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What Happens in Hedda

In response to:

Ibsen and Women II: Hedda Gabler from the March 25, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

In Elizabeth Hardwick’s account of Hedda Gabler [NYR, March 25] there are several references to Eilert Lovborg’s shooting or killing himself—all distinctly implying that he is a suicide, albeit a disappointingly clumsy one. Quite the contrary. Ibsen has been careful to make the point that Lovborg had no more intention in that direction than Hialmar Ekdal in The Wild Duck, who likes to brag that in a dark hour he “held a pistol to his own heart.” Lovborg not only does not “do it beautifully”—as Hedda orders—but doesn’t do it at all. Instead he ends up in a brothel and becomes the victim of an accident when he gets into a scuffle and the gun goes off in his pocket, lodging a fatal bullet in his abdomen. Hedda therefore feels compelled to put things right by doing it herself and—moreover—does it beautifully, confounding all those around her….

It is easy to dismiss Hedda Gabler as the destructive modern woman and find her suicide a harmonious crashing chord. But one must somehow explain how it is that she is really the only admirable character in the play and, in the end, the only heroic one. Unfortunately, stage performances tend to soften the characters around her and sentimentalize or normalize Hedda just a bit, altogether neutralizing the harsh lines of Ibsen’s play. I have not seen the New York performance, but that’s the way it was in Stratford, Ontario, last summer. Tesman, especially, was almost lovable.

If Hedda’s pettiness is disgusting, as Miss Hardwick says—drawing our attention to her meanness about Aunt Tesman’s hat—doesn’t such behavior have to be shaded against the repellent sentimentality of George Tesman’s bedroom slippers? Miss Hardwick also says that the tragedy is diminished by the “tidy coming together of Tesman and Thea” at the end. Does she mean that this union redeems the destruction? Ibsen, like Hedda, has only contempt for this match between the pedant and the salvationist. Certainly Hedda’s vision of Lovborg with “vine leaves in his hair,” mistaken though it is, ought to be preferred to Thea’s trembling over whether he will make it into the temperance union.

Hedda Gabler must be ranked with Ibsen heroines like Nora Helmer and Helena Alving—the strong independent-minded women—in contrast to the Christine Lindes, Aunt Julianes, and Thea Elvsteds—those who can only live for someone else. Curiously enough, it is the latter who are realists and who readily adapt. The heroines are broken in the pursuit of the impossible. Nora, Mrs. Alving, and Hedda—all build extravagant myths around a man, and when the myth is deflated they face the consequences. Ibsen presents all three of them critically: they are all above common humanity, but they do not truly rise above their species. The bitterest irony and pessimism is found in the ending of Hedda Gabler, where after the destruction of Lovborg and Hedda, the world is left in the hands of the commonplace George Tesman and Thea Elvsted.

Although Ibsen supplies us with plenty of realistic reasons for Hedda’s suicide—her pregnancy, her entrapment by Brack, her boredom—the most fascinating one arises out of her disgust with Lovborg’s end. Yes, she is a philistine, as Miss Hardwick says, but she is also an aesthete—repelled by the ugliness of life, believing life impossible. Such motivation is beyond ordinary human understanding. Judge Brack is right when—upon Hedda’s shooting herself—he says, “Good Lord! People don’t do things like that!” Neither do women walk out on their families, like Nora at the end of A Doll’s House. Both are extravagant theatrical gestures, but they are not merely that. In both instances, Ibsen surmounts the carefully wrought realism of his theater and reveals his personal vision.

Albert H. Silverman

Evanston, Illinois

Elizabeth Hardwick replies:

Mr. Silverman is right. We can’t say Lovborg “shot himself,” in the clear sense of suicide. I suppose we could say he is “shot by himself,” even if the actual circumstances of the gun going off are not fully revealed. About some of Mr. Silverman’s characterizations of Hedda Gabler as “heroic” and “admirable” I am not so sure. In fact the more I think about Hedda Gabler the more I wonder what it is really about. Neither the work nor the character gives up his secret; and yet I feel this is part of the magical spell cast by the play. For myself, I “like” Thea and don’t feel offended by her efforts to keep poor old Lovborg on the wagon. (The risk of the other path—“the vine leaves”—is death and that seems going too far in the service of an attitude.)… I do wish Tesman and Thea, at the end, weren’t trailing off to piece together the lost book. However, I don’t find such work contemptible; it is only that it diminishes the tragedy, the complete loss, the destruction. For the rest I agree with Mr. Silverman that Ibsen goes beyond his plots into something deeper, into a kind of truth we recognize even if we cannot always say the final word about its meaning.

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