Oh, Hedda! What ever did you mean?


Last night Brian went out for drinks and I stayed home with Hedda Gabler and some other books for company. Not only that, I ate lentils and did laundry – so productive was I in my solitude! Welcome after a week of activity and more coming this weekend – I sank into Ibsen’s play with some relief at having the time to take it in a single sitting. But despite last night’s devourings, it turns out I’m going to have to read again – so nuanced is the play in its characters, symbols, and staging – I am going to see if I can also track down a theatrical production of it on DVD through the library.

This strange work put me in mind of a debate that ensued at Wednesday night’s class dinner about whether Madame Bovary was a real character or a caricature (there will be another post on this shortly). Hedda Gabler certainly straddles the same line as Emma Bovary – vain, hedonistic, stifled by middle class existence, a machiavel in her own title story – and like Emma, Hedda’s romanticism is thwarted by physical and psychic realities of others.My classmate E. maintains that Flaubert is sexist for his portrayal of Bovary, and now I wonder what she will say about Hedda? Is she a character to be believed? Identified with? Reviled?

I do not want to paint a simplistic picture of Hedda here, so I will leave it to you to read the play if you are interested in Ibsen’s character. Instead, I am eager to jot down a few impressions that I had on my first reading, as I sift through the question of what exactly Ibsen was trying to get at through Hedda, Jorgen, Elvert and the rest. This is a play full of tensions which are acted on and reacted too by characters seemingly unconscious of the scheming at work by Hedda (who claims to be motivated by boredom but seems propelled by much darker forces). Rather than attempting to go at this by theme, I am going to look at Hedda’s relations to the other characters in an effort to untangle her motivations a bit more fully.

Tension #1: Hedda/The Aunts – Hedda refuses to submit to her Jorgen’s will that she treat his Aunts as family. She brushes off Aunt Julle, refuses to visit dying Aunt Rina, and suggests to Jorgen that she should not have to deal with the unpleasantness of old people in his life. While she agrees to use the term Aunt in reference to the woman who raised her husband, Hedda will not agree to speak in a more gentle or familiar tone with her. This tension is layered in generational difference, class difference, and a general revulsion by Hedda for anything less than fully alive which shows up in her observation of the dying leaves of autumn.  

Tension #2: Hedda/General Gabler – General Gabler is deceased and yet present from the very first glimpse of the stage in the form of a domineering portrait which oversees the “inner chamber” of the living quarters to which Hedda ends up retreating by the end of the play. The fact that the play is titled after Hedda’s maiden rather than married name of Tesman is indicative that Ibsen’s creation is more of or like her father than her new husband’s family. General Gabler in life was an aristocrat and senior military figure to whom Hedda refers fondly, and yet she is ultimately abandoned by him – impoverished after the General’s death she accepts a marriage proposal in order to secure financial support. Her aristocratic roots are thwarted by the middle-class ground she is thrust into – one symbol of this is the piano which comes from her old life but does not fit into the new one.

Tension #3: Hedda/Jorgen – Jorgen is a collector of artifacts, and without realizing it, Hedda has become the collected. Even though she attempts to dominate her marriage by demanding a particular kind of honeymoon and house, the end of the play reveals that she is merely another curiosity which Jorgen might distractedly hand off in search of “truth”. Life through Jorgen is stultifying and conventional – he revels in the destruction of his academic rival Eilert Lovborg, a man who disgraced himself before society – and is smug in his own “fitting-in”. Jorgen is the character who most represents social values, and yet is still shown to be ethically wanting near the end when he discovers that Hedda has destroyed an important manuscript of Eilert’s and argues with her to cover it up so no one will find out. Jorgen is all repression – internally, externally – valuing objects which are old and have more sentiment than aesthetic qualities – quickly turning from the real world into the libraries and ideas which keep him separated from true human feeling. Hedda despises this, and I infer that she originally believed he would not pose a threat to her upon courtship, but by the time of the play (after a five month honeymoon) she has recognized what a threat he is to her *existence*. Because of their tenuous financial position, Jorgen threatens her social and financial “requirements” to which Hedda retorts that at least she has her pistols (inherited from her father) to keep her amused. Jorgen is affable, but his conventionality is its own trap for Hedda.

Additionally we are to guess that Hedda may be pregnant, a situation which she refuses to talk about and seems distressed by. While this makes her a creative agent in the play, it also represents the loss of physical autonomy (her suicide at the end of the play is at least partially an act of reclaiming body autonomy). I also think that Hedda’s strong reaction to cut flowers (which she has removed from the room) are a reaction to that same impulse – cut flowers representing a kind of contraction or mutilation of sexual desire.

Tension #4: Hedda/Lovborg – Lovborg is the creative genius of the play, tormented by drink and bad behaviour and yet capable of the greatest intellectual heights. Formerly besotted with Hedda (those Jorgen is not aware of this), Lovborg is brought back under her power through the manipulation of his lover/comrade Mrs. Elvsted’s words. Thwarted by her lack of positive creative ambition (which Lovborg possesses – he has just made a success of a history tome and is working on a projection of civilization in the future in this play), Hedda channels a negative creativity in an attempt to guide the destructive aspects of Lovborg into a triumph against bourgeois society. By encouraging him to drink and go out into Brack and Tesman’s bachelor party, she hopes that Lovborg will break free of social niceties and take on a more heroic mantle (returning with vine leaves in his hair) in deference to her inspiration. (She is covetous and jealous of Lovborg’s creativity simultaneously.)  When this goes wrong, she instructs him in a beautiful suicide and hands him one of her pistols. But even though Lovborg turns up dead, Brack reveals that he has died in an entirely different way, shooting himself accidentally in the stomach during an altercation in the boudoir of one of his former lovers. Instead of the exulted victory and death Hedda has imagined for him, Lovborg ends up dying in the most scandalous way – which then threatens her own existence further as Brack is aware that Lovborg possessed her pistol. Lovborg is Jorgen’s opposite, the artist to the pretender – and it is intimated that Hedda too is a pretender, and ultimately a coward afraid to act even as she encourages others to do so. Her creativity (the baby growing in her) is not at her direction, whereas Lovborg when sober commands full control over his work which is brilliant. Lovborg’s death underscores this lack of control Hedda has over her creations and manipulations. Her fear of scandal ultimately reveals her own deep cowardice which she would rather purge (through suicide) than face up to or live with.

These are not the only relationships or tensions in the play, there are the further characters of Berta, Brack and Mrs. Elvstead who Hedda pushes up against in these last thirty-six hours of her life. While I recognize that dichotomies can be limiting, some of the competing themes which come to mind in this work are:

  • Aristocratic/Bourgeois
  • Creative/Fallow
  • Conventional/Rebellious
  • Young/Old
  • Society/Autonomy
  • Sexuality/Motherhood

Ibsen said of the ending, “Life is not tragic.–Life is ridiculous–And that cannot be borne.” – Does Hedda Gabler skirt the edges of absurdism? Does “heroic acceptance of life,” apply to a suicide? I have a difficult time with that, since heroic acceptance would imply that Hedda is able to see life for what it is and yet still live to some potential with that knowledge. And yet, one of the responses to the aburdist dilemma is suicide. In the case of Hedda – a woman who can not control her own impulsive desires to hurt others – it is difficult to imagine her going on in the pedestrian (yet kind) household of the Tesman family, raising a child and being at the mercy of Brack’s physical advances. In that situation she would be more confined than Lovborg who could at least escape to his intellect rather than succumb to the yawns of polite society. We could view Hedda as a tragic character, whose nasty ministrations are simply the byproduct of a society which did not let women rise above the roles of wife and mother – and yet this character-type has not disappeared with the struggle for women’s equality. (I’m thinking now about a co-worker who brings to mind this same kind of manipulative absurdity and dramatic need for conflict).

Hedda Gabler defies – but what does it defy? Society? Conventionality? And to what end if the defiant simply end up dead by gunshot?

Should be an interesting discussion next week!

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