Hedda Gabler is arguably the most unsympathetic heroine in all of Ibsen’s plays. She seems to have everything a person would need. This beautiful young woman is recently married to a very nice husband, lives in a nice home, enjoys playing the piano, and genuinely appreciates the arts. But nothing...
Hedda Gabler is arguably the most unsympathetic heroine in all of Ibsen’s plays. She seems to have everything a person would need. This beautiful young woman is recently married to a very nice husband, lives in a nice home, enjoys playing the piano, and genuinely appreciates the arts. But nothing is good enough for Hedda, and she cannot appreciate or even tolerate anyone else’s success or happiness. Not content to criticize, she has to spoil things. Finding no satisfaction in life, she must confront both her own hypocrisy in her loveless marriage and her complicity in another man’s death. To make things worse, that complicity will probably become public. She has had enough. Offstage, Hedda shoots herself in the head.
Hedda’s unpopularity dates to the play’s early reception. Ibsen’s contemporary George Bernard Shaw roundly condemned her as “mean, envious, insolent, cruel, fiendish . . . a bully in reaction from her own cowardice” (cited in Jones 1977). Cowardice is the most obvious explanation for her suicide. Judge Brack has implied that he will expose her role in Lovberg’s death (she had given her former lover the gun). The audience would be hard pressed to sympathize, and few people could empathize, with a woman who destroys whatever she touches.
Other factors both explain why she killed herself and suggest that Ibsen may also have had other ideas about Hedda’s character. Hedda picks up a gun, which had belonged to her father, and takes a very deliberate action. One of her self-proclaimed problems was her tendency to react instead of act. Although she was besotted with Lovberg, she did not marry him; instead, she accepted the more conventional route of marrying Tessman. She did not stand by Lovberg and encourage his writing but left that nurturing role to Thea, who now shows signs of nurturing her own husband, too. Again, Hedda must accept the effects of others’ actions rather than carve her own path. When she hears that Lovberg killed himself, based on incorrect information, she calls it “a deed of deliberate beauty—a deed of deliberate courage.”
Loving beauty more than people, admiring romantic ideals more than accepting the flaws in real life, Hedda finally faces the futility of her own worldview. Worried that Judge Brack’s knowledge will further deprive her of choosing her own actions, she declares that she cannot bear being “a slave” to his “will and demands.” In these regards, Ibsen’s play is both a realist social critique and a romantic commentary on freedom and beauty.
Jones, David Richard. 1977. “The Virtues of Hedda Gabler." Educational Theatre Journal, 29 (4): 447-462. DOI: 10.2307/3206002