Fiend or Heroine?
In Hedda Gabler we see a woman of complex passions and emotional
extremes. In 1890, Ibsen wrote:
The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving
it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be
regarded rather as her father's daughter than her husband's wife.
It was not really my intention to deal in this play with so called
problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings,
human emotions and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain
social conditions and principles of the present day.
(Excerpt from letter to Moritz Prozor, December 4, 1890)
Hedda Gabler is a play that cannot be ignored. Early productions
evoked myriad responses from critics who both loved and hated the
play. Consider some of their comments:
So specious is the dramatist, so subtle is his skill in misrepresentations,
so fatal is his power of persuasion that for a moment we believe
Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine, and not a fiend, and that Lovborg
is deserving of our pity and not our condemnation. (Clement
Scott - The Daily Telegraph, 1891)
Ibsen's greatest play and the most interesting woman that he
has created - she is compact with all the vices, she is instinct
with all the virtues of womanhood. (Justin Huntly McCarthy,
London Black and White, April 25, 1891)
What a hopeless specimen of degeneracy is Hedda Gabler! A vicious,
heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen. (The Ledger,
Philadelphia, February 13, 1904)
What a marvel of stupidity and nonsense the author did produce
in this play! It is incredible to think that only a score of years
ago the audience sat seriously before its precious dullness.
Ibsen created a masterpiece in Hedda Gabler, a crystal example
of a maladjusted woman. She has sisters in every city, for she belongs
to the widely dispersed sorority of moderately comfortable women
whose restlessness and envy arise from their false standards of
happiness, as well as from their egotism and uselessness. No doubt
she existed in the past but her specific type is undeniably modern.
Unlike the women of the older middle class who had their noses to
the grindstone of the hearth, who reared children and ran their
home, the Heddas described by Ibsen are rootless... (John Gassner
- Masters of the Drama)
Hedda the Woman
Ibsen's Hedda Gabler presents a most interesting figure. How do
we regard this multi-faceted and complex literary figure?A decadent
aristoscrat revolting against her bourgeois marriage and oppressive
surroundings? A deeply neurotic woman whose sexual aggressiveness
masks a radical frigidity?
Gilman suggests that beneath the surface of this play, Ibsen
was trying to: Fashion a new kind of tragi-comedy, more metaphysical
than it is comfortable for us to think whose elements are energy
turned in on itself and being wrestled with its tendency
to dissolution. (p.66) Is Hedda a victim of her circumstances
or as Gilman suggests, a fish in Ibsen's great polluted
boiling sea where ill-adapted creatures struggle to know what
to do. (p.67)
Is Hedda a woman deeply in conflict with her social persona
and her ultimate essential self?
This is a play where the contrasting past and present environments
of the characters create tension throughout the play - these
lead to Hedda's suicide.
Hedda appears to be in a class above the Tesman's from the
beginning. Their efforts to please and impress her are rejected
by Hedda who is condescending towards Aunt Julie and refuses
to 'connect' in any way even with the dying Aunt Rina. One would
wonder why she ever married Tesman when she is obviously so
discontented and probably was from the very beginning. As she
says to Brack: I had simply danced myself out, my dear Sir.
My time was up.
Her rationale also included the fact she thought Tesman would
one day be a rich man and that essentially above all else, she
wanted to live in the Villa. It was through this passion
for the Villa of the late Mrs Falk that Jorgen Tesman and I
found our understanding. That led to our engagement and marriage
and wedding trip and everything. Well, well. As one makes one's
bed, one must lie on it.
As a result of her indulgent childhood, Hedda is spoilt and
materialistic and the environment she finds herself in when
married is unnatural for her.
Lovborg represents a past for Hedda which is both good and
bad. Her relationship with him was shattered by an ability to
move into sexual intimacy - for Hedda this was not the 'done
thing' or was she simply unable to function at this level?
Hedda lacks courage to risk and is jealous of those who appear
to have more than she does, even when this is not the case.
She is jealous of Thea who has the conviction to go against
the accepted norms in order to make her dreams come true. When
Thea leaves to own husband for the man she loves, Hedda simply
states: One doesn't do that kind of thing.
Hedda tries to capture excitement through the actions of others.
e.g. she tried to get Lovborg to commit the 'beautiful act of
Her own suicide is the ultimate and last tragic attempt to
escape her environment.
The idea of living heroically in modern society
Freedom, self-fulfillment in modern society
The role and nature of the artist in modern society
Living vicariously versus living life with thought and deliberation
(Reference: Gilman, (1974).R. 'The Making of Modern Drama' N.Y.
Is Hedda Gabler Tragedy?
This is an interesting question and one that you should think more
about as you move through the play. I would encourage you to explore
this issue further considering the form of the play and Hedda's
ultimate demise. How does (or indeed does it) the play fit in with
other kinds of tragic forms in theatre or literature. In order to
do this, the following link should prove extremely helpful.