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Henrik Ibsen's Antihero Hedda Gabler


Hedda Gabler is a play written by the renowned Norwegian playwright, theater director, and poet Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). This classic of 19th century theatrical realism premiered on 31 January 1891 at the Königliches Residenz-Theater in Munich. This influential drama is famous for its penetrating social analysis focusing on how one's social-economic class has a strong, if not determinative, influence on one's character and actions. A protagonist's decisions about how to live, behave, interact with others, and what goals to pursue in life is powerfully influenced by the various socioeconomic forces at play—that are most often beyond one's own control. In other words, such outside social forces can shape one's character—which is among the most important among Aristotle's famous six elements of drama (Spectacle, Character, Plot, Diction, Melody, and Thought).

Martin Puchner writes in his commentary on Ibsen: “Ibsen's greatest topic is inheritance. This theme, too, is tied to money and credit, but in keeping with the spirit of the time, Ibsen pursues it much further.... Moral and immoral features are passed down through the generations, and Ibsen's characters often struggle in vain to rid themselves of these various inheritances” (Puncher, p. 721). Hedda Gabler is the maiden name of the main character we meet in the play as Hedda Tesman. However, we often hear her referred to by the other characters as Hedda Gabler and the play itself is named Hedda Gabler. Mrs. Tesman is the socially-frustrated, haughty, and neurotic daughter of the late General Gabler, who was a member of Norway's impoverished, but politically and socially still influential aristocratic class, or the “nobility.” Materially, she did not inherit from her father anything much but his distinguished-looking military portrait and two dueling pistols with a matching pistol case (a symbol of the aristocracy's historical arrogance and belligerence). But she has inherited also a highly romanticized aristocratic view of the world, bordering on wild day-dreaming and idealistic Nietzschean fantasies—Dionysian “vine leaves in one's hair,” ”beauty,” “courage,” ”honor,” “strength,” “heroism,” “beautiful suicide” and other Romantic ideals. She marries a lowly member of the despised lower middle class, or the so-called petty (petite) bourgeoisie (academics, shopkeepers, other small-business owners, low-ranking government bureaucrats, artisans, etc.). In fact, Hedda marries the not-so-well-off petty-bourgeois George (Jørgen) Tesman not just to spite her former lover, the writer Eilert Lovborg (Ejlert Løvborg), and her on-and-off suitor Judge Brack, but because Victorian-era society fully expects her to become a married mother in accordance with its strict moral values and norms for women.

A Born Aristocrat's Demons

But Hedda wants to live the opulent life-style of the upper social classes, the nouveau riche bourgeoisie (wealthy bankers, industrialists, top corporate managers, powerful lawyers, high-ranking government officials, and other plutocrats who own or control Norway's capitalist economy and government). It is her ambition for material success that she tries to conceal from her open admirer, Judge Brack. Even though she marries George Tesman on the mere “expectations” of him becoming a university professor, Hedda makes him buy a posh town-house in a wealthy neighborhood and expensive furniture on credit, which her poor husband, now up to his neck in debt, can ill afford and will never be able to pay back. In her lust for personal freedom and independence, she also tries to control and manipulate most of the other characters in the play in the same ruthless manner as the once powerful, Viking chiefs-descended nobility (called adel in Norwegian) had done in the past. When her “devious” machinations and manipulations fail and even backfire, she reacts in the only way the nobility knew how—through blind and gratuitous violence against people and things alike, including Lovborg's ill-fated book manuscript and even herself (and her unborn child).

The title character in this Norwegian “Greek tragedy” is more often referred to as Hedda Gabler than Mrs. Tesman, because she wants to be known as the daughter of the aristocratic General Gabler rather than as the suffocating wife of a relatively poor and boring petty-bourgeois academic such as the would-be (or soon-to-be) professor George Tesman. Ibsen himself admitted that “My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than her husband's wife" (quoted from the “Hedda Gabler” entry in the Wikipedia). She despises her husband and his lower-middle-class status, believing him to be a social failure. Hedda scorns Mr. Tesman for having no financial means of his own or any guaranteed professional prospects, even though he has mortgaged his entire future (and even the life savings of the two aunts who have raised him) in order to pay for her upper-class ambitions and high-life pretensions, including buying for her a very expensive mansion in the most fashionable part of Kristiania (now Oslo). A socially, culturally, and artistically frustrated Hedda has never had any feelings for her humble husband, admitting to Judge Brack: “But don't you see, it was this passion for the old Falk mansion that drew George Tesman and me together! It was nothing more than that, that brought on our engagement and the marriage and the wedding trip and everything else. Oh yes, Judge—I was going to say, you make your bed and then you lie in it” (Ibsen 2.218-222).

While Nora leaving her upper-middle-class family in Ibsen's politically controversial A Doll's House is a courageous and rebellious act of self-empowerment and self-liberation, Hedda's suicide is more of an act of wanton self-destruction typical of her doomed social class. (Many, if not most, of Europe's aristocrats were to perish most ingloriously on the slaughter-house battlefields of WWI and WWII.) Even Hedda realizes that there isn't much for her to do with her spiritually empty and socially useless life, “...what in heaven's name do you want me to do with myself?” (Ibsen 2.19). She even implores Mr. Tesman and Thea Elvsted to let her help them with restoring Eilert's destroyed manuscript (which Hedda has herself burned in a fit of pique): “Is there nothing the two of you can use me for here?” But her husband coldly replies, “No, nothing in the world” (Ibsen 4.423-424). In those male-dominated times, Hedda couldn't even join Norway's officer corp, as her father had done, and perhaps die in some totally senseless but “glorious” foreign war.

While we see many contrasts between Hedda's maiden life and her married life, are there any parallel changes in her character—or, like her name, is she stuck to how she was before getting married? Ibsen is making her connection to her late father, or her unmarried life as a girl, appear much stronger than her emotional connection to her husband. There are a lot of changes for the worse in Hedda's life ever since she married the less well-off petty-bourgeois George Tesman. George's aunt, Miss Julia Tesman, remembers well the previously more opulent life-style of “General Gable's daughter”: “What a life she had in the general's day! Remember seeing her out with her father—how she'd go galloping past in that long riding outfit, with a feather in her hat?“ (Ibsen 1.26-28). Once her aristocratic father dies, Hedda has to give up her previously privileged life-style (however, the exact circumstance of her material impoverishment are never fully explained). Perhaps her sudden and probably unexpected penury is another reason why she remains throughout the play the same jealous, arrogant, and haughty bully. According to Thea Elvsted, who in Act 1 reminds Hedda of the days they spent together at school, “...whenever we met on the stairs, you'd always pull my hair...and once you said you would burn it off” (Ibsen 1.483-484, 486). But Hedda again threatens to burn Thea's beautiful hair in Act 2, “I think I'll burn your hair off, after all!” (Ibsen 2.718). An aristocratic bully like her can never really change her spots. Much like her aristocratic maiden name, Hedda Tesman is obviously stuck to her earlier habits and the way she was before marrying her socially inferior and undistinguished husband. And so was the rest of Norway's marginalized nobility, which as a former dominant social class is now out of its depth in the midst of the advancing agrarian-industrial capitalism of the country's belated Industrial Revolution.

As mentioned above, Mr. Tesman is a lower-middle-class aspiring academic, who hopes one day to write a book (a dissertation) on a most obscure subject which would hopefully gain him a desperately-needed professorship. He obtains an honorary doctoral degree from who knows where after marrying the beautiful daughter of a local aristocratic general—both of which, he hopes, will help him climb the social ladder of bourgeois success. Unfortunately, a mediocre George Tesman comes short of his bored wife's ambitions for upward social mobility, since she wants to see him “a cabinet minister.” But, as Judge Brack points out to Hedda, “to be anything like that, he'd have to be fairly wealthy to start with” (Ibsen 2.249-250). Mrs. Tesman is so despondent over her husband's penury and low social rank that she rages in impotent anger: “That's what makes life so miserable. So utterly ludicrous! Because that's what it is” (Ibsen 2.252-253). Because of Mr. Tesman's quite limited social opportunities and even more limited personal abilities, she sees her scorned husband as a loser and, because of it, makes his life rather miserable. But then it is Mr. Tesman himself who foolishly nurtures her futile upper-class pretensions, “I simply couldn't have her live like a grocer's wife” (Ibsen 1.677-678).

In Molière's comedy Tartuffe, the dramatic irony is that Orgon, believing that Tartuffe has an exemplary moral character and can be fully trusted, urges his reluctant wife Elmire to spend all her free time alone with the “devout” hypocrite. Later, Orgon finds out what the audience already knows, when he hides underneath the table and witnesses Tartuffe's attempted and nearly successful seduction of his wife. In Hedda Gabler, the dramatic irony is that George Tesman similarly urges Judge Brack to spend more and more time alone with Hedda: “From now on, Judge, you'll have to be good enough to keep Hedda company.... Oh, I'm sure Judge Brack will be good enough to stop by and see you” (Ibsen 4.423-424, 442-443). To which Judge Brack happily replies: “I'll take the greatest pleasure in that.... Gladly, every blessed evening, Mr. Tesman! We'll have great time here together, the two of us (with Hedda)” (Ibsen 4.425, 443-444). What Mr. Tesman does not know (but the audience does) is that a lustful Judge Brack has been trying to persuade the voluptuous wife to have a “triangular arrangement” behind the back of her oblivious husband (Ibsen 2.117)—that is, an extramarital affair between Hedda and himself.

Apart from herself and her unborn baby, Hedda also destroys Eilert Lovborg, formerly an upper-middle-class member of Norway's creative intelligentsia, who is an extremely talented writer, but is socially undermined by his own chronic and self-destructive alcoholism. According to Judge Brack (the voice of the bourgeois chorus in this modern Greek tragedy), “he does have relatives with a great deal of influence” who “used to call him the family's white hope” (Ibsen 1.716-717, 719). Living the dissolute life of a “party animal,” according to Mr. Tesman, “he must have run through his inheritance long ago” (Ibsen 1.711). Having misspent all his trust funds and annuities, Lovborg is a nearly destitute social outcast, earning a living as a poorly-paid private tutor. But then the recovering alcoholic makes a surprising comeback thanks to a recently published book on world civilizations as well as the spiritual inspiration and personal help he receives from the unhappily married Thea Elvsted, an ambitious lower-middle-class admirer, who devotes all her energies, unrequited love, and even her wretched life to him. Their hopes for a resounding literary and social success are dashed, however, when a furiously jealous Hedda deliberately burns the only copy of his next masterpiece.

But Hedda's monstrous revenge against Lovborg and his petty-bourgeois lover and literary assistant—and especially against their shared ambitions for artistic and social success—backfires, when her own husband joins efforts with Thea to restore the contents of the destroyed manuscript. Moreover, Hedda is appalled to learn from Judge Brack that Eilert's death was very ugly and most likely the result of an accident due to his drunkenness. Eilert's “ridiculous and vile” death in a brothel contrasts with the Romantic ideal of a “beautiful and free” suicide that Hedda had hoped for him. Worse still, Brack knows the origins of the pistol (the one Hedda has purposefully lent to Lovborg to kill himself with). Brack tells her that if he reveals her secret, she will become the epicenter of a major public “scandal,” of which Hedda has a “deathly” fear. She realizes that Judge Brack is now in a position to blackmail her for sex. In dark despair, Mrs. Tesman shoots herself with her father's other dueling pistol. This is her revolt against the suffocating Victorian values and norms, of which she has been a "cowardly" prisoner all her life. Her rebellious suicide also symbolizes the historical eclipse of the socially useless Norwegian nobility, squeezed between the Scylla of the unromantically materialistic greed of capitalism and the Charybdis of the defiant upward-mobility demands of increasingly influential social strata, such as Norway's petty bourgeoisie and artistic intelligentsia.

Ibsen and Chekhov

Martin Puchner's commentary on Ibsen describes him as “the originator of modern drama” and “a founder of modern drama” (pp. 718, 721). Indeed, Hedda Gabler and especially A Doll's House are really great modern plays. But according to other commentators, Anton Chekhov was the father of modern drama, not Ibsen. When Ibsen passed away in 1906 at the age of 78, he died as a 19th-century fin de siècle playwright. When the 44-year-old Chekhov died in 1904 of tuberculosis, he was a 20th-century writer of fully modern plays and short stories. His psychological tragicomedies are part of modernity, reflecting the new artistic (Stanislavskian) principles of the 20th-century theater and embodying the modern way of thinking (imbued with ironic skepticism provided by multiple experiences and perspectives). Ibsen belongs to an older, pre-modern epoch of writing “well-made” plays, while Chekhov is part and parcel of the modern (and post-modern) era, which we still live in.

In Ibsen's historically last Realist play, Hedda Gabler, General Gabler's two dueling pistols, which now belong to Hedda, are first mentioned at the very end of Act 1. By the end of the last act (Act 4), both pistols have been used—first, for the accidental suicide (murder?) of Eilert Lovborg and later for Hedda's own suicide. Ibsen's interesting plot device is fully in accord with the so-called “Chekhov's gun” rule. The latter is a Chekhov's (or his theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky's) dramatic principle which requires that if a gun is shown in Act 1 of a theatrical performance, this gun should be fired in a subsequent act. Or, as Anton Chekhov wrote in a November 1889 letter to a friend, “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep.” Fifteen years later, Chekhov was quoted in the Russian artistic and theater journal Teatr i izkustvo (No. 28, 11 July 1904, p. 521) as saying, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there” (both quotations are from the “Chekhov's Gun” entry in the Wikipedia).


Ibsen's Realist plays all depict the social and familial realities in the Victorian age. Long before women's emancipation, what could a very bored and restless Hedda do in her restrictive Victorian marriage besides meeting guests at her home, engaging in gossip and intrigue, or occasionally shooting her dueling pistols in the backyard? She is practically trapped inside her parlor room. Hedda could not even leave home without her husband, let alone attend Judge Brack's stag party. Still, Hedda could never imagine herself being beneath anyone of lower birth (let alone give birth to his children). So she chooses to end her boring and unhappy life rather than live with someone lesser than herself like Mr. Tesman or have Brack in a position of blackmailing power over her.

Most of Ibsen's social-problem plays are what is sometimes called drame bourgeois (bourgeois drama) which deal with the social, economic, and familial problems of Norway's middle-class bourgeoisie. But in Hedda Gabler, the titular character is the haughty and mercurial, if impoverished heiress to an aristocratic general, who would not submit to the wishes—let alone the blackmail and grab for personal power over her—of anybody who is not at least an aristocrat like herself. She'd rather die than have one of those scorned bourgeois upstarts control her life and body. She shoots herself with one of her father's dueling pistols (a symbol of the decaying European aristocracy), which was her proudest possession in a miserable life among poorly-bred bourgeois buffoons. Her suicide also symbolizes the Norwegian nobility's historical exit from a domestic socioeconomic setting now dominated by the advancing bourgeois capitalism of the post-Industrial Revolution age.


Works Cited

Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 1st shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2010, pp. 716-771. Print.

Puchner, Martin. “Henrik Ibsen,” in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014, pp. 718-722. Print.