What is the significance of Mademoiselle Diana in Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler”?
Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler reflects the life of the eponymous protagonist against the backdrop of a wealthy upper middle class Norwegian city in the nineteenth century. During this time, there were clear social structures and traditions shown through the significant female characters and their roles within society: Hedda is on top of the social ladder since she is a wealthy, aristocratic wife, Mrs. Elvsted is “below” her socially because she is an adulterer and that she did not marry a high class man, and at the bottom is Mademoiselle (Mlle) Diana, “the fallen woman,” a madam who runs a brothel.
Because of this contrast, Hedda and Mlle Diana are set out to be in different circles of society, but as the play goes on, their similarities are drawn out and the details suggest that Mlle Diana is indeed a form of foil for Hedda. Although both Mlle Diana and General Gabler are absent characters, General Gabler conforms to societal expectations whereas Mlle Diana does not fit the mold, making her important as the foil Hedda wants to suppress in order to conform to society.
Near the beginning of the play, Mrs. Elvsted mentions the presence of a woman who “wanted to shoot [Løvborg] with a pistol”. From Hedda’s reaction, there is ambiguity regarding the woman’s identity as Ibsen implies that Mrs. Elvsted mistook Hedda for Mlle Diana. This ambiguity is the start of a series of similarities between the two women: Hedda and Mlle Diana are both currently back in town after being absent for a while and both are interested in sexual liberation. In brief, Mlle Diana is the manifestation of the life Hedda could have had if she was not bound by social expectations, making her Hedda’s so-called alter ego or foil.
Ibsen also constructs Mlle Diana to be a symbol of death and destruction. Very early on in the play, Mrs. Elvsted foreshadows a “red-haired singer”, creating an anticipative mood. The anticipative and mysterious mood is furthered by an element of dramatic irony where Mrs. Elvsted does not know that the woman is in fact Hedda, but both Hedda and the audience know her identity. Once again, Hedda and Mlle Diana are similar enough to be mixed up by another character, supporting the interpretation of Mlle Diana being Hedda’s foil.
The audience recognizes that Mlle Diana is presented as a threat to Mrs. Elvsted’s and Løvborg’s relationship from the very start, which could lead to the destruction of their bond, thus implying that she is a symbol of havoc. Ibsen introduces Mlle Diana as an obstacle perhaps to foreshadow Hedda later burning the manuscript, leading to the actual ruin of Mrs. Elvsted’s and Løvborg’s relationship. Through Hedda’s destructive aspects, such as the act of burning the manuscript and her possession of firearm, Ibsen sets her as a symbol of havoc alongside with Mlle Diana. The dangerous elements of both women foreshadow the scene of Løvborg’s death at Mlle Diana’s boudoir later on in the play. Thus, another link is established between Hedda and Mlle Diana that could imply Mlle Diana is Hedda’s foil.
Moreover, Ibsen refers to Mlle Diana entirely through the dialogues between Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted, then between Hedda and Judge Brack. Every time she is mentioned explicitly, the color red appears: Mrs. Elvsted describes her as a “red-haired singer” and Judge Brack later confirms that she is a “red-haired woman”. The color red has traditional connotations of passion and has a significant link to fire, the force of nature that Hedda uses to burn the manuscript and threatens to “burn [Mrs. Elvsted’s hair] off” with. As a result, the color red implies both strong emotions and the devastating actions that come with those emotions. Since Mlle Diana is the only character with red hair in “Hedda Gabler”, she is the most visual symbol of destruction. Also, since the destructive actions associated with fire are mainly performed by Hedda and because she is so closely connected with it, Mlle Diana could be seen as a visual representation of Hedda’s fiery spirit, making it likely that she could be Hedda’s foil.
Mlle Diana’s fire-like appearance suggests an openness Hedda must not show. The expectations of conformity to society are mentioned many times in the play when the higher-class people (e.g. Hedda and Judge Brack) say “people don’t do that kind of thing here”, referring to unconventionally dramatic actions. So however intense her personality is, as a woman and an aristocrat, Hedda has to conceal it to fit in. Nevertheless, Ibsen projects Hedda’s passion onto her foil Mlle Diana who can be completely true to herself, both mentally and physically.
After Mrs. Elvsted’s descriptions of Mlle Diana, Judge Brack mentions the men’s “party” in her boudoir. In Norway’s 1800s conservative culture, the higher one’s class was, the subtler one had to be regarding taboos such as sex, particularly for women. People who indulged in debauchery and openly sexual acts were condemned, much like how Hedda “broke it off” with the then-alcoholic Løvborg. However, Hedda has always wanted to “have a glimpse” of this secret world, hinted by her exchanges with Judge Brack of the men’s “gay” party and her acceptance of the “cock in the yard” arrangement with him. Her curiosity shows an inclination towards sexual freedom, something she cannot attain with her social status. This desire is embodied by Mlle Diana and the fact that she is a madam: she has direct ties with the taboo sexual world. What Hedda cannot achieve, Mlle Diana is perfectly experienced in.
After Mrs. Elvsted’s dialogue with Hedda about Mlle Diana, Judge Brack reveals Mlle Diana’s name to be a symbol since Diana is the Roman goddess of the hunt, nature, and fertility. This mythological allusion is referred to directly by her description as “a mighty huntress – of men.” “Huntress” is connected with her mythological namesake: the goddess Diana’s tale of shooting an arrow at Orion. The cruel irony is mirrored in Løvborg’s death in Mlle Diana’s “boudoir”. Ibsen even presents the alternative of Mlle Diana potentially murdering him, emphasizing how “she’s quite equal to that”. Interpreting Mlle Diana as Hedda’s foil, his death in Mlle Diana’s boudoir is reasonable because Hedda wanted him to die previously, implied by her premeditated act of handing him “one of the pistols”. It is no coincidence that Lovborg’s death has to take place in Mlle Diana’s boudoir; she can turn Hedda’s wish for his demise true, whether by accident or not. Therefore, Mlle Diana is an alter ego that embodies Hedda’s innermost destructive desires and can enact them when Hedda cannot.
Because of Løvborg’s death towards the end of the play, Hedda will have to “appear in court […] with Mademoiselle Diana.” With this final meeting, the presence of Mlle Diana becomes much more apparent than before. Ibsen develops the plot so that as the play goes on, Mlle Diana gets closer to Hedda. This progression starts with Mrs. Elvsted’s account of Mlle Diana, then to Judge Brack’s announcement of Løvborg’s death in her boudoir, and finally to Judge Brack threatening Hedda with Diana’s physical presence. The fact that it is a progression could imply how Hedda tries to suppress her foil because of societal pressures, but eventually concedes because she is tired of being “an awful coward”. The progression of Hedda meeting her foil follows Hedda’s progression from being a respectable married woman descending to be morally questionable with the burning of the manuscript. There is a parallel between Hedda’s proximity to Mlle Diana and her descent towards suicide, hinting at their connection as a character and a foil.
Interpreting Mlle Diana as Hedda’s foil, Hedda’s sudden suicide is elucidated in a new light. If the encounter between them occurs, Hedda will have to acknowledge that although Mlle Diana represents all that she longs to “have a glimpse of”, this life does not end with a happy ending either. Disillusioned to the fullest extent, the only way to escape a reality so cruel is to end her life altogether.
Ibsen builds Mlle Diana as a one-dimensional character to highlight her significance as a symbol of death and destruction, shown by her red hair and the mythological allusion of her name. He develops the metaphor further to turn her into a form of alternate reality for Hedda. Mlle Diana’s similarities with Hedda are shown through the chromatic imagery of her hair being connected with Hedda’s fiery spirit, them both having been in a relationship with Løvborg, and their common interest in sexual liberation. By interpreting her as Hedda’s foil after considering their similarities and differences, the reader knows more about the life Hedda would have wanted if she did not conform to societal constraints. This alternative perspective on Hedda gives more insight into the social constraints during nineteenth century Norway and makes her a much more complex character than meets the eye.
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Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler reflects the life of the eponymous protagonist against the backdrop of a wealthy upper middle class Norwegian city in the nineteenth century. During this time, there […]