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Hedda Gabler | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Hedda Gabler | Symbols



Anton Chekhov, a contemporary of Ibsen, once remarked that "one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." This principle is illustrated in an elegant way by Hedda Gabler, which features not a rifle but a pair of matched pistols as its "hero props." The guns in question, an inheritance from Hedda Gabler's father, are her preferred tool for keeping the men in her life at arm's length, both literally and figuratively. George Tesman, who is normally clueless in all matters concerning his wife, has a foresighted worry that Hedda will hurt herself playing with her matched set of handguns. Fully aware that firearms make him uneasy, Hedda taunts George by saying she will amuse herself with the pistols since she cannot afford to buy a horse. Although she never physically threatens her husband with the guns, Hedda uses them to create a psychological distance, and perhaps to stir up some guilt over his inability to provide her with the life she wants.

Hedda's pistols are a constant presence in the play, whether brandished openly or merely mentioned in conversation. She uses them to put Judge Brack off his guard in Act 2 by pretending to take aim at him then firing harmlessly into the air. This, it is soon confirmed, is not the first time she has drawn a gun on an admirer. Before the play even begins, she has frightened Eilert Lövborg away by threatening to shoot him—a threat that the desperate Eilert now wishes she had carried out. In a perverse way, he gets his wish: when Eilert decides to end his own life in Act 3, Hedda offers him one of her pistols, partly to make sure he follows through and partly as a romantic farewell gesture. There are many possible explanations for Hedda's decision to arm a suicidal man who happens also to be a former sweetheart. One plausible interpretation is that she prefers the romanticized Eilert of her imagination—the one with "vine leaves in his hair"—to the messy reality of a man who struggles to stay sober. The gun, in any case, functions both as a deadly weapon and as a reminder of their tense but inspired past relationship.

In the final moments of the play, Hedda fires her remaining pistol in an act that might be called self-defense, even though she herself is the target. By taking her own life, she spares herself from the inevitable fear and shame of being implicated in Eilert's death. Whether readers/audiences see this last act as one of bravery or cowardice, it is inarguably one of defiance: Hedda puts herself permanently beyond the reach of Judge Brack, who seeks to selfishly exploit his power over her. Earlier in their conversation, Hedda hints that she would rather die than be a "slave" to Judge Brack's whims, but he fails to take her seriously: "people say such things," he patronizingly remarks, "but they don't do them." When Hedda follows through on her threat, Judge Brack is crestfallen, even defeated—rather than gaining total control over the willful Hedda, he has lost her forever.

Eilert's Manuscript

Eilert Lövborg's manuscript, a sequel to his highly successful new book on history, is a polysemous symbol: it has different meanings for different characters at different times. For Eilert himself, the manuscript represents a triumphant return to society and serves as a promissory note for a brighter future. He may have given up drinking and stopped visiting Mademoiselle Diana, but the most conspicuous sign of Eilert's reform is that he has begun to dream again, as evidenced by the manuscript's contents. His previous book, though critically successful, is uncontroversial, bland, and concerned with the past, while this new manuscript, which deals with the future of civilization, contains Eilert's boldest theories and most cherished ideas.

The manuscript also represents Eilert's attachment to Mrs. Elvsted, who has spent months helping him to assemble it. Although Eilert and Mrs. Elvsted's relationship is an extramarital affair, at least for her, it is a sustaining force in both their lives. Under Mrs. Elvsted's care, Eilert has gotten sober and given up the various vices that made him a social outcast. Eilert, in turn, has helped her find the courage to flee her husband and move to Christiania. For both of them this process has unfolded over a span of years: the manuscript represents its culmination. Mrs. Elvsted recognizes as much when she calls the manuscript their "child," a term that suggests the depths of her emotional and intellectual involvement in its creation. Even Hedda Gabler's decision to destroy the manuscript stems from her understanding that it is a symbol of Eilert and Mrs. Elvsted's union, and thus of the distance that separates Hedda from Eilert.

In the final act of the play, Eilert's manuscript takes on an additional significance as a project that brings George Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted together. For Hedda, George's decision to try and reconstruct Eilert's work is both a victory and a defeat. On the one hand, George has a new chance of advancing his career as the editor of Eilert's writings, building his own scholarship on the ruins left by his late rival, while on the other George is now clearly more interested in working on a book with Mrs. Elvsted than he is in coming home to Hedda. Whatever husbandly attentiveness he possessed has drained away with the onset of this new project. This unexpected outcome means that although Hedda has destroyed Eilert's unpublished book, she has not truly banished his ghost, which now threatens to haunt her own marriage as well. In a sense, George is becoming a foster parent to Eilert and Mrs. Elvsted's "child"—hardly the situation that Hedda would have hoped for.

Vine Leaves

Repeatedly mentioned in dialogue, the image of vine leaves captures the romance and idealism with which Hedda Gabler still views Eilert Lövborg, her onetime sweetheart. The symbol a kind of highbrow inside joke between the two of them, since Eilert mentions that Hedda used to refer to "vine leaves in his hair" back when they were together. In those days Eilert was a hard-drinking bohemian with a reputation for trouble, but Hedda remembers, and reimagines, him in mythological terms: the vine leaves are an allusion to Dionysus, Greek god of wine, or his Roman equivalent, Bacchus—both of whom were frequently depicted wearing crowns or wreaths of grapevines.

It's important to understand, however, that Hedda doesn't glorify Eilert's drunkenness per se, she merely romanticizes its good qualities while overlooking its destructive potential. For Hedda, the sober version of Eilert is too timid, awkward, and tame. Once he gets a few drinks in him, she hopes, he will turn back into the "flushed and fearless" Eilert she knew before. This is more than a little naïve on her part. From the audience's point of view, the much likelier outcome is that he will simply get drunk and embarrass himself in an unheroic way. As it happens, he does not return to the Tesman house "with vine leaves in his hair," but ends his night of carousing in a police station.

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