The Rebellion Against Stereotypes in the Play Hedda Gabler Play by Henrik Ibsen
In Hedda Gabler Ibsen presents Hedda as a tormented and difficult character who seems to delight in causing offence to others. She is shown to act in a way that offends all those closest to her, especially her husband and his Aunt and at times it is hard for the audience to have any sympathy for her. Critics over the years have referred to her as the “female Hamlet” as her behaviour is full of contradictions and her dissatisfaction with the situation she finds herself in has repercussions that not only damage her family, but are catastrophic for her former close friend Lovborg, also ending with her taking her own life, and that of her unborn child. Ibsen shows through dialogue, action and symbol that Hedda is the opposite of all that a woman might have been expected to be at that time. This essay will look at several different aspects to do with the rejection of womanhood: her emotional rejection of the role of motherhood, her desire to obtain power and manipulate those around her, her troubling sexuality, and ultimately how Hedda attempts to overcome the pressure she feels from society to play a conventional role.
Firstly, Hedda’s disengaged emotion with motherhood is arguably the greatest form of rejection from the role of conventional womanhood; further heightened by Hedda’s lack of affection towards her husband, symbolising her ultimate rejection from the role of a conventional wife. Exclaiming she wouldn’t ‘dream of it’, when asked if she was ‘worried’ for Tesman’s wellbeing. Hedda despises the idea of women supporting men, the sentimental value of Tesman’s slippers ‘wouldn’t appeal to me [Hedda]’ as they represent this, also signifying the lack of importance Tesman’s family holds, as his aunt epitomises the woman of the time, where their only purpose is undervaluing themselves and serving the men surrounding them. Hedda’s embarrassment of falling pregnant emphasises her lack of common mother instinct. Whilst Tesman makes multiple attempts to reveal this, Hedda ‘clenches her fists as though in a frenzy’, perhaps because forfeiting herself to the generic position of a mother seems bleak and depressing, or because she is repulsed anyone should have a reason to imagine her partaking in any form of sexual interaction.
Furthermore, when Tesman brags about Hedda’s pregnancy, she reacts by emasculating him, reminding him of his failure to provide, having to seek help from Brack. Likewise, at a period of new beginnings Hedda’s view of the world outside is ‘yellow and withered’ an image of infinite recurrence, deterioration and death. Whilst Hedda physically is fertile, mentally her mind is conflicting and unreceptive. Hedda creates psychological barriers between herself and pregnancy, filling the space, which potentially would’ve been used by a child, by putting her new piano in the ‘back room’. Hedda becomes ‘angry’ when suspected with motherhood, exclaiming her only successful purpose is ‘boring herself to death’. Hedda fears that motherhood will ‘kill [her] me’, her hatred is so severe ‘boring herself’ seems a more attractive option.
Hedda is shown to fear the claustrophobic element of normal married life with Tesman in her conversation with Judge Brack at the beginning of Act 2. Hedda’s overly comfortable relationship with Brack is revealed when she willingly complains how ‘horribly tedious’ her relationship is, and that the thought of being with one person ‘everlastingly’ will become insufferable. When questioned with the idea of love, Hedda uses the occasion to express her disgust of the ‘glutinous word’. During the conversation Hedda is presented as a potential adulterer, exclaiming she’d ‘have been glad of a third on the trip’. However, she quickly disproves this, by rejected Brack’s offer, in that she’ll ‘never jump out’. Foreshadowing the end of the play, when Hedda loses her ‘power’ and becomes at Brack’s ‘mercy’, she agrees that ‘one generally acquiesces [themselves] in what is inevitable’, whilst Brack’s immodest mind believes he’ll finally be permitted sexual interaction, what is only inevitable for Hedda is death.
Interestingly, at the beginning of Act 2 Hedda is seen playing with her father’s pistols, and this is one of the main devices that Ibsen uses to show her rejection of typical womanhood. Hedda’s fascinated and familiar with the ‘one thing at least that I [she] can pass the time with’, her father pistols. For Hedda, they’re the last association to her aristocratic past, a life now unattainable due to restrictions of Tesman’s assets. Hedda’s aristocratic past enables her to develop unfeminine characteristics, keeping men at arm’s length making sure they ‘don’t have any sort of hold over me [Hedda]’, demanding to be spoken to ‘with respect’ and labelling the men drawling over her as ‘good companions’. Showing she is not her husband’s wife, but her father’s daughter, additionally proven by Ibsen’s choice of the book name ‘Hedda Gabler’, rather than Hedda Tesman. Furthermore, the pistols highlight Hedda’s prospective destruction, the pistols are symbols of power, whilst also holding phallic symbolism for Hedda, who is desperate to ‘find out about a world’ that ‘she isn’t supposed to know anything about’. The pistols are a metaphor for Hedda and her ability to destroy those around her. The action of Hedda ‘loading a revolver-type pistol’ in the room highlights just how disobedient she is of social standards. Yet there’s great irony in loading the gun in this ‘room’, as it foreshadows the end of the play, in which she sends Lovborg to kill himself in that same room, and ultimately the room where she commits suicide.
Through the linguistic technique of ‘Hedda’, the narrative is reported by a character whose views and ideologies are so far reaching from the audiences, Ibsen prepares us for out of the norm actions, showing just how disconnected Hedda is from society. Hedda come’s closest to admitting to being in love with Lovborg, who similarly is an outcast in modern-day life and ‘especially candid’. Both characters strong desire for power and adopting abnormal characteristics, ultimately leads them both to their tragic downfalls. Hedda desires control and for Lovborg to ‘be master of himself again’, in proving that he has self-control again. Hedda envisions Lovborg ‘with vine leaves in his hair’ symbolic of Dionysus, the Greek God of wine and ecstasy. Hedda viewed the ‘vine leaves’ as a symbol of ultimate self-control. When Lovborg fails to control himself Hedda’s idea of ‘beauty’ and ‘courage’ shifts. Hedda believes that if Lovborg could not live courageously at least he can die beautifully. From this moment onwards, Hedda leads Lovborg to his destruction, first when Hedda believes Lovborg ‘must’ drink alcohol, then that he should ’use it [the pistol] now’ and ‘beautifully’. Moreover, Ibsen’s symbol of fire is a representation of Hedda’s will, a symbol of power and destruction. Hedda threatens Mrs Elvsted ‘to burn it [her hair] off’, which later foreshadows Hedda burning Lovborg’s manuscript something else sentimental to Mrs Elvsted, describing it as their ‘little child’. Thea is shown to accept the traditional role of a woman, exclaiming ‘there’s nothing but darkness’ in front of her without a child, whilst Hedda by contrast eagerly ‘killed’ the ‘child’. Simultaneously forcing Mrs Elvsted to sit by the stove, which others use to warm, yet Hedda uses to cremate, several times, insinuating Hedda’s power to destroy her and metaphorically representing Hedda’s ability to hide her violent desires.
Finally, Hedda’s suicide at the end of Act 4 emphasises her ultimate rejection of the conventional notion of woman hood, but also life. There is great irony in Hedda’s suicide, throughout the play she becomes obsessed with the idea of ‘beauty’ and being ‘free of everything ugly’. Yet her eventual destruction ends in self rejection and suicide, the opposite of ‘courage’ and ‘beauty’. Hedda’s suicide allows her to finally fulfil her idea of ‘beauty’ that Lovborg failed to give her, and escaping everything which she despised. Not only does she kill the ‘child’ of Lovborg and Thea, but she destroys her own unborn child. Brack’s final words ‘people don’t do such things’ proves just how misinterpreted Hedda really was.
In conclusion, the rejection of the notion of womanhood was one of Hedda’s major flaws subsequently leading to her tragic suicide. Hedda’s wildly abnormal desire for ‘beauty’ in the world drives her slightly insane, revealing just how fundamentally different her opinions are. Indeed, making her life move ‘slowly’ and ‘tiredly’, and for Hedda, exclusion from a rich social life is something which defeats the point of living. Secondly, her disengagement in motherhood, creates a lack of purpose in life as ‘help[ing] you [Tesman] along the road’ is something which terrifies Hedda. However hard Hedda tried to settle into societies requirement, she felt she ‘had had my [her] day’, and in a sense her life was over before it had even begun. For Hedda the lack of inspiration which society provided was a good enough reason for her to courageously decide herself worthless in the world. Ibsen’s use of realism allows the audience to connect with Hedda that bit more, evoking feelings of empathy and sadness at the emptiness of Hedda’s life.
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