Henrik Ibsen portrays a microcosm of nineteenth century Norwegian society in his play Hedda Gabler. Hedda, the protagonist, exhibits a mixture of masculine and feminine traits due to her unique upbringing under General Gabler and the social mores imposed upon her. However, although this society venerates General Gabler because of his military status, his daughter Hedda is not tolerated due to her non-conformity to the accepted gender stereotypes.Hedda’s gender-inverted marriage to Jorgen Tesman, her desire for power and her use of General Gabler’s pistols are unacceptable in her society and motif of “One doesn’t do such a thing!” that is alluded to during the play and expounded upon Hedda’s death that shows that Hedda’s uncertain stance between masculine and feminine gender roles and their associated traits is not tolerated by her society.
Reversal of Traditional Gender Roles
Ibsen employs a reversal of traditional gender roles within Hedda and Jorgen Tesman’s marriage to emphasize Hedda’s masculine traits. Hedda displays no emotion or affection towards her husband Jorgen. This appearance of indifference is a trait that is usually common to men:
Tesman: My old morning shoes. My slippers look!…I missed them dreadfully. Now you should see them, Hedda.
Hedda: No thanks, it really doesn’t interest me.
In another gender role reversal, Hedda displays a financial awareness, which her husband, Jorgen does not posses. Although Brack corresponds with Tesman about his honeymoon travels, he corresponds with Hedda concerning the financial matters. This is a role that is usually reserved for men.
Hedda does not only display traits, which are definitively masculine, or feminine, she also objects to and often defies the conventions established for her gender by society. She rejects references to her pregnancy as a reminder of her gender:
Tesman: Have you noticed how plump (Hedda’s) grown, and how well she is? How much she’s filled out on our travels?
Hedda: Oh be quiet!
Hedda is reminded not only of her feminine role of mother and nurturer here, but also as wife and “appendage” to Tesman. As a woman of the haute bourgeoisie, Hedda is “sought after” and “always had so many admirers” and has been “acquired” by Tesman as his wife. Hedda resents the gender conventions that dictate that she now “belongs” to the Tesman family - a situation that would not occur were she a man.
Tesman: Only it seems to me now that you belong to the family…
Hedda: Well, I really don’t know…
Although these traits displayed by Hedda are masculine, they are not those, which her society cannot tolerate. To entertain herself in her “boring” marriage she plays with her father, General Gabler’s pistols.
Hedda: Sometimes I think I only have a talent for one thing…boring myself to death! I still have one thing to kill time with. My pistols, Jorgen. General Gabler’s pistols.
Tesman: For goodness’ sake! Hedda darling! Don’t touch those dangerous things! For my sake, Hedda!
These pistols are a symbol of masculinity and are associated with war, a pastime which women are excluded from other than in the nurturing role of nurses and are thus not tolerated by society. Tesman implores Hedda to cease playing with them, but even his “superior” position as her husband does not dissuade Hedda, who is found to be playing with them by Brack at the beginning of act two. Brack also reminds Hedda of the inappropriate nature of her “entertainment” and physically takes the pistols away from Hedda.
Hedda: I’m going to shoot you sir!
Brack: No, no, no!…Now stop this nonsense! (taking the pistol gently out of her hand). If you don’t mind, my dear lady.…Because we’re not going to play that game any more today.
As a parallel to Hedda’s masculine game of playing with General Gabler’s pistols, Hedda plays the traditionally female role of a “minx” with Brack.
Hedda: Doesn’t it feel like a whole eternity since we last talked to each other?
Brack: Not like this, between ourselves? Alone together, you mean?
Hedda: Yes, more or less that.
Brack: Here was I, every blessed day, wishing to goodness you were home again.
Hedda: And there was I, the whole time, wishing exactly the same.
At the beginning of act two, Hedda encourages Brack’s flirtation with her by telling him the true nature of her marriage to Tesman that it is a marriage of convenience:
Brack: But, tell me…I don’t quite see why, in that case…er…
Hedda: Why Jorgen and I ever made a match of it, you mean? I had simply danced myself out, my dear sir. My time was up.
Brack is emboldened by Hedda’s seeming availability and pursues the notion of a “triangular relationship” with Hedda. Not only does Hedda’s “coquettish” behaviour towards Brack exhibits the feminine side of her nature, it also demonstrates that in some instances she conforms to society’s expectations of females. Hedda’s reference to “(her) time (being) up” shows the socially accepted view that women must marry, because they are not venerated as spinsters. By conforming to this aspect of her society’s mores and marrying before she becomes a socially unacceptable spinster, Hedda demonstrates that she is undeniably female and accepts this.
Hedda constantly seeks power over those people she comes in contact with. As a woman, she has no control over society at large, and thus seeks to influence the characters she comes into contact with in an emulation of her father’s socially venerated role as a general. Hedda pretends to have been friends with Thea in order to solicit her confidence:
Thea: But that’s the last thing in the world I wanted to talk about!
Hedda: Not to me, dear? After all, we were at school together.
Thea: Yes, but you were a class above me. How dreadfully frightened of you I was in those days!
Once Hedda learns of Thea’s misgivings about Loevborg’s newfound resolve, she uses it to destroy their “comradeship”.
Hedda: Now you see for yourself! There’s not the slightest need for you to go about in this deadly anxiety…
Loevborg: So it was deadly anxiety …on my behalf.
Thea: (softly and in misery) Oh, Hedda! How could you!
Loevborg: So this was my comrade’s absolute faith in me.
Hedda then manipulates Loevborg, by challenging his masculinity, into going to Brack’s bachelor party and resuming his drunken ways. Hedda’s “reward” for this is to find that Loevborg’s manuscript, his and Thea’s “child” falls into her hands, where she burns it, thus destroying the child and also the relationship, both of which Hedda was jealous of.
Similarly, Hedda seeks to push her husband, Jorgen, into politics: “(I was wondering) whether I could get my husband to go into politics…” This would raise Hedda’s social standing and allow her to attain and maintain power. Hedda’s manipulation of people in order to attain power is a trait that is stereotypically predominant in men. The society of nineteenth century
venerates the image of submissive, static passive and pure women. Roles of power are normally allocated to men in such a society. Norway
The society in Hedda Gabler demonstrates its intolerance of Hedda’s masculine behavior by contributing to her death. Hedda is found to be playing with her pistols in act two by Brack. After disgracing himself and returning to his “immoral” ways at Hedda’s behest, Loevborg is manipulated by Hedda into “taking his life beautifully” and she gives him one of General Gabler’s pistols. However Loevborg dies from an accidental wound to the stomach rather than a patrician death from a bullet to the head and Brack, utilizing his position of power within the judicial system, sees the pistol that he accidentally killed himself with. Recognizing it as being General Gabler’s pistol, he returns to Hedda to stake his claim. Hedda refuses to be in the power of Brack, she had been “heartily thankful that (he had) no power over (her)” however, her fear is realized as Brack attempts to force his way into a “triangular relationship” with Hedda (and Tesman) in return for not exposing the scandal that she had provided Loevborg with the instrument of his death. Hedda is “as fearful of scandal as all that” and takes her life, ironically avoiding the scandal surrounding Loevborg’s death and yet causing a scandal concerning her own. Hedda’s masculine preference for the pistols to any feminine task of housekeeping and her fear of scandal due to not conforming with society’s accepted gender roles leads her to kill herself, thus demonstrating that things which “one doesn’t do” are not tolerated by her society of nineteenth century Norway.