Hedda Gabler Themes
by Henrik Ibsen

Hedda Gabler book cover
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Hedda Gabler Themes

(Drama for Students)

At a critical point near the end of Act II of Hedda Gabler, the titular character betrays the trust of Mrs. Elvsted by revealing Thea's fears regarding Lovborg. Hedda does this out of pure malice. She is jealous of Thea's influence over Eilert, a man with whom Hedda had once been involved but, afraid of her own passions, had driven off (at gunpoint). Hedda's betrayal is the last manifestation of a hatred that extends all the way back to her school years, when she had bullied Thea. She despised the younger woman from a deep-rooted jealousy of Thea's comfortable and natural femininity. The betrayal starts a chain of tragic events in motion, ultimately leading to Lovborg's death and Hedda's suicide.

Courage and Cowardice
One admission that Hedda openly makes to Lovborg is her fear of scandal, which prompts him to charge that she is a ''coward at heart,’’ which she confirms. It was her fear of scandal that compelled Hedda to drive Eilert away, a fear that overwhelmed her love for him. Lovborg, as a free spirit, had represented too much of a risk, for he had already been tainted by his scandalous, immoderate behavior.

Although she, unlike Thea Elvsted, is unwilling to be drawn into Eilert's life again, to sacrifice her respectability, she is willing to sacrifice him. She provides him with a pistol, expecting him to exit life with a grand and triumphant display of scorn for the tedium and convention of human existence. From his death, Hedda hopes to confirm that there is still beauty in the world and partake of it vicariously. She is, however, deluded by her romantic fantasies, even less capable of guiding Eilert's behavior than Thea Elvsted had been. He destroys Hedda's triumphant vision by accidently shooting himself in the abdomen. In the play's final irony, it is Hedda who shoots herself in the temple, not in a grand escape from life but from a cowardly fear of scandal and an unwillingness to become Judge Brack's sexual pawn.

Hedda, from selfish motives, uses deception as a tool in her efforts to manipulate others, particularly her husband and Mrs. Elvsted. Because they are both forthright and somewhat ingenuous, they are susceptible to Hedda's machinations. Hedda feigns a friendship with Thea, one that she does not and never has felt. She is, in fact, jealous of the younger woman and despises her. In her relationship with George, Hedda never has been honest. She finds him and their marriage boring, but she is unwilling to confront him with such truths for fear of losing the secure respectability that he provides. He is, as she says, ''correctness itself.'' He is also a man with good if dull prospects.

Hedda is more open with Judge Brack, possibly because she recognizes in him a kindred spirit, a fellow deceiver, one who is too sly to fool. She knows that Brack's friendship with George is at least part sham. He also hopes to manipulate Tesman, ingratiating himself in order to enter a triangular relationship with the Tesmans, which, through innuendo, Brack suggests will involve more than a Platonic friendship with Hedda. She is able to play a verbal cat and mouse game with Brack until he gains the upper hand; it is the prospect of submitting to his will that compels her to destroy herself.

Duty and Responsibility
Hedda Gabler is a study in contrasts. Both Juliana Tesman and Thea Elvsted are foils to Hedda, for in their distinct ways they reveal that duty and responsibility must arise from a loyalty prompted by love, not fear. Unlike Hedda, Juliana is a selfless person, willing to sacrifice her life for those she loves: her sister, Rina, and her nephew, George. She profoundly annoys Hedda, who cannot understand how such devotion can give Juliana a sufficient purpose in life.

Thea Elvsted has a similar selflessness, but her circumstances are very different. She is willing to sacrifice her reputation in her love for Lovborg, leaving behind a loveless, joyless marriage. Society might condemn her for betraying her duty and...

(The entire section is 1,563 words.)