Places Discussed

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*Christiana. Now called Oslo, the capital of city of Norway, located on the country’s southeastern coast, and the largest and most important city in Norway.

Tesman Villa

Tesman Villa. House coveted by Hedda Gabler, located in a fashionable section of Christiana, when it belonged to the prime minister’s widow. She casually remarked to George Tesman that she would marry the man who bought it for her. Tesman and his aunts go into debt to purchase and furnish the property, and the feckless pedant finds himself husband to the beautiful, imperious daughter of an aristocratic general. George and Hedda honeymoon in Italy, and Henrik Ibsen begins his play the morning after their return to Norway, as the newlyweds wake up for the first time in their elegant new home.

The plot of Hedda Gabler unfolds as a succession of visitors—Auntie Juju, Mrs. Elvsted, Judge Brack, and Eilert Loevborg—enter and exit the drawing room. Thea Elvsted and Eilert Loevborg both arrive from the rural north, where Thea is wife to a magistrate and Eilert serves as tutor to his children. The sophisticated salon that Hedda Gabler presides over in Christiana is a stark contrast to the provincial world that Thea, abandoning her husband, has fled.

A fateful interlude at a brothel, involving Tesman, Brack, and Loevborg, occurs offstage, before each returns to the drawing room. Hedda’s father’s pistols are seen onstage early in the proceedings, and they serve as accessories to the drama’s deadly finale. A table in the room elicits an early indication of Hedda’s superciliousness, when she disdains the kitschy hat that Auntie Juju leaves on it.

A portrait of the late General Gabler hangs in the room, and his august image serves throughout the proceedings as a kind of verdict on Tesman’s social pretensions in presuming to marry his haughty daughter and obtain a professorship. The room also contains a piano that, as a demonstration of her regal extravagance, Hedda insists not on replacing but on supplementing with a grander model. An orphan reared by his two unmarried aunts, George is accustomed to more modest accommodations than what Judge Brack, who provided the loan that made the acquisition possible, calls Tesman’s “palatial” home. George insists that his financial risks were necessary, that he could not have expected the exquisite Hedda Gabler to live like an ordinary housewife. The play’s setting is a continuing reminder of Tesman’s folly and of the mismatch between an academic drudge of limited means and a lady of privilege in an upwardly mobile era when birth counts for less than effort.

Of all the other characters in the play, Brack is the only one who belongs to the same social class as Hedda, an aristocracy that has become superannuated by the ascendancy of the middle class. Brack and Hedda meet as equals in the drawing room, but they are acutely aware that their world is vanishing, displaced by upstarts who are not at home in Hedda’s fancy villa. The house thus serves as both a focal point for the play’s action and a thematic metaphor. Like the cherry orchard in Anton Chekhov’s play of that name, Tesman’s villa is a locus of nostalgia, symbolizing the passing of a privileged way of life.

Historical Context

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When Ibsen returned to his native Norway in 1891, he journeyed to a land that to a great degree was isolated from the revolutionary movements affecting both society and culture in the more cosmopolitan centers of Europe. That isolation was partly the result of inaccessibility. Modern...

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communication and transportation were still in their infancy, awaiting the second major stage of the industrial revolution. The post and telegraph were the only real means of exchanging information over long distances, for the telephone was not yet in general use and wireless or radio communications were still the yet-to-be-realized dreams of Guglielmo Marconi and other inventors and engineers.

But Norway was also isolated in other ways. The dominant religion, Evangelical Lutheranism, was a conservative force in the social thinking of the country and one that, through his creative life, had not treated Ibsen well. The dramatist's frank treatment of taboo subjects and rigorous scrutiny of traditional mores offended many of his straight-laced countrymen. As a result, Ibsen was forced into a long artistic exile from his homeland.

A continent away, in the United States, as the historian Frederick Jackson Turner noted, the frontier was finally closing. In 1890, the last great Indian uprising was savagely crushed at the Battle of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the final brutal "taming" of the West. The United States would soon look across the seas for new challenges and new opportunities. Meanwhile, the British Empire was still in a major stage of development, making inroads in the near and far East by dint of its superior naval power. Indeed, it ruled the seas, though in Africa and other undeveloped areas of the world it had major competitors, including Germany and France, which, like Great Britain, looked for raw materials and markets to exploit.

The seeds of more revolutionary changes were also sown in the 1890s. By the middle of the decade, Sigmund Freud had begun developing his psycho-analytical method, Louis and Auguste Lumière had introduced moving pictures, William Roentgen had discovered Xrays, and Joseph Thomson had isolated the electron. The world was still reeling from the influence of two important thinkers, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, whose impact was being felt in everything from religion and politics to arts and letters. Marx's theories of group ownership and a government run by the people were the first seeds of the communist movement that would later sweep across Eastern Europe and Asia. Darwin's theories of evolution challenged the religious notions of immaculate conception and divine spark. Great changes were underway, and they were coming at a rate never before experienced.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, fin de siecle (‘‘end of the century’’) artists were self-consciously abandoning traditional and conventional forms and techniques in favor of more experimental ones. It was a complex period of transition, having as one of its maxims ‘‘art for art's sake.’’ It also reflected the new philosophies that called so much into doubt. The naturalistic school, for example, viewed humanity on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, trapped there by environmental forces beyond its control.

Two fin de siecle British writers of importance were Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest) and George Bernard Shaw (Man and Superman), both of whom wrote plays. Shaw was Ibsen's bulldog in England, his great apologist and advocate. In the course of his own long life, he would become the greatest British dramatist of his age, and, next to Shakespeare, the second greatest in the history of British theater.

Literary Style

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Setting While it is important, the physical setting of Hedda Gabler—the Tesmans' newly purchased villa in Christiania, Norway—is of less importance than the social environment of the time and place. The comfortably furnished house reflects both the class status of the Tesmans and their future expectations. In the first act, Hedda makes it clear that they plan to move beyond mere comfort to new levels of luxury. Her old piano, unsuited for the drawing room decor, must be moved into another room, to be replaced by a second, more elegant piano—at best a frivolous and impractical expense. Hedda wants both the security of respectability and the extravagant lifestyle of the wealthy, something threatened by Lovborg's arrival.

There is a price to be paid, though, a price that makes the villa a kind of prison. Against her innermost desires, Hedda must act like a proper wife, deferring to her husband's authority. She attempts to feign that role, but she finds it extremely boring. She grows desperate, especially when George warns that his appointment is no certainty. Fearing the loss of comfort as much as the loss of respectability, Hedda destroys Eilert's manuscript and bamboozles George into believing that she did it out of love for him. Hedda will not live in such a cage unless it is extremely well-appointed and all her material needs are met. She is simply that selfish and abusive of others.

StructureHedda Gabler, a four-act play, has what at the time was probably the most common formal pattern of dividing full-length plays into discrete segments. Works from earlier eras are usually divided into five acts, while more modern plays are generally divided into either three acts or, as is the case with many contemporary plays, into two acts. As is also traditional, the acts of Hedda Gabler mark divisions in time, segments in which significant action occurs over the course of two days. The plot is linear in its progression, strictly adhering to a straight-forward, chronological order.

Equally important, each act reaches a climactic moment when something decisive or irreversible is said or done. These are memorable moments, when, for example, at the end of the second act, Hedda burns Eilert's manuscript or, at the end of the play, kills herself with one of her father's pistols. Each act has the classic dramatic structure characterizing the play as a whole, and the warp and woof of each is a rising action that takes the whole to a new plateau of tension. In short, Hedda Gabler, provides an excellent example of what constitutes ''a well-made play.''

Realism Like the other social-problem or thesis plays of Ibsen, Hedda Gabler follows the tenets of realism prevalent in late nineteenth-century Europe. Principal among these was the idea that the writer should render life both objectively and faithfully, concentrating on fairly ordinary people who face problems that can only be resolved in a manner that is true to life. In his realistic works, Ibsen sought to capture a sense of reality by using the characteristics of ordinary conversation, unencumbered with ornate diction and insistent poetic effects. In their cadences and diction his characters speak like real people, if, from dramatic necessity, somewhat more effortlessly and pointedly, and, in Norwegian at least, somewhat more sonorously.

Generally, too, characters in such works have discernible and valid motives for their behavior, even if they are complex, as they are in Hedda's case. If they are not clear, they must at least have verisimilitude, that quality that allows the viewer to conclude that even very puzzling characters are true to life and have validity. Ibsen allows his audience glimpses into Hedda's deeper motives, those things which do not wholly surface in the play's verbal matrix but are suggested, for example, both in persistent symbols and in her actions.

It is in Hedda Gabler that Ibsen takes his realism in drama to his limits. It has been described as the dramatist's most objective work, almost clinical in its coldness and distance. His plot driver, Hedda, is a vicious, petty, and extremely selfish woman, for whom, in Ibsen's time, few could find an iota of sympathy. Perhaps to underscore her brusque incivility and abrupt mood changes, Ibsen experimented with a new technique, eliminating long speeches altogether. He also used insistent words and phrases to reveal and even encapsulate his characters, a prime example being the ''fancy that'' of George Tesman.

Foil An important device used by Ibsen in Hedda Gabler is the character foil. Contrasting figures help define their counterparts, providing a heightened sense of each character's personality. Hedda has two principal foils: Thea Elvsted and Juliana Tesman. Both women are very unselfish and at peace with life, willing to sacrifice themselves for others, even though, in Thea's case, it will destroy her reputation. Hedda's paralyzing fear of losing respectability stands in sharp contrast.

George Tesman and Eilert Lovborg are also foils. Tesman is "correctness" itself, a dull but steady plodder with a very limited imagination. His principal interest as scholar lies in rooting through the relics of the past, taking and organizing notes about the domestic industries of medieval Brabant. Lovborg, in contrast, is an erratic genius, prone to excess and easily drawn to hedonistic pleasures. As a visionary scholar, he is much more interested in the past for what it may reveal about the future, the unknown. He is, however, arrogant, self-destructive, and, at the last, somewhat pathetic.

Symbol Ibsen makes it impossible to ignore some important symbols in Hedda Gabler. Primary are the pistols, Thea Elvsted's hair, and Eilert's manuscript. Because of the association made by both Hedda and Thea, the most obvious of these is Lovborg's manuscript. In the minds of both, the work is Eilert and Thea's "child," born of their love and affection for each other. It is partly from her intense jealousy that Hedda destroys it and sets out to break the bond between Thea and Lovborg.

Less open in symbolic significance is Thea's luxurious and abundant hair, especially as it contrasts with Hedda's own. Thea's hair is a point of fixation for Hedda, something that she despised in Thea when the two were schoolgirls; it continues to annoy her during the course of the play. Thea's hair seems to embody those qualities in Thea's character that Hedda lacks, including an engaging femininity that Hedda envies, perhaps even a sensuality that Hedda hates because she represses it in herself.

The pistols, on the other hand, suggest masculinity, and have long been identified as phallic symbols. It is noteworthy that both George Tesman and Judge Brack are appalled by the fact that Hedda plays with them. As extensions of Hedda's character, the guns suggest a masculinity, a hardening that has resulted from her repressed femininity. They represent the freedom that Hedda longs for but must sacrifice to respectability.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: The world stands on the threshold of the second major phase of the industrial revolution, revolutionary changes in communications and transportation, the advent of the automobile, airplane, radio, phonograph, and film. These innovations will bring isolated communities into virtual proximity with the cultural and political centers of the world.

Today: In the advanced nations of the world, the industrial revolution has ended. It is the time of technological revolution, leading the world into the space and information ages. Satellite communications and the computer make it possible for even the most isolated people to communicate with anyone in the world.

1890s: Puritanical codes of acceptable behavior govern the social mores of Ibsen's day. Throughout Europe, social sanctions against such things as pre-marital sex, divorce, and family abandonment are strong, forcing many people to live miserable lives. The socalled ''Victorian underground'' teems with prostitutes and thieves, many of whom are ''fallen women'' who had to resort to such a life or face abject poverty. Officially, however, moral sanctions in society were strict and penalties for infractions severe.

Today: Life in most post-industrial societies is permissive. In the United States, many marriages end in divorce. In many urban areas, single-parent families are prevalent, with pregnancy among unmarried teenage girls reaching epidemic proportions, despite the availability of birth-control drugs and devices. Homosexuality has not only been decriminalized, it has reached considerably wide acceptance, at least in some quarters. The overall nature of this ''non-taboo'' society has led many conservatives to call for a return to ‘‘family values’’ and the respectable morality of Ibsen's day.

1890s: Official and unofficial protectors of the strict community moral standards put theatrical performances under close scrutiny, and many have the authority either to shut down productions or lead boycotts or protests, some of which result in riots. Plays can even be censored before they are performed.

Today: Both on stage and in media, especially film, there is virtually no official censorship. In the United States, for example, whatever moral codes relate to the substance of produced and broadcast works are self-imposed by the industries themselves. Frank treatment of what were once considered indelicate subjects is common, as are nudity, sex, and violence. Only the boycott remains as a possible avenue of protest, and it is rarely effective.

1890s: In Ibsen's day, men and women live separate lives. Although there are various women's organizations dedicated to change, women remain "unliberated," except, perhaps, in groups on the fringes of respectable society. They are educated in their own finishing schools and are excluded from most professions. Much of their leisure time is spent in the company of other women, segregated from men. They lack political power because, even in the democracies, they lack the vote. Their possibilities in life outside of marriage are limited, unless, like Mme. Diana in Ibsen's play, they are willing to sacrifice their reputations.

Today: Although many feminists still argue that women have yet to complete their liberation, enfranchisement and greater freedom have resulted from the revolutionary changes that have occurred in this century. Women who sacrifice marriage and family for a career still earn reproach from more reactionary corners, but they are hardly censured or demonized by society at large. There remain few male-only bastions, and these are all under siege, at least in the United States. Women take the same jobs as men, go to the same schools, study the same subjects, and mix freely with men at all functions, from corporate board meetings to sporting events. The feminist complaints of today are not so much about exclusion now as they are about equal treatment and compensation.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Finney, Gail. ‘‘Ibsen and Femininism’’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane, Cambridge University Press, pp. 99-100.

Heiberg, Hans. Ibsen: A Portrait of the Artist, University of Miami Press, 1967, p. 257.

Weigand, Herman J., The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration, Books for Libraries Press, 1970, p. 242.

FURTHER READING Barranger, Milly S., Barron's Simplified Approach to Henrik Ibsen, Barron's Educational Series, 1969. This brief monograph offers uncomplicated readings of Hedda Gabler and two other major Ibsen plays: The Wild Duck and Ghosts. It is a helpful guide to interpretation focusing on character, themes, and dramatic technique.

Durbach, Errol, Ibsen the Romantic: Analogues of Paradise in the Later Plays, University of George Press, 1982. Durbach discusses the romantic and counter-romantic currents in Ibsen that underlies his characters' search for meaning, their efforts to redeem themselves from an inhibiting and stultifying, uncreative life. It is a search that can be destructive, as in Hedda's case.

Lyons, Charles R., Hedda Gabler: Gender, Role, and World, Twayne, 1990. Lyons discusses both the cultural and historical milieu of Hedda Gabler, then discusses the play as a kind of mimetic snapshot of human behavior caught in that historical matrix and argues that reader responses should reflect that limitation.

McFarlane, James, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Cambridge University Press, 1994. A collection of articles by contemporary scholars, this anthology includes important pieces on such topics as Ibsen's realistic problem plays, his relationship to feminism, and his impact on modern drama. The work includes helpful aids, including a chronology and notes on the first publication and performance of each of Ibsen's works.

Meyer, Michael, Ibsen: A Biography, Doubleday, 1971. A well-documented critical biography, this study makes extensive use of Ibsen's correspondence and summarizes the critical reception of his works in his own day.

Northam, John, Ibsen's Dramatic Method: A Study of the Prose Dramas, Universitetsforlaget, 1971. A recommended starting place for the study of Ibsen's technique, this work approaches the plays by analyzing the playwright's language and its correlation with visual, onstage images, as, for example, the opposing physical differences between Hedda and Thea Elvsted.

Young, Robert, Time's Disinherited Children: Childhood, Regression, and Sacrifice in the Plays of Henrik Ibsen, Norvik Press, 1989. Young's central thesis is that the motives and needs of many of Ibsen's major characters reveal the disinherited child in the adult.


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Holtan, Orley I. Mythic Patterns in Ibsen’s Last Plays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970. An extended discussion of the mythic content in Ibsen’s last seven plays, Holtan’s book offers an interesting treatment of Hedda as an example of the archetype of the destructive female.

Meyer, Michael. Ibsen: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. A standard biography of Ibsen, it contains a good discussion of both the play itself and its place in Ibsen’s oeuvre. Meyer stresses the complexity of the title character and suggests that Hedda may be a disguised self-portrait of the author.

Meyerson, Caroline W. “Thematic Symbols in Hedda Gabler.” Scandinavian Studies 22, no. 4 (November, 1950); 151-160. Reprinted in Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Rolf Fjelde. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. In this influential article, Meyerson explores the significance of such symbols as Hedda’s pistols and Thea’s hair, as well as the procreative imagery in regarding Lovberg’s manuscript as a child.

Sandstroem, Yvonne. “Problems of Identity in Hedda Gabler.” Scandinavian Studies 51, no. 4 (Autumn, 1979): 368-374. An article that presents an interesting close reading of a central aspect of the play, namely, Ibsen’s use of such titles as “general” and “doctor” as a tool for characterization and as a means of illuminating the reasons behind Hedda’s suicide.

Weigand, Herman J. The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration. New York: Holt, 1925. An excellent introduction to Ibsen’s later plays, this volume contains an insightful analysis of Hedda Gabler, with appropriate attention devoted to the title character, her husband George Tessman, and the other characters.




Critical Essays