Female Heroine’s Resistance of the Social Norms in the Play Hedda Gabler
Attitudes towards women in the eighteen hundreds were exhibited in relation to the socially constructed idea of having a dependence on men, marriage, and mistreatment as individuals. In Henrik Ibsen’s play, Hedda Gabler, the contrast between the social norms within the eighteen hundreds is shown through the title character’s manipulative nature which goes against the social expectation of women during this era. The identity of women was defined through the culture a patriarchal system that conceptualizes femininity and this socialization continues through these systems which includes the dynamic of dominant versus subordinate in regards to gender roles.
Ibsen further showcases that women were unable to attain individuality due to their constructed social role which results in a binding force that restricts their search for individuality. Throughout the play, the main character, Hedda, struggles to fulfill her independent nature and aspirations within the limited margins that society assigns her gender role. Furthermore, she is unable to embrace her masculine traits in the way she deems fit, ultimately leading Hedda’s inclinations to become detrimental towards herself and to others around her.
Hedda’s resistance of the societies social norms during the eighteen hundreds, which limit her to domestic life is depicted through her lack of satisfaction with herself due to the way she was raised and what society expects her to follow as a woman living during the eighteen hundreds. The male role she embodies in her marriage to Tesman, her want for power over people of higher social class like Lovborg and Thea conflict with her role as a subordinate wife in a predominately male society. Hedda is made to represent the cultural and social freedom that was presumed to be possessed by people of higher class within bourgeois of the time period. Concurrently, those of the middle class like Thea and Elvsted contrast Hedda’s previous privileged lifestyle, who primarily demonstrate the social distinction within gender roles.
The play complements this by drawing attention to the notion that Hedda sees herself as the daughter of a general, rather than a wife. From the very beginning of the play, Hedda embraces her masculine approach when it came to her attitude towards Tesman by emulating an emotionless mood, “My old house slippers. My slippers… well, I really missed them. Now you can see them for yourself, Hedda… Oh, no thanks. I don’t really care to.” (Ibsen, Act 1, pg. 787). Although Hedda strives for independence through the use of her masculine traits, whilst simultaneously understanding and internalizing the time periods conception of what kind of behavior a “proper lady” should have. Hedda yearns for more than just the social standard, rather she yearns for intellect and creativity, however, she is bound by her limited social status as a woman. Raised by a general, who is deemed to be a very masculine figure, Hedda adopts the characteristics of a leader and is the polar opposite of her new role as a housewife.
In the play, the pistols that Hedda’s father gifted to her is traditionally deemed to be masculine objects and Hedda’s appeal with the pistols shows the extent of how she lacks typical feminine traits. Furthermore, Hedda reference to her pistols as “General Gabler’s pistols” when Tesman expresses his concern, “Well, at least I’ve got one thing to amuse myself with…my pistols, George… General Gabler’s pistols” (Ibsen, Act 1, pg. 800). Hedda was not prepared for what was needed to surmount with the status-quo of traditional gender roles because of the masculine impressions her father left on her. After her father’s death, Hedda was faced with the actuality that she was utterly trapped within a life of being subdued, of which she had no previous familiarity. Due to the unfamiliarity of Hedda’s new way of life and having fallen into a lower class, she eventually becomes dissatisfied with her new social position.
This becomes apparent as others begin to acknowledge Hedda’s current social standing, “Well, what do you expect? General Gabler’s daughter, the way she lived in the general’s day” (Ibsen, Act 1, pg. 783). Hedda regards her life as very tedious and uneventful when she mulls over what the future holds for her and this internal entrapment concocts a disposition towards freedom. Additionally, this desire for liberation almost foreshadows Hedda’s eventual suicide and parallels Ibsen’s view of the incongruous and conflicting position women are faced with when the circumstances are either they are shunned from society for trying to be independent or they degrade themselves from reaching their full potential by being submissive.
Since Hedda is unable to have the overarching authority that men have in this society or the wealth she was once accustomed to, she exerts power by manipulating Tesman and those around her by utilizing her sexuality. Hedda’s marriage to Tesman only increases her resentment towards the institution that is based around marriage and desire for individual power in order to be seen as a separate being, rather than just a wife. “Quiet. You’ll never see anything like that… I don’t have any talent for that, Judge. I don’t want anything to do with that kind of calling” (Ibsen, Act 2, pg. 806). Hedda’s attitude towards her domestic life is also exemplified in her elusiveness towards any reference to her pregnancy. During the eighteen hundreds, women were traditionally anticipated to marry and simultaneously conceive children. At the beginning of the play, Tesman’s aunt asks a myriad of questions about the suspected child and expects Hedda to be pregnant after coming back from their honeymoon.
Hedda, however, does not want to face the reality of being tied down and controlled by another expectation society bestows to her. When Tesman hint at the prospect of Hedda being pregnant, “Yes, but have you noticed how she’s blossomed, how well she’s filled out on our trip” (Ibsen, Act 1, pg. 788). Hedda’s vigorously debunks Tesman’s claim, “Oh, leave it alone…I’m the same as when I left” (Ibsen, Act 1, pg. 788). Hedda evades any indications that revolved around the possibility of her being pregnant and shows she isn’t thrilled with the prospect of motherhood. Furthermore, Judge Brack also hinted towards Hedda’s pregnancy, “No, forget about that. But when you find yourself facing what one calls in elegant language a profound and solemn calling [Smiling.] a new calling, my dear little Mrs. Hedda” (Ibsen, Act 2, pg. 806), she again avoids the conversation. Hedda distances herself with the actuality of another responsibility because she feels that if she desires power over people and is in search for attaining her independence from others, she won’t attain it by caring for her child.
Aside from retaining a distance with the prospects of motherhood, Hedda also had distanced relationships with men like Lovborg and Brack, due to the fact that she was a married woman and those who engaged with “provocative behavior”, were seen as lesser beings. Throughout the play, Hedda is in competition with Thea for control over Lovborg, who is a reformed alcoholic, and her inimical jealousy forces her to push Lovborg to start drinking again, “Then I have absolutely no power over you? Ah, poor me”(Ibsen, Act 2, pg. 814). Hedda additionally searches for this kind control because she is resentful and is envious of how Mrs. Elvsted had the courage to and ability to leave her husband and was able to overcome the way society viewed her as a person, especially as a woman, after doing so.
Hedda tells Mrs. Elvsted, “Yes, there is. Just once in my life I want to help shape someone’s destiny… I don’t and I never have” (Ibsen, Act 2, pg. 816). Hedda has glamorized Lovborg’s return to being an alcoholic as a form of rejection towards society’s limitations and the act of Lovborg’s drinking was deemed as an act of courage by Hedda, which she aspires to attain. “At ten o’clock, then he’ll appear. I can see him before me with vine leaves in his hair, burning bright and bold” (Ibsen, Act 2, pg. 816). Though Hedda expects Lovborg to be free from the shackles, by returning back to his former lifestyle Lovborg once again became free from the societal norms, “And then you’ll see, then he’ll have power over himself again. Then he’ll be a free man for the rest of his days” (Ibsen, Act 2, 816). The primary goal for this manipulative act is by Hedda forcing Lovborg to start drinking again, she is now able to achieve a sense of her own freedom by living vicariously through him.
Hedda’s relationships with male characters who are of a higher social class are often based around the method of living indirectly through their lives, who act as a catalyst for Hedda to experience what it means to be of a higher social class. Hedda encourages Judge Brack’s flirtation with her by telling him that the reason she married Tesman was that it was convenient and claims, “I’d danced myself out, dear Judge. My time is up.” (Ibsen, Act 2, pg. 802). Aside from Hedda’s romantic advances towards Brack exhibiting her use of manipulation, moreover, it demonstrates what a patriarchal society expects of a woman, and entails her to use sexuality to conducted herself by conforming to this aspect of society’s principles. Ergo, Hedda is stuck in a continuous cycle of assumption and misfortune, while Hedda may render her masculine trait domestically, she is frightened of the idea of being caught up in being the subject of gossip, ‘No, Hedda Gabler, not as long as I keep quiet…then there’ll be a scandal’ (Ibsen, Act 4, pg. 836). Hedda realizes that her moral values hold her back and wishes she could be cut loose from them, even though she projects a rebellious attitude and doesn’t show any evidence of having any care for her husband, Hedda believes that it is immensely undignifying to be involved with another man, whilst being married to Tesman due to her adherence to traditional values. “Not love then either… But even so, noting unfaithful. I will not allow it” (Ibsen, Act 2, pg. 811).
Inevitably it is her desire to ignore the views and expectations of femininity society imposes and her fear of being caught up in a love-triangle scandal ultimately leads to her drastic demise. Hedda reveals several times that she has, “ Oh, I’m much too afraid of scandal” (Ibsen, Act 2, pg. 812), and Judge Brack reveals he is aware of it when he explains to Hedda that Lovborg’s can be traced back to her pistols, “Oh, yes, a scandal. Just what you’re so desperately afraid of. You’d have to appear in court, naturally.” (Ibsen, Act 4, pg. 836). Brack’s awareness of Hedda’s fears towards being exiled and desires of being an individual rather than someone’s wife, enables him to exert the fear of being socially shunned, and being apart of the patriarchy as a Judge, his role as an authority figure restricts Hedda chance of achieving more in life by criticizing those fall outside of the margins creating by societies social norms.
Hedda’s perseverance for power makes it difficult for her to be under the control of an outsider such as Brack and will not allow anyone else of authority or higher social class to dictate her actions. She had grown tiresome of being confined in the position of being married to a husband she doesn’t care for and controlled by what society expects from her. “So I’m in your power now, Judge. You have a hold over me from now on… Totally subject to your demands, and your will. Not free at all… No, that’s one thought I just can’t stand. Never” (Ibsen, Act 4, pg. 837).
Therefore, in order to escape the pressures of gender oppression, Hedda plans to fabricate, what she describes to be a “beautiful death”. Ibsen’s play questions the role of women in a patriarchal society through Hedda, who becomes completely immersed by the society she both despises and coheres to. Although she is a bold and strong woman, Hedda struggles to escape her internalization of what the stereotypical housewife is. Thus, Hedda is unable to live the life she tried to attain, so in her last stride of breaking through the social barrier, she commits suicide to create a lasting effect on the people she manipulated.
Though Hedda deals with regressing femininity, her circumstances emulate a misogynistic society as Ibsen reckoned it to be during the eighteen hundreds. Due to the fact that Hedda becomes fed-up with the role of the submissive wife that she is expected to play, as she is infuriated with being treated with disrespectful contempt. However, what Hedda desires to achieve, she cannot do because she is so concerned with her values being projected through her appearance and staying away from scandalous activities that she decides suicide is the only logical way of being free from societal norms.
Hedda may be portrayed as an idealistic female heroine who rises up against the patriarchal values that demarcate women, Hedda finds herself immersed within an autocratic society that forces her to act and perform as expected of women. Since there is no escape from social constructs which its very existence precedes hers, Hedda feels trapped by the illogical social norms and constructs. She fails to find refuge in manipulating others as a way to escape from these social obstacles and instead gain pleasure. Ultimately, her inability to conform to the oppressive gender norms of the society leaves her with no choice other than to seek a blissful safe haven in death.
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