Marriage in the 19th century was a social and economic matter, rather than a matter of personal relationship. The morals of the era, including family morals, are often associated with the Victorian England, where they revealed themselves in the most ultimate and form, yet especially this kind of attitude towards marriage dominated throughout Europe.
The hypocrisy of the 19th century marriage, which caused countless lives to be broken and countless people to be unhappy, inspired many prominent writers like Oscar Wild, Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to refer to the motifs of protest against such state of things. Yet Henrik Ibsen is unique even in this society, he concentrates on the named subject in virtually every of his famous plays. One of those plays is “Hedda Gabler” first published in 1890.
In this paper I will attempt to analyze Ibsen’s play in the context of the XIX century marriage, as well as the effect the play itself had on the social perception of family ties. I will argue that Ibsen managed to demonstrate how frustrating a hypocritical marriage can be and what a disastrous consequences it can cause not only for the married women, but for every person involved in the relation. I will further argue that the play can be viewed as Ibsen’s contribution to change of the entire social idea of the place of a woman in a family. Ibsen himself wrote that “The title of the play is Hedda Gabler.
I intended to indicate thereby that as a personality she is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife. ” Here Ibsen refers to the key problem of marriage in the 19th century. A woman has not played any independent role in it. She has always been viewed as “belonging to some man”, whether it is her father, brother or husband. Correspondingly, she had no opportunity to develop her own life and turned out to be a toy in the hands of men, being entirely dependent on them in social and economic aspects . In Hedda’s case she is either a daughter of a general, or a wife of an academic.
But what is worse, she is dependent not only socially, but even mentally. She does not seem to be very clever, yet this does not mean that she lacks character. At her first approach Ibsen stresses her “pale and opaque” face and that “her steel-grey eyes express a cold, unruffled repose” . She is no way a foolish maiden dreaming only of lavish and careless life, throughout the play she often acts as a person of firm will, yet of a bad, or rather undeveloped character. This personal underdevelopment includes both narrow outlook and lack of moral principles.
Perhaps she has been taught everything possible about morals, but a person of her type would rather act in contrary to imposed principles. Hedda really “belongs” to her husband and she is constantly reminded of that. This makes her desire for power even stronger, as she demonstrates more and more masculine features as the play develops. Unwilling to accept the feminine stereotypes of behavior Hedda plays with her father’s pistols perhaps more to shock and confuse her family, because handling arms is surely not a proper thing for a young lady. Yet the play with the pistols is still comparatively innocent.
It appears that Hedda plays her own game with the society. Her relatives treat her as an obedient toy, so Hedda starts using them as toys in turn. This is a game of arrogance and indifference. Hedda makes snobbish remarks to the surrounding people, insults Aunt Julie’s new hat. The game gradually becomes more and more dangerous, and ends with two suicides. It seems that in this game Hedda makes little difference between a hat and Lovborg’s life. What the world has given to Hedda that Hedda returns to the world, and in case her dreams of luxurious existence are ruined, she can ruin the world in turn.
The dependent position of a woman in marriage is naturally followed by another aspect of 19th century marriage – restriction of a woman. Ibsen embodied this social barrier in the repeated image of a glass door. The barrier is easy to be removed or broken, which she “nervously” walks to, but which she never opens, dying inside the claustrophobic space of the house. A question might arise here why Hedda at all married Jorgen Tesman whom she never loved and whom she openly neglected? The most obvious answer is that Hedda was in need of money, since her fathers only heritage was a good name.
Tesman was an acceptable choice to her. He is considerably prosperous, his scientific prospects look perfectly, his name is noble, and, what is most important, his character is not very strong, so Hedda can easily control him. What is less obvious is Hedda’s desire to revenge Lovborg who failed to meet her hopes. Whether consciously or not, Hedda is making her way towards actual murder and suicide from the very beginning of the play. Although even in the 19th century the declared ground of marriage was love, Hedda cries to the Judge not to “use this sickening word” .
She has crossed out her dreams of love and she does not want even to remember them. However, Hedda at least has an idea of love and passions, while her husband has none. As Hedda married Tesman of convenience, so Tesman did to Hedda. He is attracted both by her origin and by her beauty, while her death impresses him in a strange way: “Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple! Fancy that! ”. This last phrase shows his real attitude. He never loved Hedda, and his primary concern was his own social position which he hoped to improve with a good marriage and an image of a beautiful wife.
In fact there are no good or bad characters in the play, no victims and no executioners. Hedda is often blamed as a “snobbish, mean-spirited, small-minded, conservative, cold, bored, vicious. She’s sexually eager but terrified of sex; ambitious to be bohemian but frightened of scandal; a desperate romantic fantasist but unable to sustain any loving relationship with anyone, including herself” . This all can be true, but other characters are not better. The basic defect of the situation is that men and women surrounding Hedda are completely unable to see her as a personality outside of her social position.
To the last they believe that Hedda would act in the “accepted way”, whether it is Tesman who views his wife as a pretty doll or Judge Brack who blackmails Hedda to enter into the family and probably force Hedda to a love affair believing that Hedda would act as a women in hopelessness, in other words obey . Brack is surprised with Hedda’s rebelliousness against the rule and asks: “Are you so unlike the generality of women as to have no turn for duties? ” . But what Hedda does not want to hear about are duties. In this company even Lovborg causes little compassion.
An miserable alcoholic who almost ruined his talent saved not due to his own effort, but due to a woman, he is unable even to die in the way Hedda has determined, and his suicide looks ridiculous. Being finally cornered by the circumstances Hedda decides to commit suicide herself. All of her dreams are ruined, she is now convinced that nobody loves her, her dreams of freedom, luxury and passions appeared to be mirages. She is unable to dominate even in the situation she has herself created. Hedda realizes that she is not a romantic hero but a simple wife of an academic, she is imprisoned and powerless.
Her possible motherhood can only aggravate her despair, for a child shall be born from a man she does not love, and childbirth will make her even more helpless and dependent. Thus suicide looks as a natural resort for her. There is an another strong social allusion in the play. Lovborg and Mrs. Elvsted use to label Loveborg’s manuscript as a child, so burning a manuscript is a similar to child murder. When Hedda kills herself she kills her prospective children, as well as ruins her husband’s reputation thus doing two things he is afraid of.
She commits suicide out of escapist intents but it is also a revenge to her husband, Brack, relatives and the whole world where such hypocritical marriage is possible. “Hedda Gabler” caused an ambiguous reaction of the public ever since premiere. The responses differed from calling it “Ibsen’s greatest play and the most interesting woman that he has created” to the devastating characteristic by George Bernard Show who emotionally observed: “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”.
American newspapers added oil to the flame of critique. The Philadelphian Ledger wrote after the American premiere “What a hopeless specimen of degeneracy is Hedda Gabler! A vicious, heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen”. Yet I would emphasize a characteristic that remains actual until now. It has been provided by Justin Huntly McCarthy who wrote of the “he most interesting woman that he has created – she is compact with all the vices, she is instinct with all the virtues of womanhood” . The debate has not ceased over the years.
Hedda became a favored character in the feminist movement, the play has been staged in numerous interpretations, including even lesbian one. However such public interest is the best proof of the fact that Ibsen hit the nail. “Hedda Gabler” is a play about fatal marriage. It starts with return of Hedda from her wedding journey and ends with the beginning of her final journey. However, Ibsen managed to generalize his subject and make his play a story of woman place in the society. 19th century marriage did left little space for female existence in the world dominated by males.
That what the play is actually about. The motif of domination is revealed throughout the play and it is not always possible to say who, except for faulty customs dominates the situation. After all Tesman is unable to control even himself, and Hedda can not take the leading positions in the family due to social restrictions. Death is her protest. Perhaps it would not be too general to say that Ibsen wrote not only of physical death of his character but of a spiritual death of womanhood in the 19th century marriage. Works Cited: 1. Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler. Digireads. com, 2005. 2. Coontz, Stephanie.
Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. 3. Templeton, Joan. Ibsen’s Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 4. Eyre, Richard. “Femme fatale. Richard Eyre would like to apologise to Ibsen for doubting the greatness of Hedda Gabler”. The Guardian. 5 Mar. 2005. 21 April 2009 http://www. guardian. co. uk/stage/2005/mar/05/theatre 5. Sanders, Tracy. “Lecture Notes: Hedda Gabler – Fiend or Heroine”. Australian Catholic University, 2006. 21 April 2009 http://dlibrary. acu. edu. au/staffhome/trsanders/units/modern_drama/hedda_gabler. html
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