A Symbolic Analysis of the Piano in Hedda Gabler: Using Jung to Understand Ibsen
In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Lady Russell convinces Anne not to marry Frederick Wentworth as she finds him unworthy of Anne. Similarly, in Hedda Gabler, Hedda herself conceals her knowledge of and destroys Eilert’s manuscript in order to end his and Thea’s relationship. Involving oneself in other’s affairs can satisfy one’s desire for control. However, this behavior is often symptomatic of a disconnect between one’s personal consciousness and one’s personal and collective unconscious self. Henrik Ibsen masterfully uses the Tesman’s piano to symbolize Hedda’s personal and collective unconscious desire for control while acting as a vehicle to show her reconciliation with the two at the end.
Ibsen’s play, and particularly its symbolism, can be understood through reference to the psychology of Carl Jung, who divides the psyche into three major areas of analysis: the personal conscious, personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. Jung credits the personal conscious with the creation of the “persona”. The persona envelops the constructed, outward appearance one shows the world. Whereas Jung only acknowledges one consciousness (the personal), he differentiates unconsciousness between the personal and collective. The personal unconscious differs within individuals, whereas the collective unconscious remains the same for every person due to the uniformity of the human psyche. The personal unconscious holds the “shadow.” The shadow encompasses the darker and more shameful urges one personally feels yet does not consciously acknowledge. The collective unconscious houses the “animus/anima” archetype. The animus refers to masculine traits in women that can either balance their femininity or overpower it. The anima refers to feminine traits in men. Jung believes to reach individuation one must reconcile the persona with the shadow and acknowledge one’s archetype. Individuation is the process of acknowledging one’s unconscious nature and incorporating it into the consciousness.
The appearance of the piano at the beginning of Act 1 shows the pressure others put on Hedda to lessen her masculine desire for control which she attempts to yield to but ultimately fails at. Although not explicitly dictated to her, Hedda feels immense pressure from society and familially to have a child. The expectation remains clear when Aunt Juliana quips with Tesman that he will “find some use for them [two empty rooms]—in the course of time.” (Ibsen 24). The pressure manifests physically upon the piano when Berta places Aunt Juliana’s bouquet on the piano and Hedda removes it. However, Hedda succumbs to softening her unconscious willfulness in certain situations, such as when she agrees to refer to Aunt Juliana by “Aunt” to appease Tesman. (38). She shows a degree of compromise when she states, “I’m only looking at my old piano. It doesn’t go at all well with all the other things…Suppose we put it there in the inner room…” (39). By placing the piano, the symbol for her masculine urge for control, deeper into the house, she represses the feeling rather than relinquishes it.
Hedda’s piano playing at the beginning of Act IV reveals how her control over Eilert has satisfied her desire for control for the time period. After the dramatic end of Act III Hedda plays the piano for the first time in the play, which the stage directions describe as “a few chords.”(174). At this point in the play, Hedda has effectively destroyed Eilert and Thea’s relationship by concealing her knowledge of the manuscript and then incinerating it. Hedda has felt control by acting as a catalyst for Eilert’s descent back into ill repute, but more importantly by intentionally inflicting pain upon Thea. Thea acts as an object of loathing and jealousy for Hedda, as well as a foil for her. Whereas Hedda’s allure lies in her assertive seductiveness, Thea’s depends on her ability to inspire creativity in and hold power over men through her meek femininity.
The leap from the meandering chords Hedda plays on the piano at the beginning of Act IV to the rousing song at the end shows Hedda’s use of individuation to take final control over her life. At the end of Act V after being blackmailed by Judge Brack, Hedda runs her fingers through Thea’s hair and retreats to the back room to play a “wild dance” on the piano before committing suicide. (207). The “wild dance” acts as her epitome or signaling of reaching individuation. The two major events that happen before Hedda’s exit allow Hedda to become aware of her personal and collective unconscious need for control and then act upon the knowledge. Judge Brack’s blackmail causes Hedda to weigh the value of life without control. She acknowledges her personal unconscious desire for control when stripped away from her explicitly and harshly.
Rather than experiencing subtle pressures exerting control, Hedda is faced wth a figure who lessens her, Hedda’s, control over the world of the play. Thea’s ability to use her overt femininity to gain control over Hedda’s husband causes Hedda to acknowledge her collective unconscious failing by her rule by her animus. Seeing no way to regain the control that has been recently stripped of her and no way to channel archetypal femininity, Hedda makes the decision to take her own life. The piano, thus, acts not only as an object physically affected by the world, like Hedda, but as a vehicle for the acknowledgment of her integral need for control.
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