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Hedda Gabler

hedda couch

Not all women hope to achieve something with their life; for these complacent ones, gender restrictions have nothing to restrict, and probably define and clarify an otherwise confusing world. However, contrary to Victorian social expectations, some women refuse to feel this uncritical satisfaction with their achievements.

Women with ambition, with passion, often step beyond the asymptote of Victorian standardbearers, and face discipline for it. Henrik Ibsen sets Hedda Gabler in this societal structure to condemn its inherent cruelty, licensing himself to critique in Thea the unambitious, in Hedda the ambitious, and in Brack the reactionary forces that threaten the latter alone.



Thea Elvsted lives an accidental forward progress- passively, never taking initiative, this aloof character bumbles about, seemingly absent in mind. Patriarchy can’t contain her because she has nothing to contain. For example of her passivity, in one conversation, Thea “[Starts nervously] . . . [Gets up quickly, restlessly] . . . [Looks anxiously at her watch] . . . [stares blankly and helplessly],” and defends herself “[in alarm].” Ibsen includes these stage notes to give Thea an additional aura of recipiency, while Hedda directs the conversation in full. What Victorian forces could disagree with an ill-spoken woman trying to maintain a public front of marital fidelity, who moreover attempts to domesticate the wild Eilert? Hedda smiles to remark that Thea has “made a new man of him,” or to paraphrase, fulfilled precisely her gender role- to domesticate, to civilize, to tame the untamable men.

thea elvsted

Thea’s meek responses to Eilert’s probing before the party, quickly flipping tone to agree with him from “Oh, Hedda, no!” To “Yes, that’s true,” or additional stage notes indicating “[Frightened] . . . [Quietly sobbing] . . . [trying to hide her anxiety]” all further exemplify Thea’s readiness to conform to the will of others, an instinctive obedience. As one critic commented on Thea, “sometimes, adaptation is not a virtue,” and her consistent conformity to Victorian social mores, though uncontroversial by definition, renders her useless in the plot (Jones). The notable lack of cruelty- or assertiveness – or initiative – or even mere presence – in Thea indicates the stereotypical submission to the system, which Ibsen here condemns.



Foiled for contrast, Ibsen crafts Hedda as brooding with passion, angsty and bored with domesticity. More than any other character in the play, Hedda schemes; her tendency to actively plot destroys other characters and positions her far outside the Victorian expectation. Hedda opposes Thea with the de-domestication of Eilert- that she would tear a man down into fleshly disarray- as Iago to Michael Cassio, with liquor and the sole intent of destroying him. Hedda additionally tries to express herself, but faces reprimand. Despite her talent, Tesman instructs her to stop playing the piano; her passive-aggressive reaction that “from now on I’ll be quiet” sardonically reveals the degree to which she rejects Victorian social norms surrounding submission; ultimately this patriarchal social structure subdues and compels her to commit suicide.

hedda gabler

A critic points out that “like so many women, [Hedda] is left miserable among the conventional props of happiness,” those including domesticity, chastity, fidelity, submissiveness, and bourgeois entertainment (Jones). Hedda disregards each of these, seeming to prefer social manipulation, shooting pistols, lying and conniving. Hedda would not consent to “the sterilizing atmosphere of [her] environment” and pushed these boundaries until she could not longer tolerate the repercussions (Mayerson).

hedda piano


Brack’s constraints on Hedda represent the overall social constraints on women, and once she realizes the futility of escape, she commits suicide. One scholar writes that Hedda’s sole redeeming quality “is a sense of dignity and honor that no one else in the play, including Judge Brack, shares”; Brack’s departure from conventional sexual values comes at Hedda’s annoyance, and refusal (Blau). Take for example his insinuation that she use “natural talent which every woman” possesses, i.e. the ownership of a vagina, into which Brack certainly craves entrance. By the next morning she knows the drill- Brack states without innuendo that he “haven’t even had time to take my clothes off,” to which Hedda curtly replies “You haven’t either?,” emphasis Ibsen’s. In the moments preceding Hedda’s suicide, Brack makes additional sexual references to Hedda’s company being “a pleasure” and “great fun together.”

judge brack

Victorian women faced an expectation of submission to the sexual gratification of men, yet Hedda defies this expectation- until she cannot. Even more ironically yet, her entrapment came because Brack discovered an even further unwomenly action, Hedda inciting Eilert to commit suicide. Ever the pragmatist, Hedda would rather die than give Brack the gratification he desires. Brack himself represents the penalty for women who defy conventional sexual and social standards, which Ibsen here condemns by portraying Brack as bestial, corrupt and sordid.

For women content with bourgeois social preoccupation, a bourgeois Victorian patriarchy probably made sense. Yet other women, those not content with stagnancy, experience what Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler to criticize: the “tragedy of boredom” that falls prey to “time, the subtle thief” until the active woman cannot cope (Solensten). In Brack’s cruelty to Hedda, in Thea’s lack of cruelty- or self-awareness- or passion- or basic cognitive ability- and in the cruelty of the Victorian system itself, Ibsen expresses disapproval at his contemporary social standards.

general gabler

A gnomon at six, ever eager to one day declare finished the captivity of women, Ibsen himself models General Gabler’s painting- a cartouche looking down upon the almost unreal world, eager and expectant to see its full potential realized, without concern for its gender.



Blau, Herbert. “ ‘Hedda Gabler’: The Irony of Decadence.” Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2 (May, 1953). pp. 112-116

Jones, David Richard. “The Virtues of ‘Hedda Gabler’.” Educational Theatre Journal, Vol 29, No. 4 (Dec., 1977), pp. 447-462

Mayerson, Caroline W. “Thematic Symbols in ‘Hedda Gabler’.” Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4 (NOVEMBER 1950), pp. 151-160

Solensten, John M. Time and Tragic Rhythm in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler’.” Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 4 (NOVEMBER 1969), pp. 315-319



The 體用 ti-yong dichotomy refers to an intuitive hesitation in Chinese political thought: where Western methods and practices seem more effective in society they ought to be adopted; yet, some may contradict the core principles of Chinese identity. How much of the West should China adopt? To what extent should China maintain its own culture and practices, and conversely to what extent should China embrace foreign ideals?

China’s doors flung open, though involuntarily, during the first Opium War. From then on, initial resistance to Westernism could not outweigh desire to emulate its practices; several attempts to reform meet resistance throughout the 19th century, backsliding in the early 20th, but ultimately Mao upends Chinese Traditionalism. When Deng subsequently upends Mao’s economics, the conversion is complete, accelerating to the present. I will delineate this historical continuum into 19th Century, which spans 1839 to 1911 (First Opium War to fall of Qing dynasty), Republican from 1911 to 1949 (Fall of Qing dynasty to Communist Revolution) and PRC from 1949 to present.


From the early 19th century, following social unrest related to the Opium Wars, among other reasons, many social uprisings attempted to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Hong Xiuquan led such a rebellion, merging quasi-Christian religious ideas with individual revelation (Schoppa 73). His “startlingly different framework from traditional Confucian social hierarchy” placed extreme value on egalitarianism by erasing Confucian societal roles (75). In response the Qing emperor appointed Zeng Guofan to create an army, pushing back the Taipings. Guofan decried Xiuquan’s anti-Confucian teachings, and further, intentionally built his army according to Confucian social structuring principles (79). These figures provide a challenge to Confucianism and a reactionary pushback, illustrating their views on the degree to which Chinese ideals should be replaced by Western (here, Christian) ones.

In a new development occurring in the mid-to-late 19th century, the Self Strengthening Movement argued that China should use Western technology to preserve itself (Joseph 46). Diplomacy, education, technology, but especially the military; the Self Strengthening Movement’s main success was the establishment of refortified military power (47). In counter, the semi-Empress Cixi ruled as a “thoroughgoing conservative traditionalist” in self interest (Schoppa 104); she later immensely persecuted Kang Youwei, the Hundred Days reformer for a reinterpretation of Confucianism that threatened Cixi’s power.


The Republican period began on rocky footing, with Yuan Shikai taking extreme measures to solidify and centralize power. The May 4th movement, responding to these and other issues in China, flourished as a rejection of Chinese Traditionalism and an embrace of modernity. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which the 5/4ers disregarded traditional culture – Shoppa remarks that they discarded, and even “trashed” symbolism that represented Confucism, Chinese authority or the Qing empire (176). Iconoclasm aside, the 5/4ers embraced new principles of social change and evolutionary cultural change, fully upending Chinese Traditionalism (Joseph 55).

In the decades following, communism would grow in China to become the dominant political force; Li Dazhou, Qu Qiubai and Chen Duxiu, early communist leaders, found and solidify the party in this time period (Shoppa 182). Despite later rhetoric from Mao, communism is not an especially Chinese philosophy; its import from the West signifies the furthest adoption of Western ideas in supplantation of Chinese tradition.


The People’s Republic of China, led in paramount by Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in 1976, continued in full the communism of the 1920s and 30s CCP. Perhaps Mao’s first piece of anti-Western rhetoric was the “Resist America Aid Korea Campaign,” a move to expel UN troops from northern Korea. Had the Chinese army been more trained, it is possible that the Chinese would have lost less soldiers; their casualty rate far outnumbered Westerners, a “brutally costly war” (Shoppa 317). These military issues caused Peng Dehuai to call for reform of the military, with modernization that essentially amounted to Westernization of its forces. Beyond just the Korean War, however, Mao’s policies generally isolated China from Western influence, condemning at every opportunity bourgeois practices or ideas, especially individualism. Lin Biao led Mao’s efforts to upend existing Chinese Traditionalism in the Cultural Revolution, but rather than replacing it with modernity, replace it with Mao himself.

After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping controlled the Chinese political apparatus, gradually undoing all of Mao’s economic policies in favor of a blended command economy with market features (Godement 85). After this point, China will increasingly resemble the West, with accelerating similarities after Deng. From the mid 70’s to 1983, non-Deng Chinese leadership conducts the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, a move to resist bourgeois Westernism in all its forms; however, Deng intervenes (Joseph 128); so, attempts to gut Westernism ultimately fail, and the figurehead driving Western economic policy into China has perpetrated it. The Deng model of economic growth through command economics proves very successful under Wen Jiabao, leader of China in the mid 2000s, whose unhesitant acceptance of market systems indicates the end of the central 體用 ti-yong hesitation (Godement 109).


R. Keith Shoppa, “Revolution and Its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History, Third Edition,” Prentice Hall,  2011.

William A. Joseph, “Politics in China: An Introduction, Second Edition,” Oxford University Press, 2014.

Francois Godement, “Contemporary China: Between Man and Market,” Rowman & Littlefield Press, 2016.

James Legge


James Legge, born in 1815 near Huntly, Scotland, served as a missionary to China in the mid nineteenth century and later became a world-renowned sinologist. He excelled in academics during his formative years; with noteworthy skill in Latin and quick memorization, he quickly advanced past his peers. Legge developed a tendency to wake early, often using the extra time to study. He later graduated from King’s College in Aberdeen with High Honors and in 1835 earned a Master of Divinity from the same college, along with several prestigious awards. Legge joined the London Missionary Society in 1838.

After several miscommunications, a few failed-but-retracted doctor recommendations, and a marriage, the Society sent Legge to its Malacca outpost in 1840. The Anglo-Chinese College, of which Legge became Principal, had a unique strategy to handle the language barrier. Rather than learn each Chinese language to preach themselves, Legge’s predecessors thought it more sustainable to teach native Chinese preachers English. Eventually these preachers could access English language resources and return to their region to preach with native fluency.

The mission relocated to Hong Kong in 1842 following the Treaty of Nanking and the accompanying transfer of the island to Britain. Legge began translating the Chinese Classics into English almost immediately upon arrival, such that missionaries could better understand the culture they wished to reach. He taught students and directly discipled some, with one later being significant.   

The Taiping Connection

Western missionaries greatly influenced Hong Xiuquan, a peasant tutor who began an uprising called the Taiping Rebellion. Xiuquan claimed divine authority; he saw in a dream his brother, Jesus Christ, and his father, the Christian God. He traveled and built a resistance to the Qing dynasty, and among his followers was his cousin, Hong Regnan. He led a small force in battle, but ended in failure; his flight ended with safety in Hong Kong at the mission. Regnan grew in his English language ability and later assisted Legge with translation of several Chinese classics. Regnan spent these years isolated from his cousin, Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping regime. During this time Legge found that Regnan’s “literary attainments were respectable; his temper amiable and genial; his mind was characterized by a versatility unusual in a Chinaman,” and that eventually his “knowledge of Christian doctrine was largely increased,” such that ”the sincerity of his attachment to it there could be no doubt,” leading ultimately that “over young men his influence was peculiarly beneficial.”

legge image

Xiuquan began publishing pamphlets and declaratory statements in Chinese, which the Mission quickly translated into English. They were dismayed at what they read: Xiuquan claimed continuing revelation from God, equivalence with Christ, and a variety of other heterodox teachings. Legge strongly discouraged Regnan from joining the rebel forces, preferring that he continue with Legge in the various translation projects yet undertaken. In 1859 Regnan managed to return to his cousin Xiuquan, who promoted him to (essentially) Prime Minister of the Taiping regime.

Attitudes and Criticism

Beginning in 1858, Legge encountered criticism from fellow missionaries along the Chinese coast who felt his views too sympathetic to Confucism. The missions board instructed Legge to include in his translations footnotes condemning eastern ideas, but Legge decided to only include footnotes that compared and contrasted viewpoints. He wrote that he “must say that it was unnecessary thus to school me” in the customs of translation, given his past experience in the field. The controversy centered around Legge’s lack of harsh categories for the Chinese – i.e., pagan and inferior – leading later into his most shocking claim yet: Christians and Chinese each worshipped a supreme God from ancient times. Legge never claimed these deities as one, and his statements belong in comparative religion, not declarative truth; nevertheless, his peers did not understand.

legge image book

Western missionaries to China have a reputation for thinking themselves superior to the Chinese. Educated westerners saw the Chinese as materialistic; the Chinese saw western missionaries as just another aspect of foreign intervention. Justified or not, this reputation fed into wider anti-foreigner views among the Chinese, especially following the First Opium War.

Legge marks a deviation from the stereotype. A colleague of Legge wrote that, although “[Europeans in general] all conveyed Western culture to China,” Legge chose to “make known to the West the essence and nicety of the Chinese Classics.” More so, while the Bible had not been fully translated into even one full Chinese dialectical language, Legge, the most highly respected and skilled translator in the field, chose instead to translate Confucius into English, to the ire of his colleagues. Legge, unlike any of his colleagues, took caution in accepting applications for baptism; he did not pressure his academic students to become Christian. He thought the route to true belief was difficult and that quick conversions and baptisms would cheapen the process. “We are in no hurry to baptise our candidates”, and instead boasted that two good students were “labouring away at Euclid.” He implies that a study of geometry, rather than theology, many benefit his students the most.

For an example of Legge’s respect for the Chinese, note that he said, while settling a case of persecution:

“If news comes that I have been murdered, go at once to the English consul and tell him that it is my wish that no English gunboat should be sent up the river to punish the people for my death.”

Further, he criticized his government’s [Britain’s] policies on opium, expressing respect for China’s policy positions to improve public health. His concern for public health probably came from direct contact with Chinese opium addicts, whom he tried to reform according to his Christian faith.

Oxford and Death

By 1865 his own health began to decrease. While still living in Hong Kong, a peer wrote that

“The immensity of his programme is shown by the fact that while taking his full share of the teaching and administration of the College, Legge filled the pulpit at the Union Chapel and discharged the pastor’s duties amongst all the families, he visited jails and military hospitals regularly in the role of Chaplain, he was an indefatigable worker in almost every aspect of the social services so badly needed in the busy port of expanding Hong Kong; in addition to all that, he took a leading part in developing the policy of the Government regarding the education of the local Chinese.”

The decline in health was gradual, as Legge still remained in China until 1873, when he returned to Scotland in an attempt to retire. However, upon arrival in the West, he discovered that an international scholarly reputation had preceded him home.

Oxford University took note of Legge and quickly developed a position for him, the Chair of Chinese Literature and Language. At the time, Oxford only hired Oxford-educated faculty, so after some academic trickery involving an honorary diploma, illegitimate matriculation and string-pulling from the Vice-Chancellor, Legge gained the position. He continued to teach and translate until his death in 1897.

Unlike some other specific faculty members, he took his teaching duties seriously, though the number of students was pitifully small (sometimes no more than three or four). On many occasions he lectured on Chinese literature to the wider student body, several such lectures later being published and included in the wider sinological corpus for the time.

His health quickly deteriorated in November of 1897, and he passed on the 29th of a stroke. His body was entombed in the cemetery at Oxford.

legge image tombston

At the funeral service the Principal of Oxford make remarks that echoed Legge’s sentiments largely, if not entirely:

“he was sent Eastwards, to the oldest of living civilizations, and he studied it with an eye made luminous by love. For if ever man love a people, James Legge loved the Chinese, and he could not bear to see them do wrong or suffer it. He saw that English ignorance was as invincible and as mischievous as Chinese exclusiveness.”

In all

Legge published dozens of works, most notably the English translations of the Chinese Classics and his lectures on Chinese culture and language. History remembers him, if sometimes not enough, for his scholarly accomplishments, his intermediate temperament and his lifelong persistence while on mission.

Conferred With and Works Cited

[Because of this medium, I cannot include in-essay citations. Nonetheless, here are works to consult for documentation.]

Adrian A. Bennett, “Encyclopedia of Asian History, Volume 2,” Reed Business Information
Center, 1988.

Marilyn Laura Bowman, “James Legge and the Confucian Classics: Brilliant Scot in the turmoil of colonial Hong Kong,” Simon Fraser University Press, 2015.

Thomas P. Dolan, “Berkshire Encyclopedia of China,” Berkshire Publishing, 2009.

Kenneth Scott Latourette, “A history of Christian missions in China,” Macmillan Press, 1929.

John Rapp, “Clashing Dilemmas: Hong Rengan, Issachar Roberts, and a Taiping “Murder”
Mystery,” Journal of Historical Biography, 2008.

Lindsay Ride, “Biographical Note,” from the introduction to James Legge’s “The Chinese Classics,” SMC Publishing, Inc.,1949.

Alexander Wylie, “Memorials of Protestant missionaries to the Chinese,” American Presbyterian Missions Press, 1867.