‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘The Merchant’s Tale’: Hidden Truths Will Always Be Revealed

In ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘The Merchant’s Tale,’ secrets drive the plot forward, and their reveal occurs at the climax of each respective work. A hidden truth can be interpreted as a known secret that it kept secret deliberately, which makes the reader question why, and for whose benefit. When discussing truth and secrecy in these two texts one must also debate the impact of the revelations of such information, and their impact on the narrative. When looking at these texts it is fair to say that the truth is always revealed.

In Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House,’ the reveal of May’s adultery and Nora’s secret loan form the basis of the climax of each text. In this respect, one can argue that the truth is always revealed, as the deception of the female protagonists is clearly unmasked, unfortunately for them. For Nora, the reveal that it was she who “saved Torvald’s life” is a surprise to Mrs Linde as well as the audience, who are quickly made aware that such an act was illegal in 1879. In the Victorian era, women and men were expected to operate in separate spheres, the woman being primarily concerned with the home, and the husband dealing with finance and business. Nora’s exits her own sphere by taking out the loan, and signing “papa’s name there” illegally. This emphasises the seriousness of the loan, and the need for it to remain secret, especially as Nora notes that Helmer would not want to “owe” anything to her. However, through the intervention of Krogstad and his “letter” Helmer learns of the loan, despite Nora’s protests against Krogstad’s plans. This demonstrates that the truth will always be revealed. May’s clandestine affair with Damyan is exposed when Januarie’s “sighte” is restored by Pluto. Although Nora kept her secret for the good and health of her husband, May’s secrecy appears selfish as she wishes to indulge in sexual pleasure. Perhaps one can sympathise with her from this perspective after her unpleasant wedding night with Januarie. Despite their different motivations, the reveal of the transgressions of Nora and May demonstrate that hidden truths are always revealed.

One must also assess the fallouts of the revelations within both texts to ascertain the writers’ approach to truth and secrecy. When looking at May, one could debate whether her deception is even revealed, as she manages to convince Januarie that what she did was to restore his sight. She notes that he has no “parfit sighte,” and that he who “misconcyveth, he misdemeth.” After Januarie’s revelation that he does genuinely care for her, perhaps he ignores her adultery, or is convinced that there is none. His act of stroking her “wombe” may demonstrate his acknowledgement of his illegitimate heir, or his obliviousness to her affair altogether. It was worse for a woman to have an affair, as her illegitimate child would not have the same family blood as her husband. When discussing the ending of the fabliau, it could be argued that truths are not always fully exposed, if we are to believe that May convinced Januarie that she was not unfaithful. From this perspective, it could be argued that writers note that the protagonists get their most desired outcome when the truth is revealed. If Januarie is acknowledging an illegitimate heir, May’s clandestine affair with Damyan may continue, effectively giving her what she wants. It should be noted that the greatest lies told in both texts come from women, which is perhaps inspired by the biblical figure of Eve and her eating of the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Eve too fulfills the same function in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ This emphasies the severity of their defeat, as women were seen to be “creatures of an organised tyranny of men,” as argued by Eleanor Marx. This view argues that women were subservient to men, implying that their deception carries greater ramifications as it was not expected of them to rebel against man. There is no debate as to whether Nora’s secret remains ambiguous, as it is detailed in Krogstad’s letter as “delicately” as possible. Nora too realises what she wants after her deception is revealed, perhaps implying that when truth is revealed, it is so for the better.

Helmer’s reaction to the IOU makes Nora realises that there are no “miracles,” and this prompts her to realise that she is more than Helmer’s “songbird.” Nora’s wish, that Helmer would be able to “bear the burden” for them both fails to materialise, making her truly understand the man she married, and their marriage. She notes that she has just had “fun” and that her and Helmer had never exchanged a “serious word on a serious subject.” Nora realises that she is “first and foremost a human being,” and that she must get “some” experience of the world. Michael Meyer notes that the play explores everybody’s need “to find out the kind of person he or she really is, and to strive to become that person.” Before becoming that person, Nora must discover who she is, and the revelation of truth about the IOU prompts her to see her unrealized truth. This truth cannot be classed as one that is hidden purpose, but one that develops and is realised towards the end of act three. This can be likened to Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Awakening Consciousness’ in which a woman struggles to break free of her husband’s grasp while gazing out of the window. It is conceivable to think that like Nora, this figure realises her own entrapment and wishes to break free. Nora only realises this with the revealing of her secret, leading the reader to believe that revelations of truth benefit those who are harbouring it. Nora gains her chance to discover who she is, through the revelation of her deception.

It is ironic that both females were so reluctant to give up their secrets despite the positive impact that it had, or could possibly have, on their lives. The revealing of their secrets allows the women to get what they want, although it is not they who give their secrets away. If it were their choice, hidden truths would have remained unrevealed, as it is external forces that forced their hands. Krogstad notes that he has the “means” to make Nora reveal her secrets, and does so despite her protests. Pluto’s gifting of Januarie’s “sighte” also reveals May’s adultery. It is interesting to note that although women hold these secrets over their husbands, which grant them a degree of power, it is other men that undo them and cause their downfall. Perhaps this can be linked to the words of Mary Wollstonecraft, who notes that women only want “power over themselves.” May and Nora lack that power as their deception is unveiled by male external forces that dominate them. From a feminist perspective, it could be argued that men are oppressing women, and not allowing them to make decisions for themselves. When discussing truth and secrecy, perhaps the writers of these novels are more negative towards women who harbour secrets, and require a man to do the moral, just thing of unveiling the truth. This demonstrates that men, perhaps, are the morally superior figures in these stories, as the women are portrayed as liars. Martin Steven’s agrees noting that Chaucer’s tale shows the “deceitfulness of women.” This could link in particular, to Chaucer’s own view of marriage. Chaucer’s sister in law was the wife of wealthy knight John of Gaunt, and it was rumoured that Chaucer’s wife was having an affair with Gaunt. Perhaps Chaucer’s own unhappy marriage inspired the character of May, the deceitful, adulterous wife.

Although these truths seemingly have a positive outcome, in both texts revelations of love and passion have the opposite affect. Chaucer’s fabliau is a satire of courtly love, an idea that Chaucer understood well after his translating of the French Romantic text of ‘The Romance of the Rose.’ Instead of completing a daring act of love, Damyan instead writes a note using a pen he “borwe” and secretly hands it to May. The fact that he had to borrow the pen emphasises how unequipped he is for the role of courtly lover. David L Shores notes that this acts as a “condemnation of courtly love convention,” arguing that Damyan displays no conventional aspects of the courtly lover. Damyan’s confession, that he is possessed with “Venus fyr” ultimately paves the way for the rest of the tale, and the birth of May’s secret. In this respect again, hidden truths appear always to be revealed, as can be seen in Damyan’s confession of love and the whole affair at the end of the tale. The difference here is that Damyan’s confession has a negative impact, most notably on the character of Januarie, who is being cuckolded.

Dr Rank too harbours his love and desire for Nora, and the revealing of this truth does not have a positive impact on his beloved. After declaring that he is ready to serve her, “body and soul,” Nora backs away declaring that it was “quite unnecessary.” This confession is a selfish one, as Rank has been harbouring this love for years. In this respect, again, hidden truths are always revealed, even if they are not well received. Despite this reveal, the details of Nora and Rank’s secret conversation in act three remain a secret, and act as a farewell between Nora and Rank, when she supplies him with the “light.” Such light could mean Nora herself and her spirit, which has sustained Rank for so long. In the case of Dr Rank, although some truths remain undeciphered, such as his conversation with Nora, his greatest secret is truly revealed.

Both Januarie and Helmer have an internal moral blindness to their own situations and failings. Januarie’s sexual prowess is revealed to be a fantasy by May, who claimed that his “laboureth” was not “worth a bene.” The façade of Januarie’s love making is revealed to the reader, and to May. Although this may not fall into the category of a hidden truth, as Januarie accepts it as truth and is oblivious to any other interpretation. Januarie is physically turned “blynd” by Pluto, and it is during this period that Januarie begins to realise his own failings. He notes that he is “jalos,” but that May should not take any notice. Januarie is humbled by the experience of being blind, and it appears that this is the only time that he can see clearly. It is ironic that during this time May is with the “lechour in the tree.” Throughout the poem the reader see’s the extravagant, virile image of the “Knyght” fall away, as he too acknowledges his own failings.

Unlike Janurie, Helmer displays this blindness throughout the play, and it does not falter. When Nora reveals her “duty to herself” Helmer combats this by arguing that she is firstly “a wife and mother.” Helmer shows no empathy and understanding towards her situation, much in contrast to Januarie and his wife. Helmer keeps denying and arguing with Nora, despite the audience’s agreement with her. When declaring that Helmer and her father have done a great “wrong” to her, Helmer notes that it was these two people hat loved her “most in the world.” Raymond Williams see’s the marriage of Helmer and Nora as “anti-romantic,” due to Helmer’s lack of empathy towards Nora and her situation. Although Nora reveals her true feelings to Helmer, following his learning of the IOU, he personally does not accept the truth, leaving one to question whether Nora’s truth is fully revealed. Or, like May’s adultery, one could argue that Helmer and Januarie’s understanding of the truth is somewhat ambiguous and may not be as clear cut as a fully understood revelation. It is at this point that Nora realizes she must leave, as Helmer does not understand her at all.    Nora’s deception, May’s adultery, Rank’s love and Januarie’s inadequacy are all examples of hidden and suppressed truths that have been revealed in these two texts. It is clear that in some of these examples, the truth has benefitted the characters that have been deceiving, like Nora, who realizes what she wants to achieve in her life. Januarie’s ambiguity at the end of ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ may also reveal that May has been allowed to continue her clandestine affair with Damyan. In these two texts, hidden truths are mostly revealed, albeit by external factors at time.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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