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Hedda Gabler Themes

by Henrik Ibsen

Major Themes

Individual vs. Group

Hedda is preoccupied with self-determination - the idea that she can dictate the course of her own life, no matter how much societal pressures may try to move her along a different course. And yet, as the play moves on, we see just how much a victim Hedda is of the "group": she married a man she didn't love simply because her "time ran out"; will have children simply because she is supposed to; and ultimately destroys herself because she fears being thrust into the spotlight of a public scandal. What Hedda discovers is that an individual has no power in the face of a group unless they can manipulate that group - something that she continually fails to do.

Self Liberation vs. Self Renunciation

Hedda believes that the power to determine when and how one dies is the ultimate freedom, and is perhaps the only real control that an individual has in life. At first, she attempts to prove this vicariously by encouraging Lovborg to have a "beautiful death" - she gives him one of her pistols, essentially pulling all the strings that might make him veer towards suicide. However, when Lovborg dies from an unintended shot to the groin, Hedda realizes that the beautiful death is still a fantasy - and she can only bring it to life for herself. When she does, Brack exclaims, in the last, highly charged line of the play, "No one does that!"

Anti-tragedy vs. Tragedy

While Hedda Gabler has the structure of a classical tragedy, and perhaps the trappings of it, there is also the argument that Hedda is the anti-tragedy. As Caroline W. Mayerson writes, "Hedda is incapable of making the distinction between an exhibitionistic gesture which inflates the ego, and the tragic death, in which the ego is sublimated in order that the values of life may be extended and reborn. Her inability to perceive the difference between melodrama and tragedy accounts for the disparity between Hedda's presumptive view of her own suicide and our evaluation of its significance." In other words, while Hedda declares that it is a beautiful death that she seeks, and a beautiful death that offers the individual liberation from the mundane trivialities of society, upon her own death, we see only the futility of it, the smallness of it. Ultimately, Hedda's death seems to have served no purpose except as a selfish proclamation of principles pushed too far.

Sex vs. Sterility

The "notorious" female character in dramatic works of literature is frequently a firebrand, fully in control of her sexuality and conscious of her power over men. Hedda, however, seems terribly afraid of her own sexuality - she nearly kills Lovborg when he gets too close to her, rebuffs Brack's suggestion that she would jump out of her marriage to Tesman, even though she seems to have little interest in her new husband, and ultimately shows little concern for her own soon-to-be-born child. Indeed, as the play goes on, we wonder how Hedda ever got pregnant at all - she's as mystified by her condition as the audience, and refuses to even discuss or acknowledge it. This one possibility of fecundity - of proving her worth as a "woman" - is decisively ignored and thus implicitly refused.

Wild Nature vs. Tamed Assimilation

One of the more compelling themes in Hedda Gabler involves how an individual is groomed to cope with the stifling pressures of society, and whether they maintain the trappings of their "wild" self or succumb completely to a community's norms. Hedda is obviously torn between the two (see "Individual vs. Group"), but right before shooting herself, she plays a "wild piano piece", as if to claim her soul before burying it. Meanwhile, Tesman is at odds with Lovborg: the former can only regurgitate other people's tried-and-tested ideas, while the latter is an untamed genius who simply writes down his thoughts and theories and finds them met with acclaim. Tesman, however, is too afraid to ever indulge his own original thoughts, and so dedicates his life to reconstructing Lovborg's ideas and taking credit for them.

"Old Woman" vs. "New Woman"

At the time Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler, the term "New Woman" had emerged to describe "women who were pushing against the limits which society imposed on women." While the New Woman sought self-determination and freedom, as well as equality with males and a true understanding of female sexuality, the Old Woman believed in self-sacrifice, a woman's duty to her husband, and sexuality only in terms of childbearing. Hedda is a model case of a "New Woman" who ultimately finds no satisfaction in liberation. This is not to say that Ibsen by any stretch of the imagination intends Hedda Gabler as a critique of the New Woman; to the contrary, he is offering a critique of the resistance against it.

Motivation vs. Boredom

One of the great questions of Hedda Gabler is whether Hedda's actions are inspired by genuine principles, or whether she is motivated entirely by boredom. If we examine the above theme of Old Woman vs. New Woman, it is possible to interpret her character as a New Woman shoved into Old Woman trappings, and who thus naturally gravitates towards pushing limits, pulling strings, and manipulating others in the hopes of freeing herself. She is a New Woman, then, looking for her place in life. However, Hedda continuously finds that her efforts only leave her even more bored. At one point, she even tells Tesman that her only talent in life is "boring herself to death" - an eerie prophecy of the events to come.

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