Why is Henrik Ibsen's play titled Hedda Gabler instead of Hedda Tesman?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henrik Ibsen's 1890 play Hedda Gabler was initially met with bad reviews and little public interest, but it has since become a classic drama and is compared favorably to Hamlet, among others.

The title of the play is odd at first. Although Gabler is Hedda's maiden name, she is married to Jørgen Tesman, and so her married name -- and that by which everyone knows her -- is Hedda Tesman. The choice to name the play after her original name and not her married name is explained by Ibsen here:

My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than her husband's wife.
(Ibsen, 1890 letter to Moritz Prozor, dlibrary.acu.edu.au)

There are, of course, other interpretations, but Ibsen's explanation is solid: Hedda is not a person entirely wedded to Tesman; in fact, her connection to him is less than her connection to her father, and in fact to herself. She is an individual, not an extension, and her actions are not those of a happily-married, ordinary person, but a very complex and possibly unstable individual who sees herself as a driving force in the lives of the people around her. She has a uniquely self-assured knowledge that she is entirely capable of affecting events without needing permission from the husband whose name she carries.

In fact, it can be said that she is a stronger character than all the others, as she acts for her own self-interest instead of tempering her desires; only the realization that she has accidentally given someone else leverage over her is enough to break her will.

leveretanne | Student

The title of Hedda Gabler suggests both the name and identity that Hedda aligns herself with most closely, as well as the importance of names in the play at large.  When the play opens, Hedda is now married, and her name has become Hedda Tesman, but “Gabler” is the name to which she remains most attached.  The stage directions call for a large portrait of General Gabler in the house that was purchased and decorated specifically for Hedda, suggesting that the general, subconsciously, is the true man of the house in Hedda’s eyes and that she remains more devoted to his memory and lifestyle than to her new husband and his desires for a picturesque home.  (This is further exemplified by how Hedda cherishes her general father’s treasured pistols, while sneering at Tesman’s beloved house slippers.)  Each utterance of the name “Hedda Gabler” serves as a reminder of Hedda’s old identity, functions to solidify her new identity as "little Mrs. Tesman", and highlights the theme of control with each character and how they refer to Hedda.

Brack, adept at projecting an air of formality in conversation, ostensibly slips and nearly calls her by the name Gabler. This can also be interpreted as his own understanding of Hedda's true feelings regarding her marriage and can even be viewed as a subtle mocking of her displeasure of her new situation. Knowing that she is not truly identifying as a Tesman, Brack leverages the situation to manipulate Hedda.  

Lovborg, disbelieving of Hedda’s choice of husband, persists in calling her "Hedda Gabler" in private conversation.  "And I must teach myself never to say Hedda Gabler," he says. Hedda, fearful of the discovery of her true history with Lovborg, insists he must learn to call her by her new name. 

George Tesman’s Aunt Julia, eager for familiarity, wishes for Hedda to call her “Julia” and insists on calling Hedda by her first name until Hedda successfully distances herself by offending Julia with the “hat business” (at which point Julia reverts back to calling her “Mrs. Tesman”). Though the name “Tesman” still feels unfamiliar to Hedda, it establishes an air of formality that allows her to reinforce her perceived status over her new family and reality.  

Tesman relishes in the ability to call his new wife by her first name, suggesting to those around him his pleasure at winning Hedda' hand and his own perceived, elevated status. Hedda carefully employs the use of first names to establish a false sense of trust and intimacy with Tesman, delighting and distracting him and when she finally begins calling him George.

Similarly, Hedda, in an attempt to foster false closeness with Thea, insists that they refer to each other by their first names. By insisting that Thea call her Hedda (and in turn, that she be allowed to call Thea by her first name), Hedda begins to build trust with Thea in order to solicit the information she needs regarding Lovborg. Tesman, meanwhile, accidentally refers to Thea by her maiden name, Miss Rysling, the name he called her years earlier before their marriages when they were courting.  While his mistake may have been genuinely innocent, it also serves to foreshadow a possible rekindled intimacy as they patch together Eilert’s book in the aftermath of Hedda’s death.