Ibsen has long been regarded as a special critic of Norwegian society in the 1870’s and 1880’s and hence as somewhat exclusively of his own time. However, he never was primarily a social critic; he was primarily dramatic craftsman and moralist. And his mature plays are still virtually unique in the firmness of their dramaturgy and of their moral conviction. With Strindberg and Chekhov he is one of the founders of the modern drama.
Hedda Gabler, the fruit of forty years of theatrical experience, represents his craftsmanship at its most assured. It is an almost perfectly artistic play—concentrated, coherent, symmetrical; and its structure is an almost perfect reflection of the nature of its leading character.
Central Motive of the Play
The central motive in the play is Hedda’s desire to mold a human destiny. She conceives this destiny as a triumph of the Dionysian spirit, for she would know vicariously an abandon that she cannot know in her own person; and she selects a man as her deputy because, having rejected her own womanhood, she identifies herself with the dominant male role. The play rises naturally to crisis when she sends Loevborg out, so she imagines, to an evening of exultant revel. But the collapse of her venture is inherent in the spirit in which she conceived it. What she calls her “craving for life” is not a natural appetite; her will to dominate men incorporates also her will to destroy them; she has inevitably selected a weakling to do her living for her. When the third-act curtain rises on the gray weariness of the morning after the play has turned as inevitably toward her catastrophe as before this it turned toward her illusory triumph. Her own character is a fate as unrelenting as any Delphic Oracle could have pronounced. Hence the Spare and classic structure of the play.
If Hedda Gabler is like the classic drama in its deft ordering of plot it resembles it too in its multitude of ironies. But as its plot is spun not by divine agency but by human character, so also its ironies are derived not from a metaphysical perspective but from an ethical one.
A Black Comedy
Enough of these ironies tend toward comedy to lighten the whole with a genuine if something grim humor. There is, for example; Aunt Julia’s utterly devoted, utterly damning admiration for a nephew whom “no one can beat” at “collecting and arranging things.” There is Tesman’s own perfectly daft accession of wonder when Hedda burn the manuscript (“I wonder; now, whether this sort of thing is usual in young wives? Eh?”). There is the descent from Hedda’s breathless memory of “something beautiful, something fascinating, something daring “to the bathos of the thing remembered: the prurient girl hiding behind an illustrated paper and listening to her young man talk about sex.
As these instances make clear, however, the disparities that such irony calls attention to are ethically revealing as well as something amusing. Ibsen often invites a double perspective of this sort when he is most deeply earnest. When he want to emphasize the difference between a superficial social view of people and a profoundly ethical view, he so orders his play that characters who are in sharp ethical contrast are placed in ironies juxtaposition.
Hedda Gabler and Her World
Hedda herself is high fashion. She has style and wit, and a kind of verve. But from a moral perspective, the attributes for which she is so generally admired are inconsequential. To contrast with her, Ibsen introduces good people and right actions through the back and side doors, so to speak, in humble and almost ridiculous guise. Loving-kindness enters in the person of a garrulous maiden aunt bearing an old pair of embroidered morning slippers.
Rectitude glimmers, goes out, and then glimmers again in her dull and pedantic nephew. But the most exact foil to Hedda is the fragile young woman from the provinces. “Dressed not quite in the latest fashion,” who reveals little by little the fullness of womanly courage and passion. Through these lesser characters, Ibsen would show us that human goodness characteristically reveals itself in those whom complacency would overlook and pride disdain.