Saturday, November 6, 2010

Feminism, Motherhood and Hedda Gabler

Victimization by Motherhood
Few portrayals of victimization by motherhood, or more accurately imminent motherhood, are as memorable and yet as subtle as that in Hedda Gabler (1890). While it is nowhere expressly stated that Hedda is pregnant, the play abounds in intimations of her condition; as Janet Suzman claims, and Hedda’s pregnancy draws together every strand of the play. Yet Hedda is nearly the only main character who does not refer to her expecta­tions; in response to the allusions to the possibility of pregnancy made by her husband Tesman, his aunt Juliane Tesman, and Judge Brack, she changes the subject or reacts with irritation or even anger. She supplies the reason herself; when Brack mentions the prospect of ‘a sacred and ... exact­ing responsibility, she angrily retorts, ‘I’ve no aptitude for any such thing ‘.

Nineteenth Century Women and Hedda’s Masculine Approach
For the maternal calling of the conventional nineteenth-century woman is thwarted in Hedda by tendencies that were at the time viewed as masculine. The influence of her motherless, father-dominated upbringing is everywhere evident: in her taste for horses and pistols; in her eager anticipation of a contest between Tesman and Loevborg for the available university professor­ship; even in General Gabler’s portrait, which is described in the opening stage directions, before we meet any of the actual characters, as occupying a prominent place in the Tesman’s’ drawing room. Explaining the play’s title, Ibsen wrote: ‘I intended to indicate thereby that as a personality she is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife’. As Elizabeth Hardwick points out, Hedda’s husband is ‘much more of a girl than she is’, since while she was brought up by a general, he was raised by two maiden aunts.
Hedda’s society provides few outlets for her masculine ambitions, however. Her comment to Brack - ‘I just stand here and shoot into the blue’- is loaded in multiple respects. In the face of her own aimlessness, she seeks masculine experience vicariously, pressing Loevborg to confess his debaucheries to her as her only insight into a world ‘that she isn’t supposed to know anything about’, conjecturing that she could make it her life’s goal to encourage Tesman to go into politics.
Clash of Femininity with Masculinity
As in A Doll’s House, the clash between Hedda’s unfeminine inclinations and the step she takes down the feminine path of marriage and, inevitably, pregnancy results in hysteria. Her gestures are as telling as her words: drawing the curtains, seeking fresh air, walking nervously around the room, raising her arms, clenching her fists, drumming her fingers, physically abusing Thea Elvsted. And as in the case of Nora, her hysteria finds release in music, in the ‘wild dance tune’ she plays on the piano. Yet unlike Nora, Hedda is still too much the victim of traditional thinking to move from hysteria to feminism. Trapped by Brack between two conven­tional attitudes—her fear of scandal and her abhorrence of adultery—she fulfils the prediction she had made upon Tesman’s joyous response to the news of her pregnancy: ‘Oh, it’ll kill me ... it’ll kill me, all this!
Miss Tesman and Hedda Gabler
Significantly, the character who is most positive about Hedda’s expecta­tions is one who has never experienced biological motherhood. Certain that Hedda must have become pregnant during the couple’s six-month honey­moon, Miss Tesman presses for a revelation, hinting to Tesman that a use might be found for the empty rooms in the house and to Hedda that there will soon be sewing to do. As an unmarried, childless woman, she has taken on one foster-child after another; having raised Tesman, who gratefully acknowledges to his ‘Auntie Julle’ that ‘You’ve always been both father and mother to me’, she has recently filled her life by nursing her ailing sister Rina, and after Rina’s death she plans to replace her with another invalid. The contrast to Hedda, who regards such care as a ‘burden’, is evident.
In Hedda Gabler, maternal indifference is counterbalanced here by the love and devotion of an (assumed) female relative whose feelings are all the more heartfelt because they are chosen rather than biologically imposed.
Ibsen’s Awareness of Motherhood
Ibsen’s awareness of the difficulties of motherhood on the one hand and of the overwhelming power of the myth of maternity as the proper calling for women on the other hand is expressed by several memorable instances in the major prose plays in which women who have either lost their children or never had any remain trapped in maternal thinking toward metaphorical offspring. Although the tragic secret at the heart of The Master Builder is the Solnesses’ loss of their infant twins as the indirect result of a fire that had destroyed their home years before, Aline Solness reveals that she in fact grieves not for the babies but for her nine dolls lost in the blaze, which she had carried under her heart ‘like little unborn children’. In the cases of Thea Elvsted in Hedda Gabler and Irene de Satow in When We Dead Awaken (1899), childless women develop a rhetoric of maternity to describe their roles in the production of works of art. Just as Thea refers to the book she helped Loevborg write as their child, Irene says of Rubek’s masterpiece sculpture for which she sat as model, ‘Our child lives on after me. In honour and glory’. Yet the true nature of the two women’s contributions is revealed by Thea’s despairing question on learning that Loevborg has no further use for her - ‘What am I to do with my life, then?’ —and Irene’s admission to Rubek that once he no longer needed her as his model, she died inside. Their role is more accurately that of midwife or muse than metaphorical mother; if they were genuine artists, it goes without saying that they could go on to create further works alone. The rhetoric of artistic maternity shows Thea and Irene to fall between the two stools, as it were, of the nineteenth-century division of labor which assigned artistic creativity to men and childbearing to women. Although Thea and Irene have failed to participate in either area, the myth of maternity as women’s destiny is so powerful that they appropriate its language in compensatory fashion to describe their artistic midwifery.
Motherhood’s Essentiality
This consideration sheds new light on Ibsen’s claim late in life that it is the women who are to solve the social problem. As mothers they are to do it. And only as such can they do it. Whereas this statement is often inter­preted to mean that Ibsen viewed motherhood as the proper calling for women, he may in fact be suggesting that it is the only vocation truly open to them. The many female figures in his plays demonstrate the enormous and often detrimental influence of the notion that maternity is woman’s duty: women who have motherhood imposed on them against their will, mothers unsuited to motherhood, childless women for whom the maternal model is so strong that they take on foster or metaphorical children.
Ibsen’s views on Best Motherhood
Ibsen’s implication that the best mother is the one who assumes this calling not because of biological determinism, as was so often the case in his day, but out of free choice, finds its most wholehearted endorsement in The Lady from the Sea. In a kind of counterpoint to A Doll’s House, where Nora must create her own freedom by leaving behind the domestic environ­ment which has confined her, Dr Wangel grants his wife Ellida the freedom to choose between joining the mysterious seafaring stranger to whom she has been so powerfully attracted and remaining with Wangel and his chil­dren. Where Nora exchanges motherhood for autonomy, Ellida is able to truly embrace (step) motherhood only because Wangel has rendered her autonomous.
The Lady from the Sea may stand as the last word on the question of Ibsen and feminism. For insofar as it reverses the pattern of A Doll’s House, it does not present women with the choice between motherhood and soli­tary New Womanhood but rather powerfully advocates women’s right to choose their destiny and combine roles as they desire. Supporting the belief that a woman’s mind and body are hers to control as she wishes, Ibsen’s oeuvre allies him with feminist thinkers not only of his era but of our own day as well.

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Anonymous said...

Helpful and thorough. However, I strongly suggest citing your sources and putting quotation marks where need be.

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