Symbolism in Hedda Gabler

Grade 12 HL Language A1
What is the purpose of Symbolism?
Repeated images and symbols are frequently used
in dramas to contribute to the development of the
themes. The repetition of a certain image in the
context of the play attaches metaphorical
significance to a physical object.
The setting of "Hedda Gabler," which remains unchanged through the play,
is significant symbolically as it demonstrates the domestic cage into which
Hedda, as a woman and wife, had been cast.
The dark, sombre colours of the drawing room presents the "monotonous
landscape" that constitutes her prison, relieved by a glass door that looks
out onto "autumn foliage."
Through the entire play, the audience is visually reminded of the symbolic
representation of the spiritual barrenness of the house, which opens out to
deteriorating life - "all yellow and withered," nearing the season of death.
This casts ominous overtones on the actions of the characters in this setting.
The pistols, given to her by her father, are symbols
of masculine power and aggression. They give
Hedda the power of life and death, one she uses to
the detriment of others around her in the selfish
desire to give meaning to her life. They inspired
momentary fear in Judge Brack in his first visit to
Hedda, his unsavory intentions indicated by his using
the back way. More importantly, they are the
instruments through which Hedda can exert her
control over another "human being's fate,"
The house "reminds one of the departed"
symbolises the decline of the power of the
aristocracy in the 1890's, taken over by the stoical
bourgeoisie. Hedda, once a former member of the
higher classes, has been forced to marry down into
a lower class, which she speaks contemptibly of. She
finds her life to be one without purpose besides
"boring herself to death" and that middle class
morality has effectively eliminated whatever social
power she once had as General Gabler's daughter
- in effect, a "lady."
The Glass Door
Her frustration at her powerlessness and dependence on an simpleminded scholar is best represented by the repeated image of her
"looking out the glass door." The glass door, in itself, presents only a
fragile, easily breakable barrier between her entrapment and the
outside world. She longs for freedom, to catch a "glimpse of a
world that one wasn't allowed to know about" but this transparent
barrier confines Hedda. The image of her "walking nervously" across
the enclosed, claustrophobic space of the drawing room to look out
or "tap nervously" on the glass door stresses that the society in
general has imprisoned her due to its restrictive definition of
General Gabler’s Picture
That Hedda struggles against the role of subservient wife and loving mother can be
explained by her masculine upbringing and the strong father figure that dominates her
sub-conscious. Both these are symbolized by the portrait of General Gabler which
peers imposingly from the inner room, representative of Hedda's sub-conscious, to
dominate the entire stage setting.
Though she never once mentions her father, it is obvious that her craving for
power and alignment with male desires are stemmed from him. Hence,
Hedda's character and life seem to be wholly determined through this
strong connection with a military past, which emphasizes conformity and
discipline. There lies the chief reason as to her mortal fear of scandal - "I
never jump out." She, then, is also a woman trapped by her past.
Objects in the room presents a host of repeated images,
most important of which are the easy chair and the stove.
The easy chair connotes a throne, that is, the seat of power.
The power play in the interactions of the characters is
conveyed through possession of this seat. Originally, Hedda
is the one who sits in it, connoting the fact that she holds the
power although it is restricted to the domestic sphere. She is
the stronger figure in her relationship with Tesman as he
serves her like a loyal, admiring subject - "It's so jolly
waiting on you, Hedda." Further, when Brack first comes to
call in Act 1, her actions "[lying back and reaching out her
hand]" seem to indicate her regal aura she held his
audience from the throne.
Description of the characters' physical appearances present
continuous images through the play; notably, the description
of the women's' hair. The fact that Hedda's hair is "not
noticeably abundant" signifies her lack of spiritual
substance, her incapability to experience depth of emotion
and her fear of commitment and responsibility, especially
such pertaining to motherhood.
In this instance, she is revealed to be an unconventional
woman who despises her own femaleness. On the other
hand, Thea is a woman very much in touch with her feminine
side, her hair being "remarkably fair… exceptionally thick
and wavy." Her hair highlights her femininity and she is
capable of love, serving to inspire Lovborg and to
contribute to the creation of their spiritual child.
Vine Leaves in the Hair
"Vineleaves in the hair" is a repeated image made
by Hedda in relation to her former lover. It is a
symbol of victory, heroism and conquest. Hedda
wants this of Lovborg because she desires to
vicariously witness his success and empowerment.
Her self-centred nature is highlighted as whatever
emotion she feels for him is ruthlessly pushed aside
in the view that he promises her personal power.
The image is also reminiscent of Dionysus, the Greek
god of wine, fertility and pleasure. Excessive
behaviour is freedom to Hedda's corrupted view.