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According to Soren Kierkegaard, there are three categorizations of people based on their motive and actions: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. In The Seducer’s Diary, Kierkegaard presents the character of Johannes as a typical aesthete who centers his life on the single-minded pursuit of personal pleasure. The story follows his romantic pursuit of Cordelia, the latest in a long list of young women he has conquered and abandoned. In contrast, Henrik Ibsen’s character of Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House seems to be Johannes’ opposite in his motivations, in his approach to relationships with women, and in what he thinks the purpose of such relationships is. Whereas Johannes is obsessed with the gratification of his personal desires at the expense of society, Torvald derives gratification from conforming to societal standards to the greatest extent possible, even at the expense of personal relationships.
Torvald’s ethical urge to live up to society’s standards prompts his concern for his reputation and his desire for the admiration of others, and contributes to his belief that Nora should serve to promote his social standing. Torvald’s extreme sensitivity to others’ perceptions of him can be seen as his motivation for the treatment of those around him. For example, Torvald admits that Krogstad’s tainted past is not a serious issue, and that his hard work is a boon to the bank, but desires to fire the man because of personal vanity. It is the possibility of Torvald’s previous association with Krogstad being revealed that makes the man’s employment “unbearable” and “excruciating” for Torvald, as Torvald now views as his former friend as beneath him. Torvald clearly places his colleagues’ perception of him above what it seems should be more important to a future manager: a diligent labor force that will benefit the bank. Torvald refuses to even acknowledge Nora’s arguments on Krogstad’s behalf, indignantly saying, “What if it was rumored around now that the new bank manager was vetoed by his wife?” and then concluding, “We’ll put a stop to this for good,” seeming to refer to both the issue of Krogstad’s employment and Nora’s lack of support for his decisions. In doing so, Torvald reprimands Nora’s impertinence in questioning him, and demonstrates his assuredness in his own judgment and his doubt in Nora’s, thereby cementing his status as the ultimate decision-maker in the household. Obviously, there is no hesitation on Torvald’s part to deprive a man of employment and belittle his wife’s opinions. Developed for the purposes of display, Nora’s beauty is viewed by her husband as her most significant attribute. In fact, through his small rules and insistences, it can be seen that he values his wife’s potential to make a captivating exhibition and boost his status in the eyes of others more than the degree of her actual enjoyment in participating in such an act. Macaroons, for example, are “forbidden” an act of maintenance because they will “ruin [Nora’s] teeth,” though she loves them. Parties Nora performs at must be exited early as to not “spoil the effect” of her performance and satisfy Torvald’s physical needs, though Nora begs to stay longer.
In these acts, Torvald takes on an air of maintaining and developing an investment in a very precise, calculated manner. After watching Nora dance the tarantella, Torvald critiques her performance as “too naturalistic,” showing that he requires even the recreational activities in his life to strictly follow the guidelines of propriety. Torvald seems to value his project for its “overwhelming success” as evidenced by “a tumultuous hand,” more than the teaching process, even questioning if their rehearsals were time “well-spent.” Interactions between Nora and Torvald are characterized by his attempts to refine her abilities as a prestige symbol. Therefore, it can be seen that Torvald is willing to sacrifice much and devote much energy to maintaining and advancing his reputation, which he feels relies on his close adherence to ethical standards society sets for him.
The pleasure Johannes obtains is intellectually derived from observing the psychological effects of his calculated emotional manipulation of young women. In his seductions, Johannes exhibits the aesthetic quality of flouting societal norms for the sake of a sensually fulfilling experience. His devotion to seeking and mastering beauty consumes his entire identity. He states, “I ascertain how [love] has taken shape in her, and I fashion myself in its likeness,” showing his personality to be fluid and to exist precisely to facilitate his conquests. Enjoying the practice of art on life, Johannes’ engineering of emotional, physical, and psychological “absolute surrender” from a woman are obviously outside what is condoned by the social order. Johannes has no intention of making any commitment to the women and considers “[receding] from [a girl’s being] is a masterpiece” because he alters their lives forever. This additionally allows him to ascertain the emotional authenticity of surrender. Johannes is thus honest with himself about his purely selfish aesthetic intentions, in contrast to Torvald, who forces or imagines the compliance of others when it is not forthcoming, as in the case of Krogstad’s dismissal. Johannes is able to do this because he focuses less on outward appearance, which only titillates him briefly in the beginning of an affair, and more on controlling and molding the time he spends with Cordelia, paying special attention to the emotions his words and actions prompt in her. He finds Cordelia attractive for her purity and the lack of “interestingness” due to living a paradoxically sheltered life in which she is “granted freedom but…no opportunities [are] offered to her.” With a woman as full of unfulfilled potential such as her, Johannes enjoys the process in which he makes her “interesting” by imprinting himself on her psyche, bringing about her sexual awakening, and then abandoning her once he has become entrenched as part of her identity. Johannes states that “in art, the most interesting always reflects the artist,” and succeeds in this by remaining a powerful part of Cordelia’s life. When “the memory [of Johannes] awakens in her soul, she forgets the fault and the guilt, she remembers the beautiful moments.” This ultimately marks the triumph of Johannes’ skill a seducer, artist, and aesthete over Torvald’s treatment of Nora in accordance to bourgeois standards and his own ego, because after both men betray the women they love, Cordelia still longs for Johannes because the significance of their time together is the difference between her relationship and Nora’s.
Johannes has a greater sense of self awareness than Torvald in that he recognizes the distinction between the possible paths his life could take, and devotes himself entirely to the aesthetic. He even mocks society’s stance, saying he himself is above reproach because he has “never…given a girl a promise of marriage” out of his “respect for the ethical.” Johannes ridicules the conventions that Torvald so painstakingly follows as hollow. The importance society places on vows and responsibility in a relationship, is rendered useless and unnecessary in obtaining intimacy with a young woman if one is skillful enough to appeal to her emotionally. Though the aesthetic person’s ultimate goal is to escape the boring and create interesting situations (and in Johannes’ case, interesting people), Johannes is not above acting boring as yet another manifestation of his emotional manipulation. Paradoxically to derives aesthetic pleasure, Johannes must pretend to be ethical when he sets up Edvard and Cordelia’s courtship. Johannes employs dissimulative behavior to render subtle impressions in carrying on an exceedingly mundane conversation on agriculture and bookbinding with Cordelia’s aunt to “produce the most unpleasant contrast to Edvard’s uncertainty.” Johannes’ action is not ethical in that it is an essential step in his seduction of Cordelia- her exposure to men weaker than Johannes, therefore rendering Johannes more desirable. Like his aesthetic engagements, Johannes’ discussions, though having the appearance of conventionality to the point of dreariness, they actually mocks the ethical as unimaginative. He feigns enthusiasm butter as the “glorious result of nature and art” to highlight the exalting of ordinary ideas by ethicists. Johannes assumes this ethical role so well however, it seems that Cordelia’s aunt is “bewitched.” Johannes is an extreme aesthete, but is not so immersed in his chosen viewpoint that he cannot understand how society expects him to act, and to assume this role when his art requires.
Torvald, in turn, also is capable of displaying aesthetic qualities, both in line with what society expects of him and against it. Torvald’s method of examination of Nora’s beauty involves an interior fantasy that is reminiscent of Johannes’ aesthetic reflections. Torvald imagines he is seeing Nora for almost the first time by, “[speaking] so little to [her], [keeping] away from [her], and only [sending] a stolen glance in [her] direction now and then” as part he acts his own fantasy they are recently acquainted and “no one suspects there is anything between [them].” In doing so he can supposedly freshly appreciate Nora’s beauty each time and feel the excitement and mystery of a blossoming relationship. That Nora derives satisfaction from this examination, is a given for him, but a delusion in reality. Torvald’s rejoinder of, “You won’t? Am I not your husband?” to her refusal of his romantic advances marks him as the type of seducer Johannes disdains to be. Johannes has similar tactics to keep young ladies enticed by a “clandestine manner,” saying “only when no alien suspects our love, only then does it have meaning.” Therefore, Torvald wrongly imagines Nora is in a state of complete compliance, only to be met with refusal, while Johannes manipulates those he pursues to actually achieve such a state. Johannes, pursues this same excitement of mystery and conquest, but it in its actual form, not an imagined one. Being an aesthetic constitutes in part, of having no regard for responsibilities beyond those required to gratify oneself. Torvald certainly abandons his conventional responsibilities as a husband when Nora’s forgery is discovered. In stating, “When I’m gone from this world, you’ll be free,” Nora may be talking about exiting Torvald’s life or even committing suicide. However, Torvald does not assume his usual socially acceptable role a protector and father-like figure to his wife in response, but brusquely makes light of the statement. Torvald asks Nora, “what good [your absence] would ever do to me?” implying the only significance of Nora’s wellbeing to Torvald is how it impacts him (Ibsen 106). While the well-being of a man was considered of greater importance than the wellbeing of a woman during this time period, Torvald is excessive in his selfishness. He is no longer acting on a purely ethical impulse as this question would most likely not have reflected well on Torvald’s character had he posed it in the public. Even in private conversations, Torvald usually holds himself to patronizing declarations of care towards his wife, previously proclaiming,” I’ve wished you were in some terrible danger, just so I could stake my life and soul and everything, for your sake” (104). Ironically, now that Torvald finds himself in this position, he does not act in the socially acceptable and chivalrous way he previously promised. Much less than risking his soul for Nora’s sake, Torvald can’t even bring himself to risk his reputation. The fact that such a grand sentiment was expressed in private shows that Torvald’s ethical behavior is not just reserved for settings with onlookers. It confirms Torvald’s break with acceptable behavior in favor of an exclusive concern for his own needs is as extreme as that of any devotee of aestheticism.
Though Torvald is inclined to base his actions on ethical principals, and Johannes on the pursuit of aesthetic rewards, neither fit exactly in these categories. Both can dip into the opposite category, Torvald when he feels threatened and Johannes when it is necessary for his ultimate quest pleasure. Thus, the different methods of living outlined by Kierkegaard are not so universal as to encompass and perfectly describe every aspect and tendency of every character. Though Ibsen was a supporter of Kierkegaard’s work, it is uncertain if Ibsen specifically had in mind the philosophical definition of the ethical while creating the character of Torvald. However, keeping these groupings in mind while examining the interaction of these characters with their environment is useful in understanding their motivations.
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