Ibsen and Women II: Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler is one of the meanest romantics in literature. She is not offered as a grotesque, but given the very center of the stage, and yet she is always mean-spirited and petty in both large and small matters. The only other romantic figure of a corresponding hardness and cruelty is perhaps Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. He marries Isabella out of sheer hatred and says: “She cannot accuse me of showing a bit of deceitful softness. The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of everything belonging to her.”

Heathcliff is somewhat, if not entirely, redeemed by his annihilating attachment to Cathy, by his having been abandoned as a child and cruelly tormented by the natural son of his adopted father. Also, Heathcliff shows a sort of progress; he goes away and makes a fortune, thereby indicating that for all his sufferings there is a masculine force and control in him. He gradually, by will and ruthlessness and again by control, gains the Earnshaw property—but of course he loses in the end all that could have made his life meaningful.

Creatures of the will move step by step toward victory and loss almost at the same time. At least this is true in literature, and perhaps very often in life too since such persons will not allow for the contingencies of existence. Like Hedda Gabler, Heathcliff mysteriously attracts us and repels at the same time. They are both, so to speak, stars. They are in many ways unimaginable, exaggerated, but their stories stir us. Something of universal psychic life and truth draws us to believe them as possibilities, even if we cannot connect them clearly and definitely to their actions under the terms of realistic causality.

But Hedda Gabler is unusual, I believe, in having no motivation whatsoever. Her faults are profoundly deep and murky, stirring about in the darkest, coldest springs of destructiveness. She is special, like The Serpent, chosen by nature almost at random and by accident to represent threatening, willful coldness. Hedda has nothing in common with Medea, Phaedra, or Clytemnestra. They at least have evil desires for the future or a need for revenge of the past, something to connect their actions with feelings. Hedda shares with Hamlet the quality of lending herself to a disconcerting number of possibilities for interpretation. But Hamlet’s mother has killed his father and married his uncle. With Hedda there is nothing to start with. She is not the Princess of Elsinore or Christiania or the Queen of Thebes; she is instead a provincial, somehow (again not quite clearly) compromised woman of twenty-nine, newly married to the kindly but unimpressive scholar, George Tesman.

Hedda takes every chance to act badly and hurt others. Sometimes she does so with a languid pettiness and sometimes with malignant resolution. Throughout Ibsen …

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Letters

What Happens in Hedda November 4, 1971