is not what gives him his entire worldly perspective – he is imbued with an intense practical and spiritual knowledge of the world’s local social concerns, and this is evident in the way he attempts to teach Clarence about the art of “knowing something”:
You wanna learn, you study inside here. . . He taps his head. . . .and here. . . He taps his chest. . . .and how it is wit’ you and me. . . He indicates the two of them. . . .and how it is wit’ you and all. . . . He indicates the surroundings. Travel ‘round da Medicine Wheel. Den you know somethin’. (30)
While Pollock may be saying through Louis that world knowledge should come from a profound understanding of the self, of others, and of nature, through Christine’s practical character Ibsen also gives evidence to suggest that deeper understandings of the world are possible, and that essentially, the world is composed of “trials and tribulations” that must be overcome for a person to become knowledgeable and practical. As Christine confides to Krogstad, “I have learnt to act prudently. Life, and hard, bitter necessity have taught me that.” (50)
In contrast with Louis, Christine’s success in the realm of human understanding does not originate from her spirituality, but rather from a great deal of experience in social situations. Her seasoned social ability is revealed through her discussions with Nora and her carefully planned actions which shape the outcomes of the play – namely her decision to dedicate her life to Krogstad and her decision to lead Nora into reaching an “understanding” with Torvald – “This unhappy secret must be disclosed; they must have a complete understanding between them, which is impossible with all this concealment and falsehood going on.” (52)
Thus, unlike Louis who gained his social aptitude through spiritual and cultural immersion, Christine gains her social awareness through an independent lifestyle forced through the necessity of tough decision-making. Ms. Linde’s hat and cloak, which are representative of her life outside the “doll’s house” – objects that she readies when she is in preparation to leave the house – are as much evidence of her practicality and worldliness as Louis’ appreciative attitude towards food, which shows that his understandings range from a broader spiritual perception of the world (as earlier mentioned) to a basic sense of self and the necessity of enjoying food to survive culturally and physically:
“All three of them begin to eat. Louis eats with relish; McCutcheon eats simply; Clarence sloshes his bowl around peering into it with apprehension. He is reassured by Louis’ appreciation of the content.” (49)
Pollock and Ibsen chose to depict supporting characters having great practical knowledge of their respective social environments, allowing these characters to serve as examples for many of the individuals in their intended dramatic audiences. This objective still rings true today, as whether one gains his or her social awareness through spiritual immersion or through practical worldly experience, it is essential that social awareness be achieved. In the early 21st century, it is vitally important that Canadians take on a practical understanding of the world, following the examples of Christine and Louis, an importance which is further magnified by our colorful mosaic-like multicultural society which allows us a greater opportunity to live lives that transcend traditional and imagined boundaries of culture and faith.
Pollock, Sharon. Walsh. Revised edition. Burnaby, BC: Talonbooks, 1998.
Ibsen, Henrik. Four Great Plays by Henrik Ibsen. Bantam Classic edition. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1981.
This work Copyright 2001 by Geoff Peters, Simon Fraser University.