World Literature Essay Emil Ursin Paranoia as a literary tool in Oedipus The King and A Dolls House.

Many famous literary works have characters with exaggerated personalities that in some instances become so extreme that they can be interpreted as being paranoid. Paranoia is a medical diagnosis, however; we often use paranoia as a layman’s term to describe paranormal behaviour. In this essay paranoia is defined as a character trait where anxiety or fear is either overstated or indeed has no root in the real world at all. “Paranoia is a thought process thought to be heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion”1. In literature paranoia can be a tool used to build a character, to prove a point or tell a story. This essay will examine the elements of paranoia present in Ibsen’s A Dolls House2 and in Sophocles’ Oedipus The King3. Quotes from the plays will be used to exemplify the paranoia, and characters from these plays displaying paranoid features will be compared. In addition, the importance of the use of paranoid character traits in these plays will be discussed. Paranoia can express itself in numerous varieties, and in many cases experts would differ on whether or not a person is paranoid. In this essay the paranoia identified in Oedipus The King and A dolls House is the “Peter Pan Syndrome”, delusions of grandeur, and the classic paranoid personality disorder. “Paranoid Personality Disorder is when someone becomes regularly suspicious without cause, to the point where it disrupts their social, work and family life, they are said to have paranoid personalities”4 The Peter Pan Syndrome and delusions of grandeur will be explained and examined in the relevant context. Both A Dolls House and Oedipus The King have characters who display obvious signs of exaggerated behaviour that deviates from what their contemporary society would consider normal. However, the paranoid traits, and how they come to light, differ in the two plays. In A Dolls House a combination of Nora’s actions and her words provide the basis for claiming that she is paranoid, whilst in Oedipus The King it is mostly what Oedipus says that points to his paranoia. Nora’s words and actions in A Dolls House demonstrate a number of signs indicative of what a psychiatrist would call the “Peter Pan Syndrome”; defined as a sub-category of paranoia5. The “Peter Pan Syndrome” is when a person is afraid of and/or refuses to grow up. It can also be used to describe a person who refuses to accept their place in society, and who sees responsibility as an unacceptable burden, not as a part of adult life. Nora is often considered to be an example of a liberated woman, however; by exaggerating certain aspects of her personality Ibsen cleverly portrays a woman who is clearly not comfortable with society’s rules and expectations, and who refuses to conform. On the one hand she wishes to be independent: “No more forbidding. I’ll take what belongs to me. I need nothing of yours, either now or later”6, on the other hand she displays a total lack of responsibility when Emil Ursin 1

commenting on the people Helmer has borrowed money from: “Who cares about them? I don’t even know their names.”7 In both instances she focuses mainly on her own needs and wishes, and she also continuously manipulates the other characters in the play: “If you really want to give me something, you could… you could”8. Helmer claims that Nora does not understand society, whereupon she answers: “You’re right: I don’t. But I’m going to find out – which of us is right, society or me.”9 Nora is portrayed as a woman who is scheming and egoistic, and who ultimately puts her own needs first. “If I’m to come to terms with myself, understand myself, I have to be alone”.10 Manipulative words and actions: “(Plays with his buttons, not looking at him)” and being self-centred are central elements in a paranoid personality disorder. One might argue that other characters in A Dolls House display paranoid personality traits, however, as many of Helmer’s suspicions are well founded, and Krogstad can be said to be right when he feels persecuted, these characters can not be said to be truly paranoid. There can be no doubt whatsoever that King Oedipus is truly paranoid. He appears to suffer deeply from both delusions of grandeur and paranoid personality disorder. A delusion of grandeur is when a person wrongly perceives himself to be of great importance. Oedipus believes he is one of the most powerful people on earth, regarding himself as the centre of the universe and a divine entity: “You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers.”11 He also suffers from persecution paranoia, a common symptom of the paranoid personality disorder: "Oh I'll let loose, I have such fury in me-now I see it all. You helped hatch the plot, you did the work, yes, short of killing him with your own hands-and given eyes I'd say you did the killing single-handed!”12 Oedipus fears loosing his power as a king, and seemingly groundlessly distrusts his friends and advisors, believing that they conspire against him. In Oedipus conspiracy plays a big part, however; Sophocles shows us that this is a part of Oedipus paranoid state, thus the conspiracy is a figment of Oedipus’s mind. He believes that Creon and Teiresias are planning to overthrow him. In his paranoid world he is convinced that Creon is planning to seize the royal powers for himself. “Oh, he sent his prophet in to do his dirty work. You know Creon, Creon keeps his own lips clean!”13 Many people who have powerful positions are afraid of losing their positions; but this fear does not normally lead to irrational feelings of being persecuted and living in constant fear of being murdered. Both Oedipus and Nora can be said to suffer from delusions of grandeur, but in greatly varying degrees. Nora naively aspires to be the centre of attention, but given her status as a wife and a mother, this borders on being delusional in Ibsen’s time. There can, however, be no doubt whatsoever that Oedipus is gravely delusional to the point of believing himself to be divine. Yet where Nora is trying to break out of her role in society; Oedipus is desperately trying to hold on to his perceived elevated status in his society. Oedipus’ fears and anxieties ultimately lead to his downfall, whereas Nora’s lack of conformity leads to her ostracising herself from society. In other words both of them contribute greatly to their own fate. In ancient Greece Oedipus would be seen as a tragic figure to be pitied, whereas in 1879 Nora would be judged harshly by her contemporaries and be regarded with suspicion and fear. However, it is probably safe to say that Oedipus would be considered to be clearly delusional and paranoid no matter when or where he lived, but Nora’s paranoia is time and context dependant as she is a typical product of Ibsen’s era. In our time we would probably see Nora as having ambitions to be more than just a wife and a mother, in other words completely normal. Emil Ursin 2

Ibsen and Sophocles have both used elements of paranoia that are clearly identifiable to the reader in order to portray their main characters. In the traditional Greek play Oedipus, paranoia is essential to the plot, there would not have been a story to tell if Oedipus had not been delusional and irrational. A Dolls House was by comparison, not a traditional play when it was published. Ibsen portrayed ordinary people, not kings and heroes. However, in order to have a story to tell, Ibsen needed to create strong, memorable characters with exaggerated personalities. If Nora had been a traditional Victorian era housewife, she would never have left her husband and children, and without a rebellious Nora Ibsen could not have written what is considered to be the first play about women’s liberation. Paranoia connected to their roles and place in society are defining character traits for Oedipus and Nora. In conclusion A Dolls House and Oedipus The King would not have gained their place in world literature if Nora and Oedipus had been safe and secure in their given roles in society.

Sources: A Doll’s House, Ibsen. Cambridge University Press 1995. Oedipus the King, Sophocles. Simon and Schuster (June 26, 2001) Peter Pan Syndrome,, 07/05/2007 Definition of Paranoia,,

Emil Ursin



Definition of paranoia, Wikipedia. 17. Januar 17:36 A Doll’s House, Ibsen. Cambridge University Press 1995. 3 Oedipus the King, Sophocles. Simon & Schuster (June 26, 2001) 4 Definition of Paranoid Personality Disorder, Dictionary.

Peter Pan Syndrome 13. Jan 18:12

A doll’s House, page 82 7 A doll’s House, page 11 8 A doll’s House, page 12 9 A doll’s House, page 84 10 A doll’s House, page 82 11 Oedipus the King, page 15 12 Oedipus the King, page 20 13 Oedipus the King, page 23