Restraining Factors In Hedda Gabler Essay, Research Paper
15 November 1999
Restraining Factors in Hedda Gabler
Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is not truly indicative of his vast body of work:
the protagonist is female and the play is a character study. Oddly enough, though, Hedda
does not evolve or progress throughout the entirety of the work. Rather, she remains a
cold and manipulative woman. When this fact is realized, the only task is discovering
why Hedda continues as a flat character who is restrained from gaining the status
of a hero. Truthfully, there are many variables that shape Hedda’s life. Nonetheless,
two factors in particular stand out—her father, General Gabler, and the repressive,
masculine society of the era. Although Ibsen does not directly address these issues,
he succeeds in conveying their critical significance.
A common underlying theme in Ibsen’s work is the linking of death and
music. And, as one might have deduced, this premise is employed in Hedda Gabler.
Moreover, the ever-present piano, belonging to the late General Gabler, symbolizes
Hedda’s past freedom, prior to marrying George Tesman, as the “General’s daughter.”
A more obvious example of General Gabler’s influence over Hedda is the large portrait
of him that dominates the “inner” room. In fact, as Ibsen initially describes the single set,
he momentarily focuses on the presence of the portrait of the “handsome, elderly man in
a General’s uniform” (Ibsen Act 1). With this description, the reader is made aware of the
General’s presence, even after his death. Arguably, the most significant influence the
General has over Hedda is the fact that Hedda is unable to rid herself of her “Hedda
Gabler” identity. It is extremely odd to be known by a name that is, in effect, a product of
the past, as Hedda has recently become “Hedda Tesman.” Throughout the play, Hedda is
referred to as “Hedda Gabler,” or , more simply, “General Gabler’s daughter.” This fact
is also indicative of the kind of “facelessness” that women of the era were often subject
to. Yet another aspect of the General’s rearing of Hedda is her unusual fascination with
his pistols. This fascination is one of the first given clues that Hedda was raised as a boy
would have been. The mere possibility of Hedda being raised as a male is sufficient
evidence to explain her underlying disdain at being a woman—unable to express herself
as a man would. Instead, Hedda simply “contents herself with negative behavior instead
of constructive action” (Linnea 91). Since she cannot express herself outright, she amuses
herself by manipulating others. The most compelling episode of Hedda’s perfected brand
of manipulation is the role she plays in the death of Eilert Lovborg, a former love.
Despite the fact that Eilert is the only person who can evoke true passion in her, Hedda
feels the need to destroy him, purely for the purpose of “[having] the power to mould a
human destiny” (Ibsen 2). Since she is unable to directly control anyone or anything,
Hedda chooses to rebel against the society that shapes her and obliterate one of its future
Needless to say, the Victorian era of literature and society did not offer a
profusion of opportunities for young women. This fact is made abundantly clear in
Hedda Gabler. Despite the fact that society stifles Hedda, it is not the only factor
that restrains her from gaining independence, as well as expressing herself. In reality,
Hedda’s own cowardice generously contributes to her inescapable end. But, of course,
the root of her cowardice is her former life involving her father, General Gabler.
Even though Hedda takes pleasure in creating scandal, however, she is deathly frightened
of being associated with it. One such incidence involves Thea Elvsted, Hedda’s long-
forgotten schoolmate, explaining to Hedda her current, scandalous situation concerning
Eilert Lovborg, who is Thea’s stepchildren’s tutor. Specifically, Thea is rebelling against
the conventions of society and pursuing Lovborg. Hedda, constantly aware of scandal,
responds in a predictable manner: “But what do you think people will say of you,
Thea?” (1). This scene is the first of many that reveals Hedda’s inability to
disregard society and scandal and live the life she has never dared to live. Indeed, the
sole reason that Hedda marries George Tesman is due to the fact that he is the only
one of her suitors that expresses an interest in marriage. Once again, Hedda’s fear of
society’s ideals for women forces her to compromise her thoughts and desires, thereby
causing her to feel jealous and trapped. “It [Hedda’s mind] has merely gone round and
round the cage she has built for herself, looking for a way to escape” (Ellis-Fermor 43).
In other words, Hedda has come to the realization that there is no way out of her “place”
in society, as well as life. She will never be any man’s equal or a “real” person. Also,
much like the rest of society, Tesman views Hedda as an object, a collectible. Finally,
due to the circumstances imposed upon her by Norwegian society, Hedda responds with
the one act of courage she has managed to muster in her short, meaningless life—she kills
herself with her father’s pistol.
While Hedda is considerably responsible for her cowardice and her failure
to sufficiently express herself, the way in which she was raised, as well as the society in
which she lives, both play major roles in the shaping of her character. If it were not for
her extenuating circumstances, as well as her solitary act of courage, one can only
speculate what she might have come to represent in contemporary feminist literature.
However, literature is not founded on speculation and guess work, it is based on visible
feelings, emotions, and actions. With this in mind, one is forced to recognize what Hedda
truly represents: the cold, emotionless product of a disapproving and domineering society
Ellis-Fermor, Una. “Introduction to Hedda Gabler and Other Plays.” Modern Critical
Views: Henrik Ibsen. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House,
Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler. Ed. Stanley Applebaum. New York: Dover, 1990.
Linnea, Sharon. Barron’s Book Notes: Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House & Hedda Gabler.
New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1985.