IHedda Gabler


Fiend or Heroine?

In Hedda Gabler we see a woman of complex passions and emotional extremes. In 1890, Ibsen wrote:

The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. 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. It was not really my intention to deal in this play with so called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.

(Excerpt from letter to Moritz Prozor, December 4, 1890)

Hedda Gabler is a play that cannot be ignored. Early productions evoked myriad responses from critics who both loved and hated the play. Consider some of their comments:

So specious is the dramatist, so subtle is his skill in misrepresentations, so fatal is his power of persuasion that for a moment we believe Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine, and not a fiend, and that Lovborg is deserving of our pity and not our condemnation. (Clement Scott - The Daily Telegraph, 1891)

Ibsen's greatest play and the most interesting woman that he has created - she is compact with all the vices, she is instinct with all the virtues of womanhood. (Justin Huntly McCarthy, London Black and White, April 25, 1891)

What a hopeless specimen of degeneracy is Hedda Gabler! A vicious, heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen. (The Ledger, Philadelphia, February 13, 1904)

What a marvel of stupidity and nonsense the author did produce in this play! It is incredible to think that only a score of years ago the audience sat seriously before its precious dullness. (G.B. Shaw)

Ibsen created a masterpiece in Hedda Gabler, a crystal example of a maladjusted woman. She has sisters in every city, for she belongs to the widely dispersed sorority of moderately comfortable women whose restlessness and envy arise from their false standards of happiness, as well as from their egotism and uselessness. No doubt she existed in the past but her specific type is undeniably modern. Unlike the women of the older middle class who had their noses to the grindstone of the hearth, who reared children and ran their home, the Heddas described by Ibsen are rootless... (John Gassner - Masters of the Drama)

Hedda the Woman

Ibsen's Hedda Gabler presents a most interesting figure. How do we regard this multi-faceted and complex literary figure?A decadent aristoscrat revolting against her bourgeois marriage and oppressive surroundings? A deeply neurotic woman whose sexual aggressiveness masks a radical frigidity?

  • Gilman suggests that beneath the surface of this play, Ibsen was trying to: Fashion a new kind of tragi-comedy, more metaphysical than it is comfortable for us to think whose elements are energy turned in on itself and being wrestled with its tendency to dissolution. (p.66) Is Hedda a victim of her circumstances or as Gilman suggests, a fish in Ibsen's great polluted boiling sea where ill-adapted creatures struggle to know what to do. (p.67)

  • Is Hedda a woman deeply in conflict with her social persona and her ultimate essential self?

  • This is a play where the contrasting past and present environments of the characters create tension throughout the play - these lead to Hedda's suicide.

  • Hedda appears to be in a class above the Tesman's from the beginning. Their efforts to please and impress her are rejected by Hedda who is condescending towards Aunt Julie and refuses to 'connect' in any way even with the dying Aunt Rina. One would wonder why she ever married Tesman when she is obviously so discontented and probably was from the very beginning. As she says to Brack: I had simply danced myself out, my dear Sir. My time was up.

  • Her rationale also included the fact she thought Tesman would one day be a rich man and that essentially above all else, she wanted to live in the Villa. It was through this passion for the Villa of the late Mrs Falk that Jorgen Tesman and I found our understanding. That led to our engagement and marriage and wedding trip and everything. Well, well. As one makes one's bed, one must lie on it.

  • As a result of her indulgent childhood, Hedda is spoilt and materialistic and the environment she finds herself in when married is unnatural for her.

  • Lovborg represents a past for Hedda which is both good and bad. Her relationship with him was shattered by an ability to move into sexual intimacy - for Hedda this was not the 'done thing' or was she simply unable to function at this level?

  • Hedda lacks courage to risk and is jealous of those who appear to have more than she does, even when this is not the case. She is jealous of Thea who has the conviction to go against the accepted norms in order to make her dreams come true. When Thea leaves to own husband for the man she loves, Hedda simply states: One doesn't do that kind of thing.

  • Hedda tries to capture excitement through the actions of others. e.g. she tried to get Lovborg to commit the 'beautiful act of suicide'.

  • Her own suicide is the ultimate and last tragic attempt to escape her environment.

Emergent Themes

  • The idea of living heroically in modern society

  • Freedom, self-fulfillment in modern society

  • The role and nature of the artist in modern society

  • Living vicariously versus living life with thought and deliberation

(Reference: Gilman, (1974).R. 'The Making of Modern Drama' N.Y. DeCapo Pub.

Is Hedda Gabler Tragedy?

This is an interesting question and one that you should think more about as you move through the play. I would encourage you to explore this issue further considering the form of the play and Hedda's ultimate demise. How does (or indeed does it) the play fit in with other kinds of tragic forms in theatre or literature. In order to do this, the following link should prove extremely helpful.




© Copyright Dr Tracey Sanders 2006