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Analysing The Characters Of Hedda Gabler English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1957 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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We are introduced to Hedda Gabler as the daughter of the venerated General Gabler, and as a woman born into an extremely wealthy aristocratic family. Though having lived a pampered life, she believed her time as a single woman was growing thin, leading her to marry George Tesman, a man she clearly no longer has feelings for – if indeed she ever did. Throughout the rest of Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, we observe how Hedda’s obsession with freedom and free will conflict with the norms of nineteenth-century society which surrounds her, leading her to manipulate those around her, and eventually her own death.

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It would seem that Hedda’s greatest asset throughout the play is her ability to manipulate the individuals around her. The tediousness of monogamy is most likely the largest driving factor for her scheming all through the play: “How mortally bored I’ve been” [1] as she conveys it to Judge Brack. The deception of others is one of her solutions to the suppressed life she must lead under the nineteenth-century societal standards. We witness her feign friendship in the conversation between her and Miss Tesman, all the while deviously making remarks about her hat:

“Look there! She has left her old bonnet lying about…fancy, if anyone should come in and see it!”. [2] 

We witness her clandestine motives when she burns Eilert Løvborg’s manuscript and convinces her husband that she did it because she “could not bear the idea that any one should throw you [George] into the shade”. [3] We also see evidence of her suppressed emotions as she “walks about the room, raising her arms and clenching her fists as if in desperation”. [4] Her greatest skill however lies with her ability to extort information and secrets from others; as Eilert remarks about their past relationship: “[I] told you about myself, things that no one else knew”. [5] She frequently displays her talent of asking questions without actually answering any on her part; soon after, Eilert asks: “What was the power in you that forced me to confess these things?” to which Hedda replies elusively: “Do you think it was any power in me?”. [6] Hedda feels as though she can suppress the boredom in her life by obtaining power over others. When asked by Mrs. Elvsted why she is manipulating Eilert so, she replies: “I want for once in my life to have power to mould a human destiny”. [7] Although Hedda is wealthy, she considers herself lacking in influence, and thereby poor. If Hedda cannot attain any sort of power – whether it is political, authoritative, or pecuniary – then she must find power through the lives of others.

Because Hedda is proscribed from carrying out the life that she wishes to live, she finds that she must live vicariously. However, the life of another woman – namely Mrs. Elvsted – would not suit Hedda’s criteria, for she is just as subdued as any other woman during that time. We come across this notion when Hedda asks to Løvborg:

“Do you think it quite incomprehensible that a young girl…without anyone knowing […] should be glad to have a peep […] into a world which […] she is forbidden to know anything about?”. [8] 

This is essentially the reasoning behind Hedda’s past relationship with Eilert Løvborg, as it was the closest she could get to truly distancing herself from her aristocratic lifestyle. Later on in the play, she carries on this element by formulating Løvborg’s suicide – devising for others what she cannot experience herself.

Hedda’s fear of truly experiencing the world around her is ultimately what forces her to retreat into her own individual realm. Because of this, she is not so much concerned with the constraints of the real world as she is with retaining her aesthetic appearances. In an attempt to avoid acknowledging the monotonous life that she lives, she recoils into this aesthetic world where everything is attractive and spontaneous. On one occasion, she comments to George Tesman: “I will not look upon sickness and death. I loathe all sorts of ugliness”. [9] The main proponent of Hedda’s fictional view on reality is Løvborg himself, as she constantly envisions him bearing vine leaves in his hair and reading from his manuscript, without a care for control or order: “And as for Eilert Løvborg – he is sitting, with vine leaves in his hair, reading his manuscript”. [10] This is a direct allusion to Greek and Roman mythology, as Dionysus, the god of wine celebration, was always depicted with vine leaves in his hair, and therefore free from care. She idolizes Løvborg to the point where she even looks upon his death as a noble act, as she refers to it as a courageous act: “I say there is beauty in this […] He has had the courage to do – the one right thing”. [11] Based on Hedda’s statements and actions, one recognizes that Hedda in fact cherishes aesthetic components over human life itself.

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Unfortunately for Hedda, even with all of these attempted solutions at hand – manipulation, unfeasible realities, living vicariously – she still finds herself trapped in a nineteenth-century society. Throughout the play, it may seem as though she is a rebellious character, but she is still very restricted by the very social standards that she loathes. Ibsen portrays this fact through Hedda’s stance on scandalous behavior, of which she is “mortally afraid”. [12] This dread of scandals is the very reason the relationship between Hedda and Løvborg ended. Her matrimony with George only transpired because society imposed this idea that she had to marry someone. It is obvious that she does not love her husband, but she “won’t hear of any unfaithfulness” [13] either, because that would be considered a scandal. Of utmost importance to her, however, is that she retains herself both aesthetically and emotionally. Though it is obvious she wishes to express her anger, she is restricted to “clenching her hands together in desperation” [14] to avoid any disreputable outbursts that might conflict with the societal formalities around her. Furthermore, Hedda actually acknowledges this fear, causing her to despise even herself for her conventional actions; she sees herself as “A terrible coward”. [15] Indeed, even in her death, she sees it fitting that she takes her own life in the inner room, behind closed curtains. This leads us to the question of her suicide altogether.

The reasoning behind Hedda’s suicide can be liable to any number of causes. As is obvious to the reader, she has been internally discontent throughout the entire play. It is made clear that she is jaded, unable to escape a monotonous marriage, emotionally subdued, and pregnant with a child which she obviously does not wish to have. However miserable she has been however, she has managed to get by relatively well. Therefore, there are several possibilities as to what events lead her to finally take her own life.

Firstly, the fact that Judge Brack has finally gained substantial power over Hedda certainly plays a large part in her suicide following minutes later. As Hedda exclaims: “A slave, a slave then! […] No-I can’t bear the thought of it! Never!” [16] . This marks the turning point for Hedda’s desire to manipulate others, as she now has no leverage, and the one being controlled is her. Her suicide may have also taken place because of her fear of scandals, as mentioned earlier. In the final act of the play, she must decide between facing the public scandal of an investigation concerning the pistol, or the private scandal of an affair with Judge Brack; too horrified of the scandal, she commits suicide to avoid facing either alternative. From another point of view however, she may have taken her own life to in fact prove her courage; in doing so, she maintains her aesthetic ideologies (by dying “nobly”), frees herself of societal standards, and proves herself to Judge Brack and her husband. By committing suicide, she believes that she is proving that a noble death is in fact possible, and that she is facing her fear of scandals, as what is more scandalous than spontaneous suicide? This is certainly the most optimistic interpretation of her suicide, and one must also consider that perhaps she simply could not find anything to live for. Just before her suicide, Hedda asks George whether he needs her for anything, to which he replies: “No, nothing in the world,” [17] giving her an aura of utter futility. Similar to the character of Mrs. Elvsted, another woman in the play, Hedda simply cannot face the forlorn prospect of emptiness that is the norm for the nineteenth-century lifestyle.

In conclusion, the character of Hedda Gabler is one with convoluted motives. Under harsh repression from societal standards, in which one is shunned for the slightest act of indiscretion, Hedda must resort to subtle manipulation and passive aggression in order to entertain herself and find something in her life worth living for. Though why she is not content with her life as a woman during the nineteenth-century – as Mrs. Elvsted supposedly is – is never truly realized. One might say that she is portrayed as a woman that is ahead of her time, though her fear of scandals and therefore her cowardice seem to confine her to her nineteenth-century existence, one which she is content in abandoning.


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