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’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.
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).
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.”
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.
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