Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is not truly indicative of his vast body of work: the protagonist is female, and the play is a character study. Oddly enough, though, Hedda does not evolve or progress throughout the entirety of the work. Rather, she remains a cold and manipulative woman.
When this fact is realized, the only task is discovering why Hedda continues as a flat character who is restrained from gaining the status of a hero. Truthfully, there are many variables that shape Hedda’s life. Nonetheless, two factors in particular stand out: her father, General Gabler, and the repressive, masculine society of the era. Although Ibsen does not directly address these issues, he succeeds in conveying their critical significance.
A common underlying theme in Ibsen’s work is the linking of death and music. And, as one might have deduced, this premise is employed in Hedda Gabler. Moreover, the ever-present piano belonging to the late General Gabler symbolizes Hedda’s past freedom, prior to marrying George Tesman, as the “General’s daughter.” A more obvious example of General Gabler’s influence over Hedda is the large portrait of him that dominates the “inner” room. In fact, as Ibsen initially describes the single set, he momentarily focuses on the presence of the portrait of the “handsome, elderly man in a General’s uniform” (Ibsen Act 1). With this description, the reader is made aware of the General’s presence, even after his death.
Arguably, the most significant influence the General has over Hedda is the fact that Hedda is unable to rid herself of her “Hedda Gabler” identity. It is extremely odd to be known by a name that is, in effect, a product of the past, as Hedda has recently become “Hedda Tesman.” Throughout the play, Hedda is referred to as “Hedda Gabler,” or more simply, “General Gabler’s daughter.” This fact is also indicative of the kind of “facelessness” that women of the era were often subject to. Yet another aspect of the General’s rearing of Hedda is her unusual fascination with his pistols.
This fascination is one of the first given clues that Hedda was raised as a boy would have been. The mere possibility of Hedda being raised as a male is sufficient evidence to explain her underlying disdain at being a woman unable to express herself as a man would. Instead, Hedda simply “contents herself with negative behavior instead of constructive action” (Linnea 91). Since she cannot express herself outright, she amuses herself by manipulating others. The most compelling episode of Hedda’s perfected brand of manipulation is the role she plays in the death of Eilert Lovborg, a former love.
Despite the fact that Eilert is the only person who can evoke true passion in her, Hedda feels the need to destroy him, purely for the purpose of “having the power to mould a human destiny” (Ibsen 2). Since she is unable to directly control anyone or anything, Hedda chooses to rebel against the society that shapes her and obliterate one of its future leaders. Needless to say, the Victorian era of literature and society did not offer a profusion of opportunities for young women. This fact is made abundantly clear in Hedda Gabler. Despite the fact that society stifles Hedda, it is not the only factor that restrains her from gaining independence, as well as expressing herself. In reality, Hedda’s own cowardice generously contributes to her inescapable end.
But, of course, the root of her cowardice is her former life involving her father, General Gabler. Even though Hedda takes pleasure in creating scandal, however, she is deathly frightened of being associated with it. One such incident involves Thea Elvsted, Hedda’s long-forgotten schoolmate, explaining to Hedda her current, scandalous situation concerning Eilert Lovborg, who is Thea’s stepchildren’s tutor. Specifically, Thea is rebelling against the conventions of society and pursuing Lovborg. Hedda, constantly aware of scandal, responds in a predictable manner: “But what do you think people will say of you, Thea?” (1).
This scene is the first of many that reveals Hedda’s inability to disregard society and scandal and live the life she has never dared to live. Indeed, the sole reason that Hedda marries George Tesman is due to the fact that he is the only one of her suitors that expresses an interest in marriage. Once again, Hedda’s fear of society’s ideals for women forces her to compromise her thoughts and desires, thereby causing her to feel jealous and trapped. “In Hedda’s mind, she has merely gone round and round the cage she has built for herself, looking for a way to escape” (Ellis-Fermor 43).
In other words, Hedda has come to the realization that there is no way out of her “place” in society, as well as life. She will never be any man’s equal or a “real” person. Also, much like the rest of society, Tesman views Hedda as an object, a collectible. Finally, due to the circumstances imposed upon her by Norwegian society, Hedda responds with the one act of courage she has managed to muster in her short, meaningless life – she kills herself with her father’s pistol. While Hedda is considerably responsible for her cowardice and her failure to sufficiently express herself, the way in which she was raised, as well as the society in which she lives, both play major roles in the shaping of her character. If it were not for her extenuating circumstances, as well as her solitary act of courage, one can only speculate what she might have come to represent in contemporary feminist literature.
However, literature is not founded on speculation and guesswork, it is based on visible feelings, emotions, and actions. With this in mind, one is forced to recognize what Hedda truly represents: the cold, emotionless product of a disapproving and domineering society and father.
- Ellis-Fermor, Una. “Introduction to Hedda Gabler and Other Plays.”
- Modern Critical Views: Henrik Ibsen. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. 41. Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler. Ed. Stanley Applebaum