Hedda Gabler_Themes and Others

End of Years: Hedda Gabler (Literature)
1. Important Parts of Introduction
2. Significant Quotes
3. Themes
a. Society vs Individual
i. Gender Roles
b. Courage
c. Power
4. Symbols
5. Characters
Important Parts of Introduction
Henrik Ibsen's plays anticipate major developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries:
the individual's feelings of alienation and actual alienation from society,
the pressures by which society insures conformity to its values and suppresses individuality,
the barriers which modern life sets up against living heroically.
Ibsen exposed other stresses of modern life by showing the inner pressures and conflicts that inhibit and even destroy the
individual. Some of these pressures stem from conditioning, i.e., from the individual's internalizing society's values.
Introduction of Henrik Ibsen, Four Major Plays
Dynamics Between Characters
He became more and more engrossed by the ways of the individual mind, by the clash of personal temperament,
by the endless and tragic conflict between the calls of duty and the search for happiness within the individual
Power Struggle
Most convincingly read as the record of a series of personal campaigns for control and domination: over
oneself, over others, and over one’s world
Gender Roles
“A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men,
and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view. “
Ibsen’s attention was thus chiefly drawn to those problems stemming from the inhibitions set upon
individual freedom and self-realization by social and institutional forces
By commercial hypocrisy, religious intolerance, political expediency, and all the accumulated pressures of
conventional morality and established authority.
Society VS Individual:
“Ibsen’s attention was thus chiefly drawn to those problems stemming from the inhibitions set upon individual freedom and
self-realization by social and institutional forces”.
Society’s control over an individual undeniable- Hedda: “People don’t do such things” (about Aunt Julle throwing her hat
on the chair), Hedda: “Oh rubbish! People don’t have such things here” (about a woman threatening to shoot Lovborg with
a pistol), Brack: “But, good God Almighty… people don’t do such things!” (at the end)
1) Significance of Setting
Drawing Room
A physical and symbolic inhibition of Hedda Gabler- parallels how how Hedda is restrained by her acceptance of society’s
Hedda constrained to the private sphere
o Idea of public and private spheres
o Victorian society separated life into the public sphere and the private sphere, with the public sphere of the
workplace dominated by men and women being relegated to the private sphere of the home
o Hedda’s acceptance of these social conventions constrains her to her home which she is expected to preside
o Most of the action takes place in the drawing room, but Hedda herself is not shown to leave or enter the
drawing room- other characters are free to enter and leave, but she is physically limited to the room
o The glass door within the drawing room that overlooks the verandah outside can also be seen as symbolic of
the social and material barriers that keep Hedda unhappily inside the domestic realm.
Drawing room as a women’s space to entertain guests
o Highlights her narrowness of social circle- bound by social classes as well as limited interests
o Act II, Page 200: Hedda: “I suppose the crowd are all in the country still.”
Act II, Page 201: Hedda: “… For me it was horribly tedious!” “For six months on end, never meeting anybody in our
circle. Who could talk about our own affairs.”
General Gabler’s portrait
Throughout the entire play, the audience is accosted by General Gabler’s portrait, hung in a central position in the
middle of the entire room, thus emphasizing and highlighting the importance of General Gabler’s influence over
Hedda and the events in the story.
His presence reminds the audience of Hedda’s aristocratic origins in contrast to the middle-class Tesmans, thus
highlighting the theme of social class in the story, and also emphasizing the fact that Hedda is accustomed to
It also reminds the audience of Hedda’s upbringing under a military man - she expects everyone to respect her
In that time, the army was regarded as largely ornamental, and thus Hedda was raised in such an environment there was a lot of pomp and ceremony surrounding her daily life (Aunt Julles: “Do you remember her riding along
the road with her father? In that long black habit? And with a feather in her hat?”) and that was what she was
accustomed to (“The agreement was that we were to live a social life. Entertain.”)
The inner room
The inner room is the place where only close family friends are allowed - Brack, for instance - thus
highlighting the level of closeness that these characters shared with the Tesman family
The play begins with “Morning light. The sun is shining in at the glass door”, signifying a new beginning
for the Tesman couple and the fairly glorious prospects of the future that they had (Hedda with her life of
entertainment and Tesman with his professorship).
However, towards the end of the story (Act Four) the lighting is described as follows: “It is evening. The
outer room is in darkness. The lamp over the table is alight... Hedda crosses to the glass door, draws the
curtains aside a little, and looks out into the darkness.” The darkness and nightfall is a metaphor for the
tragedy that has befallen the Tesman household (Aunt Rina’s death) and the tragedy that is to come
(notification of Eljert’s death and Hedda’s eventual suicide).
Furthermore, the lighting gives a clue to the season in which the play was set - autumn - a season
traditionally associated with the beginning of the end.
2) Self-determination (linked to Power Struggle, below)
Idea that one can dictate the course of one’s life, no matter how much societal pressures may try to move one along a
different course.
As the play progresses, we can see how much Hedda is actually a victim of the ‘group’.
o Married a man she didn't love simply because her "time ran out”
o Will have children simply because she is supposed to
o Ultimately destroys herself because she fears being thrust into the spotlight of a public scandal/ being under
the control of Brack
What Hedda discovers is that an individual has no power in the face of a group unless they can manipulate that group something that she continually fails to do.
However, we can also say that Hedda fundamentally believes in free will (look at Power Struggle)- even though society
does place certain constraints on her, she makes a conscious decision to submit to it, and to react towards her fear of
scandal. But when Brack comes in and vies for control over her, she does not submit and instead shoots herself- last
bid to exert the same sense of ‘control’ that she has.
In contrast, Ejlert is somebody who continues to resist the will of the group and succeeds in doing so - even after his
relatives had “disowned him entirely” and even though Tesman was convinced that “he’d gone to the dogs for good”,
he still succeeds in reclaiming back his freedom and his standing in society.
3) Gender
Certain sense of constraint according to gender
o Hedda’s propensity to maintain an outward adherence to societal conventions for gender, but personally
defying the roles defined for her (see Hedda Gabler)
Hedda Gabler would not be a successful play if the title character, Hedda Gabler was a man?
BUT Hedda Gabler presents a sense of subverted gender roles, especially in the relationship of Hedda and Tesman (see
more in Hedda Gabler)
Women in play needed a purpose in their lives
o Men were defined by their professions, but women had no such thing to hold on to
o Aunt Julle
 Character Aunt Rina provides a sense of purpose for her
 Act I, Page 171: “I don’t know what I’d do without her, Jorgen”.
4) Hedda’s Suicide
Does Hedda finally triumph over society in her suicide?
Yes, she does, because:
o She sees her act as ‘courageous’
 Her idea of aesthetic beauty comes into play; idea of death as beautiful
 Proves that a noble death (i.e. a gunshot to the temple) is possible
 Stops living vicariously and takes strong action herself
 When referring to Lovborg’s own suicide, she says “He had the courage to do… what had to be
o She is able to overcome society’s pressures on her to be respectable
 Faces her fear of scandal- spontaneous suicide would
 Right before she dies she plays a ‘wild piano piece’, as if to reclaim her ‘wild side’ from society
before burying it
 Throughout the play, her lack of ‘courage’ represents how much she has been
conditioned by society to repress herself and succumb to a community's norms
 By committing that final act she is facing her fears and truly taking control over herself
o Exerts her final control over herself before her death
 Her death was purely out of free will
 Assured that she would not come under the control of another
No she does not, because:
o By playing into the idea of “death before dishonour”, she continues to be judged by society’s standards
o Her suicide is merely a representation of her escapist stance on life, her cowardice in the face of challenge
and her inability to take social stigma
o The beauty of her death has been missed completely by everyone else around her, as can be seen by
Brack’s last line: “But people who don’t do such things!” Brack, who was supposed to be her equal and the
one to understand her the best, did not catch the true meaning of her death and thus her death did not
convey its intended message of beauty.
Brack having the last line of the play- symbolically comments on how society has the last word in the end.
Though her suicide may seem like a personal triumph to her, to society it is an act of defeat/ cowardice/
escapism, and that’s all that really matters in the end
Was the resolution a necessary one?
Yes, it was, because:
o From the start of the play, we have been introduced to the struggle between courage and cowardice, as
demonstrated through the struggle between self and society.
o Though each of the characters have different definitions of courage, the common element that binds them
all together is the perception of courage as something arising from one’s reaction to the self/society
o We are made to witness Hedda’s private dilemma and personal anguish throughout the play as being
trapped in societal constraints, yet not daring to move out--the conclusion of the play would naturally
seem the ultimate resolution to this situation, revealing to the reader which side [courage/cowardice] she
would pick.
5) Class and Culture
Hedda comes from a completely different background than the Tesmans. Her social standing is higher than the
Tesmans, and as such the Tesmans are seen as trying to ascend the social ladder
o Aunt Julle refers to her first as “General Gabler’s daughter” and talks about “the way she was used to
having things”- she has been used to looking up to Hedda in terms of social standing. Their perspective as
an onlooker and a speculative tone reveals just how high up Hedda is in terms of social standing, as
compared to them
o Aunt Julle sees the fact that Tesman was “the one to walk off with Hedda Gabler” (Act 1) as amazing, as it
lifts the social standing of the Tesmans
o Aunt Julle & the Big Hat Incident, reflects how the Tesmans want to be rich and aristocratic but despite
their efforts they can never truly be part of theat circle, whereas Hedda who is born into such
circumstances can never expect otherwise
Hedda is a child of privilege. She was born into a rich family and expects similar treatment in her new family, even
though the Tesmans are obviously a middle-class family
o She expects a footman, a horse-drawn carriage and a new piano even though Tesman’s fiscal situation is
o Tesman lavishes the honeymoon, buys Lady Falk’s villa for her, but Hedda expects this behavior and
more- it is completely in the norm for her, whereas to Tesman this is extravagance
On countless occasions, Tesman worries about financial problems, losing his cool for the only time in the play
when he hears that he might not get his appointment
o Hedda instead thinks of it as a “sporting event,” something of no real concern
o When Tesman wonders how Ejlert is doing without the support of his estranged family, Hedda goes- “Oh,
Tesman’s for ever worrying about how people are to make their living.”
Society and Individual
Impact of society on an individual’s psyche
Importance of Names
1) Names are used as a means to define a person’s identity
 Gentle rebuke by Aunt Julle to Berte when she called him Mr. Jorgen
Act I, Page 169: “You mustn’t say mister about Jorgen from now on. He’s a doctor.”
 Hedda’s refusal to be defined as “Mrs Tesman”- known by Aunt Julle from the beginning as “General Gabler’s
2) Tesman’s glee at being called “Jorgen” by Hedda
1) Who is Courageous in the story?
Mrs. Elvsted is courageous because she:
o Defied social norms by running away from her husband
o Chased after her own desires rather than keeping to society’s expectations of her as a middle-class
woman [“Oh, they’ll just have to say what they please. I simply had to do what I did.”]
 Ejlert, love, recognition, companionship, status as an equal, more than just being a housekeeper
Hedda can be seen as courageous, although there are many counter-arguments to her so called “courage”
o Hedda wishes she were courageous, but is “afraid of scandal” and therefore is unable to act on her desire
to go against societal pressures
o She admires Lovborg’s ‘courage’ in the manner of rebellion and societal disrepute, but will not willingly
take on such behavior herself and indeed refuses to be portrayed in such a light even to those close to her
[scene with Tesman & Lovborg]
o Her actions are largely cowardly, being afraid to take action she often resorts to manipulating others to
do what she wants, and seems to live vicariously through Lovborg, Brack and [to an extent] Thea
o Hedda’s suicide was possibly her final [and only?] act of true courage
Lovborg is courageous - possibly the only true ‘hero’ in the story - because:
o He had the courage to reform himself even after being ousted by society, and does so with such explosive
o He does not seek to achieve his means through controlling other people’s destiny, only his own something that other characters (eg Hedda and Brack) fail to do.
o He is courageous in facing up for his mistakes - he knew that he was to blame for losing the manuscript
and took full responsibility for punishing himself the best way he could, by protecting Thea from scandal
(Hedda: “So your’e not going to take her home, Mr Lovborg?” Lovborg: “I? Through the streets? And let
everybody see her walking with me?”)
2) Definitions of courage in the play
Courage is viewed differently by each of the characters
Courage has different interpretations throughout the play:
What was courage to Hedda meant something else entirely towards other characters within the play
Hedda idolizes Lovborg’s kind of ‘courage’ as symbolized by vine leaves
o Associated with ‘unconditional beauty’ & Bacchus/Dionysus, the god of revelry: Hedda believes that
aesthetic quality triumphs over society and practicality
 Vine leaves
 Shooting oneself in the temple as opposed to the breast as opposed to the abdomen
Hedda longs for the socially subversive but is “a coward”
Ejlert determines courage in a fashion similar to Hedda- by purposefully falling out of favour with his upper-class
relations to lead a life of drunkenness and debauchery [“sat there and admitted that I’d been out on the razzle for
whole days and nights”]
o Unlike Hedda, though, he dares to act on his “lust for life” and does fall out of society
o In turning him from his ways, Thea “has broken [his] courage, and [his] defiance.”
Ejlert sees in Thea “infinite courage...for her companion”
o He finds commitment courageous?
Ejlert on Hedda: “Yes Hedda, at the bottom, you’re a coward.”
Thea, who is established as timid and weak in reference to Hedda and inspires Lovborg into respectability (and to Hedda
constraining his freedom and restraining his courage) has the courage to run away from her husband.
Hedda, who is seen as domineering and manipulative, and eggs Lovborg beyond his limits, flinches at the thought of
scandal, and professes herself to be a ‘horrible coward’.
“Most convincingly read as the record of a series of personal campaigns for control and domination: over oneself, over others,
and over one’s world”
Ibsen: “The demonic thing about Hedda is that she wants to exert an influence over another person”.
Over oneself
o For all of the lack of control Hedda has over her life, she fundamentally believes in free-will: The idea that she has a
Consciously made the decision to submit to society’s pressures
In this case ‘control’ = the ability to make decisions for oneself, to choose the course one must take
Hence her obsession with pistols, which serve as a perpetual reminder that it is she who decides who lives and who
Seen from: "I am heartily glad you have no power or control over me at all”- once she is aware of the fact that
Brack had something over her, she is frightened of being beholden to another and losing her free will entirely
Act IV, Page 262: “Submit to your will and your demands. No longer free!”
Refuses to submit to his control and exerts her control over herself- commits suicide
Over others
o A quote from Ibsen offers a great deal of insight as to the motivations behind Hedda's actions: "Hedda's
desperation is a conviction that life must offer so many possibilities of happiness, but that she can't catch sight
of them. It is the want of a goal in life that torments her."
o Hedda lives for the rush of a moment, the adrenaline that comes with controlling life and determining the
fates of others - for it is only this that gives her the fleeting sense of purpose and control that makes her feel
o Ultimately, though, the boredom keeps returning - that feeling that she ultimately has no control over her own
fate. She had to marry a man she didn't love simply because her time ran out; she is carrying a child that will
dictate her future; she is ultimately at the mercy of the men who covet her.
Ibsen: “The despairing thing about Lovborg is that he wants to control the world, but cannot control himself.
Over oneself
o Is unable to control even his death- marked by a distinct lack of ‘freewill’
o Shot in the “abdomen”, and possibly by Madame Diana, or an accident
Inner Room
Retreating from outer world of practicality into inner world of aesthetic beauty (general gabler's portrait, piano
Hedda's sanctuary - where she is surrounded with objects of her past life (role as a daughter), the only female role
she is comfortable in is as a daughter (vs wife, mother)
At the end, Tesman and Thea go into the inner room = invasion of Hedda's most private space, and then declaring
that it was too dark there = rejection of the most personal sort for Hedda - truly lost everything (everything that
was precious and personal to her).
Hedda killing herself in the inner room - forever stuck in daughter role, unable to grow into role as a wife/ mother
The Guns
Cool exterior and fiery interior
o Representative of Hedda’s character- explosive, instable
Represent aristocratic heritage
o Serve as playthings + defence + release + violence
Writing desk not being used for creation but for destruction (used to keep guns rather than for writing)
Fire (Pistols, Hedda’s Affinity with the Stove)
Engulfing, out of control, destructive, uncontrolled combustion
Burning zeal, burning discontent
Burning desire to escape
Lust for life/ living
Pregnancy/ Baby/ Child (Manuscript as child of sorts)
everyone who's not hedda: new collaborative creation (vs destruction - Hedda burning manuscript & denial of baby)
Hedda: Binding Burden
babies are to hedda death- thought of new life morbid - means that she's no longer single and free?
Spirit of courage: symbol of true bravery
alcoholic spirit: symbol of being out of control
same word: false equivocation fallacy (true courage =/= drinking)
Vine Leaves
representation of glory, superficial glamour, romance. A hero's wreath
symbol of Dionysus (God of Wine)- in his element