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Literary Analysis Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen



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At the time at which Henrik Ibsen wrote his arguably most controversial play, most Victorian novelists were writing about the fulfilling lives of womanly women and manly men finding each other and getting married. No matter how feminist certain writers could appear to be, such as Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, they generally did not challenge the end -marriage, parenthood, happiness and a fulfilled social life- but the means. However, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is extremely modern in presenting us a woman who refuses her social role as a wife and a mother and who wishes to take on a man's role in insisting on wanting to control other people's lives. What is even more astonishing is the ability of Ibsen to master completely the psyche of his character, in fact exactly as Hedda wishes to do with her own life and surrounding, but fails to, leading to her fall and final suicide. Almost like in a psychological thriller, we enter the killer's head for the author to reveal and make us understand what lead to the sheer atrocity of the murder. Not only Hedda Gabler is a psychological play, it is also a social play showing the inadequacy of a person such as Hedda in the Victorian society: she is implicitly presented as a deviant character at least according to the standards of the late nineteenth century.

Even without showing Hedda's behavior towards designated people, several evidences can be found of her manly personality: the title of the play, her appearance and background are the first; several masculine symbols mentioned in the play can also account for her manly character; and finally, her psychological profile as a schizophrenic person is another evidence. Even though Hedda is married to Jorgen Tesman, she is presented as "Hedda Gabler" in the title, and later as "General Gabler's daughter" (Act I). The title does not only suggest her independence from her husband, but her independence from any other person in the play: contrary to Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, who rather than depending on her husband to exist, depends on her father and remains "Mrs", Hedda Gabler remains "Hedda" and the force of her character is already conveyed through the title. Hedda is also the socially highest character in the play: her aristocratic background, as compare to the bourgeois society she has to or rather chooses to fit into, is alien to her and the only purpose of this match is, as we are going to see later, to fulfill her desire of taking control of people's lives. The physical presentation of Hedda is also significant in showing her as a manly woman. The first time her physical appearance is referred to in the play, she is shown by Miss Tesman as "riding along the road with her father", "in that long black habit", "and feathers in her hat" (Act I): she is again presented as a manly character, riding being an essentially masculine activity, the color black, related to violence or even death, insisting on this feature of hers, and the feathers representing her freedom and independence. When Hedda finally enters the play, her lack of femininity is emphasized: her eyes "steel-grey; cold, clear and calm" and her hair "a beautiful light brown, though not noticeably abundant" are the antithesis of a feminine or womanly woman, such as Mrs Elvsted for instance, whose eyes are "light blue, large, round and slightly prominent, with a startled, questioning expression" and hair is "remarkably fair, almost silver-gilt, and exceptionally thick and wavy" (Act I).
Hedda is presented in the first instance as a manly woman, and if we analyze other features in the play, the occurrence of masculine symbols confirms Hedda's personality: the most obvious one being the pistols and another one being the reference to "the only cock in the yard". The pistols are significantly referred to at the very end of Act I: it seems that they are coming quite inadvertently in the setting and that they should have no place in Jorgen Tesman's universe as shown in his anxiety at Hedda's mentioning them. Hedda's attitude, however, is a revelation of her true personality: she looks at her husband "with lurking contempt" and "with cold eyes" when she mentions her pistols. The pistols are from her father whom she probably inherited her manly personality from and they are obviously phallic symbols and in them, we could almost see a summary of Hedda's portrait. The reference to "the only cock in the yard" is ironically made in the presence of Judge Brack, whose gender is opposite to that of Hedda. The complicity that Judge Brack and Hedda share allows Hedda to let the Judge think that he is "the only cock in the yard", because of his self-assurance and his sex, when she herself knows that she really is. In fact, when Hedda mentions it one last time, it is just before she kills herself: she finally gives up her role as "the only cock in the yard" to Judge Brack.

The reference to "the only cock in the yard" is only a glimpse at Hedda's psychological profile. Moreover, probably the most interesting feature of her profile is her apparent schizophrenia shown by the absurdity or incoherence of her behavior throughout the dialogues. In these moments, Hedda really seems to be a man's brain and heart trapped in a woman's body and the frustration she endures is sometimes extremely obvious. For instance, she pretends to be feminine in the presence of strangers like Miss Tesman. In Act I, she insists on the delicacy of her sleep -she says she has slept "tolerably" when her husband is aware that she has slept "like a log"- and on her love for "precious flowers", a purely feminine symbol. However, her true identity appears throughout the dialogue especially with her husband, Jorgen Tesman -I will develop on their relationship in the second part. In one of their conversation, when the possibility of Hedda being pregnant is mentioned, it is obvious that she totally refuses her role as a potential mother, a role that would show her as a fulfilled womanly woman. This conversation starts with Tesman telling his aunt: "...but have you noticed how plump she's grown, and how well she is? How much she's filled out on our travels?" and then, "Of course, you can't see it so well, Aunt Julle, now she has that dress on. But I, who have the opportunity of-"; and Hedda cutting him nervously and violently, "Oh, be quiet-!", and later, "Oh, you haven't any opportunity!". Hedda's refusal to assume a role as a mother is another example of her manly personality.

In Act I, we are introduced little by little to Hedda's true identity, but it is often really subtle. Towards the end of the play, our heroine can hardly hide her desire to control other people's lives: the interactions of Hedda with the other characters in the play are the way Henrik Ibsen has wanted to show the audience the manly side of his main protagonist. Hedda's relationships to the men of the play, her husband, Jorgen Tesman, her former lover and friend Ejlert Lovborg, and Judge Brack are generally implicitly those of master-slave; as for her relationships to the other women in the play, Miss Tesman -that I have already wrote about in my first part- and Mrs Elvsted, are generally of the love-hate kind. In order to get a full account of Hedda's behavior towards the other characters in the play, I am first going to analyze briefly the real gender identity of these characters.
Jorgen Tesman, Hedda's husband can be characterized as an androgynous man: his physical appearance, "a youngish-looking man of thirty-three, middle-sized, stutish, with a round, frank, happy face", is already a clue about his gender. Moreover, even though he is married to Hedda, he has not grown into a manly man: he still is a student, his honeymoon was devoted to his love of studying rather than his love for his wife, he is also still very close to the women who brought him up, his aunts and his servant. The way Jorgen Tesman grows throughout the play is also worth noticing: at the beginning, he truly lacks ambition quite to Hedda's despair who would like to see him more involved in politics for instance, but at the end of the play, the fact that he accepts to look after someone else's baby, namely, Ejlert Lovborg's and Mrs Elvsted's work, is significant in showing Tesman finally willing to be a manly man, and this indeed, might be where Hedda discovers that she has failed to control her husband. Hedda's relationship to her husband is clear: she chose him because it was the only way for her to fulfill her thirst for power. Indeed, everybody but Tesman is aware of the mismatch they represent, as shown in the servant's remark that she "had never thought that it would be a match between her and Mr Jorgen." Moreover, in her husband's presence, Hedda is truly and totally herself: a manipulating and domineering figure as clearly shown at the end of Act I. Hedda's relationship to Tesman is certainly the most significant of the play: it is the trigger that reveals Hedda's true identity, and consequently, the evolution of Tesman from an androgynous man to a more manly man is partly what leads to Hedda's fall in the final scene.

Two other men in the play have an important part in shaping Hedda's identity in the eyes of the audience: Ejlert Lovborg and Judge Brack can be seen as accentuated characters on each side of Jorgen Tesman's personality on the spectrum of gender identities, Lovborg, a bit more manly than Tesman -or at least so Hedda thinks- and Brack, a bit more womanly than Tesman. The revelation of these three men's true identities at the end of the play is also what leads to Hedda's own crisis of identity. The physical description that the author presents of Lovborg is probably as suggestive as the other characters' in the play: everything in him can show that he is a manly man except the "two patches of color on his cheekbones" (Act II), which can refer to the remains of childhood and innocence. Lovborg is seen by Hedda as a manly man able to enjoy life, as shown in the reference to "vine leaves in his hair" alluding to the Roman god of wine and party, Bacchus. His relationship to women, whether Mrs Elvsted or Mademoiselle Diana, are still very passionate and devoid of commitment, like those of a young man, however, his growing ambition in his field of study is that of a more mature man, for instance, he has already finished to write one book. His initial refusal to accompany the men at Brack's party is another evidence of his growing maturity. His gradual transformation from an androgynous man to a more manly man is completely independent from Hedda's input in his life, actually quite to the contrary; it actually depends as we are going to see later, to his interactions with a more womanly woman Mrs Elvsted. Hedda thinks that she has been the initiator of Lovborg's evolution: she had wanted to control his life in order to make of him a man but it seems that her castrating behavior towards men has contributed to her failure. In fact, the way Lovborg kills himself is a perfect image of this: Hedda, in encouraging him to kill himself, has virtually castrated him since, instead of shooting himself in his head or in the chest, the pistol "hit him in the stomach" by accident (Act III). Hedda actually has literally triggered in him a return to a more adolescent behavior that he used to share with her when they were younger.

Judge Brack, because of his apparent inverted gender, is the closest to Hedda: he is her confidant and eventually her accomplice in crime. Again, Judge Brack's gender is not as obvious as it could seem: he is apparently a womanly man who likes gossiping with the woman that Hedda is, partying with other men in nights of "the gayest kind", and the fact that he uses the back door to enter the Tesmans' house both shows the complicity he shares with both members of the couple a well as his sexual orientation. In reality, Judge Brack uses the fact that he shares with Hedda an inverted gender, in order to have her confess to him: the reference to "the only cock in the yard" is significant in that regard. Whether it is Hedda or Judge Brack who is "the only cock in the yard" is blurred until the end of the play: they seem to be in competition in their relationship to Jorgen Tesman for instance, they are both trying to influence his life, Hedda in trying to make out of him a more manly man, and Judge Brack trying to keep his youth and androgyny in inviting him to some bachelors' parties. In Act III, we discover that Judge Brack is more mature than the womanly man he pretends to be; with the details he knows about Lovborg's death, he has Hedda under his control and is finally "the only cock in the yard". The triangular relationship between Hedda, her husband and Judge Brack, with the role that each of them plays in it, is the kind of relationship that Hedda enjoys as the long as her role is that of the domineering figure. Her relationship to Mrs Elvsted, that I am going to analyze below, is also shaped on this model.

As I have said in the first part, Mrs Elvsted is the antithesis of Hedda and she is also the most consistent, down-to-earth, and possibly conventional character of the play. She is a womanly woman looking for a man who would accept her as a mature woman, contrary to her husband who seems to think of her as a feminine woman whose personality and identity he can shape at his will. She has found in Ejlert Lovborg this man, but the influence of other woman such as Hedda or Mademoiselle Diana on him has spoilt the relationship they could have shared as a couple of a womanly woman and a responsible manly man. Hedda, in this case, is also in competition with Lovborg in her relationship with Mrs Elvsted: as a woman, she envies Mrs Elvsted's femininity, and as manly woman, she wants to seduce her. There is indeed an homoerotic undertone in their first conversation in Act I; Hedda's behavior could be fake in order to manipulate Mrs Elvsted, however, her body language is quite revealing, during the scene, she gets closer and closer to her. Hedda is again the master of another triangular relationship between her, Ejlert Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted: at the beginning the audience is lead to think that Lovborg is the master of this relationship with his heart balancing between these two women, but as I have explained previously, Hedda has always been in charge in her relationship to Ejlert Lovborg.

When looking at Hedda's relationships to the other characters in the play, we become more and more aware of the fact that she is the most masculine character of the play, and this is clearly embodied in the final scene. Hedda's final act is the climax of the play: she has been disappointed and frustrated by her own inability at controlling people's lives, which was her only way to live a manly life. Her failure in mastering the other characters' actions and personalities has actually lead to each character finding his true personality, with Hedda not having a part to play: Lovborg, as a man having lost his manhood in losing his manuscript, is dead, Tesman takes over as a responsible manly man near the womanly woman Mrs Elvsted, and Brack, an homosexual manly man, finds himself as an outsider as he always ought to be. Only Hedda does not have a place in her own house near her husband and because she cannot live vicariously, her only way to regain her identity is to kill herself "in the temple", which is the most masculine, and according to her, perfect and beautiful, moment of the play. Having no more roles for Hedda Gabler to play, Henrik Ibsen literally kills his heroine: in wanting to master the game, she has lost her place in it. The indecency and even obscenity of her final act of despair -"But merciful God! One doesn't do this kind of thing!" (Judge Brack in Act III)- is not so much due to the act itself, but much more to the meaning of it: she is a woman, expected to act as a womanly woman, actually acting as a man...

 

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