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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’s four act play she does not show a single decent, generous impulse. How is it possible that, with all these distressing qualities, Hedda Gabler almost pleases as a heroine? We are much interested in her. Actresses long to play the role and she has had a steady public since 1890.

The blurring, the murkiness of her evil nature no doubt have something to do with our acceptance of her as the center of interest. We are relieved not to know more. She is not operatic. She is small-town, working out a provincial destiny that has, at base, no special connection with society. It is purely personal, or else we could not bear it as we do. There is no political or philosophical content to her destructiveness; there is no angry raging against poverty, fate, injustice, ill luck. The gods have not had their sport with Hedda. She has, if anything, had her sport with the gods, since she has done as she pleased, without remorse, without thought of the suffering of others.

There are two corpses at the end of the play and of course that of Hedda Gabler herself is one of them. And yet in the true sense the play is not a grand tragedy, but a brilliant and brutal scene from provincial life, one that grips us with its dramatic fascination and yet does not leave us stunned by sorrow. Some of this diminishment of emotion at the end may have to do with the tidy coming together of Tesman and Thea. They are sorted out, just as they themselves plan to sort out the notes for the dead Lovborg’s great book that Hedda has thrown into the stove. A tragedy would not leave Thea and Tesman with their life’s work ahead of them up in the study. But there is the dramatic final gun shot, as Hedda shoots herself in the temple. If one feels anything about this it is only Bravo! Admiration for skill and crazy daring.

Hedda Gabler is a strange play, about a stranger. What is wrong with her? Everything is wrong with her, but she has not quite the virtue, but the advantage of style. That is what we respond to. She is cool—in the older sense of the word. She doesn’t care for anyone at all. That must be admitted from the first. It is not, however, a first cause; it is just the first condition, the first circumstance of character that takes its place along with other details, many other details, such as being a liar.

Many terms have been used to describe Hedda, among them some years ago the term “hyperaesthesia.” Frigidity? She is a narcissist, but not introverted, self-analytical, and so there is not much pleasure in her self-love. Egoism erases her concern for others without giving her any special joy in herself. She is wholly destructive, but not paranoid or schizophrenic. She is “alienated” from purpose, but mindful if not respectful of all those little conventions that are too much trouble to break. She speaks of her own boredom, but what does that mean? Boredom does not describe a positive condition; it is merely a lack. (Again, in the Patrick Garland production,* starring Claire Bloom, the only idea the director has about Hedda is the one he had about Nora Helmer, in A Doll’s House. That is, he permits, when the occasion arises for a private audience with the heroines, a display of hysterical hand wringing and gasping. This is wrong for Hedda and just as meaningless as with Nora. The hysterical gestures, on the sly as it were, are not motivation, and they create a kind of sympathy for feminine weakness, as if this were the only motivating force that could be imagined.)

As the play opens, we enter a forbidding drawing room. Ibsen has asked for dark colors and a window leading to a garden with “autumnal” leaves. In the New York production, the living room is funereal, dark, dark muddy grays, bare mud-colored walls, and a sofa in gray plush that reminds us of the inside of a coffin. Hedda is gray. All right, death, dreariness: we cannot from the text oppose that, but it seems extreme since Hedda has professed a tepid desire to be, in the lack of any other occupation, a town hostess. The one thing that is, I believe, true to Hedda’s character is a shelf, or whatnot, very nearly empty of objects. This is an interesting comment, since certain women live in oddly impersonal surroundings, as if they had rented them and hadn’t noticed, and Hedda could well be one of them. Old General Gabler looks on from the wall of the adjoining room.

Hedda is returning from a wedding trip of nearly six months with her husband, George Tesman. Tesman is an unworldly man, very much the absent-minded professor. He is not a dark, voluminous Casaubon, as in Middlemarch, but a nice, middling Ph.D., rather dilatory about finishing his dissertation. Tesman is slightly ridiculous, and spectacularly without sex appeal. He has been protected, brought up by two loving, self-sacrificing maiden aunts. His good old servant has now come to work for Hedda. All of these old, thrifty ladies have loved their clean, innocent A-student, Tesman. But they have sense and show a rational worry about his marriage to Hedda Gabler. They are wondering why she should have chosen their dear boy.

The truth is that Hedda did not choose George. She says she “had danced herself out,” and speaks, without much conviction, of Tesman’s rather bare respectability and his lean future hopes. The truth would seem, on the other hand, that Hedda’s suitors, including Judge Brack who is still on the scene, were attracted to her but aware that there was something deeply menacing to happiness in her nature. She is not marriageable. What, except personal charm, can she offer? There is vitality in her but it is all horses and shooting and emptiness. She does not move forward, go deeper, with anyone.

George Tesman is too inexperienced to size up these things. He has been doing his dissertation on “Domestic Industries of Brabant During the Middle Ages,” and that did not teach him to back off from Hedda. We can imagine him wondering at his good luck, shrugging and saying, Oh well, you never know about women. The only hope he could have, hidden in his mind, is that the heartless Hedda would gradually show herself to be like the other women he has known, the dear old aunts and nurses.

Hedda’s first act of meanness is brilliantly conceived in its lack of necessity and in the depth of its pettiness. This sort of scene is the kind that gathers great rewards from the realistic rules of dramaturgy: you place a clue, leave it, and then suddenly pounce on it again. We know that Miss Tesman, George’s beloved aunt, has bought a new bonnet in honor of the returning bridal couple. She can ill afford it, having signed all sorts of notes to furnish the funereal villa. She puts the new hat on a chair and Hedda subsequently turns upon it with irritation, pretending that it must be the dreadful, old property of the servant. This is disgusting and we have not even the excuse that it might have been unintentional since Hedda later admits having done it willfully, out of compulsion.

Interesting characters enter Hedda’s funeral parlor. She is suddenly visited by Thea Elvsted, a school friend. Thea has had the narrow, bitter time of a nineteenth-century girl without means. She has gone up into the country to act as governess to the children of Sheriff Elvsted. The wife dies and in poverty and hopelessness Thea marries the Sheriff. Then, life suddenly changes from nothingness to the most joyful promise. She meets Eilert Lovborg, an old “friend” of Hedda’s, school chum of Tesman’s, a thinker, a sort of Nietzschean figure whose career and accomplishment have been spoiled by drastic drinking.

Thea falls in love with him. But it is more than romance, it is a mission for her of the noblest aim. Thea is a sort of graduate student; she believes in learning, in writing, in art, in culture. To live with Lovborg, keep him from drinking, help him to bring into actual being the books he has wanted to write: this mission absorbs her whole heart. Lovborg quits drinking, writes one book that is a success, and has started on the Real Book of his life, something much greater.

Of course, Lovborg’s success with his first book has consequences. He has come back into town to enjoy the fruits of it. It has reclaimed him. He can show his face once more. But Thea knows Lovborg and she has left her husband to follow her mission, to save him again. He needs saving.

The play develops with great skill. Lovborg has been infatuated some years before by Hedda. His new fame, his “reclamation” by the less flamboyant Thea, his future book: all of this acts upon Hedda like a poison. In the coffin of her life she wants amusement at times, but she hates the sense of forward movement in life, of purpose, accomplishment, application. She taunts Lovborg into drinking. This scene shows a miraculous psychological realism. Lovborg, like all alcoholics when they decide to start up again, looks for someone outside himself to blame. Hedda tells him that Thea had rushed to town out of fear for him, fear that he would take up his old habits and ruin his chance for fulfillment. On the pretext of being wounded by this sensible lack of faith in the constancy of his resolution, Lovborg takes up his glass and says, “To your health, Thea!” It is no wonder Shaw calls him “a male coquet.”

Lovborg gets drunk, thinks he has lost his great manuscript, and after a scene with Hedda takes one of her pistols and shoots himself. The manuscript has not been lost. Tesman had kept it and Hedda had burned it, saying in the famous, inexplicable destructiveness of the scene that she is burning Thea’s child. As a general’s daughter, Hedda has a certain marksmanship aestheticism; that is, she thinks guns should be used with style. When she gives the desperate Lovborg one of her pistols, she pleads with him, “Eilert Lovborg—listen to me—Will you not try to—to do it beautifully?” Lovborg shoots himself all right, but he’s a writer, an intellectual, not an expert at the rifle range, and he blasts into his bowels in the house of the town madame. Hedda, in vast disgust, shoots herself, but properly in the temple. Thea and Tesman hope to piece the lost book together from notes.

George Brandes speaks most interestingly of “the coarseness” of the world in Hedda Gabler. He says, “Even where the conversation is carred on in a kind of masonic slang that is not lacking in wit, it is devoid of all refinement.” In the translations available one cannot make judgments, and Brandes is not very concrete in what he means. Still, Judge Brack is a smarmy, middle-aged fornicator and blackmailer. The stag parties to which he invites his cronies hint at something socially squalid. Even the gentle Tesman does not come home until dawn from them. Madame Diana’s boudoir, where Lovborg kills himself, appears to be a natural plank in the social structure. Hedda’s curiosity, the conversations she had long ago with Lovborg were, we gather, gamy revelations from the underside of life, the kind an imaginative alcoholic would have.

But it is not this that really makes for the coarseness. It is the moral and intellectual shallowness of Hedda, combined with her arrogant coldness. Her determination to destroy the worthy, loving, serious Thea, for no reason of necessity, comes from a nature not only damaged but fundamentally low. Her jealousy of Thea is not new, even though it has not in the past, nor even in the present, been based on a genuine competition. It is Iago’s destructive compulsion, rooted at one moment in a triviality, at another in something more threatening.

Ibsen’s stage instructions describe Hedda as having hair of an agreeable “medium brown, but not particularly abundant.” Thea’s hair is “remarkably light, almost flaxen, and unusually abundant and wavy.” This accounts for the remembered instance in their school life when Hedda tried to burn Thea’s hair. Also, when she is burning the manuscript Thea has helped Lovborg to write, helped him so much they sentimentally call it their “child,” Hedda speaks not of Lovborg but of Thea, and again of her envy of Thea’s hair. “Now I am burning your child, Thea. Burning it, curly-locks!” This is the envy and emptiness of a narrow, vulgar world.

One of the main clues to Hedda’s character is that she is a Philistine. This is a condition that causes great turmoil in the unconscious, bringing forth unexpected envies, angers, aggressions. Defenses are devious and distaste for real worth is justified as proportion, judgment. The cold and controlled Philistine like Hedda will always see in sentiment about art and effort a general sentimentality and exaggeration. Poor Thea, in telling of her daring to leave her husband and to follow Lovborg, of going to his rooms to look for him—actions a gentlewoman could not easily take on—keeps saying, “What else could I do?” This sort of activity, engagement is incomprehensible to Hedda. When you combine selfishness with Philistinism in a woman, she begins to act like a man, taking on aggressive opinions in spite of herself, wishing to destroy the special in favor of the claims of the mundane and the routine. (Hedda does not even honor the average, but the result is the same.)

First, she is contemptuous of Tesman’s running about in the libraries of Europe on their honeymoon. True, his projects are not exalted, but would it not have been the same if he had been studying Baroque churches, or the conditions of the peasants? To her, the concentration is absurd. Hedda would rather buy a favorite horse than have Tesman buy books on his special subject. “Your special subject?” she says, as if she did not even remember what it was.

She is as much interested in Lovborg as she can be in anyone, but when her husband brings in Lovborg’s new book and asks if she wants to look at it, Hedda says, “No, thanks.” When she burns the manuscript, she is showing her contempt for the intellectual effort that went into it. Confessing the destruction to Tesman, she speaks of it as “only a book.” If Lovborg is foolish enough to kill himself from the loss, well, “Do it beautifully.” At one point Hedda has the fantastic idea that her bumbling, shy, bookish husband should go in for politics! The cynical, worldly Judge Brack is astonished that such an unlikely thing should occur to her. Of course, she hardly thinks of Tesman as likely to succeed as a minister; what she is showing in her suggestion is the idle working of a mind that can think of any outlandish matter since she has fundamental contempt for what Tesman is doing, can do, has always done—his scholarship.

In the long run, one of the reasons Hedda does not offend us more is her peculiar indifference. We cannot pity her because of her lack of any instinct for goodness, her disregard for the claims of other people’s lives. She is coarse, in spite of the cynical, cool wit in many of the best scenes. Is she more a man than a woman? Perhaps so. Her only joys have been guns and horses. She marries as if she had somehow been stuck with a bad colt at an auction. The idea of becoming a mother is unbearable to her. But her peculiar Philistinism, the form it takes, has something to do with a woman’s life, with their lack of projects, with their failure to understand a certain kind of intellectual and creative concentration, the pleasure and the labor of it.

Hedda Gabler is a bourgeois woman of the nineteenth century, but in sloth and disaffection she turns away from the props and crutches by which people desperately tried to give such life hope and warmth. She has no respect for what is called “a woman’s world,” and even less for a life of work or ideas. But something is going on inside her—a sly participation in the civil war of one woman against another. Even Hedda is a sort of colonial foot soldier in this contest. She is contemptuous of women and cruel to them when the occasion arises, mean to the servant, to Miss Tesman who has mortgaged her little pension for Hedda’s extravagance, and most of all to Thea, whom she bitterly hates, without asking herself why she should, what is to be gained by it, what she wants from her. It cannot be her abundant, curly hair—or can it?

(This is the second of three articles on Ibsen and women.)

Letters

What Happens in Hedda November 4, 1971

  1. *

    At the Playhouse Theatre, New York City.

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