The Function of Symbols
Criticism of the “naturalistic” plays of Ibsen has been so largely directed toward establishing his stature as psychologist and social iconoclast that his characteristic use of functional imagery in Hedda Gabler has been for the most part neglected. Of course such statements as Gosse’s that “there is “no species of symbol” in the play have not stood uncorrected”.But Jeannette Lee’s interpretation of Hedda (committed, by her own admission, to the gentian policy of going round about) as “a pistol, deadly, simple, passionless and straight,” is confusing, and Miss Lee’s allegorical exegesis, in which the soul of the poet (the manuscript) is destroyed through the combined effort of animality (Madame Diana) and cold intellect (Hedda), despite the efforts of love (Thea) may be regarded as an oversimplification of the ironic world-view to which Ibsen’s total achievement bears witness. Auguste Ehrhard more convincingly interpreted Loevborg’s book as the future, which Hedda, the demon of destruction, attempts to impede and destroy, but Ehrhard’s discussion omits consideration of other important symbols. In short, while these studies have indicated another perspective from which Ibsen’s artistry may be profitably examined, their effect is to provoke reinvestigation, of rather than to explain satisfactorily, the meaning and function of the symbols.
The Relationship of Symbols with Theme
During the course of the play, Ibsen places considerable emphasis upon Thea’s hair, upon the manuscript as her “child,” and upon General Gabler’s pistols, and his treatment of these items suggests that he intended them to have symbolic significance. We shall be concerned in this essay with determining this significance and its effect upon the total meaning of the play. Our analysis of the three symbols in their relationship to the theme, the characters, and the action will be based upon several broad assumptions, which reflect views of Ibsen’s concepts and methods implied or expressed by a number of previous commentators: 1) In Hedda Gabler Ibsen examines the possibility of attaining freedom and fulfillment in modern society. 2) Hedda is a woman not a monster neurotic but not psychotic thus she may be held accountable for her behavior. But she is spiritually sterile. Her yearning for self-realization through exercise of her natural endowments is in conflict, is complicated by her incomplete understanding of what freedom and fulfillment mean and how they may be achieved. She fails to realize that one must earn his inheritance in order to possess it and she romanticizes the destructive and sensational aspects of Dionysiac ecstasy without perceiving that its true end is regeneration through sublimation of the ego in a larger unity. 3) Ibsen, as an experienced artist, was aware of the impact of minutiae and the need for integrating these with the general impression to be projected therefore we may regard his description his stage direction and his properties, no less than his dialogue, as means where by intention and significance are conveyed.
Symbolic Significance of Hedda and Thea
While all the other characters in Hedda Gabler are implicitly compared to Hedda and serve, in one way or another, to throw light upon her personality, Thea Elvsted is the one with whom she is most obviously contrasted. Furthermore, their contest for the control of Loevborg is the most prominent external conflict in the play. The sterility-fertility antithesis from which central action proceeds is chiefly realized through the opposition of these tows. Hedda is pregnant, and Thea is physically barren. But in emotionally repudiating her unborn child, Hedda rejects what Ibsen considered woman’s opportunity to advance the march of progress. The many other symptoms of her psychic sterility need little enlargement. Unwilling to give or even share herself, she maintains her independence at the price of complete frustration. Ibsen uses Thea, on the other hand to indicate a way freedom, which Hedda never apprehends. Through her ability to extend herself in comradeship with Loevborg, Thea not only brings about the rebirth of his creative powers, butt merges her own best self with his to produced a prophecy of the future conceivably of the Third Kingdom in which Ibsen believed that the Ideals of the past would coalesce in a new and more perfect unity. Having lost herself to find her self she almost instinctively breaks with the mores of her culture in order to ensure continuance of function. Despite her palpitating femininity, she is the most truly emancipated person in the play. And it is she who wins at least a limited victory in the end. Although Loevborg has failed her, her fecundity is indefatigable: as Hedda kills herself, Thea is busily preparing to recreate her child with Tesman, thereby at once enabling him to realize his own little talents, and weakening even further the tenuous bond which ties him to Hedda.
The contrast outlined above is reinforced by the procreative imagery of the play. The manuscript is Loevborg’s and Thea’s “child,” the idea of progress born of a union between individuals who have freed themselves from the preconceptions of their environment. This manuscript the sterile Hedda throws into the fire at the climax of her vindictive passion. Her impulse to annihilate by burning is directed both onward Thea’s “child” and toward Thea’s hair and calls attention to the relationship between them. Even without other indications that Ibsen was using hair as a symbol of fertility; such an inference might be made from the words which accompany the destruction of the manuscript:
Now I am burning your child, Thea! Burning it, curly-clock! Your child and Eilert Loevborg’s. I am burning- I am burning your child.
There is, however, considerable evidence, both before and after this scene, that Thea’s hair is a sign of that potency which Hedda envies even while she ridicules and bullies its possessor. Ibsen, of course, had ample precedent for employing hair as a symbol of fertility. Perhaps the best support for the argument that he made a literary adaptation of this well-known, ancient idea in Hedda Gabler is a summary of the instances in which the hair is mentioned.
Although Ibsen’s unobtrusive description of the hair of each of these women at her initial entrance may seem at the time only a casual stroke in the sketch, it assumes importance in retrospect. Hedda’s hair is “not particularly abundant,” whereas Thea’s is “unusually abundant and wavy.” Hedda’s strongest impression of Thea is of that abundance:
She recalls her as “the girl with irritating hair that she was always showing off.” Moreover Thea fearfully recollects Hedda’s school-girl reaction to it: “… when we met on the stairs you used always to pull my hair … Yes, and once you said you would burn it off my head.” When Thea and Loevborg first meet in the play, Hedda seats herself, significantly, between them; the brief exchange of questions and answers, which ensues, is notable for its overtones: “Is not she (Thea) lovely to look at?” Loevborg asks. Hedda, lightly “Only to look at?” Loevborg asks. Hedda, lightly stroking Thea’s hair, answers, “Yes. For we two—she and I—we two are real comrades.” Later, when the women are alone, Hedda, now fully informed of the extent to which Thea has realized her generative powers, laments her own meager endowment and renews her threat in its adolescent terms:
Oh, If you could only understand how poor I am, and fate has made you so rich! (Clasps her passionately in her arms) I think I must burn your hair off after all.
Hedda’s violent gesture and Thea’s almost hysterical reaction (“Let me go! I am afraid of you, Hedda!”) Indicate the dangerous seriousness of words which otherwise might be mistaken for a joke; the threat prepares us for the burning of the manuscript, which follows in Act III. In the last tense scene of the play Hedda twice handles Thea’s hair. The reader’s imagination readily contracts the expressions and gestures whereby an actress could show Hedda’s true attitude toward the hair which Ibsen directs her to ruffle “gently: and to pass her hands “softly through.” The first gesture follows immediately upon an important action—Hedda has just removed the pistol to the inner room. The second accompanies dialogue which for the last time emphasizes Hedda’s association of the hair with Thea’s fertility and which brings home to Hedda her own predicament:
Hedda: (Passes her hands softly through Mrs. Elvsted’s hair). Doesn’t it seem strange to you, Thea? Here you are sitting with Tesman—just as you used to sit with Eilert Loevborg?
Mrs. Elvsted: Ah, if I could only inspire your husband in the same way!
Hedda: Oh, that will come too—in time.
Tesman: Yes, do you know, Hedda—I really think I begin to feel something of the sort. But won’t you go to sit with Brack again?
Hedda: Is there nothing I can do to help you two?
Tesman: No, nothing in the world.
These scenes in which the hair plays a part not only call attention to Hedda’s limitations but show her reaction to her partial apprehension of them. In adapting a primitive symbol, Ibsen slightly altered its conventional meaning, substituting physical for physical potency. Its primitivistic associations nevertheless pervade the fundamental relationships between the two women. The weapons Hedda uses against Thea are her hands and fire. The shock of the climactic scene results chiefly from seeing the savage emerge from behind her veneer of sophistication—the Hedda who feeds the manuscript to the flames is a naked woman engaged in a barbaric act. In contrast, the Hedda who handles her father’s pistols is self-consciously cloaked in illusions of her hereditary participation in a chivalric tradition.
The pistols, like many other symbols used by Ibsen, quite obviously are not merely symbols, but have important plot function as well. Moreover, their symbolic significance cannot be reduced to a simple formula, but must be thought of in the light of the complex of associations which they carry as Hedda’s legacy from General Gabler. Through Hedda’s attitude toward and uses of the pistols, Ibsen constantly reminds us that Hedda “is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife.” Clearly the pistols are linked with certain values in her background which Hedda cherishes. Complete definition of these values is difficult without a more thorough knowledge of Ibsen’s conception of a Norwegian general than the play or contemporary comment on it allows. Perhaps, as Brandes said, nineteenth century audiences recognized that Hedda’s pretensions to dignity and grandeur as a general’s daughter were falsely based, “that a Norwegian general is a cavalry officer, who as a rule, has never smelt powder, and whose pistols are innocent of bloodshed.” Such a realization, however, by no means nullifies the theoretical attributes and privileges of generalship to which Hedda aspires. Possibly Ibsen intended us to understand that Hedda is a member of a second generation of “ham actors” who betray their proud tradition by their melodramatic posturings. But it is this tradition. However ignoble its carrier, to which the pistols and Hedda (in her own mind) belong, and it is, after all, the general only as glimpsed through his daughter’s ambitions and conceptions of worth that is of real importance in the play. These conceptions, as embodied in Hedda’s romantic ideal of manhood, may be synthesized form the action and dialogue. The aristocrat possesses, above all, courage and self-control. He expressed himself through direct and independent action, living to capacity and scorning security and public opinion. Danger only piques his appetite, and death with honor is the victory to be plucked from defeat. But the recklessness of this Hotspur is tempered by a disciplined will, by means of which he “beautifully” orders both his own actions and those of others on whom his power is imposed. Such a one uses his pistols with deliberation, with calculated aim. He shoots straight—to defend his life or his honor, and to maintain his authority. Pistols, however, have an intrinsic glamour. Of the several possible accoutrements of a general, his pistols are those least likely to evoke thoughts of chivalric principles and most likely to recall the menace of the power vested in him. And such power, as Hedda Gabler shows us, delivered into the hands of a confused and irresponsible egotist, brings only meaningless destruction to all who come within its range.
Manipulation of the Pistols
The manipulation of the pistols throughout the play is a mockery of their traditional role. Except at target practice, Hedda Does not even shoot straight until her suicide. Her potential danger is recognized by both men whom she threatens, but both understand (Brack, immediately; Loevborg, in Act II) that her threat is a theatrical gesture, and that she has no real intention of acting directly, in defiance of the convention which bid her “go roundabout” Her crass dishonesty in her sexual encounters is highlighted by this gun play. She uses the pistols to be sure, to ward off or warn off encroachments upon her “honor” This honor, however, is rooted in social expedience rather than in a moral code. Having in-directly encouraged Loevborg by a succession of intimate tete-a-tetes, she poses as an outraged maiden when he makes amorous advances, thereby, as she later hints, thwarting her own emotional needs. Subsequently she sells her body to Tesman as cynically as (and far less honestly than) Madame Diana sells hers, then deliberately participates in the form, if not the substance, of marital infidelity with Brack in order to relieve her boredom. Both Hedda and Brack become aware of the cold ruthlessness of the other and the consequent danger to the loser if his delicate equilibrium of their relationship should be disturbed. But until the end Brack is so complacently convinced that Hedda is his female counterpart that he has no fear she will do more than shoot over his head; even as she lies dead, he can hardly believe that she has resorted to direct action —” People don’t do such things.”
Death of Loevborg
The part the pistols play in Loevborg’s death makes a central contribution to our understanding of the degree to which the ideals they represent are distorted by the clouded perspective from which Hedda views them. She has no real comprehension of, nor interest in, the vital creative powers Thea helps Loevborg to realize. Instead, she glorifies his weaknesses, mistaking bravado for courage, the indulgence of physical appetites for god-like participation in “the banquet of life,” a flight from reality for a heroic quest for totality of experience. Even more important is the fact that as she inhibits her own instinctive urge for fulfillment; she romanticizes its converse. Thus, having instigated his ruin, she incites Loevborg to commit suicide with her pistol. This radical denial of the will to live she arbitrarily invests with the heroism and beauty one associates with a sacrificial death; Hedda is incapable of making the distinction between an exhibitionistic gesture that inflates the ego, and the tragic death, in which the ego is sublimated in order that the values of life may be extended and reborn.
It would appear, then, that the symbols while they do not carry the whole thematic burden of Hedda Gabler, illuminate the meaning of the characters and the action with which they are associated. As Eric Bentley has suggested, the characters, like those in the other plays of Ibsen’s last period, are the living dead who dwell in a waste-land that resembles T.S Eliot’s. And, like Eliot later, Ibsen emphasized the aridity of the present by contrasting it with the heroic past. Indeed, Hedda Gabler may be thought of as a mock-tragedy, a sardonically contrived travesty of tragic action, which Ibsen shows us is no longer possible in the world is sick with a disease less curable than that of Oedipus’
or Hamlet’s Thebes . For its hereditary leaders are shrunken in stature, maimed and paralyzed by their enslavement to the ideals of the dominant middle-class. With the other hollow men, they despise but nonetheless worship the false gods of respectability and security, paying only lip-service to their ancestral principles. Such geniuses as this society produces are, when left to themselves, too weak to do more than batter their own heads against constricting barriers. They dissipate their talents and so fail in their mission as prophets and disseminators of western culture; its interpretation is left to the unimaginative pedant, picking over the dry bones of the past. Women, the natural seminal vesicles of that culture, the mothers of the future, are those most cruelly inhibited by the sterilizing atmosphere of their environment. At one extreme is Aunt Julia, the genteel spinster, over-compensating for her starved emotions with obsessive self-dedication. At the other is Diana, the harlot. Even Thea, the progenitive spirit, the girl with the abundant hair, is a frail and colorless repository for the seeds of generation. Her break with convention when it threatens her maternity is shown to be the one mode of escape from the fate that overtakes the others. But Ibsen gives her triumph, too, a ludicrous twist. Hardly having begun the mourning song for her Adonis, she brings forth her embryonic offspring form her pocket and proceeds to mold it into shape with the aid of a Tesman—an echo of the classic death and rebirth, to be sure, but one not likely to produce the glorious Third kingdom of which Ibsen dreamed. And appropriately bolding the center of the stage throughout is Hedda, in whom the shadows of the past still struggle in a losing battle with the sterile specter of the present. Her pistols are engraved with insignia which the others understand not at all and which she only dimly comprehends. Her colossal egotism, her lack of self-knowledge, her cowardice, render her search for fulfillment but a succession of futile blunders which culminate in the supreme futility of death. Like peer Gynt, she is fit only for the ladle of the button-molder; she fails to realize a capacity either for great good or for great evil. Her mirror-image wears the mask of tragedy, but Ibsen makes certain that we see the horns and pointed ears of the satyr protruding from behind it. Denmark