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Secondary Female Characters in Hedda Gabler

(Drama for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 4,141 words.)