Morality In Steinbeck’s East Of Eden And Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Morality is defined as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour”; which is the key theme presented in both Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  For instance, there are certain similarities between the characters such as the motivation both Krogstad and Cal share, to better themselves. East of Eden portrays a conflict between good and bad through generations of brothers. Whereas, Ibsen’s play, first published in 1879, consists of a couple, Nora and Helmer, who face conflict in their relationship due to Nora’s immoral action. Ibsen’s protagonist Nora is seen to lack basic morality in regard to societal expectations as Nora obtains a loan and hides it from her husband, which is seen as a mistake as Nora forged her father’s signature to obtain the loan. However, Cathy is described as being born without morality by the narrator (which is Steinbeck himself) who states that she was “born without… a conscience”. Cathy does not attempt to hide her sins, suggesting that her actions are considered as a norm according to her morality. As well as this, Steinbeck clearly differentiates the supposedly ‘good and evil’ characters based on the story of Cain and Abel. The ‘good’ characters have names beginning with the letter ‘A’ such as Adam and Aron, leaving the ‘evil’ or morally wrong characters having names beginning with the letter ‘C’, such as Cathy, Cyrus and Charles Trask. However, in A Doll’s House there is no clear division between the characters regarding morality. Morality holds importance as it shows the progression of a person’s character throughout the story which allows the reader to acknowledge the progress that is emphasised by both authors. By doing so both Ibsen and Steinbeck express the subjectivity of the term morality based on how it is seen to be described by the different societies.

To begin with, Nora and Cathy are both depicted by their authors as having a lasting effect on the reader in regard to their actions and behaviour. For instance, despite Ibsen’s initial portrayal that Nora’s “sacred duties” are towards her husband and children; arguably the character of Nora can be regarded as being childish. An example of this can be seen through the following quote, “i'll wrap up… in beautiful gold paper and hang it on the Christmas tree”. The fact that there is a clear interest shown by Nora suggests the extent that she would “wrap it up” only to hang it “on the Christmas tree” indicates the happiness materialism brings her, furthermore Nora’s interest in valuables is emphasised as she chooses the colour “gold” as gold is seen as having high value and potentially a luxury. However later the audience acknowledges that this was all an attempt to clear a loan. Unfortunately, as a woman in the nineteenth century, she wouldn’t be able to inherit money as it belongs to the husband; Ibsen regards the stigmas around the immorality as being based on money which is symbolised through Nora’s constant need to ask at any opportunity she can.

Ibsen further displays Nora’s childish attributes through stage directions such as “plays with his coat buttons, not looking at him”, which she conforms to society as this emphasises the clear intimidation and belittlement as Torvald “wags his finger”  and calls Nora names which include “squanderbird… funny little creature”, (Ibsen, Worrall and Meyer, 1985,p.26). The modern audience, especially feminists would dislike Nora’s attitude as she doesn’t fend for herself. As a result, this leads to her objectification, which although had been the common norm in regard to the treatment of women, is immoral. An example of this is that Nora is an abbreviation of her actual name ‘Leonora’. The fact that she is always referred to as ‘Nora’ gives the impression that she is perceived as a child to the other characters. To the modern audience, Nora being child-like may be slightly frowned upon and confusing. However, as women in the nineteenth century were expected to have conformed and submitted to the inferior status given, Ibsen proposes the outcome of this leading to cases such as Nora’s childlike behaviour stemming from their innocence.

In contrast, Steinbeck’s Cathy is conveyed as being the opposite of Nora in terms of her characterisation. For instance, while Nora is the protagonist of the play, Cathy is portrayed as being the antagonist of ‘East of Eden’; Cathy’s immorality is questioned as she is being introduced into the story as Steinbeck discusses how people may lack a conscious or how “to a criminal, honesty is foolish” (Steinbeck, 1992, p.74). This allows the reader to be open-minded about Cathy’s actions as it seems that she doesn’t see the immorality in her selfishness or cruelty; further suggesting that morality differs according to the individual. This is justified by a critic as they stated that Cathy’s monstrosity is not due to her “inability to choose, but her choice herself”. Therefore, suggesting that Cathy may lack emotions which leaves her without a moral compass and ultimately makes the wrong decisions in other’s perspectives. To an extent, the narrator could be comparing Cathy to a criminal as there are references to Cathy throughout the paragraph in chapter 8. This is justified as Cathy is seen to commit a few serious crimes including murdering her parents. Cathy’s immorality begins at a young age as she was caught engaged in sexual activity with two boys at the age of ten as she was “naked to the waist” (Steinbeck, 1992, p.78). However, when caught Cathy doesn’t take any responsibility for her actions which is shown through her silence and how she refused to talk; which to an extent suggests that Cathy conforms to the traditional description of femme fatale.

Not only the reader but Steinbeck himself is confounded by Cathy’s character as he revisits his opinion on her throughout the novel. Steinbeck mentions that “there are monsters born in the world … It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life.” This proposes the idea that there is ambiguity regarding Cathy’s situation as there isn’t a certain cause of her behaviour, nonetheless there is a clear struggle that she faces to adjust to the norms of society. This is inferred through the emphasis of “forced” suggesting that she had no other choice but to be evil and commit immoral acts. The lack of tendencies may further hint to a psychological illness as Cathy’s personality can be associated with schizoid personality disorder as there are visible symptoms such as lack of interest in social relationships, emotional coldness as well as lack of apathy. Steinbeck touches on this area as he uses the rhetorical question, “can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?” which acknowledges the possibility that Cathy may be different regarding her mental state, ultimately suggesting that Cathy is not understood by those around her. As they (the reader, the characters, even Steinbeck) may find Cathy “indecipherable” so they “can’t say she is bad” as they are unable to understand her reasoning as they “do not know why” (Steinbeck, 1992, p.185) she commits immoral acts. Therefore, through Steinbeck placing the responsibility upon other characters to help Cathy become morally good, he suppresses the possibility of them judging her which would be seen as immoral. Immoralities of others is also seen in A Doll’s House as to the modern audience Nora takes out a loan for a noble cause, to save Torvald’s life, however in the society which Nora lives in, perceives her actions as immoral. The way that Cathy is misunderstood, so is Nora, as Torvald accuses her of being immoral as he doesn’t understand Nora’s reasoning. This is emphasised through his words “wretched woman” (Ibsen, Worrall and Meyer 1985, p.93) and calling her a “hypocrite”, “liar”, and a “criminal'. Clearly accusing Nora of committing a crime. This accusation portrays Torvald’s immorality towards Nora and emphasises the extent which Torvald conforms to society rather than trying to understand his wife.

The resemblance of Eve can be seen through Cathy and Nora; Steinbeck’s focus on biblical history, emphasises the similarities between Cathy and Eve through her characteristics and immorality of their actions. Cathy is seen to be a corrupted version of Eve as they are both associated with a great sin. However, Eve was misled into it, whereas Cathy commits the sin consciously; therefore, implying that Cathy is immoral by choice. When Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden they become ashamed of their nakedness, therefore acknowledging evil creates a dislike of openly expressing sexuality. Eve and Cathy are quite similar through their curiosity and temptation which can be seen through Cathy’s sexual nature, as she realises that “sexuality…. is the most disturbing impulse humans have… it was once a weapon and a threat. It was irresistible” (Steinbeck, 1992, p.77) implying that she uses her sexuality to gain power over others and that her morality is based on doing whatever is needed to avoid punishment, and to make others commit immoral acts. Alternatively, the quote outlines the immorality that every human faces due to their desires. Similarly, to Cathy, Nora uses her sexuality to tease Dr Rank as he can be seen as to have fallen under Nora’s illusion as he “looks searchingly at her” (Ibsen, Worrall and Meyer 1985, p.66), inferring to a possible affair. The immorality of the situation is due to Nora as she deludes Dr Rank. Dr Rank is also regarded as being immoral as he allows himself to push the boundaries of their friendship. To a degree, Nora and Torvald are perceived as Adam and Eve as their innocence is destroyed which causes them to reassess their situation as husband and wife. Nora decides to leave the household as she was cast aside by Torvald (similarly to how God cast aside Adam and Eve) as he “no longer entrusts”. her to care of the children. This signifies the importance of the severity a mother's actions can have on her children as by leaving the house Nora can be seen as starting a new journey similarly to Cathy as she shoots her husband, Adam, and runs away; Also parallel to how Adam and Eve began a new life on Earth.

A similarity between the two females are that they both at some point prioritise themselves, in terms of freedom, as they both leave their children and homes. This can be seen through the inward/outward self-theory. Cathy who uses her beauty to manipulate others is described as being small-breasted, delicate, and blonde, similar to the biblical Eve, conveying the ideal version of a woman. As a result, Steinbeck’s portrayal of Cathy as being the ‘perfect’ woman is what can be argued allows Adam to be manipulated by her beauty as Cathy’s impression “burned in his mind [was an] image of beauty and tenderness” (Steinbeck, 1992, p. 135). By allowing himself to fall under the illusion of Cathy’s goodness based on appearance allows readers to acknowledge the clear infatuation which Adam is presented as feeling towards her, whilst seeming to ignore the clear warnings of his own brother. Despite having met for a short period of time, the belief Adam holds of Cathy being a “sweet and holy girl” ultimately puts her onto a pedestal emphasising on the impact Cathy’s beauty and sexuality had on people who she encounters, to the extent in which her sins were hidden. On the other hand, this is further seen through the contrast described by Steinbeck of Cathy’s inward self which is regarded as being is quite diabolical and evil in comparison to her outward self, which is displayed as an innocent, sweet girl. The illusion which surrounds Cathy’s persona can be regarded as being her ultimate downfall as the immorality in which her persona is seen to influence and deceive the belief of others in order to fulfil her own selfish desires and wishes above anyone else's. The basis of Cathy’s reasoning may fall on the deprivation of parental figures which causes a lack of superego in her personality, and as result affecting her morality.

Nora on the other hand is portrayed as being innocent and wanting to live her life freely, however in doing so she attempts to conform to the societal roles of women through hiding her real opinions on certain matters. Inwardly Nora longs to speak her mind with a clear example being seen through the ‘Tarantella’ dance, symbolising Nora’s attempts of self-expression. The dance itself consists of quick steps, flirting, and teasing between the partners, where the women carry tambourines. This essentially represents Nora’s character and her inner conflict of morality as, it can be argued, Ibsen implies her uncertainty through the fast-paced steps. As a result, Nora’s expression is emphasised through the tambourine as she’s given the opportunity to create a commotion without it seeming immoral according to societal norms. However, this is seen to contrast with her outwardly self which is presented as being the perfect housewife. For example, through telling Mrs Linde that she hopes “to fill the house with pretty things, just the way Torvald likes”, Ibsen emphasises a woman’s role in the Victorian era and how women were treated and expected to behave, as filling the house could refer to cleaning and ensuring the home is beautiful. While feminists in the modern audience would regard the society as corrupt, through women being inferior, it is reinforced by the realisation that Nora is a “doll-wife” (Ibsen, Worrall and Meyer 1985, p. 98), leading to her leaving entirely. In doing so, Gail Finney suggests that “in closing the door on her husband and children, Nora opened the way to the turn-of-the-century women’s movement”. This emphasises the impact which Ibsen’s play would have on the women who were in similar situations. It is assumed that the 19th century audiences emphasised on the immorality of her actions, which is justified through Ibsen’s need to rewrite the ending of the play in Germany, instead resulting in Nora’s return. In contrast, for modern audiences, her actions rather than being immoral, would be identified as a common norm suggesting the subjectivity behind the idea of what is seen as moral. In doing so, Ibsen’s Nora, rebels against values of a typical 19th century woman, and instead fulfils the stereotypes of a modern woman, contradicting a ‘stock character’ in the Victorian era.  

Another common theme described in both texts is heredity. Defined as being the pairing of physical or mental characteristics which is inherited, both authors portray similar aspects in terms of morality as it is often implied that heredity is responsible for all faults. An example of this would be if a person’s father was an alcoholic, his children would share this trait or have a bad etiquette instead. The idea of hereditary itself is introduced by Dr Rank, a symbol of the dying society, who in his own case as a critic believed that he inherited syphilis from his father and therefore was known to be infuriated as he had to suffer the consequences. The significance in the extent to which the ideas portrayed of people in the 19th century, who were willing to believe there was no fault within themselves, but instead chose to blame others suggests the immorality behind their conscious disregard of free will. For instance, Ibsen in his play uses the idea of heredity to emphasise on the reality of the deterioration of society. Nora, who is seen to easily be able to spend money is confronted by Torvald who instantly assumes her actions are because of her father’s characteristics and mentions, like her father she’s “always on the look-out for some way to get money” from him. Despite the fact that Nora spends the money herself, he accepts that she is who she is as “It is in [her] blood; Yes,… these things are hereditary” (Ibsen, 1985, Worrall and Meyer p.27). The focus placed on the word “blood” allows the audience to acknowledge that this notion is completely internalised in the individuals of the society.  Alongside this, mirrored in Steinbeck’s novel, heredity can be seen through the lives of the Trasks as morality is portrayed as being a struggle for those who are predetermined to be evil. Similar to Adam’s brother Charles, the character Cal faces the notion of heredity through the clear difference in presentation. Aron who is depicted as being a gentle, good person contrasts greatly to Steinbeck’s presentation of Cal who is represented as being bad, due to his mother’s immorality. As a result, audiences are seen to become aware of the clear disregard given to Cal’s behaviour by others due to the assumptions his actions are due to his mother and her own attributes. Ultimately, it is this unjust treatment Cal faces, as focus is only given to the bad features while the good attributes are overlooked, that can be regarded as being immoral. However, due to the common belief in hereditary during the 19th century, it can be further argued, the concept of heredity as being immoral would only be regarded by modern audiences.

To conclude, both texts refer to morality due to the fact that a person’s characteristics are based on their moral code and what their beliefs are. A moral which can be taken from East of Eden is that it’s a person’s choice in regards to morality and that as an individual, we have control over how people perceive us. However, A Doll’s House portrays the message that morality is a subjective matter; if society decides something is right it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s moral. Also suggesting that morality is altered through age and generation as there is a difference of opinions between the modern audience and the past audience. Which emphasises the battle between doing what you believe is morally right and what is deemed as right by society.


  • Oxford Dictionaries | English. (2019). morality | Definition of morality in English by Oxford Dictionaries. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2019].
  • Steinbeck, J. (2000). East of Eden. London: Penguin.
  • Ibsen, H., Worrall, N. and Meyer, M. (1985). A Doll's House. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.
  • Noël, H. (2015). Defending Steinbeck: Morality, Philosophy, and Sentimentality in East of Eden. p.18.
  • Finch, A. and Park-Finch, H. (n.d.). A Post-feminist, Evolutionist Reading of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. p.4.
16 December 2021
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