Monday, October 14, 2013

“The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism and Ibsen”: Establishing Credibility, Alienating Readers

Published by the Modern Language Association in their journal PMLA, “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism and Ibsen” presents the argument that Ibsen never meant for A Doll House to be about women’s rights and so it isn’t. The author’s purpose of this article is to present an alternate idea of the intended purpose of the play. To establish credibility, she uses multiple elements of the official style which results in the alienation of the reader.
According to the Modern Language Association, PMLA is distributed to “about 28,000 college and university teachers of English and foreign languages who belong to the association and to about 1,900 libraries throughout the world” (Modern Language Association). The journal is aimed at “scholars and teacher of language and literature” (Modern Language Association). Those in the fields of language and literature are the target audience of the journal, though as it is distributed to many libraries, scholars in several other fields would have access to it.
For this particular piece, those interested in women’s studies, theater studies, and literary studies would be interested because of the connection both the play and playwright have in the history of women’s rights. Because it is distributed directly to professors of language as well as to libraries, those who may see it range from student to expert. Experts in language may take interest in the article for a perspective they had not previously considered or for a new way to look at a text or to show students new ways to view a text. Experts in women’s studies may take interest in the article because it refutes a widely-held idea of A Doll House as a play about women’s rights. Experts in theatre studies may read the article to gain insight for creating their own production of the play. Because of the section in on tautology, experts in philosophy may be interested in this article as an example of how logic is used in literature. Students of these fields may find the article for these same reasons, but also as part of research to learn what others are saying and using those ideas to make their own contributions. Personally, I discovered this text when in the process of writing my own paper about the ideas in A Doll House as an undergrad student. Ultimately, I chose not to use the text because it was taking too long for me to get to the core of what the author was trying to say.
An excerpt from the first paragraph in the article received an average grade level of 18.4. Simply looking at this readability score, we can see the extent that the author alienates readers. Since the average American reads at about the 7th grade level, this article was obviously not designed for them. “Now, if this is so, the explanation can only be that the men, who already possess the rights women seek, are excluded from the female struggle, which is precisely, a struggle for equality with them (Templeton 31). One of many like it, this complex sentence only alienates the reader with all the modifiers: “Now, if this is so” are examples of sentenial adverb; “who already possess the rights women seek” is a relative clause; “which is, precisely” is a scesis onomaton (repetition of the same word/phrase to mean the same thing); “a struggle for equality with them” is an appositive. Complex sentences such as this add to the heightened readability grade level. Not only does it take a longer time to get to the point, the main idea is not as clear. 
 (Figure 1. Image of the original text)
The use of diction further alienates the reader. The author uses highly uncommon words and dropping other languages in when disputing an idea: “The a priori dismissal of women's rights as the subject of A Doll House is a gentlemanly backlash …the issue is decidedly vieux jeu, and its importance has been greatly exaggerated” (Templeton 29). Give me a minute while I go look up what both a priori and vieux jeu mean. Add on top of that her use of “tautology” –those without a background in philosophy or logic would not know what she was talking about. She does not take any time to explain what tautology is to a literary audience but has a two page section of her article, “The High Claims of Art and Tautology: “Beyond Feminism” to Men”, dedicated to its significance in relation to A Doll House (Templeton 31). Though she may be simply demonstrating her vast array of knowledge, readers of the PMLA are from all over the world. Because many of those who would come into contact with this article are assumed to be college educated, and likely in the literary field, the author feels comfortable using a variety of language. Colleges in America require a specific number of General Education credits so students receive a well-rounded education, allowing them access to knowledge from literary studies to logic. Unfortunately, the author assumes that all education systems are the same when they aren’t. Those studying English in London, for example, are going to have taken lessons strictly related to English. Not everyone in America will even have had a logic course. The word “tautology” is an introductory level logic course vocabulary word, but without the understanding of it, “The High Claims of Art and Tautology” is difficult to understand. The same follows for “priori” and “vieux jeu”.
The author’s use of euphemism when referencing other works of literature helps her build credibility with those readers with a literary background but at the same time alienates those without one. Though the article was published in a journal targeted towards those in literary studies and potentially those in feminist studies, the author makes the assumption that anyone reading her article would have an understanding of a wide range of literary references. She concludes one of her primary ideas in saying, “Thus, it turns out, the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the women's rights movement is not really about women at all” (Templeton 28). The author could just as easily have said “Ibsen’s A Doll House was not about women at all”. In this specific sentence, the author is not only referencing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a way that only those who have studied it would understand, but she is also making use of it as a euphemism. “Ibsen’s A Doll House” becomes “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the women’s rights movement”.
The Official Style can be used to successfully establish credibility when used both sparingly and with clarity, something this article fails to do. When used extensively as with this article, it can alienate readers. The reader can see that the author is knowledgeable in multiple fields of study, increasing the author’s credibility. Despite this, the author draws on information from multiple fields of study, information known by a limited number of scholars. The use of the Official Style reinforces the elite circle of people able to understand and use a text. This is especially true with a text like this one which is relevant to those who have read A Doll House and wish to further analyze it. The amount of people who understand all aspects of the text is smaller than the number of people who read the article because the author draws an entire selection from the field of philosophy with the logical analysis (the section in which the author discusses the tautology of the play) when the journal is aimed at readers with a literary background, not a philosophy background. Similarly written texts face the same issues of alienation. Despite attempts to make the article relevant to multiple fields of study, the author alienates many people in the PMLA’s target audience who lack expertise in every field incorporated in the article.

Templeton, Joan. “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen”. PMLA. Vol 104 Issue 1 (1989). 28-40. JStore. Web. 27 September 2013.
“PMLA”. Modern Language Association, n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

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