Props, Stage Directions, and Their Symbolism in Hedda Gabler

February 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

The play Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen centers on a woman named Hedda, the daughter of General Gabler, who is married to George Tesman – a person in the middle class. In the play, Ibsen has described the set in a way which makes it very distinct; the rooms are depicted as dark, with the curtains drawn back. Above the sofa, there hangs a big portrait of General Gabler. Ibsen has used these props and stage directions in the play as symbols to help us develop a much deeper understanding of the plot itself as well as of the character of Hedda.

What strikes the reader and audience of the play from the very first Act is Hedda’s apparent love of ‘darkness’ – both literal as well as figurative. The stage directions begin with descriptions of the rooms: ‘tastefully appointed reception room, decorated in dark colours’ (167) and ‘downstage by the right is a large, dark, porcelain stove’ (167), which introduce the dark look of the play. Almost as soon as Hedda makes her first appearance in the play, she remarks “Ugh…the maid’s been and opened the verandah door. The place is flooded with sunlight” (176). Afterwards, she asks Tesman to close the windows. Everytime she opens a curtain, there is a mention of her closing them again, thus reinforcing the idea of her ‘loving’ darkness.

Another thing that becomes evident is her dislike for flowers, or at least the ones brought in by Miss Tesman. In a different translation available on Gutenberg, Hedda says “Yes, fresh air we certainly must have, with all these stacks of flowers,” a remark which obviously seems to be a sarcastic comment. Later, in Act 2, she says to Judge Brack that these flowers have “an odour of death” (208). These constant references to her not liking light and flowers – which closely bring an image of life and happiness with them – gives us a sense that Hedda has an inherent dislike of life.[1] This interpretation is also supported by the fact that death remains a constant theme in the play, and also that Hedda is shown to embrace death; which can be seen clearly in the numerous times she talks about death as something beautiful rather than tragic – like her not stopping Lovborg’s suicidal thoughts, but rather encouraging him by giving him one of her pistols and asking him as a last favour to make his death ‘beautiful’. The flowers in a way represent happiness – or rather, life – and Hedda’s dislike of them represents her dislike of life – and that she might be choosing to be unhappy by not doing what she really wants.

Another prop, which seems to have the most significant impact on the play, is the portrait of General Gabler hanging on the wall. Though the General is not physically present in the play, the portrait signifies his importance to the play, and also seems to serve as a reminder for Hedda to uphold her values, rather than do something to ruin her reputation.[2] There are numerous occasions where Hedda’s relationship with her father were brought up, talking about how they spent a lot of time together when she was a child, and this could be a reason that the General was as big an influence that he was. As an effect of her father’s values being rubbed off on her, it seems as though she is suppressing her desire to ‘be free’ to conform to what is expected of her; to have a husband, a good house and financial status, etc. These repressed desires seem to cause frustration within herself which comes out as her manipulative attitude. This also serves as a basis to explain why she married Tesman, even though it is quite evident that she never wanted to. Her suppressing her emotions can be more clearly seen in the fact that she obviously wanted to be with Lovborg, but that would come at the cost of her reputation, which causes jealousy because Lovborg is now with the woman she seems to despise the most – Thea. Hedda could not be with Lovborg, and she wanted no one else to be as well, so she did what she did best – try to get control over him and destroy the relationship, and eventually, him. Thus, the portrait of the General signifies Hedda’s urge to conform to her values, and begins to explain her manipulative attitude.

Another interesting thing is the interpretation of the stage directions in the plays. Quite a few directors of the play have depicted the portrait to be extremely large, and rather striking to the eye of the spectator, and while this has several implications of it’s own, it starts to feel romanticized. Ibsen’s depiction of the portrait as a normal sized one – something that could actually be found in a real house – makes the idea that the General does have an impact over the play much more believable and well as realistic. Ibsen once wrote in a letter, “The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife”[3] This clearly shows the importance of the portrait as depicted by Ibsen himself, since a portrait was the only way to exert that General Gabler was indeed a very important part of the play, symbolically looking over all the happenings in the house.

Another important motif in the play is the set of pistols given to Hedda by her father. Not only do they signify how she is the daughter of the General, but they also exemplify Hedda’s divergence from traditional feminine values and interests.[4] The pistols were a symbol of power, and their mere possession made Hedda feel like she was powerful, which ties in coherently with Hedda’s manipulative attitude. Another interesting interpretation which I found on the same source, was that in the same way that Hedda considers the very dangerous guns as toys, her manipulative nature – which leads to Lovborg’s death as well her own – is just another source of amusement for her, and just another was for her to seek the power she so badly wants. As the acts progress, the symbolic representation of power through the pistols begins to become more evident. From the first act, Hedda has the pistols with her, and at the same time is trying to gain control over everyone else. By the end of Act 3, she has successfully managed to gain control over everyone and even exerting it in the form of trying to break apart the relationship between Thea and Lovborg. But as soon as she gives away her pistol to Lovborg, she symbolically gives away her power with it, because the discovery of Hedda’s pistol with Lovborg is what enables Judge Brack to blackmail her. Hedda uses the rest of her power – the other pistol – to finish herself, because she does not want anyone else to have control over her. It is the General and his values, along with the pistols of course, that she tries to uphold so badly that leads to her own demise.

Overall, Ibsen has used the props as well as the stage directions in the play in a brilliant way, depicting the props as having both physical and symbolic importance. The stage directions have been described and interpreted by most play directors successfully, thus enabling the spectator as well as the reader of the play to gain a much deeper understanding of the play if they look closely. I believe that every single element in the play was equally as important; the darkness represented Hedda’s character, the pistols her greed of power and control, and the portrait of the General representing her repressed desires, each explaining in their own way why Hedda was the way she was described to be.

[1] Shmoop Editorial Team. “The Babies = Death Motif in Hedda Gabler.”Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 25 June 2015.

[2] Cummings, Michael J. “Hedda Gabler: A Study Guide.” Cummings Study Guide.

[3] Sanders, Tracy (2006). “Lecture Notes: Hedda Gabler — Fiend or Heroine”. Australian Catholic University.

[4] Shmoop Editorial Team. “Those Guns in Hedda Gabler.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 25 June 2015.

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