Hedda Gabler’s Last Dance
One of the social issues dealt with in Ibsen’s problem plays is the oppression of women by conventions limiting them to a domestic life. In Hedda Gabler the heroine struggles to satisfy her ambitious and independent intellect within the narrow role society allows her. Unable to be creative in the way she desires, Hedda’s passions become destructive both to others and herself.
Raised by a general (Ibsen 1444), Hedda has the character of a leader and is wholly unsuited to the role of “suburban housewife” (1461). Since she is unable to have the authority she craves, she exercises power by manipulating her husband George. She tells Thea, “I want the power to shape a man’s destiny” (1483). Hedda’s unsuitability for her domestic role is also shown by her impatience and evasiveness at any reference to her pregnancy. She confides to Judge Brack, “I’ve no leanings in that direction” (1471). Hedda desires intellectual creativity, not just the procreative power that binds her to a limited social function. But because her only means of exercising power is through a “credulous” husband (1490), Hedda envies Thea’s rich intellectual partnership with Eilert Loevborg (1484), which produces as their creative “child” a bold treatise on the future of society (1473-74, 1494). Hedda’s rivalry with Thea for power over Eilert is a conflict between Hedda’s dominating intellect (symbolized by her pistols) and the traditionally feminine power of beauty and love (symbolized by Thea’s long hair).
Because Hedda lacks Thea’s courage to leave her husband and risk ostracism, she tries to satisfy her intellect within society’s constraints. First she seeks power through wealth and social status, marrying George on the condition she can “keep open house” and have “a liveried footman” (1464). But George’s small means leave her frustrated by “wretched poverty” (1471), while her social aspirations oppress her with the fear of scandal. Secondly, Hedda achieves a balance of security and independence by marrying a dull academic, who is easily dominated and occupies himself “rooting around in libraries” (1466). But in doing so she shuts herself within a passionless marriage as tedious as a long train ride with a dull companion (1467-68). Finally, Hedda alleviates her boredom by turning to Judge Brack as a confidant: someone with whom she can flirt and speak openly as an equal. But Brack is not “a loyal friend” (1461); rather, just as Thea’s husband “finds [her] useful” to take care of him (1458), Brack exploits Hedda’s isolation and powerlessness for his own pleasure.
Hedda’s oppressed desires become destructive, first to Eilert and Thea, and then to herself. In addition to envying Thea for her creative union with Eilert, Hedda hates her for taming a man she idealizes as a rebel for his past licentiousness, defying social mores. After taunting the reformed Eilert into a night of debauchery, Hedda imagines him returning as a Dionysian hero:
I can see him. With a crown of vine-leaves in his hair. Burning and unashamed! . . .Then he’ll be himself again! He’ll be a free man for the rest of his days. (1483)
However, Eilert’s night of carousing ends sordidly in a brawl that ruins his reputation once again. Hedda then modifies her first ideal and urges him to defy life itself by suicide (1495). Her destructiveness to both Eilert’s and Thea’s creative potential is symbolized by her destruction of their manuscript: “I’m burning your child, Thea! You with your beautiful wavy hair! The child Eilert Loevborg gave you” (1496).
But Hedda’s actions ultimately destroy her own limited freedoms and creative potential, symbolized by her unwanted pregnancy. Brack disillusions Hedda about the beauty of Eilert’s death, revealing that her hero died meanly in another brothel fight rather than bravely defying a frustrated life (1504). Moreover, as a result of Eilert’s death, Hedda loses her few cherished freedoms. Her power over her husband is usurped, as Thea and George devote their lives to resurrecting Eilert’s manuscript from jumbled notes (1502-03); and Thea hopes to inspire George as she inspired Eilert (1506). Then Brack establishes power over Hedda through her fear of scandal, knowing that Eilert was shot with her pistol. With neither limited power nor illusions to sustain her, Hedda bows to Thea’s beautiful hair and, after playing a last dance on the piano, admits defeat: “Not free. Still not free! . . . From now on I’ll be quiet” (1506-07).
Hedda’s tragedy is that she is denied the freedom to realize her creative potential, and so have the self-esteem that comes from personal achievement. Her attempt to retain her independence within society prevents her, through fear of scandal, from marrying the man with whom she might have had a relationship both individually satisfying and mutually supportive. In Hedda’s suicide are seen the stifling of intellect and the emotional isolation caused by oppression, even within a commonplace bourgeois family where “People don’t do such things!” (1507).
Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Trans. Michael Meyer. Third Edition. New York: Norton, 1981. 1443-1507.