Hedda Gabler | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Course Hero, "Hedda Gabler Study Guide," August 31, 2017, accessed September 27, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Hedda-Gabler/.

Hedda Gabler | Themes


Boredom of the Idle Rich

One of the most startling things about Hedda Gabler's actions is that they are motivated largely by boredom, at least in early scenes. In her short face-to-face meeting with Judge Brack in Act 2, Hedda admits to having a special talent for "boring [herself] to death," and to feeling utterly dissatisfied in her home and marital life. Hedda's world-weary attitude drives her to treat others with careless contempt, behaving as though their joys and sorrows—George Tesman's in particular—are of no account. Although jealousy and a hunger for power later play a role as well, Hedda's "default mode" seems to be a state of boredom, from which she desperately seeks relief.

In fact, Hedda is unique among the play's major characters in her inability to derive any kind of real enjoyment from life. In part, this could be a consequence of her role in life as a high-society woman who lacks a vocation—or rather, a woman who has rejected her assigned vocation as a wife and potential mother. Other characters, even those with less glamorous existences, seem instinctively to find fulfillment in one way or another. George, in particular, finds no end of diversion in the most mundane things, which is part of the reason Hedda sees him as so dull. The most obvious example is his scholarly work—George seems forever to be ducking into his library, arranging books and collating manuscripts. Even on the smaller scale, though, George is sensitive to the simple joys of life, such as a comfortable pair of slippers or a nicely arranged tray of punch. Miss Juliana Tesman, an "anti-Hedda" in many respects, finds meaning in the act of caring for others; whereas Hedda can barely muster the motivation to care for herself. Judge Brack seems to derive a sporting pleasure from his parties and schemes, and even Eilert Lövborg—scandalous and self-destructive though his appetites may be—at least knows how to have a good time. Hedda, in contrast, paces, plots, and fidgets her way through life without ever seeming to experience a moment of genuine pleasure.

Ultimately, Hedda's profound boredom leads to lazy thinking on her part, and other characters' actions, predictable enough to the audience, begin to catch her off guard. Judge Brack, for example, is a source of cynical amusement to Hedda, and perhaps a potential lover, but she is too diverted by his company to truly recognize the threat he poses. In Act 4 she is caught flat-footed by his attempt to blackmail her, though there have been hints of menace in his speech and behavior since at least Act 2. Similarly, Hedda's goading Eilert to drink stems partly from a wish to recapture the passion of the past, in contrast to the boring stillness of the present. Fixated on the chance for some excitement, Hedda discounts the very real possibility that Eilert will drink his way into a tawdry mess.

Power and Powerlessness

Another reason for Hedda Gabler's destructive and seemingly random behavior is her oppressive feeling of powerlessness. At the end of Act 2 she tells Mrs. Elvsted she craves the "power to mold a human destiny," partly because she lacks the ability to shape her own. Throughout the play, Hedda indeed grasps for power over others, not just on the grand scale of "molding destinies," but on the more modest level of the individual conversation. Her rather cruel joke on Miss Juliana Tesman in Act 1 is a small but significant example: she has nothing to gain from making Miss Tesman self-conscious about her bonnet. With Hedda, however, Miss Tesman's feelings count for less than the feeling of being in control.

Hedda derives a similar amusement from having Mrs. Elvsted at her mercy, and she uses every tool in her arsenal (except the pistol) to keep her there. She coaxes—in fact, bullies—Mrs. Elvsted into treating her as an old friend when in reality the two were distant and not very friendly acquaintances during their school years. She gathers secrets and divulges them, keeping Mrs. Elvsted constantly on her guard and terrified of what Hedda will say next. At the end of Act 2 Hedda even pinches and pokes Mrs. Elvsted in a childish fashion to keep her quiet, and she practically drags her offstage when she threatens to leave. Likewise, in her interactions with Judge Brack, Hedda seizes every opportunity to control the dynamic, even if it means firing a pistol in his direction—or her own.

Hedda's most conspicuous grab for power, however, comes at the end of Act 2, when she tries to turn the timid and repentant Eilert Lövborg into a confident, self-possessed hero. His, more than any other, is the "destiny" to which Hedda alludes in her lyrical little outburst. Hedda's relationship-wrecking, book-burning jealousy stems from a perceived lack of power. Mrs. Elvsted has successfully shaped Eilert's destiny, while Hedda seemingly lacks the ability to do so. In getting Eilert drunk after Mrs. Elvsted has spent years helping him get sober, Hedda asserts a crude and short-lived form of power over her former beau.

Sexism and Liberation

Hedda Gabler's feelings of boredom and powerlessness, in turn, stem from the repressive social structures within which she is forced to live. George Tesman and Eilert Lövborg are "career men" who find fulfillment and inspiration in their studies, but no such path is available to the women of Hedda's time. Judge Brack, a high-society bachelor, represents another facet of the late-19th-century gender divide: under the sexist double standard of the day, Judge Brack's parties are written off as the debased diversions of an unmarried man. If a woman, married or unmarried, were even to visit such a party, her reputation would be ruined. The only woman named in connection to the judge's pastimes is Mademoiselle Diana, whose occupation as a songstress and brothel madam puts her on the fringe of polite society. Even within her home, Hedda is not free to receive guests as she pleases: George is made anxious by the very thought that Eilert Lövborg will visit her without some kind of chaperone present. Lacking the freedom to pursue a career or choose her own diversions, Hedda has little to look forward to in married life. She can host parties, nurse babies, order the servants about, and go out to lunch with respectable female friends and relatives. With options like these, it's no wonder Hedda feels so suffocated.

The women in Hedda Gabler respond to these societal constraints in various ways. Miss Juliana Tesman seems to have fully embraced the traditional feminine role of caregiver—so much so that she intends to take on another "poor invalid" as a houseguest after Aunt Rina passes away. Mrs. Elvsted courageously flees from her failing marriage and moves to a boarding house in Christiania. As far as she is concerned, people can say what they want about her relationship with Eilert. Hedda, too, makes more than a token effort to throw off the shackles, though she stops short of walking out on her husband. She disdains the notion that she will ever be a mother, even though everyone else seems to expect her to fill this role someday soon. Her rejection of the possibility of children comes in contrast to Mrs. Elvsted's "mothering" of both Eilert and her own stepchildren; it also serves as a challenge to Miss Tesman's assumption that children are on the way soon. Ultimately, however, Hedda is still at the mercy of a culture in which men have much greater freedom than women—and in which some men, like Judge Brack, are entirely too glad to abuse this freedom.

Hedda Gabler was not the only play in which Ibsen dramatized the plight of women in a sexist society; among his earlier works, both A Doll's House and Ghosts feature similar themes. For a comparison of Hedda to the heroines of these two works, see "Context" above.

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