What is the significance of the suicide in Henrick Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler?

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In order to understand why suicide is significant in Hedda Gabler , you should explore two important themes in the play: death and power. After all, suicide is the ultimate way to reclaim one's power—that is, if one considers that life is a prison of sorts. The theme of suicide...

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In order to understand why suicide is significant in Hedda Gabler, you should explore two important themes in the play: death and power. After all, suicide is the ultimate way to reclaim one's power—that is, if one considers that life is a prison of sorts. The theme of suicide also gives us insight into Hedda's character and her search for meaningful connections.

Is Hedda Gabler a prisoner of her own life? In the first act, she is first introduced as "General Gabler's daughter." This sets the tone of the whole play: Hedda Gabler's identity is closely tied to her aristocratic heritage, a heritage that she has to prove herself worthy of. The stage directions indicate that "over the sofa hangs the portrait of a handsome elderly man in a General's uniform." Throughout the play, General Gabler will be observing his daughter's actions. Although dead, his presence is heavily felt and influences Hedda.

Hedda Gabler is obsessed with appearances, which is a central theme in the play. Despite being the eponymous, main character, she does not appear straightaway. Instead, the spectator's first impression of her is made through the lens of the other characters.

She constantly talks about having a "beautiful death"—for instance, when she encourages Ejlert to commit suicide in act 3. This scene depicts Hedda as a deeply unsympathetic character. However, in her mind, failure and scandal is worse than death, because her whole life is based upon appearances. The spectator becomes the unwitting instigator of Hedda's suicide; by judging her just like the characters do (the last line of the play is Brack's judgment of Hedda's suicide: "people don't do such things"), the spectator plays a part in her death.

Suicide is also a way for Ibsen to comment on women's condition of the time. Hedda calls herself a "poor creature" when Ejlert tells her that she has "no power" over him. Power and status go hand in hand. As a woman, Hedda is socially inferior to men, and she tries to compensate by manipulating them. She even admits that her deepest desire is "to have power to mould a human destiny."

However, such a wish only hides what Hedda truly lacks: a meaningful connection. Tragically, because Hedda only sees power dynamics within relationships, she is unable to form a close bond to anyone. She even tells Ejlert,

As I look back upon it all, I think there was really something beautiful, something fascinating—something daring—in—in that secret intimacy—that comradeship which no living creature so much as dreamed of.

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In committing suicide, Hedda could be seen as freeing herself from the moral boundaries imposed upon her by a bourgeois society whose values she has frequently transgressed.

Judge Brack is right: people don't do such things (i.e., commit suicide) in his world, the respectable middle-class world in which he lives. But in an aestheticized existence like Hedda's, they do this sort of thing all the time. Suicide becomes for her, as for all artists—be it actually creative types or those like Hedda, cursed with an artistic sensibility—just one more act of transgression.

Indeed, suicide is the ultimate transgression. As well as openly defying the Christian values to which respectable society still pays lip service, Hedda's suicide is an act of freedom, an assertion of her unique individuality against a society which simply doesn't know what to make of her.

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Henrik Ibsen’s decision to end the play with Hedda’s suicide has been widely analyzed from a range of perspectives.

Many critics call attention to women’s difficult circumstances in 19th-century Norway and see Hedda’s actions as the only option by which to escape. In this interpretation, Hedda is less of an individual character and more a symbol of her gender and of social oppression. Another interpretation focuses on Hedda’s unethical behavior, seeing her not as a victim of circumstances but as a guilt-ridden person. That interpretation de-emphasizes the importance of gender and stresses her individualism. Yet another way of seeing the play’s resolution has a different take on gender, emphasizing Hedda’s use of her father’s pistols and viewing her actions as those of a female who identifies as male.

In recent years, analysts have focused on Ibsen’s negative attitude toward women rather than seeing his female characters as strong. In that line of analysis, the emphasis is placed on Hedda’s death itself—as determined by the playwright—more than on her taking her own life, and thus, it is evidence of Ibsen’s supposed misogyny.

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Hedda Gabler is not the only play of Henrick Ibsen's that ends in a death or suicide. Often, the motivation behind the action is a sense of a character being trapped in a situation from which there is no escape.

Although some people find Hedda Gabler an unsympathetic character, one can also say that as the daughter of an aristocrat, who early in her life got to enjoy riding and hunting and a more active and less constrained life than that of a bourgeois woman, Hedda feels trapped in an almost visceral sense in her marriage. The way she physically moves around is almost like that of a lioness prowling in a small cage. Her final suicide, by means of a gun, signifies both that for a woman of her period, there was no way to enjoy the sort of freedom she craved, and that the gun, symbolic of the freedoms of her girlhood, gives her the only freedom she can enjoy as a woman married in a bourgeois household, that of death.

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