It has been suggested that Hedda Gabler is a drama about the individual psyche -- a mere character study. It has even been written that Hedda Gabler "presents no social theme" (Shipley 333). On the contrary, I have found social issues and themes abundant in this work.
The character of Hedda Gabler centers around society and social issues. Her high social rank is indicated from the beginning, as Miss Tesman says of Hedda, "General Gabler’s daughter. What a life she had in the general’s day!" (Ibsen 672). Upon Hedda’s first appearance, she makes many snobbish remarks. First, she turns up her nose at George’s special handmade slippers. Later she insults Aunt Julie’s new hat, pretending to mistake it for the maid’s. Hedda seems to abhor everything about George Tesman and his bourgeoisie existence. She demands much more class than he has been able to provide her, for she was the beautiful, charming daughter of General Gabler and deserved nothing but the finest.
As the character of Hedda Gabler develops, the reader learns that she has only married George Tesman because her father’s passing away left her no significant financial resources, nothing but a respectable heritage. She tells Brack of her decision to marry Tesman: "I really had danced myself out, Judge. My time was up. ... And George Tesman -- he is after all a thoroughly acceptable choice. ... There’s every chance that in time he could still make a name for himself. ...It was certainly more than my other admirers were willing to do for me, Judge." (Ibsen 684).
Hedda needed someone to support her financially, and George Tesman was the only decent man to propose to her. She was forced to cross beneath her social class and marry this commoner in the hopes that he would make a name for himself as a professor. As for love everlasting, Hedda disgustedly comments to Judge Brack, "Ugh -- don’t use that syrupy word!" Rather than having become a happy newlywed who has found true love, "Hedda is trapped in a marriage of convenience" (Shipley 445).
Hedda was raised a lady of the upper class, and as such she regards her beauty with high esteem. This is, in part, the reason she vehemently denies the pregnancy for so long. A pregnancy will force her to gain weight and lose her lovely womanly figure. Hedda has grown accustomed to her many admirers; therefore, Hedda is perturbed and embarrassed when George says to Aunt Julie, "But have you noticed how plump and buxom she’s grown? How much she’s filled out on the trip?" (Ibsen 676). "I’m exactly as I was when I left," insists an annoyed Hedda (Ibsen 676). To Hedda, pregnancy is a despicable curse. It will make her unattractive, and she will no longer be the talk of the town. For a lady who has been forced to depend on her beauty to attract a suitable husband after the general’s death, this is a crushing threat.
In Act II, Judge Brack gently suggests to Hedda that a child might relieve her from the mundane existence she has been enduring with Tesman. Calling motherhood her "most solemn responsibility," Judge Brack delicately hints that she will be having a child within the year. "Be quiet! You’ll never see me like that!" she exclaims. "I have no talent for such things, Judge. I won’t have responsibilities!" (Ibsen 687). Judge Brack has reminded Hedda of what she already knew -- the pregnancy. Her fear of becoming undesirable resurfaces, and she explodes in anger and denial.
Even in death, Hedda cherishes beauty. In discussing the planned suicide with Eilert, she instructs him, "Eilert Loevborg -- listen to me. Couldn’t you arrange that -- that it’s done beautifully?" (Ibsen 703). She then reminds him twice more in the following lines to take his life beautifully. Still, upon his death he is shot in the stomach at a brothel, not at all as beautifully as Hedda had intended. In the final lines of the play, Hedda finally gets the beautiful ending she romanticizes. She takes her own life, shooting herself in the temple as she lies stretched out on the sofa, beautifully.
Further evidence of Hedda’s social class is found in her conversation with Mrs. Elvsted. After Mrs. Elvsted reluctantly admits that she has left her husband in search of Eilert Loevborg, the astonished Hedda replies, "But my dearest girl -- that you could dare to do such a thing!" Hedda continues, "But what do you think people will say about you, Thea?" (Ibsen 680). For Hedda, this act is unimaginable. The entire town will be gossiping about Thea Elvsted, the sheriff’s wife, and her affair with Eilert Loevborg. Mrs. Elvsted’s reputation will be permanently tarnished. For Hedda, this would be a nightmare. She has been highly regarded by everyone and showered with attention from all the men. In fact, as General Gabler’s lovely daughter, Hedda has been a major object of interest for the townspeople for quite some time. "Hedda fears scandal above all" (Setterquist 162). She can not begin to fathom how Thea could risk losing her honor. "Brought up as a ‘lady’, she was required at all times to conduct herself correctly" (Setterquist 163).
Thea, on the other hand, is of a lower social ranking and hasn’t much of a name to lose. She is able to follow her heart, and she explains, "God knows they’ll say what they please. I only did what I had to do." (Ibsen 680).
Additional proof that Hedda fears scandal can be found in her private conversation with Judge Brack after Loevborg’s suicide. He warns Hedda that if counsel were to discover that the pistol was hers, there would be a scandal. "A scandal, yes -- the kind you’re so deathly afraid of. Naturally, you’d appear in court... You’ll have to answer the question: Why did you give Eilert Loevborg the pistol? And what conclusions will people draw from the fact that you did give it to him?" (Ibsen 708). Her heart sinks, as Hedda realizes that Judge Brack is right. She understands that she is helpless against his blackmailing and no longer free, and in desperation she takes her own life.
Despite the clear distinctions between the social classes of the three women of the play -- Hedda Gabler, Thea Elvsted, and Mademoiselle Diana -- their sexual situations are remarkably similar. As women, they must all flaunt their sexuality to survive in a male dominated society. Hedda is, of course, an upper class lady. She does not strive towards her individual morality for any reason other than to maintain an impeccable reputation. Scandals and rumors are her worst enemy. Rather than allow herself to fall from her high social standing, she accepts the proposal of her only prospect -- George Tesman. She marries him and thus must sleep with him, not out of love, but merely out of necessity. Hedda uses her sexuality to attract Tesman who will provide an adequate means of support for her. She remains faithful to him only in order to maintain her reputation, for she feels no moral obligation to be loyal to him.
Similarly, Thea Elvsted was a middle class girl. She accepted a job as a governess to Mr. Elvsted, and when his wife died he married her. There was a large age difference, and she says of him, "I just can’t stand him! We haven’t a single thought in common. Nothing at all -- he and I" (Ibsen 680). Thea did not love Mr. Elvsted any more than Hedda loved Tesman. She, too, married for financial support. Since Thea did not have such a great reputation to uphold around town, however, she had the freedom to have a sexual affair. That is just what she did with Eilert Loevborg. Eventually, she left Mr. Elvsted in hopes of using her sexuality to secure a loving marriage with a better prospect, Mr. Loevberg. Unfortunately, her plan was unsuccessful and the reader must wonder in what way she will manage to support herself now.
Finally, there is the character Diana, a singer and prostitute. Just as Thea and Hedda, Diana must offer her sexuality as a means of support in a male-dominated world. Rather than finding a husband to support her, Diana has found the most freedom. In becoming a prostitute, she sells her body to men without becoming trapped in a marriage full of regret. While Diana has her freedom, however, she has attained it in a socially unacceptable manner and is thus at the bottom of the social order.
Lastly, the tile itself represents the social theme of the drama. In using the name Hedda Gabler, despite her marriage to George Tesman, Ibsen has conveyed to the reader the importance of social class. Hedda prefers to identify herself as the daughter of General Gabler, not the wife of George Tesman. Throughout the play she rejects Tesman and his middle class lifestyles, clinging to the honorable past with which her father provided her. This identity as the daughter of the noble General Gabler is strongly implied in the title, Hedda Gabler.
In considering the many implications of the social issues as explained above, it can not be denied that the very theme of Hedda Gabler centers on social issues. "Hedda Gabler is ...indirectly a social parable".