Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hedda Gabler: A Play of Destruction

Loevborg:    Why did you not shoot me then?
Hedda:        Because I have such a dread of scandal.

For Hedda ‘shooting’ and ‘scandal’ are opposite quantities. Her father’s pistols are her solace and her strength against a world in which scandal and its constituents are dominant. And Hedda, when she is ‘bored’ is admitting in the only way she can that life is more inclined towards scandal than towards pistols. The key to Ibsen’s play lies in this opposition of hers. Ibsen’s intention is to juxtapose in the character of Hedda the two forces by which her life is ruled, and through the conflict of which, destroyed.
Loevborg and Hedda
The phrase, which Hedda uses to describe Loevborg, has the same romantic implications as her pistol-shooting: He must have ‘vine leaves in his hair’, and he must have the courage to keep them there when the entire world knows that he is simply drunk. For Loevborg, in spite of his gifts, he is a character with weakness, which even the abstracted academic George Tesman can perceive clearly. But these very weaknesses make him amenable to Hedda, for they seem to be anti-social, and Hedda is primarily concerned to reject a society, which makes life too painful, too boring for her. So that Hedda is drawn to Loevborg whilst he is dissolute, for his dissipation are a protection and an assertion for her. But if she is drawn to him it must not be thought she loves him when there relationship promises to become physical, adult, anything beyond the talking stage, Hedda rejects Loevborg. He might be forcing ‘scandal’ on her; she is not interested in anything but the ‘rebellion’, which she and Loevborg can talk together.
Hedda’s Idealism
So ‘scandal’ is for Hedda Gabler the physical reality of life, and it is this reality, which must be subjected to the romanticism of ‘vine leaves’ and pistols. Hedda is rejecting sexuality, and in this rejection we find one source of her frigidity, her inhumanity, and her idealism. It is Hedda’s idealism with which Ibsen is most concerned.
The usual public for the play takes Hedda as a femme fatale to be played with melodramatic verve by the latest serious actress, and Thea, the women whom Loevborg calls ‘comrade’ when he is sober and reformed; they take to be the idealist. And certainly Thea is platonic in her regard for Loevborg; she is concerned with soul-saving, with great ideals with nature sweet-and-pure. But if she is white then so is Hedda, for they are equi-distant from reality. Hedda because she takes drunken libidinousness to be romantic, and Thea because she has conquered it as Una conquered the lion. The woman in both of them is far from the man in Loevborg, and he too is far from his masculinity for he alternately takes these man-eaters to be authentic women.
Hedda’s Madness
Ibsen takes the extreme case in Hedda Gabler. Hedda is so for gone with the idealist rot that she cannot for a moment acknowledge reality. Life is continually letting her down, only her fantasy of life as it ought to be, clear and beautiful—for Thea this become sweet and pure—remains constant to her. And this degree of idealistic fervor Ibsen considers madness. Mad, Hedda certainly is. Mad in her insistence upon the rightness of her vision against all reality, mad in her idealistic meddling in the lives of people sufficiently tainted with idealism themselves to be quarry for her, mad, finally, in the complete servility of her fate. For Hedda is proven wrong most drastically in the conclusion of the play, Judge Brack, the scheming political man has her completely at his disposal. Her ideals lead to his kind of servility, to be exploited and possessed by a ’smiling sixty-year old public man’. And to this point she comes by way of the myth of self-sufficiency, controlling her own and men’s destinies.
Hedda’s Farcical and Abnormal Behavior
In a sense Hedda Gabler is a farce. Hedda is continually made ridiculous by the facts as Ibsen reveals them. Her favorite romanticism, suicide by shooting, is not spared ridicule either. Hedda’s victory promises to be the subjection of Loevborg to the destiny which she has worked out for him—this suicide by shooting. And Loevborg is hypnotically instructed to shoot himself cleanly through the temple. In point of fact the gun kills him when it accidentally goes off in his pocket, and Loevborg dies slowly with his bowels torn to pieces. The death of Loevborg then is the significant crisis in the play. It represents to Hedda the final obtrusion of reality upon her identity for the final victory of the fantasy has become dirtied by scandal the too-physical image of Loevborg, her Pagan god, dying with his bowels spattered about the room. At no point in her history has the ideal projected upon this or that external reality, justified to Hedda. At no point has she accepted reality as an adult is forced to accept it, and with its pain and its conflicts, attempted to negotiate it. Hedda remains a child, and her way out of this disillusionment is by the deluded way of a child. If reality will not conform to her pattern then she will escape reality, she will escape scandal, dirt, disillusion. She will deny herself to reality and to Judge Brack, she will win the empty victory of suicide, and she will die the death of the hero, a death which will be a gesture of defiance to the dirty world.
So Hedda fulfilling the logic Ibsen perceives operative in the neurotic life of such a romantic idealist kills herself. She represents the wastage of a system of thinking and feeling which places the highest valuation upon the beauty of as opposed to the grimness of reality. And it is wastage not only of Hedda, but of Loevborg’s genius and masculinity, of his work, and finally the child Hedda might be carrying. This child can be considered the final assault of reality ‘scandal’ upon Hedda. She follows out the logic of rejection; her own sexuality, male sexuality, adult responsibility, conflict, the child, and life are all made dirt and are destroyed. 

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