I originally wrote this discussion piece for the university course Theatre: History, Conventions in 2012.
In 1879, A Doll’s House ended with Nora leaving her husband Helmer proclaiming ‘before all else, I am a human being … or anyway, I ought to try and become one’ (Ibsen Act 3; p.1553). Nora’s self-emancipation is continued in Hedda Gabler in the character Mrs. Elvsted. At the beginning of the play, Mrs. Elvsted is shown to have left her husband and step-children, disregarding what people might say because she ‘only did what she had to do’ (1.584 p. 213). Furthermore, she has taken the first steps towards becoming a ‘real human being’ in her work and conversations with Eilert Løvborg (1.597, p. 213). Yet it is not Mrs. Elvsted who is focus of the play but Hedda Gabler, and whether Hedda truly emancipates herself with her suicide or whether her suicide is a matter of defeat is a question for debate. In this discussion piece, the differences between Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted are examined, as is the power of language. The relationship these women have with their male counterparts is also briefly examined because it denotes the difference between these women. Finally, the discussion on language is broadened to include symbolism and this paper ends with some thoughts on symbols in Hedda Gabler.
Hedda is the protagonist of the play and she is a master in manipulation with a desire ‘for once in [her] life … to have power over a human being’ (3.711-2, p. 234). However, where Hedda is confronted at the end of the play with the highly uncomfortable situation of having lost her sense of power to Judge Brack, Mrs. Elvsted has managed to arrange her life according to her desires. Admittedly, through the course of the play, she seems quite powerless in the sense that she cannot prevent the breach in trust between her and Løvborg that Hedda creates, nor can she prevent Løvborg’s death. Regardless, at the end of the play, Mrs. Elvsted has once again managed to create a relatively secure position for herself as the companion of Tesman recreating Løvborg’s manuscript. This position mirrors her earlier relationship with Løvborg, which is something Mrs. Elvsted hopes for – ‘Oh, if I could only inspire your husband in the same way’ – and Hedda acknowledges and dreads: ‘Oh, that will surely come – in time’ (4.413-4, p. 254). Mrs. Elvsted’s ability to attach herself to men and secure a position is shown even earlier in the play: she was the governess of the Elvsted’s initially, but states that ‘his wife – his first wife – she was an invalid and mostly kept to her bed. So I had to take care of the house too’ (1.508-10, p. 211).
Mrs. Elvsted is even able to avoid the sigma and damnation that Nora faced at the end of her play, as evidenced by the controversy her character sparked. Joan Templeton describes this controversy in Ibsen’s women where she states that ‘Nora has been under siege as exhibiting the most perfidious characteristics of her sex’ (112). Mrs. Elvsted, in contrast, has been held up as ‘a model of the true, i.e., maternal woman’ in her function as foil for Hedda (Templeton 209).
It is Mrs. Elvsted then who manages to navigate life in the society of their time in a way that Hedda cannot. Hedda is dissatisfied with life as a whole. The general’s daughter, abandoned by his death, chose to marry the one suitor who was willing to support her and finds herself trapped by this domestic bourgeois life. She fights for power, in a manipulative, calculative way, and destroys Løvborg in the process. Unfortunately, she cannot hold on to her power, gradually giving up more and more to Judge Brack until she is in his control. This is enforced by her husband when he states ‘[f]rom now on, Judge, you’ll have to be good enough to keep Hedda company’ while he entertains himself with Mrs. Elvsted and their cooperation (4.418-19, p. 254).
Hedda’s dissatisfaction with life is shown on stage in a non-verbal manner when she is alone as evidenced from Ibsen’s stage directions: ‘Hedda moves about the room, raising her arms and clenching her fists as if in a frenzy’ (Act 1, p. 207).
In her article about the relationship between women, language and power in Hedda Gabler, Tanya Thresher notes how Hedda is not granted a monologue which would allow the audience to interpret Hedda’s inner world (73). Thresher argues how Hedda misunderstands language ‘as a negotiation of power’ (74). This can be seen in the way she uses language to manipulate the reformed alcoholic Løvborg to start drinking again. She manipulates Mrs. Elvsted’s earlier concern into a statement of doubt on the part of Mrs. Elvsted, which breaks the trust between them and causes him to down a couple of glasses. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Hedda’s earlier personal statements had no effect and that Hedda’s words only had power when she discusses Mrs. Elvsted’s manipulated words. Hedda’s suicide at the end of the play is taken to mean a choice for silence ‘as a means of challenging her position within the patriarchal order’ as she realizes that ‘the relationship between language and reality is conditioned by the dominant ideology’ (74). She cannot become a man; Judge Brack holds power over her and her words and ideals could not cause Eilert Løvborg to return with vine leaves in his hair. Indeed, her words have caused a reality in which the opposite is true: he is dead, and his death was messy instead of beautiful.
While Hedda does exert linguistic control over Mrs. Elvsted, causing her to confess the details of her marriage and her affair with Løvborg, Mrs. Elvsted is better with actions and is more aware of the relationship between words and actions. When Hedda manipulates Løvborg into drinking, she states with freight ‘what are you saying! What are you doing!’ when (2.632, p. 232). Mrs. Elvsted is also more accustomed to taking action, exemplified by leaving her husband and attaching herself to Løvborg and later Tesman in writing the manuscript.
Hedda often prefers inaction. Despite her dissatisfaction with married life, she has no desire to ‘jump out’ and prefers to ‘keep [her] seat’ (2.124 p. 220/2.133, p. 221). It is all the more notable when Hedda does take action: she burns the manuscript and commits suicide. As for the latter, the question remains to what extent this is an action in the sense of a challenge to life and an affirmation to Judge Brack that one does do these things, or whether it is inaction in the sense of her defeat and a final surrender to her inability to cope with life and society.
Burning the manuscript has a different significance, when considering its symbolic function in the play. When Hedda burns the manuscript she exclaims that she is ‘burning the child’ (3.477, p. 245) which can mean both Hedda’s unborn child (who she later ends up killing through her suicide), or it can mean the trust and the future between Mrs. Elvsted and Tesman, out of possibly jealousy which backfires as Mrs. Elvsted ends up ‘stealing’ Hedda’s husband at the end of the play.
Another important symbol in the play is the pistols which Hedda inherited from her father. Her pistols are often seen as Freudian phallic symbols. Janet Garton notes that ‘symbolically, they supply her with her defence against male invasion’ (122). They play a significant role in the power negotiation between Hedda and Tesman, and even more so between Hedda and Judge Brack. It is worth noting that the first thing Judge Brack does when he enters the house is to take the pistol from Hedda after she has shot at him. This foreshadows the later shift in power between the characters, which Hedda is unaware of at this point.
All in all, perhaps Mrs. Elvsted is the stronger character, despite the often-made dismissal that she is merely a foil for Hedda. Unlike Hedda, Mrs. Elvsted does manage to negotiate the tensions of her society and works her way within it, in contrast to the ultimate challenge or defeat that the finality of Hedda’s suicide presents. Mrs. Elvsted takes up Nora’s journey and continues it successfully, whereas Hedda’s journey merely comes to an end.
- Is Hedda’s suicide a defeat, a challenge or an ultimate form of self-expression? Is it an action or in-action?
- What is the significance that Mrs. Elvsted uses her married name, but most characters refer to her initially as Ms. Rysing? How does this compare to Hedda Gabler?
- Nora (A Doll’s House) leaves her husband and children, which scandalized the audience at the time. Hedda is presumably pregnant during the play. What comparisons can you draw?
- Hedda is regarded as her father’s daughter, raised possibly more like a son. Tesman is raised by his two aunts without a father figure or male role model. What indications in their relationship demonstrate this gender switching?
Garton, Janet. ‘The Middle Plays’ The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Ed. James McFarlane. Cambridge: CUP, 1994. 106-125.
Ibsen, Hendrik. A Doll House in The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds. Alison Booth, J. Paul Hunter and Kelly J. Mays. Shorter 9th ed. New York: Norton, 2005. 1508-1556.
Used in the course Pleasures of the Text, this anthology has the full text of A Doll’s. It is one of Ibsen’s most famous plays and Nora is often invoked in relation to Hedda Gabler.
Ibsen, Hendrik. Hedda Gabler in The Norton Anthology of Drama: Volume Two. Eds. J. Gainor, S. Garner and M. Puchner. New York: Norton, 2009. 200-254.
Templeton, Joan. Ibsen’s Women. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.
As the title indicates, it focuses on the women Ibsen describes dedicating a chapter to both Hedda Gabler and Nora or A Doll’s House. This book both contextualises the plays and it discusses the reactions the plays and characters have evoked throughout time.
Thresher, Tanya. ‘‘‘Vinløv i ha°ret’’: The Relationship between Women, Language, and Power in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler’ in Modern Drama 51:1 (Spring 2008): 73-83.
Discusses the power of language and the difference between Hedda and Thea (Mrs. Elvsted) in their understanding of it.
Finney, Gail. ‘Ibsen and Feminism’ The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Ed. James McFarlane. Cambridge: CUP, 1994. 89-105.
Does not focus specifically on one play, but discusses Ibsen’s problematic relationship with feminism using quotes from Ibsen on the subject, but also analysis of plays such as Hedda Gabler. Makes some interesting statements on the character of Juliana Tesman.
Marker, Frederick J. and Lise-Lone Marker. Ibsen’s Lively Art: A Performance Study of the Major Plays. Cambrdige: CUP, 1989.
Contains a chapter on Hedda Gabler and on A Doll’s House and as the title indicates, it focuses on the performance history of the plays and the different choices performers and directors have made and their effect.
Van Hove, Ivo. “Een teken des tijds: gedachten over Hedda Gabler” on Toneelgroep Amsterdam website. Written 9 August 2004. Retrieved 23 February 2012. <http://www.toneelgroepamsterdam.nl/default.asp?path=3axs7rdg7d>
Ivo van Hove is a Dutch director who has directed a well-received production of Hedda Gabler for ‘New York Theatre Workshop’ (see Norton online for commentary as well). In 2006, he directed a Dutch version, and 2011 saw a reprised version. In this Dutch article, he reflects on what he considers the essence of the play and explains why he made certain artistic choice with regard to the performance, which is well worth reading.