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What is Reality?

Last updated on February 27th, 2016 at 04:12 am

By Roxane Aflalo

The Oxford American Dictionary defines reality as, “the world or state of things as they actually exist as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.” However, how can one truly differentiate between “reality” and ideals when society has so forcefully projected its ideals onto reality, to the point that one’s ideals seem to be reality and reality is nothing more but a mere illusion? Ibsen, Williams, Miller, and Wilde, all examine this common theme of reality being nothing more than an illusion in their novels and plays, and offer readers a glimpse into their views of the role reality plays in a society and humanity as a whole. Nora plays the ideal wife in her husband’s idealized world based solely on keeping up appearance believing that she is living in reality, but once society’s façade fades away she realizes that she’s spent her entire life cooped up in a doll’s house with false illusions masking the authentic reality. Laura prefers to live in a private glass world populated by little animal figurines rather than the “real” world in attempt to mask reality with glass. Willy refuses to accept the present reality, and is forever stuck in the past, driving himself to insanity and ultimate demise. Finally, Dorian sold his soul to the devil to keep the illusion of always appearing youthful and innocent, while in actuality, his portrait rots away with the lines and mars of his old age and sin.

In Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, both the protagonist, Nora, and her husband, Torvald, believe they have found their ideal mate in each other, however Nora ultimately realizes that she has been living under the false illusions that they had been in love, while Torvald only wanted a pretty trophy wife he could control like a marionette attached to strings. All that mattered to Torvald was keeping up appearances; appearances, which proved to be misleading facades that masked reality. This obsession with keeping up appearances was evidenced since the very first line of the play, opening the story and setting the stage for the entire plot to develop. “Be sure to hide the Christmas Tree, Helene. The children mustn’t see it before tonight when we’ve trimmed it” (Ibsen, 11). Nora wants to make sure the children don’t see the Christmas Tree, when it is bare and natural, because she wants them to only see it when it is all trimmed and decorated, when it is perfect and serves the sole festive decorative purpose of being aesthetically pleasing to look at. If the children were to see the tree when it was bare it would ruin the illusion of the perfect home that had been masking the reality of the situation.

Nora initially appears to be solely the sweet, silly, and childish wife dominated by Torvald, but as the play progresses, the strong-willed, freethinking individual in her emerges. She reveals to her old friend Ms. Linde, a secret she’s kept for years—that she forged her father’s signature, days before his death, in order to take out a loan under his name when Torvald was sick and needed to go to Italy, and has been paying back the loan little by little by saving bits of money and performing odd jobs. Nora’s kept this secret hidden from Torvald, or anyone else for that matter for years, just like she keeps her freethinking self hidden from society to conform to Torvald’s ideals. However, the man from whom she got the loan, Krogstad, figured out that she forged her father’s signature and is threatening to reveal her secret if Torvald fires him. All the while, Nora is supposed to be preparing for a New Year’s costume party that she is going to with Torvald, but her costume, which Torvald had made especially for her so that she would always keep the appearance of the perfect little wife in front of society, is all torn. “Torvald had it made for me there, but now it’s all so torn” (Ibsen, 41). Nora’s façade is beginning to tear, just like her dress, and once the illusions fade from reality, all that will be left is actuality.

Once, Torvald does find out about the loan, Nora decides that she will have to sacrifice herself out of love for him, so that he doesn’t do so for her. However, Torvald isn’t at all interested in sacrificing himself for Nora, he isn’t touched in the slightest by all of the pain she’s been through trying to protect him from what she had done, all because she had been trying to heal him. Instead, he is infuriated, because Nora has lost her veneer of being the perfect little wife. He is finally able to see that the “reality” he had been living in was all just an illusion created by his ideals and masking the veritable reality.  Nothing could be worse to Torvald than appearing to not have the perfect home. “From this moment happiness is not the question; all that concerns us is to save the remains, the fragments the appearance” (Ibsen, 73). Torvald, only cares about making sure that word of Nora’s forgery doesn’t get out, and keeping up appearance of the ideal family. Krogstad eventually decides that he doesn’t care about revealing Nora’s secret anymore because he has been reunited with his former love Ms. Linde, so Torvald takes back all the cruelties he had so easily launched at his supposedly beloved wife and forgives Nora. However, It is too late because his veneer has already disappeared as well, reveling him to Nora for what he truly was—a shallow and manipulative man who never truly cared for her. Ultimately, Nora realizes that her whole marriage was an illusion masking the reality of the fact that she was living in a dollhouse and acting as no more than a doll to her husband, just as she was treating her children like dolls to play with.  “But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here’s the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald” (Ibsen, 77). Now Nora needs to leave the dollhouse full of false illusions that mask reality and become a true human being with her own individual thoughts and without Torvald’s or society’s ideals projected onto her and claiming to be “reality” when they are nothing more than a mask upon reality.

In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, Williams also examines the complicated idea of the existence of reality through a series of characters, all of whom fail to accept reality. Predominantly so is the narrator, Tom’s, sister, Laura, who prefers to live in her own private world inhabited solely by little glass animals rather than in the real world. These glass figurines, which Amanda, Tom and Laura’s mother, refers to as the Glass Menagerie, are incredibly whimsical and fanciful yet dangerously delicate, thus paralleling Laura’s inner life. Amanda is determined to have Tom set up Laura with someone from his job, because she thinks that once Laura finds a man to love and take care of her, everything will be all right. However, Tom thinks that Laura’s love for the figurines is much more of a problem than Amanda does, “She lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments” (Williams, 48). Tom finds Laura’s obsession with the ornaments peculiar, but loves her anyways because she is his sister and invites over his friend Jim from work to dinner. Amanda is overjoyed and starts long preparations for the dinner, because she is very partial to real-world values like social and financial success, which she has always longed for. Yet, this partialness to reality is what causes her to be unable to accept reality. She can’t accept that she isn’t the pampered belle she once was so never ceases to talk about the past in attempts to keep on living in the past. She can’t accept that Tom is not a businessman. She can’t accept that Laura is so peculiar; she willfully refuses to accept reality because she doesn’t like her reality, so she chooses to live in the past.

Tom, on the other hand, seems to have a firm grasp on reality, yet even he seems to have difficulties accepting the reality that is his life and consequently withdraws into the movies, literature, and oftentimes drunkenness, which are his own private world of illusion where he can find the comforts that he can’t seem to find in the real world. When Jim, comes over Laura, immediately recognizes him as the boy she used to fancy back in high school, and her shyness makes her wants to run away and hide, but Jim’s warmth and kindness makes her open up so much that she shows him her glass ornaments. “Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Here’s an example of one, if you’d like to see it… Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks! You see how the light shines through him” (Williams, 83). Laura opens up to Jim and lets him into her own private little world, but just like the little ornaments it is very breakable, because once reality gets a glimpse of her private world of illusion it threatens, to knock away all illusions. “JIM: Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken? LAURA: Now it is just like all the other horses. JIM: It’s lost its—
LAURA: Horn! It doesn’t matter… I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish” (Williams, 86). Laura allowed reality to enter her world of illusions and just like Jim broke her favorite ornament, he broke her heart by announcing to her that he is previously engaged to another woman. Laura’s failure to accept reality had led to her own demise because has she stepped out of her glass menagerie before, she might have had the man she had always loved, but she couldn’t let go of her private idealized world. Consequently, Jim left her as broken as the hornless unicorn she had once loved most of all.

Another character who, just like Laura, has tremendous difficulties accepting reality and, just like Amanda, could not let go of the past is Willy Loman. In Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, protagonist and tragic hero Willy Loman, believed that he was living the American dream and rapidly goes insane as he becomes unable to accept the difference between his dream and reality. Willy was a traveling salesman “bringing home the bacon” to support his wife and two sons Biff and Happy. Both his sons were handsome, athletic, and well-liked, and Willy believed that those characteristics were the only ones one needed to succeed in life, so he always told his sons that they were going places, especially his pride and joy eldest, football quarterback Biff. However, when Willy was having financial problems he started turning towards a mistress he had at one the locations he stopped at when on the road. One day Biff went to visit his dad, whom he looked up to so much, and found him with his mistress. While Biff, never revealed his father’s secret to his mother out of fear of hurting his mother’s feelings, he never had the same respect for his father. Biff moved away to work petty jobs on different farms, instead of becoming a businessman as Willy had always imagined, thus betraying Willy. Presently, Biff moved back in with his parents and notices that Willy has been increasingly mumbling to himself about the past. “HAPPY: Something’s—happening to him. He—talks to himself.  BIFF: I noticed that this morning. But he’s always mumbled. HAPPY: But not so noticeable. It gets so embarrassing I sent him to Florida. And you know something? Most of the time, he’s talking to you” (Miller, 21). Biff notices that Willy is more than just mumbling but talking to himself as if he were talking to people in the past especially himself. Willy was stuck reliving the past over and over again because he refused to accept the present; that was his fatal himartia, and it would lead to his ultimate demise.

Willy was having an increasing amount of flashback, even while driving and it would cause him to veer off the road. When Willy’s wife, Linda, brings this up and tells him that he’s getting old and needs to leave the crowded city and stop taking such long trips each week, Willy responds, “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England” (Miller, 14). Willy still believes that he is the man he used to be; the vital traveling salesman who used to make numerous sales each trip, however this is just a false illusion making reality. The only times Willy does come back to reality, he realizes that his inability to accept reality is causing his family to suffer and decides that the only way to make things right is by getting them the insurance money his death would guarantee them through suicide. Thus, his failure to accept reality led to his ultimate doom.

Out of all the characters Dorian is the only that wasn’t under any false illusions. On the contrary, he put everyone around him under the illusion that he was good and kind while he kept his true self hidden—he saw reality; reality didn’t see him. In Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Dorian acts as the novel’s dual role of protagonist and antagonist. He battles his own conscience, as his decaying soul is laid out for him in the form of his splendid portrait. When the novel opens, Dorian is a young beautiful innocent young man untouched by the sins and cynicism of society. However, Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton’s, judgmental cynicism quickly brings out Dorian’s more shallow side. Harry explains to Dorian that once his youth and exquisite beauty are gone he won’t be as beloved by all and Dorian quickly discovers that he would give anything—even his soul to remain youthful and beautiful forever. “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June… If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that-for that-I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that” (Wilde, 32). Dorian sells his soul to the devil for the ability always remain as beautiful and youthful as he had been the day Basil painted the portrait, while the portrait instead gets marred by the signs of sin and old age. Not only does he remain young while the portrait ages, Dorian, finds a strange fascination at watching the portrait grow old and ugly, as if the uglier and more decayed it gets the more he is mocking the rest of the world by making them think he is still beautiful and innocent. “For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul” (Wilde, 109). Dorian will always appear sweet and perfect, but it will just be a façade—an illusion that masks the reality of his cold conscience-less soul.
As the novel progresses, the portrait continues to grow increasingly ugly and decrepit, as it gets disfigured by the marks of sin and lines of old age, however Dorian remains just as beautiful as when he was uncorrupted. Harry gives Dorian a mysterious little yellow book, which the reader never discovers the title to. The book describes the life of a young Parisian who dedicates his life to hedonistic purposes, and Dorian falls so madly in love with the book that he buys numerous copies of it in different colors, all of which he treasures deeply. These books represent the negative influence that Harry has over Dorian, as Dorian decides to dedicate his life to hedonism just like the character in the book. Basil worries about the influence that Harry has over Dorian and attempts to talk Dorian out of spending so much time with Harry. “You look exactly the same wonderful boy who, day after day, used to come down to my studio to sit for his picture. But you were simple, natural, and affectionate then. You were the most unspoiled creature in the whole world. Now, I don’t know what had come over you. You talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you. It is all Harry’s influence, I see that” (Wilde, 112). However, Basil’s attempts are futile, as Dorian believes he owes much more to Harry than to Basil. He believes that Harry showed him the light and taught him how to live a fulfilling hedonistic existence while Basil only taught him to be vain. To which, Basil responds that he will one day be punished for, foreshadowing Basil’s looming demise.

Years passed, and the simple natural affectionate boy that once was Dorian was nowhere to be found. Sure, he still looked as wonderful and unspoiled as when he actually was all those characteristics but that was all just an illusion that masked his true reality. However, because of that illusion, no matter how many awful things he did while on his hedonistic pursuits, no one could believe him of any wrongdoing once they saw his angelic face. “For the wonderful beauty that had so fascinated Basil Hallward, and many others beside him, seemed never to leave him. Even those who had heard the most evil things against him—and from time to time strange rumors about his mode of life crept through London and became the chatter of the clubs—could not believe anything to his dishonor when they saw him” (Wilde, 131). No matter how disgusting and decrepit his portrait became, Dorian’s façade remained intact, like an unbreakable veneer making society from what he really was. They heard rumors, but they couldn’t believe that such a sweet face could be capable of doing such things and that drove Dorian’s cold heart evil heart even colder. “There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful” (Wilde, 148). The more evil he became, the more appalling his portrait became, and the more beautiful he became in comparison. He almost started viewing evil as a vehicle through which he could admire his own beauty all while protected by his beautiful shell, his tool to thwart reality into false illusions.

Dorian, used to enjoy looking at the portrait because it reminded him of just how beautiful he was compared to the horrendous image, however after twenty years of age and sin—most notably his murder of Basil and his framing of his old friend Alan, which led to Alan’s suicide—he couldn’t stand to look at the portrait anymore. He decided that he would turn his life around, find his conscience and be a good person. However it was too late, and all he could think of was the bloody mark on the portrait’s hand, the hand, which he had used to kill Basil. Dorian decided there was only one thing left to do, destroy the portrait, but he hadn’t realized that the portrait was so much a part of him that destroying it would destroy him. The portrait held his soul, so when he decided to plunge that knife into it—the same knife he used to kill the artist who created the portrait—he really just plunged the knife into his own heart. “When the servants entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings on his fingers that they recognized who it was” (Wilde, 224). Not only had Dorian been constantly wearing a mask, which once removed did not live up to society’s ideals, he had failed to accept reality, jut as those around failed to accept that his appearance was just an illusion making the reality of his empty soul. He had failed to accept the reality that everyone grows old. He believed that reality was just the quality of having existence. He believed he could live forever young without ever truly living. However, his failure to accept age led to his demise, just as the failure of those around him to differentiate between

Reality is such an objective term. It could be interpreted to mean anything; but if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that none of the main characters in the works of Ibsen, Williams, Miller, or Wilde had a firm grasp of reality. All the characters lived in their own worlds, in which they either failed to accept reality or were under false illusions that were masking reality. At times, they did it purposely because they didn’t want to live in the present, and at others they had just believed in ideals which reality didn’t actually live up to. However, what is reality, if nothing more than an illusion, just as Dorian’s appearance in reality was an illusion. When more time is spent dreaming than living, when reality is a mere illusion and illusion a shadow of reality, when reality is just a projection of one’s ideals onto one’s surroundings—who is to be the judge of what reality truly is?

Works Cited

1. Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1910.
2. Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions Paperbook, 1966.
3. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. London: Penguin Books, 1976.
4. Wilde, Oscar. The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Winnetka: Norilana Books Classics, 2007.