Since Hedda Gabler was written in the late nineteenth century, one would expect the relationship between George Tesman and his new bride Hedda to be based on the social mores of a typical community in that era. Accordingly, author Henrik Ibsen (1828 –1906) introduces the character of George’s Aunt Juliana Tesman as the spark that ignites the conflict in the drama.
Protagonist Hedda is a manipulative and unpredictable woman with a background of a life of luxury. She is extremely difficult to please. Hedda marries George, who is a man of equal intelligence and a bright future, but who does not earn the kind of money sufficient to provide his new wife with the luxurious existence she is accustomed to.
From the outset of the play, Juliana exposes the built-in conflict with Hedda which stems from their social class differences:
TESMAN. [With the bonnet in his hand, looks at it from all sides.] Why, what a gorgeous bonnet you've been investing in!
MISS TESMAN. I bought it on Hedda's account.
TESMAN. On Hedda's account? Eh?
MISS TESMAN. Yes, so that Hedda needn't be ashamed of me if we happened to go out together.”
Ibsen presents a double standard between social classes. He emphasizes the societal schism between men and women of that era. Juliana raised George after the death of his parents, and tends to direct the course of his life. She favors the social conventions of her day: women were submissive to their husbands, lacked independence, and had children almost as an obligation. George is influenced greatly by his aunt, and he appears to be focused more on furthering his career than on building his relationship with his wife. As a result, Hedda is at odds with Juliana and bored with her husband. Juliana is the point of the tension between the main characters.
Hedda is ahead of her time with respect to developing a sense of self. She seeks a life of independence, but is trapped in a society where she is prevented from enjoying a fruitful life outside of the home. Juliana’s presence stokes the flames of independence burning within Hedda. The younger woman envisions a starkly different life for herself than Juliana wants for her nephew:
HEDDA. Fortunately. Of course one has always to accustom one's self to new surroundings, Miss Tesman—little by little. [Looking towards the left.] Oh, there the servant has gone and opened the veranda door, and let in a whole flood of sunshine.
MISS TESMAN. [Going towards the door.] Well, then we will shut it.
HEDDA. No no, not that! Tesman, please draw the curtains. That will give a softer light.
TESMAN. [At the door.] All right—all right.—There now, Hedda, now you have both shade and fresh air.
HEDDA. Yes, fresh air we certainly must have, with all these stacks of flowers—. But—won't you sit down, Miss Tesman?
MISS TESMAN. No, thank you. Now that I have seen that everything is all right here—thank heaven!—I must be getting home again . . .
Another example of Aunt Juliana’s attempted imposition in the lives of the newly married couple is her continual suggestion that Hedda become pregnant as is culturally expected of her. Hedda denies her pregnancy in opposition to the lifestyle Juliana favors for George.
Aunt Juliana serves as the conduit of the tension and conflict in this drama. She is unable to force Hedda to relinquish her freedom as a woman. Her constant attempts prompt Hedda to demonstrate hostility toward her husband and his family. George is urged by Juliana to live a structured life, whereas Hedda seeks creativity and freedom. The tension fueled by Juliana allows the author to carry his disdain for the gender double standard in his society to a tragic conclusion.