By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The role of Hedda Gabler, the female lead and title-role in Henrik Ibsen’s celebrated 1890 play Hedda Gabler, has been called ‘the female Hamlet’, because, as the Prince of Denmark is the role many male actors (and quite a few female ones) have wanted to play, so women in the world of theatre want to give their distinctive interpretation of Hedda Gabler.
Hedda Gabler is a tragedy whose plot and, in particular, characterisation demand close analysis, but before we get to those matters, here’s a brief summary of the play.
Hedda Gabler: summary
Hedda Gabler has married a rather dull academic, a cultural historian named Jørgen Tesman, but she continues to use her maiden name. At the beginning of the play, they have just returned from their long honeymoon.
Tesman appears to have a glittering academic future ahead of him, and a professorship is in the offing, especially since his rival for the position, Ejlert Løvborg, has taken himself out of the running by taking to drink. Tesman’s aunt Julie, whom he dotes on, has helped him out financially so he could set up a home for himself and his new wife.
But there’s one fly in the ointment: Hedda Gabler herself. She seems to thrive on mischief, or on ‘rubbing people up the wrong way’, as the phrase has it. Soon after they have arrived home, Hedda deliberately insults her husband by pretending to mistake his aunt’s hat for some hat the lowly maid has left behind.
Hedda’s old schoolfriend, Thea Elvsted, turns up, announcing that she has walked out on her husband. She’s looking for Løvborg, who shares her passion for radical politics. Hedda was involved with Løvborg before she married Tesman, and seems to be jealous of Elvsted’s relative freedom.
Judge Brack turns up and announces that Tesman and Løvborg will, after all, be competing with each other for the professorship. Hedda, annoyed by her husband, plays with her father’s pistols. Hedda shoots one of the pistols at Judge Brack, missing him deliberately, just to get a reaction from him. She tells him that she married her husband out of pity and that she is boring herself to death in this marriage. (Brack suggests spicing things up with a menage a trois, but she rejects this kind proposal.)
Then Løvborg shows up and also tries it on, when he shows Hedda his scholarly work and tells her that she is his muse, when in reality, it appears Thea was the one who helped him with it. She rejects his advances, too, and then the men all go off to a party, and Hedda taunts Thea Elvsted.
When the men return the following day, it all kicks off: Løvborg, who had given up the booze, started drinking again at the party and got involved in a fight. He rebuffs Thea, telling her he’s torn up his manuscript; he confides the truth to Hedda, that, in his drunken state, he’s lost it.
In reality, Tesman has found his rival’s manuscript, but plans to do the honourable thing and return it to Løvborg. Hedda, seeing how distraught her former beau is, hands Løvborg one of her father’s pistols and goads him to use it on himself. When left on her own, Hedda throws his manuscript into the stove, announcing to the absent Thea that she is burning Thea and Løvborg’s ‘baby’.
When Hedda tells Tesman what she has done, he is shocked, but when she lies and says she did it purely for her husband’s sake, so he will get the professorship, he forgives her. Aunt Julie, meanwhile, is convinced that Hedda is expecting a baby of her own (a real one, rather than a manuscript).
We then learn that Løvborg has shot himself, and Tesman and Thea bond over his lost manuscript, which they begin recreating from memory, in his … well, in his memory. Hedda is convinced Løvborg shot himself because she goaded him to do it.
But this is false: Brack tells her that he did so in a brothel, in his private parts. Løvborg did, however, use the pistol Hedda gave him, and this would make Hedda’s life difficult if the police found out. Brack tells her he will keep silent … as long as she keeps him sweet.
Hedda, realising Brack has her in his power, goes to the back of the room and shoots herself with her father’s other pistol. The play ends with Brack saying: ‘No one does that. No one.’
Hedda Gabler: analysis
In some ways, the key to understanding Hedda Gabler – and its title character, Hedda Gabler – is by analysing the contrast between her and her schoolfriend, Thea Elvsted. Thea is, in some ways, what Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House might have been after she walked out on her husband at the end of Ibsen’s earlier play (which we have analysed here).
By contrast, Hedda Gabler might be said to represent what would have happened if Nora hadn’t left her husband but had remained with him, even after she has had her epiphany about what their marriage is really like.
Tesman, similarly, is painted as a rather feminine figure: his scholarly research is on domestic matters, he clucks over his aunt (who clucks over him back), and he is obsessed with ‘soft’ domestic comforts, such as his slippers. Like his ancestor from Ibsen’s earlier A Doll’s House, Torvald Helmer, he is a husband who wants to be ‘secure’ and ‘comfortable’: a wife, a home, a steady job, a life. But what kind of life is that, Hedda invites us to ask – especially for the wife?
Hedda Gabler, as the name indicates, never really accepts her married life. She has married Tesman out of pity, she tells Brack, and she mocks her husband’s devotion to his aunts, to the point of insensitivity and coldness. She refuses to become ‘Hedda Tesman’ in anything other than legal documentation: in her heart, she is still Hedda Gabler.
Of course, this doesn’t mean she is her own woman, either: Gabler is her father’s name, and Hedda Gabler is her father’s daughter through-and-through. Her father was a military man, a general, whose portrait watches over the events of the play, and whose pistols lead to the deaths of both Løvborg and Hedda herself. This strong, military, masculine presence stands in stark contrast to those feminine influences over her husband’s life and behaviour.
In calling his play Hedda Gabler, Ibsen doesn’t necessarily endorse Hedda’s reluctance to commit to her marriage: he simply reflects who the character is. Ibsen famously said that nothing he wrote was ‘tendentious’. In other words, he seeks to explore rather than to instruct, to present a complex issue from both sides and to get the audience thinking about the issues put forward them on stage.
Hedda is cold-hearted, cruel, even monstrous at times – if she is pregnant, as Aunt Julie suspects, her final act seems even more shocking to us – in the way she goads Løvborg to end it all and taunts Thea Elvsted.
But at the same time, being trapped in a passionless marriage at a time when marriage was the only reasonable option for so many women, she has some justification for being ‘bored to death’.
But whether it’s the boredom that kills her in the end, or whether – ironically – it’s the rather exciting and dangerous scandal her actions get her caught up in, is something worth pondering. How in control of her own life is she? Hedda is someone who wishes to own and direct the ‘narrative’ of her life: she wants, above all, to be a kind of Iago figure, in the sense that the scheming villain from Shakespeare’s Othello is, in a sense, the stage manager or ‘director’ of the play in which he appears, setting in motion all of the major events that take place.
But she is mistaken. Her boredom does lead to her death, but only when the mischief she unleashes – the burning of Løvborg’s manuscript (which actually brings her husband and another woman together, bonding over the scholarly task of reconstructing it), and the goading of Løvborg with her father’s pistol – leads to genuine tragedy and the risk of genuine scandal.
Then she finds herself, ironically enough, back where Nora Helmer found herself at the beginning of Ibsen’s earlier play, A Doll’s House: in the thrall of another man who can threaten to reveal her secret and destroy her life at any moment. Hedda refuses to live like that, but what does her final act on stage represent?
Has she taken control of her life’s narrative in the most extreme day, or taken the easy way out? Has she lost control of the narrative altogether?
She is, after all, proved wrong about Løvborg: she gave him the means to end his life, by handing him the pistol, but not the motivation. Hedda Gabler is such a rewarding play because of these complexities we find in the play’s title-character, but she is as much a failed Iago as she is ‘the female Hamlet’.