Secondary Female Characters in Hedda Gabler

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1858

Because the titular character so completely dominates Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, discussions of the play from a gender perspective seem to almost exclusively focus on Hedda. It is easy to understand why. She is clearly the central figure, the one whose grating dissatisfaction arises from a conflict pitting her needs against conventional notions of propriety and female fulfillment as an adoring, dutiful, submissive wife and nurturing, loving mother. She is, moreover, the play's prime mover, the plot driver, the one who has the most at stake, and the one whose name answers the most important question: whose play is it? It is, of course, her play, pure and simple.

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Hedda struggles violently against the conventional wife-mother role, a role she does not want but is mortally afraid to reject. She suffers most from what Gail Finney called in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen ‘‘victimization by motherhood’’; she is unable to face or to escape the suffocating reality of marriage and motherhood. That surely is as big a factor in her self-destruction as is her fear of being held sexual hostage to the sinister Judge Brack, who threatens to expose her to scandal, of which she is at least equally terrified.

More is learned about Hedda than any of the other female characters. She alone is prone to self-analysis, to confessing her fears and dissatisfactions, which, ironically, she reveals to the two men besides her husband who have pursued her: Judge Brack and Eilert Lovborg. Hedda has no real female friends, no confidantes with whom she is either close or honest. In fact, she perceives each of the other women as an antagonist. The fact that they seem at peace with themselves profoundly annoys her and contributes to her mounting hysteria. Towards Thea Elvsted, she feigns a friendship, and she quickly betrays what trust Thea places in her. She is also mean-spirited towards her husband's well-intentioned aunt, Juliana, whom she views as an insufferable busy-body, an unwelcome intruder, and a possible threat to Hedda's control of George. She is also determined to rid her house of Berta, the household servant whose loyalty to the Tesman family daunts Hedda as well.

Also, just as there is much more divulged about Hedda's past, there is also much more implied about Hedda than any other female character in the play. As Finney claimed, ''the influence of her motherless, father-dominated upbringing is everywhere evident.'' Her inheritance reveals itself in her masculine traits, her fondness for horses and pistols, for example, or her excitement over the impending contest between Eilert Lovborg and her husband George, or her interest in manipulating George into the male arena of politics, where she might exercise some real power. In some ways, she seems more masculine than George, the fussy foster-child of two maiden aunts who is uninterested in politics and is afraid of Hedda's handling of her father's pistols.

George also seems prone to what from a male point of view seems to be a typical female trait: excited chatter about trivial matters. His ubiquitous ‘‘fancy that’’ seems more appropriate to the tea table than the smoking room, saloon, or other haunt that in Ibsen's time were visited exclusively by men, unless, as in some saloons, disreputable females women like the unseen ‘‘singing woman,’’ Mademoiselle Diana, were allowed. To Hedda, the masculine ideal is represented by her father General Gabler. His portrait, a constant reminder of his influence, hangs in a prominent place in her inner sanctum, her room adjoining the drawing room. There are hints of an Electra complex, a deeply-rooted but repressed incestuous and terrorizing desire that is an important strain in Hedda's enigmatic character. Under her father's tutelage, she had become a fit masculine companion for him, but not one suited for her husband, who merely bores her. As for the woman's world, the society of the tea table, she is clearly a pariah, though certainly by willful choice.

The other women in Hedda Gabler, even those unseen, have one thing in common with Hedda. They are women who have either failed to meet the male ideal of woman as wife-mother or have rejected it, as Hedda, the least suited to the task, desires to do. They also differ from Hedda in a vitally significant way: they have made peace with themselves. And therein they represent some of the limited alternatives to what society at large viewed as a woman's primary goal—marriage and motherhood. George Tesman's two aunts are maiden aunts, Thea Elvsted has fled a brutal and loveless marriage, and Berta, having given her life over to service, remains, presumably, unattached outside the Tesman family. Their relative contentment speaks volumes about Hedda's discontent, but they are, of course, very different kinds of women, interesting in their own right and not just because as foils they set off Hedda's more complex character.

Like so many secondary characters in drama, the other women of Hedda Gabler run much closer to stereotypes than the play's enigmatic protagonist. Two of them, Aunt Rina and Mademoiselle Diana, are superb examples of off-stage characters whose presence is felt but never seen. The one is George Tesman's dying aunt; the other, ''a mighty huntress of men,’’ is a lady of pleasure for those who can afford her.

The unseen Diana is, in fact, one of those notorious fallen women. Talk about her is strained through polite euphemisms which only thinly veil that she is a prostitute, though not of the crass sidewalk variety. She and her friends entertain gentlemen, both in salons and boudoirs, with the implication, too, that they are under some protection from the authorities, thanks to a double standard that permitted respectable men a sexual license denied to respectable women. Judge Brack tells Hedda that Eilert Lovborg had formerly been one of Diana's ‘‘most enthusiastic protectors,’’ even before his dissolution and disgrace. The implication is that during his wooing of Hedda, frustrated by her repression of sexual passion, Eilert had found easy solace in the ready arms of Mademoiselle Diana. Lovborg's renewed association with Diana helps ignite Hedda's perverse desire to see Eilert redeem himself through a triumphant and majestic suicide, a kind of ersatz expression of the sexual freedom Hedda had repressed in herself, if only because, unlike Mademoiselle Diana, she could never thumb her nose at respectability.

A sickly invalid, Rina is most important because she is her sister's main burden. Since Juliana is a selfless and loving person, she bears the burden with affection, dignity, and grace, all to Hedda's annoyance. To her, Rina's death only means that Juliana may become a more frequent and troublesome visitor, even though Juliana confides to both Hedda and George that she plans to devote herself to caring for some other sickly person. She tells them that ‘‘it's such an absolute necessity for me to have one to live for.’’ Juliana, a dedicated nurse, is simply beyond the selfish Hedda's comprehension. Juliana lives only for others, but Hedda lives only for herself. From Hedda's perspective, Juliana is both a fool and a threat.

Juliana is more than a nurse, however. For good or ill, she has also been a surrogate mother and father to George, as he cheerfully admits in the opening of the play. She and her sister helped shape her nephew's adult character, explaining why George utterly lacks the strong-willed and arrogant hardness of his wife. Unwittingly, they turned George into someone safe for Hedda. She can easily manipulate him, verbally beating down whatever objections the docile and compliant fellow raises. As regards Hedda, George is ''correctness itself' not only because he is a respectable man with good prospects but because he lacks the intestinal fortitude to challenge her. She has none of the fear of George that Lovborg and Brack inspire in her.

Berta is another selfless woman who finds meaning and satisfaction in her service to others. In Act I, it is disclosed that she has been a loyal retainer in the Tesman family for years, and that with George's marriage to Hedda, she has come to the newlyweds' villa as servant and caretaker. Nothing is disclosed of her private life, but she speaks of ‘‘all the blessed years’’ that she spent with the Tesmans, suggesting that she has found fulfillment only in their employ and that she has had neither husband nor children. George and Juliana both treat her with affection and respect. Also, as if she were a member of the family, they confide in her, something that Hedda cannot do. That and her overly-protective behavior towards George irk Hedda, who wants to rid the house of Berta and threatens to do so with a petty complaint about her carelessness. Like Juliana, Berta represents a threat to Hedda's control over George, something that she will not tolerate noblesse oblige (‘‘nobility obligates,’’ a notion that those of high social standing were required to behave in an honorable manner) and familial gratitude be damned.

Hedda's most troubling female adversary is, of course, Mrs. Elvsted. She does not stand in Hedda's way of controlling George; she stands in Hedda's way of a greater challenge, controlling Eilert Lovborg. Hedda's frightful dislike of Theais mixed with intense jealousy. It goads her that someone who seems like such a simpleton has been able to redeem Lovborg from his recklessness and inspire his work. Thea, for all her experience, acts like an innocent compared to Hedda. She is gullible and vulnerable, easily duped by Hedda into believing that Hedda is her friend, believing that Hedda's girlhood antagonism had been entirely vitiated over the years. She does not sense Hedda's spite and is both surprised and hurt when Hedda betrays her confidence.

Thea is, however, both a wholly sympathetic character and unlike Hedda—a survivor. She has devoted herself to redeeming the dissolute Lovborg with a love that he cannot fully return, even though she has sacrificed her reputation in the process by fleeing from her loveless and enslaving marriage to Sheriff Elvsted. It is her admirable courage and devotion that make Lovborg seem like an arrogant ingrate, someone at least partly deserving of his inept death. In fact, apart from his genius, nothing about his character is quite so memorable as his insufferable dismissal of Thea as being ''too stupid' ' to understand the kind of love that he believes he has shared with Hedda.

Thea's eagerness to immerse herself with George Tesman in an effort to reconstruct Lovborg's manuscript has the aura of a magnificent obsession about it and argues that it is Thea who sees the truth about Eilert that the man's ideas are both more admirable and important than his life. Ironically, too, it is she who triumphs over her rival, Hedda, winning not Eilert but George, making him her coconspirator in their efforts to breathe new life into Thea and Eilert's destroyed child, Lovborg's brilliant work. As much as Hedda's own unborn child and Brack's endgame sexual advantage, Thea's triumph drives Hedda to despair and suicide, proving that even in Ibsen's stark realism there is adequate room for at least a modicum of poetic justice.

Source: John W. Fiero, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Ghosts

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

In Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Hedda's ideal (to live beautifully, free from the constraints of her socialization) dies with her, but Løvborg's ideal (a book on the future of civilization, in which he frees himself, and potentially others, from the poisonous constraints of society by writing a prescription for that society's health or liberation) lives—it is reconstructed from notes by Tesman and Thea. Hedda kills herself with child: Løvborg and Thea speak of the manuscript as their ‘‘child.’’ Hedda dies to achieve the ideal she could not achieve in life; Løvborg kills himself (or is killed in a mistaken attempt to retrieve his manuscript from ‘‘Mademoiselle Diana's boudoir’’) because he felt he had achieved, or helped to make possible, the ideal through his book and then senselessly lost the manuscript.

In the same way as Osvald's paralysis of mind could be said to be growing throughout Ghosts, to turn him at the end into a symbol of the paralysis of mind in Norwegian society, so too could the notes for Løvborg's book that Thea produces in Hedda Gabler be said to have been ''growing throughout the play, to be given birth at the end as a symbol of hope for the future of civilization." Thea and Løvborg had spoken of the manuscript as their ''child,'' as I mention above, and thus it is no accident that Thea ''nurtures'' these notes in the pocket of her dress throughout the play, (she says at one point, ‘‘Yes. I took them with me when I left home—they're here in my pocket—’’), to produce them at the right moment for reassembly by herself and Tesman.

In the same way that Ibsen leads us to believe that in Osvald an artist of great promise is destroyed, ultimately, by the paralysis of mind of his society, so too does the playwright lead us to believe that in Hedda, a person of potential creativity, is destroyed by her upbringing as the daughter of the aristocratic General Gabler. Martin Esslin writes that:

[Hedda's] sense of social superiority prevents her from realizing her genuine superiority as a potential creative personality. If the standards prescribed by the laws of noblesse oblige had not prevented her from breaking out into the freedom of moral and social emancipation, she might have been able to turn her passionate desire for beauty (which is the hallmark of real, spiritual, as distinct from social, aristocracy) to the creation of beauty, living beauty rather than merely a beautiful death. It is the creative energy, frustrated and damned up, that is finally converted into the malice and envy, the destructive rage, the intellectual dishonesty that lead to Hedda Gabler's downfall. (Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre, Doubleday, 1969.)

Like Osvald, Hedda is a potential artist. Like Mrs. Alving, she has no true moment of recognition or perception: Ibsen is interested at the end more in whether Løvborg' s ideal will be promulgated, to the benefit of future Heddas.

Source: Bert Cardullo, "Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Ghosts," in the Explicator, Vol. 46, no. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 23-24.

An Hypocrisy in Playgoing

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Eecosstoetchiayoomahnioeevahrachellopestibahntamahntafahnta ... shall I go on? No? You do not catch my meaning, when I write thus? I am to express myself, please, in plain English? If I wrote the whole of my article as I have written the beginning of it, you would, actually, refuse to read it? I am astonished. The chances are that you do not speak Italian, do not understand Italian when it is spoken. The chances are that Italian spoken from the stage of a theatre produces for you no more than the empty, though rather pretty, effect which it produces for me, and which I have tried to suggest phonetically in print. And yet the chances are also that you were in the large British audience which I saw, last Wednesday afternoon, in the Adelphi Theatre—that large, patient, respectful audience, which sat out the performance of Hedda Gabler. Surely, you are a trifle inconsistent? You will not tolerate two columns or so of gibberish from me, and yet you will profess to have passed very enjoyably a whole afternoon in listening to similar gibberish from Signora Duse. Suppose that not only my article, but the whole of this week's Review were written in the fashion which you reject, and suppose that the price of the Review were raised from six-pence to nine-pence (proportionately to the increased price for seats at the Adelphi when Signora Duse comes there). To be really consistent, you would have to pay, without a murmur, that ninepence, and to read, from cover to cover, that Review, and to enjoy, immensely, that perusal. An impossible feat? Well, just so would it be an impossible feat not to be bored by the Italian version of Hedda Gabler. Why not confess your boredom? Better still, why go to be bored?

All this sounds rather brutal. But it is a brutal thing to object to humbug, and only by brutal means can humbug be combated, and there seems to me no form of humbug sillier and more annoying than the habit of attending plays that are acted in a language whereof one cannot make head or tail. Of course, I do not resent the mere fact that Signora Duse comes to London. Let that distinguished lady be made most welcome. Only, let the welcome be offered by appropriate people. There are many of them. There is the personnel of the embassy in Grosvenor Square. There are the organ-grinders, too, and the ice-cream men. And there are some other, some English, residents in London who have honourably mastered the charming Italian tongue. Let all this blest minority flock to the Adelphi every time, and fill as much of it as they can. But, for the most part, the people who, instead of staying comfortably at home, insist on flocking and filling are they to whom, as to me, Italian is gibberish, and who have not, as have I, even the excuse of a mistaken sense of duty. Perhaps they have some such excuse. Perhaps they really do feel that they are taking a means of edification. ‘‘We needs must praise the highest when we see it’’; Duse is (we are assured) the highest; therefore we needs must see her, for our own edification, and go into rhapsodies. Such, perhaps, is the unsound syllogism which these good folk mutter. I suggest, of what spiritual use is it to see the highest if you cannot understand it? Go round to the booksellers and buy Italian grammars, Italian conversation-books, the ''Inferno,’’ and every other possible means to a nodding acquaintance with Italian. Stick to your task; and then, doubtless, when next Signora Duse comes among us, you will derive not merely that edification which is now your secret objective, but also that gratification which you are so loudly professing. I know your rejoinder to that: ‘‘Oh, Duse's personality is so wonderful. Her temperament is so marvellous. And then her art! It doesn't matter whether we know Italian or not. We only have to watch the movements of her hands'' (rhapsodies omitted) ''and the changes of her face'' (r. o.) ''and the inflections of her voice'' (r.o.) ''to understand everything, positively everything. '' Are you so sure? I take it that you understand more from the performance of an Italian play which you have read in an English translation than from the performance of an Italian play which never has been translated. There are, so to say, degrees in your omniscience. You understand more if you have read the translation lately than if a long period has elapsed since your reading of it. Are you sure that you would not understand still more if the play were acted in English? Of course you are. Nay, and equally of course, you are miserably conscious of all the innumerable things that escape you, that flit faintly past you. You read your English version, feverishly, like a timid candidate for an examination, up to the very last moment before your trial. Perhaps you even smuggle it in with you, for furtive cribbing. But this is a viva voce examination: you have no time for cribbing: you must rely on Signora Duse's voice, hands, face and your own crammed memory. And up to what point has your memory been crammed? You remember the motive of the play, the characters, the sequence of the scenes. Them you recognize on the stage. But do you recognize the masquerading words? Not you. They all flash past you, whirl round you, mocking, not to be caught, not to be challenged and unmasked. You stand sheepishly in their midst, like a solitary stranger strayed into a masked ball. Or, to reverse the simile, you lurch this way and that, clutching futile air, like the central figure in blindman's buff. Occasionally you do catch a word or two. These are only the proper names, but they are very welcome. It puts you in pathetic conceit with yourself, for the moment, when from the welter of unmeaning vowels and consonants ‘‘Eilert Lövborg’’ or ‘‘Hedda Gabler’’ suddenly detaches itself, like a silver trout ''rising'' from a muddy stream. These are your only moments of comfort. For the rest, your irritation at not grasping the details prevents you from taking pleasure in your power to grasp the general effect.

I doubt even whether, in the circumstances, you can have that synthetic power fully and truly. It may be that what I am going to say about Signora Duse as Hedda Gabler is vitiated by incapacity to understand exactly her rendering of the part as a whole. She may be more plausibly like Hedda Gabler than she seems to me. Mark, I do not say that she may have conceived the part more intelligently, more rightly, with greater insight into Ibsen's meaning. And perhaps I should express myself more accurately if I said that Hedda Gabler may be more like Signora Duse than she seems to me. For this actress never stoops to impersonation. I have seen her in many parts, but I have never (you must take my evidence for what it is worth) detected any difference in her. To have seen her once is to have seen her always. She is artistically right or wrong according as whether the part enacted by her can or cannot be merged and fused into her own personality. Can Hedda Gabler be so merged and fused? She is self-centred. Her eyes are turned inward to her own soul. She does not try to fit herself into the general scheme of things. She broods disdainfully aloof. So far so good; for Signora Duse, as we know her, is just such another. (This can be said without offence. The personality of an artist, as shown through his or her art, is not necessarily a reflection, and is often a flat contradiction—a complement—to his or her personality in life.) But Hedda is also a minx, and a ridiculous minx, and not a nice minx. Her revolt from the circumstances of her life is untinged with nobility. She imagines herself to be striving for finer things, but her taste is in fact not good enough for what she gets. One can see that Ibsen hates her, and means us to laugh at her. For that reason she ''wears'' much better than those sister-rebels whom Ibsen glorified. She remains as a lively satire on a phase that for serious purposes is out of date. She ought to be played with a sense of humour, with a comedic understanding between the player and the audience. Signora Duse is not the woman to create such an understanding. She cannot, moreover, convey a hint of minxishness: that quality is outside her rubric. Hedda is anything but listless. She is sick of a life which does not tickle her with little ready-made excitements. But she is ever alert to contrive these little excitements for herself. She is the very soul of restless mischief. Signora Duse suggested the weary calm of one who has climbed to a summit high above the gross world. She was as one who sighs, but can afford to smile, being at rest with herself. She was spiritual, statuesque, somnambulistic, what you will, always in direct opposition to eager, snappy, fascinating, nasty little Hedda Gabler. Resignedly she shot the pistol from the window. Resignedly she bent over the book of photographs with the lover who had returned. Resignedly she lured him to drunkenness. Resignedly she committed his MS. to the flames. Resignation, as always, was the keynote of her performance. And here, as often elsewhere, it rang false.

However, it was not the only performance of Hedda Gabler. There was another, and, in some ways, a better. While Signora Duse walked through her part, the prompter threw himself into it with a will. A more raucous whisper I never heard than that which preceded the Signora's every sentence. It was like the continuous tearing of very thick silk. I think it worried every one in the theatre, except the Signora herself, who listened placidly to the prompter's every reading, and, as soon as he had finished, reproduced it in her own way. This process made the matinée a rather long one. By a very simple expedient the extra time might have been turned to good account. How much pleasure would have been gained, and how much hypocrisy saved, if there had been an interpreter on the O.P. side, to shout in English what the prompter was whispering in Italian!

Source: Max Beerbohm, ‘‘An Hypocrisy in Playgoing’’ in his Around Theatres, Simon & Schuster, 1954 , pp. 277-81.

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