Modern criticism of Hedda Gabler rests on the idea that a male dominated society repressed and limited Hedda’s brilliance.
Ibsen studied the repressed conditions of women in many of his plays; however his own view of women was limited by his “celebration of their primary role as the nurturing mothers whose mission is to educate the young.” No wonder there is no solution for Hedda but suicide. She clearly would never make a good mother, and there was nothing else for such a woman to do unless she could nurture a man’s genius, as Thea did. Nurturing genius, however, was clearly not Hedda’s gift. General Gabler’s pistols were, finally, the only option for his daughter.
Hedda Gabler is set about thirty years earlier than when it was written. Clurman writes that:
It was a period, Ibsen once remarked, when women were not allowed to play any role apart from marriage and motherhood. The “protection” they enjoyed separated them from the realities of life. Hedda shuns everything painful and ugly; she cannot tolerate the sight of sickness or death. She is already pregnant when the play opens, but mention of it is abhorrent to her....Small wonder then that she admits that all she is good for is boring herself to death.
And yet Thea breaks out of this sheltered life. Hedda is a victim, but she is also a coward.
Both George Tesman and Eilert Loevborg develop their identities through their professions. They compete for fame and position through training, effort and intellect. Hedda, however, has no profession, nor does she care about anything. She has no interest in what Eilert writes, only in his potential fame and glamour, and in his rivalry with her husband. She can only compete with Thea for control of a man, not to develop a personal identity. Worse, Hedda’s control is destructive, while Thea’s is healing and creative. Hedda married George Tesman to establish a social life as the wife of a professor; she wanted to control Eilert Loevborg destructively to rival Thea’s constructive control as the inspiring force behind his genius.
Hedda’s only stable identity is as General Gabler’s daughter. She has no life of her own, no projects of her own. Although she envies Eilert Loevborg’s freedom and wildness, she shows no interest at all in the content of his writing, nor is she willing to risk scandal personally. She cooperates, in short, with the extremely limited role offered by her social condition.
Both the play and Hedda herself are limited to what can be said and done around a lady. As
points out, The world beyond Hedda’s house includes: Lyons
...drunkenness, prostitution, financial reckless-ness...the exploitation of women, and the threat of poverty....(Loevborg)...dies from an accidental gunshot wound in an apartment that functions, at least temporarily, as a brothel....
The respectable Judge Brack is obviously familiar with Mademoiselle Danielle, the prostitute in whose rooms Eilert died. Further, Brack tries to use his knowledge that Eilert used Hedda’s revolver to blackmail Hedda into having an adulterous affair with him. Brack has evidently enjoyed a series of such adulterous relationships with other respectable women. Even the respectable, scandal-fearing Hedda, is clearly fascinated by hearing about the disreputable goings-on at Mademoiselle Danielle’s.
Hedda’s fascination with the forbidden male world of freedom and excess draws her to both Loevborg and Brack, and finally leads to her destruction. Her gender, class, and loathing of everything ugly limit what she is able or willing to hear about the outside world. Events are reported to the house, but only in terms acceptable to Hedda. Such restraint is imposed by society, as well as by Hedda’s wishes.
Her lack of knowledge of the outside world probably is a major factor in her romantic idealization of Loevborg’s wildness and lack of self-control. She has never seen him drunk or in sordid surroundings; she only heard his stories about his escapades and imagines him carousing as a Dionysian god with vine-leaves in his hair instead of as a stumbling drunk frequenting brothels. Hedda does not even understand the concept of Dionysios correctly. She just is aware of the carousing and freedom of the god, not of his creative inspiration and potential for creating social cohesion.
Her questioning of Loevborg years earlier showed her desire for information about this forbidden male world. But, ultimately, Hedda is determined not to break the taboos of her society and when she felt she had to choose between Loevborg and following the rules, she chose the rules and a loveless marriage to Tesman.
Ultimately, Hedda never does understand the creative genius which Thea is able to nurture in Eilert Loevborg. Hedda romanticizes his weaknesses, confusing his lack of self-control with god-like courage. She idealizes his death as noble instead of a sordid accident, and when she is trapped by Brack’s blackmail, she chooses the coward’s way out—suicide—to escape from a situation largely of her own making.
To conclude, we can say that Hedda is a creature of the nineteenth century, and that her romantic ignorance of what matters and what is real would not occur today. However, it would be foolish to deny that there are plenty of people, now and always, who dislike the petty limitations of real life and take refuge in their fantasies, confusing rebellion with creativity, self-indulgence with freedom and destruction with fulfillment.