In Act 1 of Hedda Gabler, Tesman and Hedda have just returned from their honeymoon. Tesman’s Aunt Juliana has paid them a welcome-home morning visit, and just before she leaves, gives her nephew a little package wrapped in newspaper:
Tesman: (opens the package) what is it, Tesman, you’ve kept them! Hedda, this is really very touching. What?
Hedda: (by the what-nots on the right) what is it, Tesman?
Tesman: My old shoes! My slippers, Hedda!
Hedda: Oh, them. I remember you kept talking about them on our honeymoon.
Tesman: Yes, I missed them dreadfully. (Goes over to her). Here, Hedda, take a look.
Hedda: (goes away towards the stove) Thanks, I won’t brother.
This tiny incident of the slippers dramatizes how intensely Hedda’s husband is still a small boy, surrounded by the smothering, adoring love of his two maiden aunts and their elderly maid, Bertha, in which he has been brought up. But perhaps ‘small boy’ is wrong. Their possessive idolatry has turned him too into a kind of old woman, obsessed by the little rituals of his own comfort. Hedda’s lack of interest in the slippers, her curt ‘I won’t bother’, reveals the quiet desperation of her realization that she has married not only Tesman but Auntie Juju and Auntie Rena and Bertha as well. She has married into a claustrophobic coziness completely hostile to her conception of herself as a free, proud and aristocratic spirit.
As Ibsen himself puts it in the draft notes for the play:
George Tesman, his old aunts, and the elderly serving-maid Bertha, together form a whole and a unity. They have a common way of thinking, common memories, and a common attitude to life. For Hedda they appear as an inimical and alien power directed against her fundamental nature.
The realistic surface details – the slippers, the chintz covers, Auntie Juju’s new hat – are convincing at the naturalistic level, then, but are only of dramatic importance in so far as Ibsen uses them, as he habitually does, to enable us to penetrate that surface to the hidden truth beneath.
It would be wrong, then, to confuse Ibsen’s use of realistic detail, so intimately connected with psychological revelation of character, with the very different, less selective realism of the documentary kind. But even more important, Ibsen’s plays are not ‘problem plays’: they are only superficially ‘about’ the topical social issues of his day. This is true even of plays like Ghosts and A Doll’s House, and certainly of a play Like Hedda Gabler. The real inner center of Ibsen’s drama is its powerful portrayal of the fundamental clash between man and society. This is what prevents Ibsen’s plays from seeming dated, and what gives some of them what many seek is a tragic intensity.