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Strife: A Critical Review of Ibsen's Play Hedda Gabler

Updated on November 22, 2009



There are people in the world who enter the world quietly and leave it calmly. Death comes to these with a sort of demure beauty, because they have lived well and full lives. Their final acts are bittersweet, but not entirely desperate. Hedda Gabler, however, enters the reader’s world in a loose dressing gown, and leaves in a final display of lunacy. Every line in her strange debut brings the reader closer to an understanding of her, yet every line sends the reader deeper into a literary mist that surrounds the complex character of Hedda Gabler. She has recently married, but, for a young bride, is uncharacteristically cheerless. She lives in a grand house with a husband who adores her, but she seems unaware or apathetic of these things that could bring her joy. The reader is introduced to several characters, who, between themselves, inspire all the action of the play. Hedda inexplicably meddles in the affairs of her companions, but the other characters ultimately do what they choose. This two day tour into Hedda Gabler’s life constantly evokes confusion in the reader. Hedda’s actions, which exhibit her strong desire to be in control at all times, contradict each other. The unorthodox chain of events that causes the reader to be utterly perplexed are perhaps only a reflection of Ibsen’s truly intended theme-- confusion. Hedda demonstrates her own uncertainty with her inability to cope without a male influence, her aversion to normal domesticity, while refusing extramarital affairs and her distaste for lack of control, even as she tries to control others. Hedda Gabler, in fact, is a woman who, although in the midst of her own desperate power struggle, cannot determine what she wants.

Particularly in Hedda’s era, the influence of a strong father figure is difficult to overcome. Hedda’s father, General Gabler still looms over her- quite literally- in the form of a portrait. Yet, Hedda has married a man completely unlike her father must have been. George Tesman is a rather dull, mild-mannered, and simple man who is buried in his research. Her father was a military man who, even still, lends his methods of persuasion to Hedda’s life; she keeps his pistols and often takes them out to “play” (4.708) with them. Throughout the play, Hedda tries to claim the General’s power for her own, both through manipulation and with the famous guns. Interestingly, she attempts to shoot Judge Brack, but finds she cannot:

HEDDA. [Raises the pistol and aims.] Now, Judge Brack, I am going to shoot you.

BRACK. [Shouting from below.] No, no, no. Don’t stand there aiming at me like that.

HEDDA. That’s what you get for coming up the back way. [She shoots.]

BRACK. Are you out of your mind?

HEDDA. Oh, good Lord, did I hit you? (2.672)

A psychoanalytical critic could make the argument that Judge Brack represents Hedda’s father to her, because he, too, is a powerful man and has even exercised his influence to assist Hedda and her husband in acquiring their new house. This naturally makes Hedda indebted to him, and thereby gives him power over her. Here, she has accused him of sneaking up on her, an odd statement, and hardly a good reason to shoot him. However, if Hedda sees Brack as a father figure she could likely be attempting to destroy his unwelcome influence. Again, though, she finds herself unable to fulfill this desire. Later, Hedda is driven to destroy herself when Brack’s control over her becomes inevitable: “But in your power. Totally subject to your demands-- And your will. Not free. Not free at all. [She gets up silently.] No, that’s one thought I just can’t stand. Never!” (4.708) Shortly hereafter, Hedda exits the room and shoots herself, ironically with one of her father’s pistols. Therefore, even in her death, she cannot escape her father’s commanding spirit.

One of the first things the reader can deduce about Hedda Gabler is that she is highly intelligent and witty. According to one article, the actress, Kate Burton is given the advice that, when playing the role of Hedda, “You’re the funniest and smartest person in the room” ( Hostetter 86). Indeed, Hedda frequently makes rather cruel jokes at the expense of her companions. Most often, these jabs are pointed toward her unsuspecting husband. Even when his aunt is on the verge of death, Hedda continues to mock him:

TESMAN. And if I want to see her one more time, I’ve got to hurry. I’ll charge over there right away.

HEDDA. [suppressing a smile.] You’ll charge?

…TESMAN. Oh, good Lord, then-- [Darting around.] My hat--? My overcoat--? Ah, in the hall-- Oh, I hope I’m not too late, Hedda, hm?

HEDDA. Then charge right over-- (3.692)

Not only does Hedda make fun of her husband, she even confesses to Judge Brack her true feelings for George Tesman. When he suggests that she loves her husband, she is disgusted, and asks him not to use that “syrupy word” (2.674). While Hedda consistently rejects the idea of happiness in her marriage, she does not accept the suggestion of an affair. Judge Brack hints throughout the play that Hedda should begin an inappropriate relationship with him, and his hope is likely strengthened by the evidence Hedda gives him of her marital discomfort. Hedda firmly tells him she wants nothing to do with that kind of “calling”. (2.678) Even when Eilert Lovborg, an old flame of Hedda’s enters the scene, Hedda is insistent that she remain in a faithful marriage, even scolding him for using her familiar name. (2.682) This behavior is perplexing for the casual reader, who might believe it in Hedda’s character to enter into a relationship for her own happiness, even if it is otherwise improper.

It is also odd that she has married Tesman in the first place, since she shows no evidence of loving or even admiring him. However, Hedda does intimate to Judge Brack, her perpetual confidant, that she has married Tesman out of necessity. She seems to imply that the time had come for her to marry, because that is what women in acceptable society do. (2.674) The feminist critic can identify with her, for her situation, as one source claims, is socially “somewhere between a rock and a hard place”. (Donaghy 26) Hedda is trapped in a time between contemporary womanhood and Victorian ideals. She knows she needs a husband in the culture in which she is living, yet she wants freedom and control over her own life. Further psychoanalysis could suggest that the reason for Hedda’s choice to marry Tesman, a man she does not love, albeit reluctantly, is based in the fact that Hedda needs a sort of father figure, because that is what she is used to.

There is also the scene where Hedda burns the pages of Lovborg’s book. (4.699) This is startling and vindictive, whatever the motivations are, but particularly in light of the fact that her husband’s work apparently bores her. The text suggests that she does this out of spite for Lovborg and Thea Elvsted, the latter whom she appears to harbor jealousy toward. Whatever the case may be, the reader remains puzzled by all of Hedda’s actions and motives in relation to her husband, which remain ambiguous throughout the work.

Arguably, Hedda Gabler’s most prominent quality is her ability to manipulate things and people in order to be in control of her surroundings. Hedda can easily inspire the desired emotion or action in a person with her own words and actions. The first example of this behavior appears when her husband’s aunt comes to visit wearing a new hat. She has bought this hat to be more in style “for Hedda’s sake” (1.656). Hedda enters the room, and, perceiving that the hat on the chair is George’s aunt’s, she almost immediately accuses the maid of leaving her old hat on the chair. Naturally, this serves to horrify her husband and offend his aunt (1.660). The resulting strife is an integral part of Hedda’s personality and the play. In fact, the name “Hedda” means “strife” according to one source (Lahr 110). Hedda’s calculating personality does not only seek to control others, but also to have power over herself. Throughout the play Ibsen repeats suggestions that Hedda is pregnant. Not only does the idea of a common domestic life seem distasteful to Hedda, but that fact that she is in a situation beyond her control seems unbearable to her when she comments; “Oh, I’m dying-- dying of all this” (4.702). Indeed, she is disgusted with anyone who allows themselves to be manipulated. One such character is Thea Elvsted, with whom she quickly becomes close. Hedda uses this camaraderie to injure Eilert Lovborg’s relationship with Thea (2.686). Although Mrs. Elvsted is easily controlled and used, Hedda does not have a true friendship with her. Instead, she seems even more disdainful of Thea, as evidenced when she burns Lovborg’s manuscript and mentions Thea’s name specifically (3.699). She seems to be opposed to anyone who would let themselves be controlled, even is the person being controlled is herself. This becomes clear in her statement to Judge Brack (4.708) and also with her own suicide. Her self-destructive behavior echoes the attitude shown when she burns Lovborg’s book, except now the outrage is pointed toward herself (4.709). A critical reader could reasonably assume that this caustic behavior is due to her continuing desire to be in charge of her own life.

Hedda Gabler is a woman who seems to have a firmly established identity. Yet, the whole play focuses on a lack of clarity in her self-perception. This insecurity may be an inevitable product of her time, or it may be due to choices she makes. More likely, a careful reader will determine that Hedda’s struggle is the result of a combination of these two factors. She has been raised by a dominating father, and rebels against his leadership. However, she marries and keeps her father’s portrait and guns. This incongruous behavior can be attributed greatly to the era in which Hedda lives, since her choices are highly influenced by the surrounding male-dominated society. This may also contribute to her inability to be unfaithful to her husband even though it is evident that she does not like or respect him. Her issue with manipulation, though, seem to be more of a personal problem. She desires control, but when she has it, her power does not inspire lasting contentment. All in all, an evaluation of Ibsen’s play must include the idea of social influence and personal choice. Hedda’s chaotic identity and conduct, therefore are themselves confused in motive and reason. Hedda Gabler is a play that reaches specifically women, but also everyone who has ever questioned who they are and contemplated their purpose in life. Hedda’s misunderstood character and quest to define herself is universal, because it represents the difficult path every person follows when and if they choose to gain individualism. The final question on the mind of the reader, then, is whether Hedda reaches her state of independence or not. The continuing chaos of the play leads to a final solution in Hedda’s suicide. This can be viewed as an act of certainty, wherein she ultimately gains control of herself. It could also be a picture of failure. Since Hedda has lost control of her life she despairs and kills herself. This questioning and possible lack of closure are frustrating to the critical reader. Yet maybe that is just how Ibsen wanted it-- confusing.


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