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Are roles clearly defined and set in stone, or are there those few brave souls who dare to go astray and set themselves apart from what society considers to be the norm? Should those willing to break apart from these gender roles be considered deplorable, or as heroes? What truly sets one person apart from another? It is the fact that they may be a male or female, or is it the extremes they are willing to go to stand apart from the crowd? In Henrick Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the lead character is portrayed in a complex and somewhat puzzling manner, during the time it was written, many people found it to be disorientated and hard to comprehend.
The reasoning for this dismay was the era of confined gender roles, and significant opposition to those who may have contested the “norm”. The character Hedda, and her behaviors can be interpreted in a number of ways, none of which fall under the category as normal, however.
Hedda’s character does not conform to the role of women at the time. During this era, women were expected to respect male authority and were not to form their own mindsets or have an opinion that varied from that of a male figure in her life. The male authority dictated what should and should not take place in the household. To take a stand against what a woman’s husband wanted or to go against his will meant you were a disobedient wife and deserved to be shunned by society.
None of this seemed to impact Hedda who chose to say and act however she pleased, regardless of the consequences. Ibsen wrote his plays in a manner that displayed realism, unveiling hidden messages and conveying motives that were meant to be displayed on stage. The character of Hedda was compelling because it presented her with all the secret desires she held, wishes that would allow her to escape the constricted world she lived in. Boredom is a common theme in Hedda Gabler, this is evident in her relationship with her husband Tesman. Hedda appears to be dismissive of his affections and lacks interest in him overall. During a time when marriage was considered to be an ultimate goal of society for women, Hedda did so not for love, or to fulfill her duty as a wife, but merely due to boredom due to the feeling she really had no other choice, leaving her feeling trapped in a loveless marriage.
Hedda undertakes major actions throughout the play that shocked the audience. A major theme that seems to impact her thoughts and actions is controlled. Her major fear is to lose control over her life. Even when the idea of pregnancy is introduced, she denies it stating that she refuses to lose control over her own life. She refuses to believe in the social theory that her function as a woman is to bear children, a thought she rejected with horror. As a result of her opposition to such roles she manipulates various characters throughout the play, even those she holds in high regards, such as her friend Mrs. Elvsted whom she gets to do her dirty work without getting her hands dirty.
Although her actions may seem to stem from manipulation, she does so due to her vision of wanting more from life. She dreams of a life that is more fulfilling and would do anything to break away from the roles society has set for her as a woman by acting as a director of her own life with other characters serving the role of her actors. Hedda contests gender roles due to her refusal to be oppressed by society patriarchal conventions. Hedda did not like being told what to do, regardless of expectations, an example of this was when her husband was pleading with her to call his aunt Julie, aunt. When Tesman stated, “ If you just bring yourself to call her Aunt Julie, for my sake, Hedda, hm?” In which she responded, “Tesman, for God’s sake, don’t ask me to do that.
I’ve told you that before. I’ll try to call her Aunt once in a while and that’s enough.” (Ibsen, p.732). Here Hedda demonstrates that regardless of what her husband wants her to do, she refuses to act accordingly because she chooses not to. Hedda’s main concern was to live a life filled with vision and escape, far from the conventional role of being a wife or mother. During the nineteenth century when women were considered purposeless other than to serve in the domestic sphere, confined to these societal norms and expectations, Hedda stood out as the revolutionary, demonstrated by her complex and challenging characteristics. With such an unequal society represented in the play, Hedda suffers internally, plagued by her inability to control societal injustices.
Although Hedda opposes conformity, she is yet to break free of it. Her aim is to attain some degree of power, in contempt of her powerless position. Hedda’s apparent distaste for submission is exemplified throughout her actions and behavior. Her opposition of these gender roles and challenging of the norms fall through, however, resulting in dire consequences for her and those surrounding her. Hedda demonstrates a fascination with her father’s pistols, which are typically considered to be masculine objects that she should want nothing to do with. Hedda, however, believes otherwise, taking on more of a dominating role, protesting against society, regardless of its constraints.
Hedda found the pistols to be objects of entertainment, stating, “ Well, at least I’ve got one thing to amuse myself with”, bringing horror to Tesman’s face shouting to her “ Pistols? No, for the love of God, Hedda, dearest, don’t touch those dangerous things. For my sake, Hedda, hm?” Here Tesman addressed Hedda as a delicate creature, unable to handle such a manly and dangerous object. Hedda’s lack of regard for his worries is later portrayed in the play when she uses these exact tools to end her own life. Acting passively is far from an attribute of Hedda’s. Hedda is unable to function normally in society as an acceptable mother, or wife, therefore deciding to take her own life rather than give up what little control she has over her own fate.
The pressure to conform makes Hedda feel suffocated, she also feared the idea of shunning women would face when they oppose male restrictions. Some may have found Hedda’s character to be unsympathetic, and cold, and even crazy, however, if delved into, the observation can be made that her actions were intended to portray the experience of female suffering under patriarchal norms. Feelings of entrapment due to societally established gender roles suffocate Hedda, and cause her to keep her feelings suppressed, eventually leading to her hysteric behavior. Hedda strived to attain personal freedom, a vision others were unable to understand. Her anger and defiance of the established gender roles lead to her own destruction.
The only time Hedda appeared to be excited was when she thought of the outside world, a world without constrictions, and gender roles, a world in which she could be free of the influence of man. This is apparent when she speaks to Lovborg, “ “Do you think it quite incomprehensible”,“that a young girl… should be glad to have a peep into a world which she is forbidden to know anything about? . It is demonstrated here that Hedda cares for nothing but the beauty of freedom, and breaking away from conventional gender roles. Although passionate, she feels lost, desperate to reclaim her life by any means, even death.
When Hedda comes to the realization that life no longer holds purpose, and cannot offer her what she desperately longs for, the search for beauty that gives her a sense of freedom comes to an end, resulting in her choice to commit suicide. Due to her inability to cope with or accept what society expected from her Hedda decides to embark on the final act of control, the only way she knows how. Hedda was a multifaceted character, that represented the contest of the stereotypical gender roles established during the nineteenth century. Rather than remain a woman confined by society, living a life she hates, Hedda stood against the norms and responded to her inner afflictions by shutting them down and giving herself a sense of peace, motivated by her quest for freedom and the beauty of escaping these constraints.
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