Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1563

Betrayal
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.

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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.

Deception
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 responsibility, but Ibsen makes it obvious that society would be wrong. She had been exploited, turned into a mere household servant in her marriage to the Sheriff. In following Lovborg to Christiania, Thea is heedless of imminent scandal, showing the moral courage that Hedda lacks. The difference is that Thea allows love to guide her, an emotion that Hedda represses in allowing her fears to rule her.

Good and Evil
"Evil" is too strong an adjective to apply to Hedda in any absolute sense. She does exhibit self-centered traits, as do most intriguing, dramatic villains, but these tendencies are muted by the playwright's dedication to realism. Hedda's wretched behavior cannot be forgiven, but at least it can be partially understood. It comes not from the deep recesses of a corrupt soul but from emotional needs that have been warped by environmental influences—her upbringing by a military father and her context within a morally strict social climate.

Despite this background, Hedda is proud and wanton in her cruelty. She cares little that she inflicts pain on others. She burns Lovborg's manuscript, not from love for her husband, which she leads George to believe, but from utter spite and jealousy. She views the work as Eilert and Thea's surrogate child, something to be destroyed because it was created from a love that she deeply resents and cannot understand. No less vicious is her effort to shape Eilert's final destiny, the "beautiful" and "triumphant" death she envisions for him. Her misdirected passion only destroys, for in Eilert's death there is no beauty at all, only a terrible waste of genius.

The shame is that to be good in Hedda's terms means living with unrelieved boredom, married to a ''proper'' but dull, plodding, and predictable scholar whose only virtue is his "correctness" in all things. Without real love or devotion, her duties and responsibilities become major irritants. She reacts with precipitous and thoughtless behavior, running the gamut between the petty and the tragic.

Sex Roles
Much of the conflict in Hedda Gabler arises from Hedda's resistance to the role of wife and mother, a role defined by the straight-laced, paternalistic society of the time and place. Women were expected to behave in accordance with traditional values that placed them in subservient and dependant relationships with men, from whose labors and leisure activities, both by custom and law, they were largely excluded. One hope they might have is that they could have a positive influence on men, such as Thea Elvsted has on Eilert Lovborg. Hedda even imagines that she might have a similar impact on George. She hopes to persuade him to enter politics, where, because of her ability to manipulate him, she might yield some clandestine but substantial power. However, when she confides her hopes in Judge Brack, he dampens her enthusiasm with observations about George's unsuitability for and disinterest in politics.

Hedda clearly feels both trapped and bored by her role. Her unwanted pregnancy only serves to remind her of just how much more confining her existence is to become, but she is paralyzed by her deep-rooted fear of scandal. She is simply unwilling to sacrifice respectability to be her honest self. The conflict between desire and fear finally perverts her character, turning her increasingly frantic and destructive. Her only respite is to cling to her father's pistols, symbols of a male freedom that she has lost as an adult and can never regain.

By contrast, Juliana Tesman and Thea Elvsted are comfortable and untroubled in their roles. Juliana, as nurse and caretaker for her sister, is selfless. Her respectable role is personally rewarding. Thea, who has sacrificed her reputation by abandoning her husband, is untroubled by such things. She sees that her path lies outside of respectability, and she is not afraid to follow it. Hedda scorns both women, masking her envy with contempt. It galls her that they are both at peace with themselves, something she can never be.

Victim and Victimization
Paradoxically, Hedda is both victim and victimizer. In her desperate boredom, she attempts to use others, even for petty amusement. As she confesses to Judge Brack, she had known that the bonnet about which she complains in Act I was not old and did not belong to Berta, but she could not resist her cruel whimsy. At first, there is little harm done. Besides, Hedda's discontent enlists some sympathy, for her husband is something of a ninny, who, for all his doting behavior, is all but oblivious of her needs.

Hedda must bear the responsibility for the marriage, however. As she acknowledges, she had been the one to fashion it, not from love, but from her need for comfort and respectability. That she cannot abide either her husband or her marriage is her own fault, and in that sense she is her own victim. She responds with anger and resentment, taking her desperation out on others, those she envies because they have found a contentment that completely eludes her.

At the same time, Hedda is very vulnerable. The fears that had led her to reject Eilert Lovborg and enter a loveless marriage with George Tesman finally ensnare her in Brack's power, something that she can not tolerate. The alternative is scandal, which Hedda elects to evade by suicide, her final destructive act.

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