Hedda, the main character in the play, feels an autumnal chill in her soul as she looks out at the yellow, withered leaves in her garden. It is ‘already September, and the darkness of winter is now disturbingly close. Hedda is married to a promising but boring academic called Jorgen Tesman. The man whose company she most enjoys, Judge Brack, is a polished but ruthless pragmatist who brilliantly manipulates social conventions to his own advantage. Eilert Loevborg is a former admirer of Hedda. He is a gifted but unstable genius, given to heavy drinking, who has since been tamed by Thea Elvsted, a woman who was at school with Hedda. These are the major characters, all linked either socially or through bonds of friendship, who act out Ibsen’s tragic-comedy.
A Combination of Tragedy and Comedy
At times the action is closer to black farce than tragedy. In his preliminary notes for the play, Ibsen anticipates this mood in a brief description he gives of Hedda’s state of mind: ‘Life for Hedda resolves itself as a farce that isn’t “worth seeing through to the end”, And this farcical quality that she sees in life colors everything said and done in the play, reducing even the most poetic ideals to a mockery of themselves. During the action serious things are transacted, and eventually both Loevborg and Hedda die. The potential wasted in these two deaths is, clearly tragic in substance. But the manner of their deaths and the reaction their deaths produce in others are essentially comic.
Predominant Comic Tone
The predominantly comic tone of the play is reinforced by a simple linear structure. In contrast to Ghost, Where characters probe each other and their past in order lo lay bare their real motives. Hedda Gabler moves swiftly forward in time in a linear manner and with only the briefest of glimpses into the past. Even the dialogue is compressed and taut, as in all comic writing. There are virtually no speeches longer than three or four lines, and there are frequent passages of almost pure comic repartee. Structural, each act builds to a climactic situation to which Hedda then reacts.
At the end of Act 1 Hedda finds herself faced by the threat of social regression implicit in Tesman’s possible failure to obtain a professorial appointment: this would at a stroke take away the one thing that made her marriage to Tesman feasible in the first place. Hedda reacts to this prospect by reaching for her father’s pistols. At the end of Act 2, Hedda‘s successful intervention in Loevborg’s relationship with Thea, culminating in the ‘reformed’ Loevborg’s departure for Brack’s bacchic feast, fills Hedda with such elation that she feels like burning off Thea’s hair.
At the end of Act 3, Loevborg takes his leave of Hedda, broken in spirit, having lost the manuscript of his new book, and socially in disgrace after his drunken and disorderly behavior following Brack’s party. He accepts the gift Hedda presses on him of one of General Gabler’s pistols, leaving her with the feeling that he will die nobly and beautifully like a true aristocrat. Hedda reacts to this situation by venting her most destructive feelings on the relationship Loevborg and Thea had established. She burns Thea’s ‘child’, the manuscript of the book Loevborg wrote under Thea’s calming influence. By the end of Act 4, Hedda realizes that Thea and her own husband Tesman will exclude her from any participation in the work of piecing together Loevborg’s manuscript. Hedda also realizes that Brack, fully aware that it was she who gave Loevborg his suicide weapon, now has her in his power. Feeling trapped and rejected at one and the same time, she shoots herself in a gesture of almost petulant defiance. Throughout the play, the seriousness of the things she does is in some measure offset by the incongruity of her various responses. She reacts rather like an angry child to the various problems confronting her. Finally even her suicide is a childish gesture in which she thumbs her defiance at a world she neither understands nor likes.
During the first three acts of the play, Hedda exercises a decisive influence over the way the stage space is structured and used. She decides where to place the furniture and also where the different characters will sit. In Act 2, for instance, she cleverly directs Brack and Tesman to use her upstage room for punch and cigars so that she can use the drawing-room for her encounter with Loevborg. In all three acts she bullies Thea into sitting or standing in positions where she can dominate her. In Act 4, however, this changes drastically. As the consequences of her actions become known—the destruction of Eilert’s manuscript and his subsequent death—she loses her previously dominant status. While the others literally pick up the shattered pieces of what she has destroyed, she finds herself treated like the irresponsible child she has become.
Stage Directions for Hedda
Visually, she is politely but firmly ousted from every corner of the stage. First, Tesman and Thea invade her private room upstage to start piecing together Eilert’s notes. Next, they take over her escritoire because the light is not good enough in the little room. When Hedda moves to her corner by the stove downstage, and sits on one of the stools. Brack stands over her menacingly, quietly making oblique sexual threats. Even when she retreats to her room again and draws the curtains to shut the others out, she cannot do as she wants. She attempts to play the piano but is immediately told to be quiet. There is literally no space left for her. Very carefully, Ibsen has prepared us in visual terms for the inevitable shot that finally rings out.
Social Conventions and Hedda
The problem around which the play is structured is similar to that of Ghosts. Hedda has allowed herself to become trapped in a pointless conventional marriage. Like Mrs Alving, she finds it is not so easy to escape, having once taken such a decisive step. Hedda’s reasons were partly-financial, partly social and psychological. Brought up as if she were a general’s son by her father, she has acquired the arrogance and aspirations of the men of her class, without any hope of fulfilling them as a far from wealthy woman in a male-dominated society. She has no professional skills and cannot hope to remain a debutante for ever. It therefore seemed to her that marriage was the only avenue open to her. She avoided the ruthless men of her own class, such as Judge Brack, and instead chose a docile academic as her husband, a man she could easily manage but who would serve his purpose by offering her some social status and prestige.
Unfortunately, things do not work out quite as Hedda planned. Life with Jorgen Tesman threatens to be boring and socially disadvantageous. The gulf between her hopes and the actual marriage in which she is imprisoned is brought home to her when the Tesmans are visited in Act 2 by Eilert Loevborg. Hedda was once in love with Loevborg but was too cowardly, too afraid of scandal, to admit it. The sight of Loevborg in her own drawing room brings alive a painful image of what life might have been for her. Some of the bacchic intoxication implicit in that image is summed up in a vision she articulates of Loevborg with vine leaves in his hair. For her he represents spontaneity and creative genius: a life shared with him would have been very different from the future she faces as the wife of Jorgen Tesman.
Spider Web for Hedda and Loevborg
Together on stage, under the watchful eyes of Judge Brack, Loevborg and Hedda exude a suppressed sexuality that is potentially explosive. Both of them are now trapped: Hedda in her doll’s house marriage and Loevborg in his relationship with Thea. Unlike Mrs Alving, Hedda makes no attempt to understand how and why she is trapped. Instead she lashes out in sheer frustration, venting her spite on Loevborg, for what might have been, and on Thea, for daring to ensnare her man.
By the end of the play, Hedda has burnt the manuscript of Loevborg’s new book, has driven her former hero to commit suicide, sees her husband responding warmly to Thea Elvsted and finds herself in the hands of Judge Brack who knows enough about her deeds to blackmail her into sleeping with him. Hedda’s doll’s house has turned into an emotional chamber of horrors.
Cold Atmosphere of the Play
Hedda Gabler is a cool, almost icy play. Even the laughter it provokes in production is at times sardonic. Like Ghosts, It is written to be deliberately provocative. It offers no tragic catharsis. What it leaves an audience with is a feeling of waste. There is potential and idealism in Hedda, but no outlet for it in contemporary society. (As Ibsen himself commented in his preliminary notes: ‘With Hedda, there is poetry deep down’.) Brought up to be ashamed of her own sex, deeply imbued with a fear of scandal, Hedda cannot find a viable means of expressing her desire for personal freedom and fulfillment. Her real longing, as Eilert rightly suspected, was for a life in which there could be authenticity, truth and genuine reciprocity, in which there could be intellectual, emotional and sexual fulfillment without subterfuge and shame. Given the repressive values of her upbringing and social environment, such a life seems to her an impossible dream. Instead she chooses a conventional solution, allowing herself to be imprisoned in the kind of shallow marriage of convenience that was typical of the age. The result is a disaster for all concerned.
All that remains at the end of the play is the comic incongruity of Brack’s and Tesman’s response to her suicide:
Tesman: (shouts at Brack) She shot herself! Shot herself in the head! Just think!
Brack: (half paralyzed in the armchair) But, good God! People don’t do such things!
Their shocked response summed up an age when women were expected to conform to the written and unwritten rules of a patriarchal society. By underlining the precise social factors contributing to Hedda’s distressing psychological state, Ibsen made it clear that what happened to Hedda was neither inevitable nor pre-ordained. Nor was she simply an abnormal personality, as some contemporary critics assumed. Her actions are perfectly intelligible, even if emotionally immature and destructive, responses to the extreme pressures confronting her in the ruthless, male-dominated world in which she lives. Underneath the laughter in this tragic-comedy, Ibsen spelled out with almost icy clarity the price to be paid, in terms of human misery and suffering, for living in Hedda’s world. Through the use of laughter, its appeal was to the mind as well as to the heart. It was written, as was Ghost, with the conscious aim of challenging its audiences to reassess the value structures underpinning their society.