In the late nineteenth century, the forces of capitalism and colonialism that shaped European society were veiled in doubt by the evolution of several new ways of thinking. InIn central
, the beginnings of the impressionist movement reformed art, drama and literature by questioning the long-standing tradition of realism. France
It was in this social milieu that Henrik Ibsen turned for a final time to write a play with a particular social agenda. In his effort to comment on events around him and assess the impact of society’s new ideologies on a specific echelon of society, Hedda Gabler was born.
The title of the play is the maiden name of its protagonist. The audience is invited into Hedda’s new home in
shortly after she has returned from honeymoon with George Tesman, a scholar of Middle Ages history. In the introductory conversation between George and their maid, Bertha, we are introduced to Hedda’s upbringing which is to play a crucial role in events to come. With the renowned General Gabler as a parent, Hedda was conditioned for a life of independence, entertainment and decadence. After her father dies and her life of horseback riding comes to an end, Hedda slowly realises that her society will not let her live in the way she would like. Norway
As a bourgeoisie woman, taking up a job is both awkward and very difficult for Hedda. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen demonstrates that it is usually only in times of desperation that a upper or middle class woman will work, as Nora was forced to do to save her husband’s life. Hedda has little choice: she must marry if she wants to have any chance of supporting the extravagant way of living to which she had become accustomed.
In George Tesman, Hedda found both the perfect solution of her situation and the inevitable curse of boredom and discontentment. George, brought up by his Aunts, is as conventional and colourless as his name suggests. His conversation is trite, and he is completely oblivious to the subtlety; failing to notice Aunt Julie’s suggestive questions about Hedda’s pregnancy. He is dedicated to his studies, having spent his honeymoon researching “marvelous old documents that nobody knew existed”.
It would have been very dangerous for Hedda to pass up George’s offer of marriage. With Loevborg and Brack, two men with whom she had relationships in the past, indisposed, doing so would have squandered her opportunity to live comfortably in marriage. Hedda realizes the merit in marrying a man who is to soon become a professor, and feels scared of approaching age and loneliness. Her decision, however, is guided predominantly by the structure of her patriarchal society which dictates that she must depend completely on men and on marriage for her future happiness.
It is with her marriage to George that Hedda’s life of monotony and boredom increasingly strains her personality and livelihood. She declares: “Sometimes I think I only have a talent for one thing… boring myself to death!” and becomes obsessed with the task of finding interest and beauty in her life. The tragedy of Hedda Gabler begins when Hedda is unable to discover these qualities in her own life. She cannot have the fulfillment of a profession - the interest in another world of studies, colleagues and relationships. As an uninfluential member of society, she is not challenged intellectually or socially. Living under a monarch and as a woman in a patriarchal society, she can have no influence on the future of her community. With European countries establishing colonies throughout the world, Hedda realizes the inexorable domination of her society and feels a helpless victim of its hegemony.
To find the interest and beauty she desires, Hedda must turn to others. In her earlier life, she made use of Loevborg to satisfy herself. Often described as Hedda’s alter ego, Loevborg had an intense relationship with Hedda during childhood. Hedda was attracted by the “style and Romantic secrecy” and ended the relationship when it threatened to become physical. In a revealing dialogue with Loevborg, Hedda exposes her profound desire for fascination and intrigue in an otherwise uninteresting life:
Do you find it so incredible that a young girl, given the chance in secret, should want to be allowed a glimpse into a forbidden world of whose existence she is supposed to be ignorant?
Society demands that Hedda be ignorant of the forbidden world she so desires, and it is because of this suffocation that Hedda’s actions become perverted. One outlet for her new boredom is playing with her father’s guns – one of few pastimes that seems to give her any satisfaction. After George remarks that they will be unable to afford a riding horse or a butler, Hedda confirms: “…at least I have one thing left to amuse myself with… my pistols, George.”
After George and Brack vehemently try to dissuade Hedda from playing with the pistols, we realize that their society considers it inappropriate for a woman to indulge in interests of this nature. Ibsen highlights Hedda’s perversion by reversing the gender roles of the married couple. Hedda’s horse riding and playing with guns are seen as masculine activities; and she speaks of the financial situation of the family, a role usually reserved for men. Most significantly, she scorns at the thought of being pregnant and rejects the role of childbearing that women would traditionally embrace. “Be quiet! You’ll never see me like that!”
Instead, Hedda embraces opportunities to find gratification through people around her. When Brack asks if she could not find a goal to work towards in her life, she responds by suggesting she could get Tesman into politics. At that point, we realise that her idea of finding fulfillment has become completely misguided. Hedda considers the contest between Loevborg and George for the professorship “like a kind of championship match.” To Thea Elvsted, she comments: “For once in my life, I want to have power over a human being.”
When Judge Brack comes to hold power over Hedda through his knowledge of the burnt manuscript, her quest appears a complete failure. The reality is that, in her society, it is impossible for a woman to hold power over anyone else except through the manipulation of others.
In Loevborg, Hedda sees the opportunity to witness beauty. She envisages Loevborg dying beautifully, “with a crown of vine leaves in his hair, burning and unashamed.” She encourages his suicide, handing him a pistol with which to commit the act. Jealous of Loevborg’s relationship with Thea and anxious to ensure he will carry out the “beautiful” act, Hedda burns Loevborg’s manuscript, the symbol of his relationship with Thea and the product of Thea’s inspiration of Loevborg that Hedda envies.
When carrying out these acts, Hedda is continually afraid of scandal. She worries enormously about how society will perceive her actions; an additional pressure with which she has to cope. Her fear of public scrutiny is demonstrated when she questions Thea: “But what do you think people will say?”
Ibsen makes use of the set in Hedda Gabler to illustrate the sum of these pressures on the protagonist. The Tesman’s residence is “decorated in dark colours” to create a sombre, melancholy mood. It is full of heavy wood furniture, and is covered with thick carpets. The set is symbolic of the life to which Hedda has committed herself – the death of her extravagant way of living and the start of a life of boredom. In the first two acts, the set is full of sinister bouquets of flowers which Hedda considers oppressive rather than refreshing as we would expect: “The room needs some fresh air. All these flowers!”
Judge Brack describes the smell of the residence as “a bequest from the late Mrs. Falk” – the smell of death already hangs over the characters, and, as the motif of death continues with the passing away of Aunt Rina and the obscure death of Loevborg, we realize that a climax as a result of the pressures placed on the protagonist is inevitable.
It is a culmination of these pressures that forces Hedda to suicide. In the final acts of the play, each one of these pressures grows to new proportions – the ungraceful death of Eilert and George’s plan to dedicate his life to the restoration of Loevborg’s book place added stress on Hedda. The event which finally impels Hedda to take her own life, though, is the thought of Brack having power over her through his blackmail involving the manuscript and the added grievance of knowing that she would have to spend every evening with the man. Brack ironically remarks: “We’ll have great times here together, the two of us!”
Hedda plays a wild tune which is almost as out of place in a household that is mourning as she is out of place in society, and ends her life beautifully with a shot to the temple.
Judge Brack’s concluding comment, “But good God! People don’t do such things!” establishes the conventionality and rigidity of his contemporary society. In the context of a society which placed significant pressures on women by denying them the life they desired, the outcome is not predictable. In Hedda’s case, a combination of pressures from her society and circumstances surrounding her upbringing lead to a perversion of her every action. Her suicide, then, is reasonable because the alternative would have been for Hedda to lead an unsatisfying life, continually restraining her behavior in fear of scandal.
In the late twentieth century, Hedda’s life may have been very different. The rise of materialism, technology and a culture of instant satisfaction have contributed to make contemporary society very different from that of the late nineteenth century. Hedda would have been able to develop a career, have a say in the future of her community and would have had suitable channels through which she could satisfy her desire for interest and beauty in life. Hedda Gabler is an outstanding example of the power of drama to illustrate the relationship between society and its members. Ibsen’s timeless reminder of how ordinary lives can be tainted by outside influences makes Hedda Gabler’s reasonable suicide a significant one in the study of literature.