Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler: Product, Victim, & Incarnation of Depraved Society
Scrutiny of sardonic, searing dialogue reveals tonal criticism, nearly scathing as its leading lady whom quips daggers, backed into a corner of her gilded cage. Ironies accrue and clue us in on the hypocrisy of a hostile, constrictive society setting up spirited women for entrapment. Hedda is at once the incarnation of this depraved force, its product, and its victim. Perhaps it is this layered character- and plot-shaping dynamic which renders her so fascinatingly difficult to entirely pin down (as much as society has Hedda pinned-down and dependent).
Thus it becomes a copout to direct to Hedda’s personal cowardice and misery as the sole root of all the play’s deplorable developments; Ibsen masterfully sets the stage for his worldview that the sheltered, restrictive environment of Victorian aristocracy breeds the entitlement and discontent which afflict and manifest in a toxic Hedda’s manipulations—actions not so much conniving and purposed, as desperate, haphazard grabs at actualization. Reframed towards a modern crisis of millennial-generation disillusionment and disengagement, Hedda Gabler’s demise serves fair warning to turn critical eye to close-minded convention, lest it eat you empty from the inside, and to take courage in authentic action.
“People don’t do such things!” an aghast Brack exclaims in the culminant wake of serial sordidness—entangling violent intrigue, underhanded manipulation, delusion, incineration, blackmail, and finally, suicide—taxing on characters and audience alike for rationalization. To account for the ostensibly bizarre behavior of Ibsen’s titular and accountability-averse antiheroine in the tragedy Hedda Gabler, scrupulous examination of text and social context prove crucial.
Ibsen himself introduces Hedda Gabler as “her father’s daughter rather than her husband’s wife” (opposed to her own individual, of course) (Letters, 1890). Her character’s fundamentals are deep-seated and pre-doomed—the Shelleyan masterwork of General Gabler’s restrictive upbringing and repressive aristocratic social conditioning. A lifetime of objectification has been dehumanizing for Hedda: regarded an object of lust by a swarm of suitors, referred to as a prize to be “carried off” (Act I, p. 171), repeatedly reduced to no more than a child-bearing vessel by Aunt Julia, pet of her father to be paraded in “habit... and feather hat” (I, p. 168)—all before she even sets foot onstage—and then, pawed at as a plaything by Brack. It is no wonder she’s able to toy detachedly with human lives as if chess pieces, Hedda herself has been relegated no more than an ornament her whole life.
Accordingly, Hedda’s obsession with appearances and aesthetics underlies a consumptive void of purposelessness in someone superficial and spiritually hollow, utterly lacking in moral compass. In her limited existence, Hedda’s only mode of exerting control consists of either rearranging household adornments or emotional manipulation of all inhabitants of her toxic radii. Ever overbearing, she fusses with the shades and lighting, orders chintz stripped off the furniture, and disapproves the flowers (I, p. 168).
A restlessness she is not even capable to understand, default dissatisfaction is a symptom of her close-mindedness, a worldview so cripplingly narrow to render her unable to enjoy her six-month vacation or grow from her experiences abroad, bemoaned pointless “without meeting a soul that knew anything of our circle, or could talk about things we were interested in” (I, p.172). Shallowness is the absurd root of Hedda’s impulses. Her aspirations of high-society entertainment and playing hostess, complete with additions of livery man, saddle-horse, and a new second piano simply for show, prove superficialities empty of meaning or authenticity—à la Hedda’s marriage driven by fear of approaching an age too old to be socially-acceptably single (II, p.187).
Hedda’s fantastic entitlement—to triflings nonetheless shrugged off coldy the minute they dematerialize from possibility, as she further distances herself from her husband (I, p. 177)—is highlighted by her incapacity for appreciation of Tesman’s efforts. Steered towards Tesman’s “correctness” like a honeybee to drying paint, Hedda honors her impulsive marriage to Tesman on account of neither strong personal ethics nor love—rebuked “repulsive...sickening” in her idea (II p. 188)—but for fixation with reputation:
HEDDA. “Never jump out...always [with] someone standing by to look at your ankles… I can't allow this! I won't hear of any sort of unfaithfulness! Because I have such a dread of scandal.” (II, p. 188)
Hedda vehemently denies enticements by Brack and Lovborg, both men of wits more suited to match hers, because she is wedded to convention.
Her ingrained obsession with appropriateness borderlining manic paranoia is a relic of deep-seated pressures and constrictions levied in vicious imbalance against Victorian women. The haunting preoccupation with social appearances and terror of scrutiny indicate institutionalized insecurity and reflect the underhanded brutality of a harshly unequal society.
Even as she aches to have her “fingers in a man’s destiny” (II, p.190), lifelong-stymied Hedda intrinsically can’t even conceive of independence, betrayed in her incredulous reaction to Thea Elvsted’s desertion of marriage in pursuit of Eilert Lovborg: “To think of you daring to do it! To take flight so openly. But what do you think people will say of you?” (III, p. 190). Constantly reliant on social cues, “I really don't know why I should not have accepted his offer?”—Hedda can only justify her choice in Tesman in terms of socioeconomic utility: “correctness,” “respectability,” and eagerness to “provide for” her (II, p. 183). A lady and fusser over formality and “saying du,” Hedda is absurdly tuned into social niceties. The traits that attire her a masterful manipulator prove accursedly unhelpful with distilling life-purpose, however.
Directionless, Hedda has zero mindfulness of her own. Questioned by Brack about her true motivations following a subversively vicious humiliation of Aunt Julia, Hedda reveals her lack of self-awareness. Deliberately, nonetheless reasonlessly, Hedda “pretended to think [Miss Tesman’s] bonnet was the servant’s.” Shakily, she accounts, “these impulses come over me all of a sudden...[I] cannot resist,” before capitulating, “Oh, I don't know how to explain it” (II, p.180). As in her pettiness, in her life Hedda is aimless and insecure: “Heaven knows what sort of a vocation that could be... I often think there is only one thing in the world I have any turn for. Boring myself to death.” (II, p. 190)
Pessimism becomes self-imposed limits to reinforce her societal conditioning; an opportunity for depth, self-inquiry, and development devolves into sulky, entitled petulance against “genteel poverty, a life so pitiable! So utterly ludicrous!” (II, p. 190). Privilege has only equipped Hedda with blind self-importance infused with deep insecurity, rather than guidance towards self-actualization.
The lack of stimulation and inequity of access to enrichment for females sheltered in aristocratic upbringing, craving to “peep into a world which she has been forbidden to know anything about” (II, p. 193), has left Hedda unequipped to expand her severely limited perspective. “You have never gone through any really stimulating experience,” reasons Brack, of Hedda’s hollowness (II, p.190). While clever, Hedda festers in stifled potential, intellectually incurious and uninspired. Of course meaning and happiness evade our tragically self-unaware antiheroine. Inept as an independent thinker, Hedda Gabler is a farce of the willful woman.
Confoundingly, her motivations are completely entangled in the an ingrained social conventionality she struggles to rebel against. A society-fearing woman dictated by appropriateness and trapped at the idea of judgment, in her paralysis, Hedda can only retreat into an inner world of delusion—in which she has any agency at all, means to exact her will, and a function to bring beauty into the world—and can will away the sentence of pregnancy.
While others compliment Hedda’s glow—how she has “filled out” over her honeymoon, mountingly allude to “expectations,” and “new responsibility”, and insinuate “there will soon be sewing too—but of another sort, thank God,” Hedda scorns her reality: “Be quiet! Nothing of that sort will ever happen!
I have no turn for anything of the sort. No responsibilities for me!” (II, p. 190)
Faced with an existence in which she must relinquish control of even her own body and seal her female fate under the suffocating, middle-class domesticity of the Tesmans, Hedda loftily demurs with disillusionment.
With deranged disconnect, absent of empathy at Aunt Rina’s passing, Hedda seethes, “I will not look upon sickness and death. I loathe all sorts of ugliness” (II, p.190). Reacting with icy disengagement, her detachment from reality withdraws on fantasy, absurdly fixated on aesthetics. Hedda’s romanticized ideal of Lovberg deified with “vine leaves in his hair,” as a crown of Dionysian revelry—for which she haphazardly drives him to destruction to preserve—draws on the imaginations of her repressed girlhood: “As I look back upon it all, I think there was really something beautiful, something fascinating—something daring—in—in that secret intimacy—that comradeship which no living creature so much as dreamed of... The escapades— days and nights of devilment...” (II, p. 190)
And as she thrusts the fatal gun to Lovberg with the bidding“—and do you use it now” and the plea “will you not try to—to do it beautifully?” Hedda precludes that his death—in her words, “at last a deed worth doing!”—is all to give life to her fantasy.
Ibsen’s portrayal of this dangerous delusion points to a soulless woman reeling for a sense of control within the confines of an establishment of entrapment. Hedda is intensely at such a loss for purpose—for meaning beyond mindless conformity—that she manipulates murder: “I mean for me. It gives me a sense of freedom to know that a deed of deliberate courage is still possible in this world,—a deed of spontaneous beauty” (IV, p. 200). Absurdly, Hedda has deluded malice as artistic expression—an emancipation from banal existence and an exploration of truth to actualize a shred of individuality bubbling beneath the superficial.
Hedda Gabler is the distillation of society’s worst conception of the woman, treacherous descendent of Eve, but in the grand irony, she is the very byproduct, developed in the mould of its hostilities—the unintended incarnation. Mirrored in Hedda’s delusional refusal to accept accountability or consequences, is society’s self-absolving ambivalence towards the women it sets up, or socially conditions, for failure with both suppression and mindless microaggression. This battle for female control prompts Hedda’s suicide.
Early on, Hedda expresses herself “exceedingly glad to think—that you [Brack] have no sort of hold over me... Death rather than that” (II, p. 188). Conveying the inherent powerlessness of her sex, torn between two forces of oppression—shallow conformity at penalty of scandal and sinister male sexual agenda, a bested Hedda snarls: “I am in your power nonetheless. Subject to your will and your demands. A slave, a slave then! [Rises impetuously.] No, I cannot endure the thought of that! Never!” (IV, p. 200). How tempting for audiences of Ibsen to cry nutcase at Hedda Gabler! The label “hideous nightmare of pessimism” by London’s Pictorial World, ascribes isolated incidence of nutcases, while ignoring symptoms of depraved society. A public as equally in denial of its own accountability amounts to systemic gaslighting—a denial of the rigid and disparate standards which shortchange the female sex and an indifference to institutionalized entrapment. These arguments serve not to evidence Ibsen as enlightened far ahead of his time, only to point out pertinent parallels in the lens of postmodern feminism.
Instead, the tragedy’s subversive nature is textually and tonally evident; Ibsen’s social criticism is intimated in mounting ironies and searingly sardonic dialogue. Ludicrous hypocrisies become critiques of a narrow-minded society. Hedda’s miserable plight is conveyed in her facetious quips and dry scoff, with injections of haughty sarcasm and scathing remarks to the obliviousness of childlike Tesman and naive Thea. Indeed, Thea only once discerns Hedda’s facetiousness, “Oh, Hedda, you are just saying things you don't believe a bit,”— for Hedda to sneer, “You really are a little blockhead” (III, p. 200). Hedda’s exchanges with Brack and Lovberg are a wry banter of battling wits and sapiosexual tension. The escalating flirtation with predatory and unscrupulous Judge Brack suggestively skirts about an adulterous sexual triangle, backways, and cocks. It is far from the sole instance Ibsen implores us to scrutinize beyond the surface and exposes the trickery of appearances. Cajolery between Hedda and Lovberg conceal an ex-lovers’ spat:
“LOVBORG. And then she is so brave, Mrs. Tesman!
MRS. ELVSTED. Good heavens—am I brave?
LOVBORG. Exceedingly—where your comrade is concerned.
HEDDA. Exceedingly—where your comrade is concerned.
HEDDA. Ah, yes—courage! If one only had that!” (II, p. 185)
Within the ostensibly harmless, irony-laden exchange, Lovberg assails Hedda’s cowardice and the two mock each other, meanwhile, Thea is none-the-wiser.
The inanity continues, as Ibsen exposes hypocrisies, such as Tesman’s reaction to Hedda’s incineration of Lovberg’s manuscript. Initially confounded, Tesman’s outcries, “How could you do anything so unheard-of? What put it into your head? What possessed you,” inexplicably morph into being “overjoyed at the news! Aunt Julia must really share my joy in that!” Hedda bluffs that she acted out of love for Tesman and is in turn astonished by his instant change of heart: “—it is killing me, all this absurdity!” (III, p. 192). But of course, a woman’s departure from docility can only be spurred by the fervor of her love for her man—how inconceivable that she could possess her individual volition outside of serving her marriage! Critical of systemic close-mindedness, Ibsen continues to expound the incongruities and drill home the ironies all the way to the play’s ludicrous end.
HEDDA. Are you getting on, George? Eh? Fancy that! Doesn't it seem strange to you, Thea? Here are you sitting with Tesman—just as you used to sit with Eilert Lovborg?
MRS. ELVSTED. Ah, if I could only inspire your husband in the same way!
HEDDA. Oh, that will come too—in time.
TESMAN. Yes, do you know, Hedda—I really think I begin to feel something of the sort. But won't you go and sit with Brack again?
With expert mockery, Hedda foreshadows the coupling of Thea and Tesman to replace the Lovberg relationship, adding, “Is there nothing I can do to help you two?”—tongue firmly in cheek (IV, p. 203). The play’s final exchanges culminate in a climax of situational irony and absurdity: Hedda, at her own manipulative hands, finds herself utterly useless and trapped in the clutches of a devious Judge Brack:
“HEDDA. But how am I to get through the evenings out here?
TESMAN. Oh, I daresay Judge Brack will be so kind as to look in now and then, even though I am out.
BRACK. [Calls out gaily.] Every blessed evening, with all the pleasure in life, Mrs. Tesman! We shall get on capitally together, we two!
HEDDA. Yes, don't you flatter yourself we will, Judge Brack? Now that you are the one cock in the basket—” ( IV, p. 204)
A convention-compliant coward her whole life, Hedda’s final act can be framed as an act of bravery, to choose death over entrapment, or of cowardice, to dodge the accountability for her actions’ consequences. In the larger scope, a desperate and disillusioned woman pushed to the brink by a male-oriented society’s limitations, such that every misguided, underhanded attempt of hers at escapism proves futile. On the surface, it seems Hedda hardly stands two days, before she brings the world down around her destructively; however, this disaster has been a-long-time brewing. Those who don't create, destroy themselves, and in the handicap of dangerous, miserable repression making fulfillment out-of-reach, the Victorian world has failed Hedda Gabler.
In a modern facsimile, the haphazard lives of millennials stand to take fair warning from the demise of Hedda Gabler. Perhaps, raised in the confines of privilege, a large number of today’s young adults find themselves with an engendered entitlement, career frustration, and blasé apathy towards all else—christened millennial-generation disillusionment—borderline to the dangerous boredom portrayed so fatally in Hedda Gabler.
Unlike their Baby Boomer parents, who were more likely upon graduation to settle into one job for life and a stable livelihood to raise a family, millennials entering the recession-time workforce struggle to find employment, amid student loans at skyrocketing interest rates. The average millennial job-hops and switches careers two to four times in five years, according to Forbes.
Millennials are setting records for childlessness, dropping the US birth rate 15% in 2012, following decades of steady birthrates. Today’s young women no longer equate motherhood with a meaningful life, and forgo that responsibility to instead impact the world through contributions in business, careers, service, or social impact organizations—yet, many millennials struggle to find their footing amidst lofty ambitions.
To avoid the ensuing jadedness and disconnect from reality, warned in Ibsen’s play, the clear solution is self-awareness. A consciousness lacking in Hedda Gabler’s eponymous antiheroine, Hedda instead devolves into the petty and superficial quibblings of the spiritually hollow; missing a productive outlet, one becomes a menace to society. As Ibsen forewarns the perils in siding strictly with convention, tuning solely into social pressures at the expense of personal truth leaves one everlastingly grasping for illusive satisfaction. Young people should be challenged with self-inquiry beyond their comfort zones, for the benefits of self-consciousness and individual independence, impossible to obtain if simply coddled and assured that they are special.