Monday, March 16, 2009

Hedda Gabler


Henrik Ibsen portrays a microcosm of nineteenth century Norwegian society in his play Hedda Gabler. Hedda, the protagonist, exhibits a mixture of masculine and feminine traits due to her unique upbringing under General Gabler and the social mores imposed upon her. However, although this society venerates General Gabler because of his military status, his daughter Hedda is not tolerated due to her non-conformity to the accepted gender stereotypes.
Hedda's gender-inverted marriage to Jorgen Tesman, her desire for power and her use of General Gabler's pistols are unacceptable in her society and motif of "One doesn't do such a thing!" that is alluded to during the play and expounded upon Hedda's death that shows that Hedda's uncertain stance between masculine and feminine gender roles and their associated traits is not tolerated by her society. Ibsen employs a reversal of traditional gender roles within Hedda and Jorgen Tesman's marriage to emphasise Hedda's masculine traits. Hedda displays no emotion or affection towards her husband Jorgen. This appearance of indifference is a trait that is usually common to men:
Tesman: "My old morning shoes. My slippers look!...I missed them dreadfully. Now you should see them, Hedda."
Hedda: “No thanks, it really doesn't interest me”.
In another gender role reversal, Hedda displays a financial awareness, which her husband, Jorgen does not posses. Although Brack corresponds with Tesman about his honeymoon travels, he corresponds with Hedda concerning the financial matters. This is a role that is usually reserved for men. Hedda does not only display traits, which are definitively masculine, or feminine, she also objects to and often defies the conventions established for her gender by society. She rejects references to her pregnancy as a reminder of her gender:
Tesman: "Have you noticed how plump (Hedda's) grown, and how well she is? How much she's filled out on our travels?"
Hedda: "Oh be quiet!"
Hedda is reminded not only of her feminine role of mother and nurturer here, but also as wife and "appendage" to Tesman: "And to think is was you who carried off Hedda Gabler! The lovely Hedda Gabler! that you have got the wife your heart was set on." As a woman of the haute bourgeoisie, Hedda is "sought after" and "always had so many admirers" and has been "acquired" by Tesman as hide wife.
Hedda resents the gender conventions that dictate that she now "belongs" to the Tesman family - a situation that would not occur were she a man:
Tesman: “Only it seems to me now that you belong to the family...”
Hedda: "Well, I really don't know..."
Although these traits displayed by Hedda are masculine, they are not those, which her society cannot tolerate. To entertain herself in her "boring" marriage she plays with her father's, General Gabler's, pistols:
Hedda: "Sometimes I think I only have a talent for one thing...boring myself to death!" "I still have one thing to kill time with. My pistols, Jorgen. General Gabler's pistols"
Jorgen: "For goodness' sake! Hedda darling! Don't touch those dangerous things! For my sake, Hedda!”
These pistols are a symbol of masculinity and are associated with war, a pastime that women are excluded from other than in the nurturing role of nurses and are thus not tolerated by society. Tesman implores Hedda to cease playing with them, but even his "superior" position, as her husband does not dissuade Hedda, who is found to be playing with them by Brack at the beginning of act two. Brack also reminds Hedda of the inappropriate nature of her "entertainment" and physically takes the pistols away from Hedda.
Hedda: "I'm going to shoot you sir!"
Brack: "No, no, no! Now stop this nonsense!" taking the pistol gently out of her hand. If you don't mind, my dear lady.... Because we're not going to play that game any more today."
As a parallel to Hedda's masculine game of playing with General Gabler's pistols, Hedda plays the traditionally female role of a "minx" with Brack.
Hedda: "Doesn't it feel like a whole eternity since we last talked to each other?"
Brack: "Not like this, between ourselves? Alone together, you mean?"
Hedda: "Yes, more or less that"
Brack: "Here was I, every blessed day, wishing to goodness you were home again"
Hedda: "And there was I, the whole time, wishing exactly the same"
At the beginning of act two, Hedda encourages Brack's flirtation with her by telling him the true nature of her marriage to Tesman that it is a marriage of convenience:
Brack: "But, tell me...I don't quite see why, in that"
Hedda: "Why Jorgen and I ever made a match of it, you mean? "I had simply danced myself out, my dear sir. My time was up."
Brack is emboldened by Hedda's seeming availability and pursues the notion of a "triangular relationship" with Hedda. Not only does Hedda's "coquettish" behaviour towards Brack exhibits the feminine side of her nature, it also demonstrates that in some instances she conforms to society's expectations of females. Hedda's reference to "(her) time (being) up" shows the socially accepted view that women must marry, because they are not venerated as spinsters.
By conforming to this aspect of her society's mores and marrying before she becomes a socially unacceptable spinster, Hedda demonstrates that she is undeniably female and accepts this. Hedda's constantly seeks power over those people she comes in contact with. As a woman, she has no control over society at large, and thus seeks to influence the characters she comes into contact with in an emulation of her father's socially venerated role as a general. Hedda pretends to have been friends with Thea in order to solicit her confidence:
Thea: "But that's the last thing in the world I wanted to talk about!"
Hedda: "Not to me, dear? After all, we were at school together."
Thea: "Yes, but you were a class above me. How dreadfully frightened of you I was in those days!"
Once Hedda learns of Thea's misgivings about Lovborg's newfound resolve, she uses it to destroy their "comradeship”.
Hedda: "Now you see for yourself! There's not the slightest need for you to go about in this deadly anxiety..."
Lovborg: "So it was deadly anxiety ...on my behalf."
Thea: “Softly and in misery] Oh, Hedda! How could you?”
Lovborg: "So this was my comrade's absolute faith in me."
Hedda then manipulates Lovborg, by challenging his masculinity, into going to Brack's bachelor party and resuming his drunken ways of old. Hedda's "reward" for this is to find that Lovborg's manuscript, his and Thea's "child" falls into her hands, where she burns it, thus destroying the child and alto the relationship, both of which Hedda was jealous of. Similarly, Hedda seeks to push her husband, Jorgen, into politics: "(I was wondering) whether I could get my husband to go into politics..." This would raise Hedda's social standing and allow her to attain and maintain power. Hedda's manipulation of people in order to attain power is a trait that is stereotypically predominant in men.
The society of nineteenth century Norway venerates the image of submissive, static passive and pure women. Roles of power are normally allocated to men in such a society. The society in Hedda Gabler demonstrates its intolerance of Hedda's masculine behaviour by contributing to her death. Hedda is found to be playing with her pistols in act two by Brack. After disgracing himself and returning to his "immoral" ways at Hedda's behest, Lovborg is manipulated by Hedda into "taking his life beautifully" and she gives him one of General Gabler's pistols. However Lovborg dies from an accidental wound to the stomach rather than a patrician death from a bullet to the head and Brack, utilising his position of power within the judicial system, sees the pistol that he accidentally killed himself with. Recognising it as being General Gabler's pistol, he returns to Hedda to stake his claim. Hedda refuses to be in the power of Brack, she had been "heartily thankful that (he had) no power over (her)" however, her fear is realised as Brack attempts to force his way into a "triangular relationship" with Hedda (and Tesman) in return for not exposing the scandal that she had provided Lovborg with the instrument of his death. Hedda is "as fearful of scandal as all that" and takes her life, ironically avoiding the scandal surrounding Lovborg's death and yet causing a scandal concerning her own. Hedda's masculine preference for the pistols to any feminine task of housekeeping and her fear of scandal due to not conforming with society's accepted gender roles leads her to kill herself, thus demonstrating that things which "one doesn't do" are not tolerated by her society of nineteenth century Norway.

It has been suggested that Hedda Gabler is a drama about the individual psyche -- a mere character study. It has even been written that Hedda Gabler "presents no social theme". On the contrary, we find social issues and themes abundant in this work. The character of Hedda Gabler centres on society and social issues. Her high social rank is indicated from the beginning, as Miss Tesman says of Hedda, "General Gabler's daughter. What a life she had in the general's day!” Upon Hedda's first appearance, she makes many snobbish remarks. First, she turns up her nose at George's special handmade slippers. Later she insults Aunt Julie's new hat, pretending to mistake it for the maid's. Hedda seems to abhor everything about George Tesman and his bourgeoisie existence. She demands much more class than he has been able to provide her, for she was the beautiful, charming daughter of General Gabler and deserved nothing but the finest.
As the character of Hedda Gabler develops, the reader learns that she has only married George Tesman because her father's passing away left her no significant financial resources, nothing but a respectable heritage. She tells Brack of her decision to marry Tesman:
"I really had danced myself out, Judge. My time was up. ... And George Tesman -- he is after all a thoroughly acceptable choice. ... There's every chance that in time he could still make a name for himself. ...It was certainly more than my other admirers were willing to do for me, Judge".
Hedda needed someone to support her financially, and George Tesman was the only decent man to propose to her. She was forced to cross beneath her social class and marry this commoner in the hopes that he would make a name for himself as a professor. As for love everlasting, Hedda disgustedly comments to Judge Brack, "Ugh -- don't use that syrupy word!" Rather than having become a happy newlywed who has found true love, according to Shipley "Hedda is trapped in a marriage of convenience".
Hedda was raised a lady of the upper class, and as such she regards her beauty with high esteem. This is, in part, the reason she vehemently denies the pregnancy for so long. A pregnancy will force her to gain weight and lose her lovely womanly figure. Hedda has grown accustomed to her many admirers; therefore, Hedda is perturbed and embarrassed when George says to Aunt Julie, "But have you noticed how plump and buxom she's grown? How much she's filled out on the trip?”, "I'm exactly as I was when I left," insists an annoyed Hedda. To Hedda, pregnancy is a despicable curse. It will make her unattractive, and she will no longer be the talk of the town. For a lady who has been forced to depend on her beauty to attract a suitable husband after the general's death, this is a crushing threat.
In Act II, Judge Brack gently suggests to Hedda that a child might relieve her from the mundane existence she has been enduring with Tesman. Calling motherhood her "most solemn responsibility," Judge Brack delicately hints that she will be having a child within the year. "Be quiet! You'll never see me like that!" she exclaims. "I have no talent for such things, Judge. I won't have responsibilities!". Judge Brack has reminded Hedda of what she already knew -- the pregnancy. Her fear of becoming undesirable resurfaces, and she explodes in anger and denial.
Even in death, Hedda cherishes beauty. In discussing the planned suicide with Eilert, she instructs him, "Eilert Lovborg -- listen to me. Couldn't you arrange that -- that it's done beautifully?". She then reminds him twice more in the following lines to take his life beautifully. Still, upon his death he is shot in the stomach at a brothel, not at all as beautifully as Hedda had intended. In the final lines of the play, Hedda finally gets the beautiful ending she romanticizes. She takes her own life, shooting herself in the temple, as she lies stretched out on the sofa, beautifully.
Further evidence of Hedda's social class is found in her conversation with Mrs. Elvsted. After Mrs. Elvsted reluctantly admits that she has left her husband in search of Eilert Lovborg, the astonished Hedda replies, "But my dearest girl -- that you could dare to do such a thing!" Hedda continues, "But what do you think people will say about you, Thea?". For Hedda, this act is unimaginable. The entire town will be gossiping about Thea Elvsted, the sheriff's wife, and her affair with Eilert Lovborg. Mrs. Elvsted's reputation will be permanently tarnished. For Hedda, this would be a nightmare. She has been highly regarded by everyone and showered with attention from all the men. In fact, as General Gabler's lovely daughter, Hedda has been a major object of interest for the townspeople for quite some time. A renowned modern critic Setterquist opines "Hedda fears scandal above all". She cannot begin to fathom how Thea could risk losing her honour. "Brought up as a 'lady', she was required at all times to conduct herself correctly".
Thea, on the other hand, is of a lower social ranking and hasn't much of a name to lose. She is able to follow her heart, and she explains, "God knows they'll say what they please. I only did what I had to do."
Additional proof that Hedda fears scandal can be found in her private conversation with Judge Brack after Lovborg's suicide. He warns Hedda that if counsel were to discover that the pistol was hers, there would be a scandal. "A scandal, yes -- the kind you're so deathly afraid of. Naturally, you'd appear in court... You'll have to answer the question: Why did you give Eilert Lovborg the pistol? And what conclusions will people draw from the fact that you did give it to him?". Her heart sinks, as Hedda realizes that Judge Brack is right. She understands that she is helpless against his blackmailing and no longer free, and in desperation she takes her own life.
Despite the clear distinctions between the social classes of the three women of the play -- Hedda Gabler, Thea Elvsted, and Mademoiselle Diana -- their sexual situations are remarkably similar. As women, they must all flaunt their sexuality to survive in a male dominated society. Hedda is, of course, an upper class lady. She does not strive towards her individual morality for any reason other than to maintain an impeccable reputation. Scandals and rumours are her worst enemy. Rather than allow herself to fall from her high social standing, she accepts the proposal of her only prospect -- George Tesman. She marries him and thus must sleep with him, not out of love, but merely out of necessity. Hedda uses her sexuality to attract Tesman who will provide an adequate means of support for her. She remains faithful to him only in order to maintain her reputation, for she feels no moral obligation to be loyal to him.
Similarly, Thea Elvsted was a middle class girl. She accepted a job as a governess to Mr. Elvsted, and when his wife died he married her. There was a large age difference, and she says of him, "I just can't stand him! We haven't a single thought in common. Nothing at all -- he and I". Thea did not love Mr. Elvsted any more than Hedda loved Tesman. She, too, married for financial support. Since Thea did not have such a great reputation to uphold around town, however, she had the freedom to have a sexual affair. That is just what she did with Eilert Lovborg. Eventually, she left Mr. Elvsted in hopes of using her sexuality to secure a loving marriage with a better prospect, Mr. Lovborg. Unfortunately, her plan was unsuccessful and the reader must wonder in what way she will manage to support herself now.
Finally, there is the character Diana, a singer and prostitute. Just as Thea and Hedda, Diana must offer her sexuality as a means of support in a male-dominated world. Rather than finding a husband to support her, Diana has found the most freedom. In becoming a prostitute, she sells her body to men without becoming trapped in a marriage full of regret. While Diana has her freedom, however, she has attained it in a socially unacceptable manner and is thus at the bottom of the social order.
Lastly, the tile itself represents the social theme of the drama. In using the name Hedda Gabler, despite her marriage to George Tesman, Ibsen has conveyed to the reader the importance of social class. Hedda prefers to identify herself as the daughter of General Gabler, not the wife of George Tesman. Throughout the play she rejects Tesman and his middle class lifestyles, clinging to the honourable past with which her father provided her. This identity as the daughter of the noble General Gabler is strongly implied in the title, Hedda Gabler.
In considering the many implications of the social issues as explained above, it can not be denied that the very theme of Hedda Gabler centres on social issues. "Hedda Gabler is ...indirectly a social parable".

Brack is a judge of relatively inferior rank. He is a friend of both Tesman and Hedda, and he visits their house regularly. He has connections around the city, and is often the first to give Tesman information about alterations in the possibility of his professorship. He seems to enjoy meddling in other people's affairs. He is a worldly and cynical man. On certain occasions he seems to represent the whole society of the time, his opportunism, meanness, blackmailing and lusty love aspiration make him an epitome of society.
Brack strikes as a very immoral man from the very beginning, due to the aplenty advances he made towards Hedda. He had always subtlety hinted that he thought that Hedda might like “a new responsibility” and most importantly, that he will “fight for the end, for the “triangle” to be “fortified and defended by mutual consent.”
To flirt with an unwed lady is one thing. But to be thoroughly suggestive of certain immoral acts to a legally wed lady would seem to be a moral crime. A crime, which would deem Brack as an immoral judge, which is juxtaposition in the phrase itself. The depraved misdeed was too much to expect from a judge, much less to say the way that he had insinuated himself into the household of a married couple.
Brack’s manipulative nature can perhaps be considered the most powerful tool that he has, to be able to control people at his beck and call. The way he withholds his information, only to disseminate it at an ‘appropriate’ time, when it will hit the victim the hardest, shows how well he can play the psychological game. He was apparently so good at calculating his steps that he was able to have Hedda exclaim with pain that she is “in your powers, Mr. Brack. From now on, I’m at your mercy.” He played his last hand of the pack very well, henceforth gaining control over Hedda almost at once, after we have seen her authoritative throughout the plot. The unexpected twist of events, definitely illustrates an element of surprise for the reader.
Nothing much can be mentioned or commented about Brack, except that he seems to be a guru at the game at which both he and Hedda seemed to be indulged in. His callous ways together with his tricky language have caused the one all mighty Hedda to fall prey to him, exposing the extent of his scheming nature to the reader. It certainly allows the reader to realize his true nature and to confirm the suspicions of Brack’s ulterior motives.
The presence of Brack alone is enough to allow Tesman appear trivial and ridiculous. His language as compared to Tesman seemed to have many underlying meanings, while Tesman’s, for an academic, seems rather superficial. Tesman, being a worrywart, starts to fret like a young lady when informed that his appointment might not come. He “clasps his hands together” and “flings his arms about” asking his “dearest Hedda, how can you (she) take it all so calmly.” Brack on the other hand, being the surely and confident self tries to comfort him by telling him that he will “most probably get it” but “only after a bit of competition”. Brack’s calm composure and surely words certainly outweigh Tesman’s unnecessary gestures and fretful language.
The vulnerability of Tesman and Hedda’s marriage has also clearly been brought out by the intrusion of Brack. The fact that Hedda would “clasp her hand at the back of her neck, lean back in the chair and look at him” indicates how comfortable she feels with Brack. The stichomythia in their speeches also brings out the level of intimacy the both of them share as seen by the quote “ Brack: A trusted and sympathetic friend… Hedda: …who can converse on all manners of lively topics… Brack:… and who’s not in the least academic” It shows how well they complement each other, finishing each other’s thoughts as though they were in a relationship themselves. As Hedda could easily pour out her woes to a man other than her husband gives an indication of how sterile her marriage with Tesman was. So unfruitful that they had absolutely no proper communications between husband and wife that Hedda was glad to have a friend who could converse with her.

Attempting a psychoanalytic reading of a given text is a bit like attempting to understand a city by examining its sewer system: helpful, yet limited. There are several reasons for using psychoanalysis as a critical literary theory; the critic might be interested in gleaning some sort of subconscious authorial intent, approaching the text as a "cathartic documentation" of the author's psyche; the method might be useful in judging whether characters are well-rendered, whether they are truly three-dimensional and, therefore, worth our while as readers (thus satisfying the pleasure principle); finally, in a larger sense, the psychoanalytic approach can be employed to actually tell us something about our own humanity, by examining the relative continuity (or lack thereof) of basic Freudian theories exemplified in written works over the course of centuries.
If we are indeed scouring the text for what can be called "cathartic documentation," we must, at the outset, look at the period in which the work was written. Pre-Freudian works, that is to say those poems, plays, short stories, and novels written before the late 19th century, are the major candidates for success with this approach. However, 20th century works, beginning with the modernist authors, pose a problem. How are we to be sure that the writer is not consciously playing with Freud's theories, perhaps even deliberately expanding and distorting them for additional effect? Herein lies the problem with Hedda Gabler: The play was written at roughly the same time that Freud was just beginning to publish his theories. The question is "who influenced whom?" Obviously Freud was taken with Ibsen's realisations of certain fundamental ideas, which were to be the foundation of his (Freud's) work: repression, neurosis, paranoia, Oedipal complex, phallic symbols, and so on; all of these factors are present in Hedda Gabler. The question remains, however, whether Ibsen had caught wind of Freud's work and decided to utilise it in the play. Perhaps one may be wrong in supposing so, but having read A Doll's House and An Enemy of the People, both earlier works, Hedda Gabler seems to embody Freudian concepts to so much farther an extent that the possibility of a conscious effort to create Freudian neurotic types and set them loose on one another does not seem altogether outside the realm of possibility.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, however, Ibsen has created extremely well developed characters. Psychoanalytic criticism shows us this fact more clearly than we might "consciously" have recognised from a mere casual reading or viewing of Hedda Gabler. By applying Freudian theories to the characters, we discover that they are manifesting pre-defined behaviour patterns that we can go on to compare to our own, thus establishing a connection between fiction and reality. The more a reader or an audience can relate to, or at the very least recognise, a given character via familiar neuroses, the more impact, the more "meaning" that character provides. In this way, psychoanalysis is a positive boon, both for writer and reader.
In general opinion, the most important feature of psychoanalytical criticism is what it does for us when we expand its theories. Freud himself was ultimately concerned with applying the same approaches used in relation to the individual to the society as a whole. This aim can be taken up in literary criticism by utilising Freudian and post-Freudian psychology to look at literature over the course of history, as well as applying it to various world societies. Admittedly, Freud's theories are specialised and limited, pertaining mainly to western, patriarchal, industrialised societies, and clearly there will be instances in which, due to differing cultural norms, they simply don't work. Yet this, too, is beneficial. The chief aim of the scientific method is to, as it were, disprove itself; that is to say, to question continually the validity of a given scientific approach until every hole is found and mended, every inconsistency recognised and accounted for. So even when psychoanalysis fails, it still teaches us something. Any theory that succeeds in shedding some light, even when it fails, is worthy of consideration as far as I am concerned.
Therefore, in summing up, it should be stated that psychoanalysis, although it has its problems, has much to recommend it as a mode of literary criticism. While it may be at times vague, limited, untestable, and not applicable in all situations, yet it provides insight into the mind of the author, can contribute to the fleshing-out of characters, and can point to larger societal issues. The use of psychoanalysis in moderation, avoiding rigorous dogmatism, is an effective method of finding meaning, deep, dark, subconscious, perhaps neurotic meaning, in the pages of what we call sublimated is, literature.

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