October 9, 2010
Henrick Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler takes place in the late Nineteenth Century, Norway. Hedda Tesman is the new, aristocratic bride of the scholar George Tesman. Unlike George Tesman, Hedda is not used to living such a “low budget” lifestyle, because her husband is considered middle class, and she is somewhat spoiled. Not even in love with her book-smart husband, Hedda’s character portrays Nineteenth Century unequal relationship problems between sexes, with men being the independent factor and women being the dependent factor:
Do think it quite incomprehensible that a young girl—when … it can be done—without any one knowing—
HEDDA. —-should be glad to have a peep, now and then, into a world which—?
HEDDA. —which she is forbidden to know anything about? (Hedda Gabler 2.348-52)
Hedda often “uses” men to indirectly shape her desires and experiences that, as a woman, she cannot experience directly. Personally, I believe Hedda Gabler represents women’s widespread desire to acquire female power and respect in the Nineteenth Century, through manipulation.
First off, Ibsen portrays Hedda as being from an extremely wealthy family that can afford to have anything to their heart’s desire, as soon as they want it. However, there are obvious financial struggles that Hedda has to deal with that “sprout-up” from her marriage with Mr. Tesman:
HEDDA. I’m only looking at my old piano. It doesn’t … go at all well with all the other things.
TESMAN. The first time I draw my salary, we’ll see about exchanging it.
HEDDA. No, no—no exchanging. I don’t want to part with it. Suppose we put it there in the inner room, and then get another here in its place. When it’s convenient, I mean. (Hedda Gabler 1.194).
By marrying into a lower class from an aristocratic one, Hedda cannot afford the luxuries she could pay for with a flick of her finger before she married Tesman. It is evident that she despises the “Bourgeois way of life” and the many financial restrictions that arise from it. Since women were dependent on men for providing them with money, they often tried to indirectly persuade men into getting “the gold ring” they desired or “the expensive hat”. It is the art of manipulation.
It is epochal to note that Hedda had many marriage opportunities throughout her life, but she chose to marry Tesman because he would do anything in his power to make her his wife:
“HEDDA. [With an expression of fatigue.] Yes, so I did.—And … then, since he was bent, at all hazards, on being allowed to provide for me—I really don’t know why I should not have accepted his offer?
BRACK. No—if you look at it in that light—
HEDDA. It was more than my other adorers were prepared to do for me, my dear Judge.” (Hedda Gabler 2.73-5)
Again Hedda’s desperate need for money and power represents the female desires of the time. She does not even marry Tesman out of love. She only marries him because he promised her his money and his respect. “Hedda longs only for what she perceives as the genuine article: male power” (Hancock). Women wanted to be respected and have the same power as men; they wanted the same freedom and the right to financially provide for them that men had. This longing for freedom is definitely a major theme in Hedda Gabler and is stressed throughout the play.
Ironically, despite her “legal” restrictions to freedom and lack of respect as a woman, Hedda is clearly the one who holds the power throughout the entire play. “There is no question in who holds the power in the Hedda Gabler-George Tesman Union: it is Hedda from start to finish” (Hancock 79). Hedda is a control freak, and will go far to have things done her way. She indirectly holds power over her acquaintances through manipulation, most notably with men:
“LOVBORG. None. I will only try to make an end … of it all—the sooner the better.
HEDDA. [A step nearer him.] Eilert Lovborg—listen to me.—Will you not try to—to do it beautifully? (Hedda Gabler 3.319-20)
It is clear that Hedda tries to control the way Lovborg commits suicide. She tells him to die with grace and shoot himself with honor, the way she wants. She tells him “shoot beautifully”, thus once again indirectly manipulating people. No freedom was given to women; they had no financial power, had barely any respect and were always second hand to men. Therefore, it was only natural that a woman would exercise her feminine charm and whit to mold a man’s decision into her liking.
I find it interesting that Hedda, while not even in love with Mr. Tesman, burns Lovborg’s manuscript for the success of Mr. Tesman: “I am burning your child, Thea! You with your beautiful, wavy hair! … The child Eilert Lovborg gave you” (Hedda Gabler 3.6). “It is an attempt that takes on an added resonance when it is recalled that even as Hedda burns one patriarchal text, she is still no more than a character bound within another”(Farfan 55) . Hedda is defined as “insane” when she burns Lovborg’s manuscript while laughing like a witch. Ironically she is actually trying to improve her marriage with her husband. Since Lovborg and Mr. Tesman are both rivals and are competing for money, she burns Lovborg’s writings so that her own husband can succeed. She manipulates an outcome indirectly once again. By giving her husband more chance to succeed in his writings, she is giving herself what she thinks to be a better life. Oddly, Hedda is fighting against another woman (Thea) for control and power. This perhaps shows that in the Nineteenth century, women were not necessarily all grouped together fighting for each other’s well-being as one massive feminine force, but that they were individually fighting for themselves. It wasn’t men vs. women; it was women vs. women vs. men.
Despite Hedda representing a strong craving to possess respect and power equal to that of a man’s, it is worthy to note that Hedda actually is afraid of breaking the social “status quo” and I do not believe she should be considered a “revolutionary” character in the feminine writing world. “Unwilling to accept her life in its present aspect and unable to envisage any other, Hedda kills herself” (Farfan 22). Hedda could not stand the lack of money with her new marriage, the lack of control for women in society, and no matter what she did to support her new marriage she was considered wrong. Thus, suicide seemed the ideal means for escaping the hell that she lives in. She felt the lack of control and decided death was a better choice than living in such a “communist earth”.
I consider Hedda Gabler as a play that portrays Nineteenth Century struggles for female respect and control through manipulation. It is obvious that today’s world is vastly different than the past. Women have equal control and rights these days to men in many nations. However, do you think that today women still manipulate men to get what they desire despite being “equal”? And do you think that to an extent, women may have more social influence than men in the current era? Also, should Hedda be considered a “radical heroine”, who went against the flow of social inequality, as compared to Jane?
Ibsen, Henrick. Hedda Gabler. Signet Classics. Centennial Edition. New York. 2006. Print.
Farfan, Penelope. Ibsen’s female characters and the feminist problematic. McGill University. 1988. Electronic Thesis or Dissertation.
Hancock, Sheila. The Grand Object of Human Desire: The Female Quest for Power in Henrick Ibsen’s ‘A Doll House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler’. The University of British Columbia. May, 1993. Print.