Hedda Gabler: Beautiful Freedom in Desperation

The motivations of the character Hedda from Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play, Hedda Gabler, are often debated with varying views and contradictions. Many readers conclude from the play that Hedda is evil, manipulative and calculated; that her actions are unjustified and unfair. As Mrs. T.H. Thompson and John Watson, a child psychologist, advised to “be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle,” then perhaps such conclusive judgments of Hedda’s character are shallow; decided by readers who dare not scratch below the initial surface. Consider, perhaps, that it is not Hedda dealing the greatest injustices, but the reader with his/her lack of compassion and empathy for this woman who is suffocating in expectation and drowning in silent desperation. The reader must consider that to be misunderstood is the most invalid and unnecessary treatment of any human being, and once that is considered, try to “walk a mile in the shoes” of such. A “walk” through Ibsen’s play through the eyes of understanding will not reveal a spoiled, disregarding woman, but instead a lost and searching girl still coming to terms with the establishment of her life as a “Gabler”.

Author Margaret Higonnet, in her book Speaking Silences: Women’s Suicide, suggests by her comment, “For when we categorize a death we do not record a pure fact (if any exist). Rather, we produce a reading that depends upon the physical and subjective context…” (Higonnet), that all things, particularly surrounding death by suicide, should be carefully reviewed in context. A “walk” in Hedda’s “shoes” properly begins when the reader heeds Higonnet’s suggestion and examines the context in which the author, Ibsen, intends the reader to view his heroine. This contextual examination begins from the very beginning, with the title of this play.

Henrik Ibsen, in his cleverness as creator, gave so much more meaning to the title than a common reader would ever initially think to ascribe to it. The use of Hedda’s last name in the title of the play is conclusive as a significant factor in the understanding of her character. The Norton Anthology points out that “Ibsen told us himself that, [he] intended to indicate thereby that as a personality she is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife” (651). Ibsen’s purpose for naming the play Hedda Gabler, as opposed to Hedda Tesman, is because Ibsen wants the reader to be aware of the connectedness between Hedda and the source of her maiden name: her father. While it obviously cannot be disregarded as Ibsen’s purpose for it, the depth of its purpose is much greater than just that initial conception.

Often, analysts of literature assume Ibsen’s purpose for having intentionally connected Hedda to her father in this way is to lead readers to believe that Hedda regards her life under her father as one of more prestige and respect. The emphasis of this specific purpose is often used as evidence that Hedda’s behavior throughout the play is the result of a woman who is spoiled and regretfully missing her youthful days with her father. Because of this assumption, many students of literature are predisposed to a negative image of Hedda, passing judgment on her before considering all the implications of Ibsen’s use of Hedda’s maiden name. Consider, however, instead of dismissing Ibsen’s purpose for using “Gabler” in the title as that of forlorn youth, perhaps Ibsen is attempting to direct the reader to the reason Hedda behaves the way she does. The name “Hedda” means “strife” (Lahr); struggle; battle, and the fact that Ibsen chose that particular name to pair with the distinction of her father’s name, it begins to alert the reader’s attention to a different purpose in the understanding of Hedda Gabler; one that implies a personal “struggle”, rooted as deeply as her life as a Gabler.

Aside from clues left behind by Ibsen in the title, the reader glimpses further parallels that aid in the understanding of the character of Hedda by reading the description of the set that Ibsen wanted his play staged within. At the beginning of Act I, there are a few notable provisions Ibsen specifies for the set that stand out as a sort of abstract parallel to Hedda. Included in the set details is a “portrait of a handsome elderly man in a general’s uniform” (654). When the reader accounts for the multiple noted mentions of General Gabler’s portrait in the stage setting, the reader can begin to see the apparent impact the General had on his daughter and how such a cataclysmic void could form within Hedda Gabler, beginning in childhood.

Stereotypically speaking, it is said that “military brats” and “preacher’s kids” are “the worst” amongst their peer groups. This generalization stems from the acknowledgment of rebellion that often occurs as a result of the stringent control and authority exercised over the children of people in these professions. The very nature of a General is one of strict conduct and iron-fisted authority; both of which are attributes that are necessary to the successful fulfillment of the job and the continuation of a country’s armed forces. By default then, it is not difficult to accept the implication that these same indications are present in the private life of a General, particularly in the raising of one’s child. The constrictions of this authority are suffocating on a clever, spirited girl such as Hedda. The reader never gets to see more than glimpses of this in his/her interaction with the character. By the time Ibsen introduces the reader to Hedda she is already grown and fully drowning in the result of a lifelong struggle against this stifling fate.

Hedda’s upbringing as the daughter of a general can also be linked to the recollection of the treatment of a young Thea at the hands of a young Hedda. It is a clear indication of a troubled young girl bullying her way through adolescence. Karen Waters, a clinical psychologist, said in a forum for Phi Kappa Phi that, “Bullies often grow up in authoritarian households. This style of child-rearing bypasses support and reasoning for more heavy-handed discipline buoyed by parental power” (Waters). Bearing in mind that “everyone we meet is fighting some kind of battle”, when the reader understands the psychology behind Hedda’s treatment of people, the reader can then begin to understand the “battles” Hedda has been fighting. This by no means provides an excuse to justify such behavior, but instead is intended to cause the reader to explore compassion for the suffering of this human life.

Ibsen is clever to ensure that the reader is exposed to snippets of Hedda’s disposition under the reign of her father, the General, throughout various dialogues in the text of the play. Miss Tesman’s recollection to Berta of a younger Hedda Gabler “out riding with her father…in that long black outfit, with the feather in her hat” (655) is the single-most sum of the impact General Gabler had on his daughter. Ibsen assumed it was sufficient in its simplicity that his reader would accept it for its worth as such. Deducted in one, short recollection is the depiction of a young Hedda Gabler “riding” for freedom, but in the presence of the General, never able to break into a run. Hedda, dressed in black, is as unsettled in youth as she is in adulthood.

As inwardly unhappy as Hedda’s life under her father appears to have been, the presence of General Gabler’s portrait throughout her home, and Hedda’s value of the piano and pistols would suggest that she doesn’t resent her father of this. On the contrary, it can be derived from the previous recollection of Hedda “with the feather in her hat” that General Gabler always intended her upbringing to be a source of strength and independence. The idiom of wearing “a feather in one’s hat” means that someone has been exposed to or has experienced something that will be of a great help to them in the future. In the end, what a double-edged sword such a revelation turns out to be. The very upbringing intended to bring her prosperity in life is the same upbringing that would lead to her demise.

Ibsen’s setting of the drawing room also sets for the reader a vaguely foreshadowed glance at the life and demeanor of the play’s namesake. The drawing room, which is “large, pleasantly and tastefully furnished” but “decorated in somber tones” (654), is significant of the “larger than life” experiences, and the woman who can appear pleasant and tasteful, but whose somber inner self dulls the vibrancy of all that could potentially be beautiful in Hedda’s life.

The presence of so many flowers arranged throughout the room denotes this same concept. While people often perceive flowers as things of natural beauty, they are also symbolic through their relationship to the realm of death, and they provide, perhaps the biggest foreshadowing of the result of Ibsen’s play, as well as an important understanding of Hedda’s search for beauty in life.

In his setting of the stage, that Ibsen specifies that “on both sides of the upstage doorway stand shelves displaying terra cotta and majolica objects” (654) seems as a vital significance to collecting the proper notion about his main character. The terra cotta and majolica objects imitate the dynamic contrast of the contradiction that is Hedda Gabler. Terra cotta is a raw, earthenware creation, and majolica is a vibrantly colored representation of a mold. Interestingly, the terra cotta in its natural form, hardened under the burden of firing, is more perfect in its finish than is the majolica which has been groomed and colorfully painted but is often found with crazing. Similarly, throughout the play Hedda Gabler, aware that she is parted from her “terra cotta” self, desperately tries to control the crazing taking place in her “majolica” self.

These two “selves” of Hedda Gabler as represented by terra cotta and majolica are most important to keep in mind while reading the rest of the play. There is a natural Hedda, and there is the painted Hedda that the reader hears so much about. It is easy to deduce without the benefit of doubt that Hedda is “particular” and finicky because the reader is told so by eavesdropping on conversation between Berta and Miss Tesman. Berta’s statement that, “the young mistress wanted so much unpacked before she could settle down” (654), and that “she’s so particular about things” (655) is taken at face value that Hedda is demanding, but in contrast, it is rarely considered that Hedda could be suffering from an anxiety disorder, stemming all the way back to childhood.

The ease that the reader exhibits in trusting the word of every character in the play over that of Hedda is filled with partiality and bias. In fact, from the very beginning it is implied that Hedda is a burden. First, by Miss Tesman in her statement that “we must bear it patiently” (654) at having Berta stay with George Tesman, and then again in a conversation shared between Miss Tesman and George Tesman about the cost of the trip and the cost of the house (657). Just because Ibsen does not spell out for his reader that Hedda is, or is not, aware of this conversation, does not make it so. On the contrary, it is directly following this conversation that Hedda enters, for the first time. Ibsen directs that “her eyes are steel-grey, cold and clear” (659). Perhaps, it is because Hedda has overheard the talk of the burden of cost followed by the immediate vainly possessive statement of ownership (658), as though she were a desired object obtained by the highest bidder, no matter how that bid money was acquired.

Throughout the rest of the play, the reader further alienates Hedda from human hood, pushing her closer and closer to monstrosity. Building on the foundation of constriction and ugliness in Hedda’s childhood, each of Ibsen’s characters press a nerve in one way or another until, as Mary Kay Norseng said in her literary criticism, “Slowly, silently, surely they surrounded her, a cabal disguised as a social group” (Norseng). The one greatest thing of beauty that romantics and philosophers profess as the greatest to life was nonexistent, non-returned, or non-accepted: love. It is no wonder Hedda only knew of it as a “syrupy” word (673).

Oppression came in many forms in the life of Hedda Gabler and she, just a girl amidst it, searching through it all for the freedom out of it. “It’s a liberation for me to know that in this world an act of such courage, done in full, free will, is possible” (705). That was life’s beauty that she had spent her life grasping for and would never attain. John Lahr, author of Hedda, Get Your Gun, claims that Hedda “is not brave; she is reckless, a signal of her resignation. Her life is a living death, so she has nothing to lose” (Lahr). That may be so, but even in her death they would not grant her the acknowledgment of owning her own life and instead dehumanized her by the final statement of the play, “But God have mercy-People just don’t act that way!” (709).

                                                             Works Cited

“Hedda Gabler”. The Norton Anthology World Literature. Shorter Second Edition. Ed.

Peter Simon.New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2009. 13-81. Print

Higonnet, Margaret R.. Speaking Silences: Women’s Suicide. Cambridge: Harvard, 1986.


Lahr, John. “Hedda, Get Your Gun.” Abstract. New Yorker, 85.1 (2009): 110-112. Web.

16 Feb 2012.

Norseng, Mary Kay. “Suicide and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.” Scandinavian Studies, 71.1

(1999): 1,40. Web. 16 Feb 2012.

Waters, Karen. “Teenage Bullies: Might Not Right.” Article. Phi Kappa Phi Forum,

Spring 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

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