Hedda Gabler is not a nice person. She taunts a recovering alcoholic about his masculinity and goads him into drinking again. She takes advantage of her husband’s dying aunt to steal an irreplaceable document. She tries to trick a man into committing suicide and takes pleasure in the romance of his death. And she totally channels Glenn Close à la Fatal Attraction in that crazy scene by the stove. (Glenn boils a rabbit, Hedda burns a manuscript – same thing.) If that doesn’t entice you to join us on this tour of Hedda’s character, we don’t know what will.
Before we write Hedda off as totally evil, let’s think about WHY she is the way that she is. The short answer is: because she’s female and it’s 1890 (or maybe 1860 – see "Setting" for a full discussion). The point is, it’s the Victorian era. And for those of you who weren’t around to experience it personally, you should know that it was not a fun time to be a woman. Just look at your text for examples: Hedda isn’t allowed to hang out with a man unless a chaperone is present. She isn’t allowed to go to the Judge’s party. She has to be careful not to use the word "night" when referring to the time she spends with her husband, because that might imply sex. It’s clear that, in this world, women aren’t supposed to do or say much of anything. It’s basically their job to sit around all day looking pretty and complimenting their husbands.
This is, as you might expect, incredibly boring. Or, in Hedda’s own words: "How mortally bored I’ve been," "How horribly I shall bore myself here," and even more explicitly, "I am bored, I tell you!" Right. So Hedda faces a problem that, as you’ll see in the rest of our Character Analyses, all three women in the play deal with in their own separate way: what the hell is she supposed to do with herself? Hedda actually asks this question, explicitly and more than once. (The men, of course, don’t have to worry about this issue – they are in fact defined by their professions. Brack is a judge. Tesman is a soon-to-be professor. Eilert is a scholar and author.)There are any number of ways to think about Hedda’s solution to this female problem. We’ll talk about three of them.
Hedda’s boredom is a likely culprit for her ever-worsening machinations throughout the course of the play. Little girls play with dolls; Hedda plays with people. Why? Because it’s entertaining. And man oh man is Hedda good at what she does. She can fake friendship (check out her Act I conversation with Mrs. Elvsted), fabricate motives (with regards to burning the manuscript), and conceal emotions (the suppressed rage in Act I). But her greatest asset is definitely her ability to extract the information she needs from others. Hedda’s like a walking confessional – others tell her all their secrets. She’s very skilled at asking questions without ever answering any herself. Eilert says it best: "I used to make [confessions] – telling you things about myself that no one else knew." When he asks her what "power" in her made him do so, she replies: "You think it was some kind of power in me?" Notice how she counters his question with another? The girl knows what she’s doing. In fact, the only character who seems to get any truth out of her whatsoever is Brack, which we talk all about in his Character Analysis.
What appeals to Hedda here is the idea of power. When Mrs. Elvsted wants to know why she’s manipulating Eilert like this, her answer is: "For once in my life, I want to have power over a human being." She considers Thea "rich" for her influence and herself "poor" for the lack of it. If Hedda, being a woman, can’t have power that’s political, monetary, academic, authoritative, or professional, then she’ll take the only option left to her.
Hedda doesn’t like her life – so she tries to live through other people instead. Now, by "other people" we of course mean "men," because there’s no point in living through an equally stifled female. Where in the world did we get this crazy notion? From….this little line right here: "Do you find it so very surprising that a young girl [would] like some glimpse of a world that […] she’s forbidden to know anything about?" This is Hedda’s explanation for her friendship with Eilert in the past. She couldn’t go out in the world, become an alcoholic, and sever ties with her aristocratic family. But that’s what Eilert was doing. Hedda got as close to the renegade lifestyle as she could by listening to him talk about it. When she devises the perfect suicide for Eilert, she’s continuing in this vein – orchestrating the life that she can’t experience herself.
Or, as scholars would say, Hedda is less concerned with the practicalities of the real world and more concerned with maintaining an aesthetic standard. What does this mean? She pays attention to how things look. She wants the world to be attractive, romantic, even poetic. She retreats into this aesthetic world to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of her crappy life. She even tells George: "I don’t want to look on sickness and death. I want to be free of everything ugly."
Hedda places Eilert in the center of this world as her imaginary romantic hero. She imagines him with vine leaves in his hair, reading his book aloud, throwing restraint and order to the wind. It’s like something out of a novel – and she designs his death to be just as romanticized. Shooting yourself through the temple, in Hedda’s eyes, is the noble way to go. That’s why she declares over and over that "there is beauty" in his death, that it is "liberating" for her to witness an act like this one. When we look at her actions and her words, we realize that Hedda values aesthetics over human life. That’s a pretty scary thought.
But for all her solutions – retreating to an ideal fantasy, living through others, manipulating those around her – Hedda is still just a woman trapped in 1890 Norway. She may seem like a rebel, or at least eons ahead of her time, but she’s actually very much restricted by the social standards she despises. We see this best through Hedda’s "deathly" fear of "scandal." The threat of scandal is the reason she broke things off with Eilert in the first place. She married George because, according to society, she had to marry someone. She doesn’t love her husband, but she "doesn’t expect to be unfaithful, either" because she can’t run the risk of a scandal. Most importantly, Hedda has to keep up appearances. She might be seething with rage inside, but she has to keep her cool on the outside. We know this is taking a toll on her, because we see that inner rage bubble up every now and then. When she’s finally left alone in Act I, Hedda "moves about the room, raising her arms and clenching her fists as if in a frenzy." In Act IV she again "clench[es] her fists in despair" and declares that she’ll "die" from all these "absurdities." Still, Hedda manages to restrain herself after every outburst – she remains a prisoner to Victorian values.
What’s more distressing is that Hedda recognizes her situation, and even hates herself for her conformist actions. Just look at all those times Hedda calls herself a "coward" – this is exactly what she’s talking about. She’s a coward because she isn’t willing to break the rules. She’s a coward because, at the end of the day, she’s still trapped inside that parlor room. Doesn’t it seem fitting that she dies in the inner room, behind a closed curtain? That leads nicely into our Big Question: Why does Hedda commit suicide?
Argh. We were hoping you weren’t going to ask us that. Hedda kills herself for any number of reasons. As we all know, she’s been unhappy for quite some time now. We know she’s bored, trapped in a loveless marriage, completely stifled, living below her standards, married to a buffoon, and about to have a baby she in no way wants. But while she’s not exactly tripping the light fantastic to begin with, Hedda’s been getting by. So which is the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Here are a few possibilities.
1) She can’t stand the thought of the judge having power over her. Or, in Hedda’s own words, "No—I can’t bear the thought of it! Never!" If she’s been getting her kicks thus far by having power and manipulating others…she just lost her hobby.
2) She has nothing to live for. Remember what we were saying about women in this play needing a purpose in their lives? Well, check out the exchange between Hedda and George right before her suicide. She asks if there’s anything he needs her for, and he replies, "No, nothing in the world." A few lines later, Hedda asks, "What will I do evenings?" Like Mrs. Elvsted, she’s facing the bleak prospect of nothingness that is par for the Victorian course.
3) She finally faces her pregnancy. Yes, Hedda has been pregnant for all of the play, but she’s been in denial for the first three acts. Did you notice that one of Hedda’s big outbursts comes when she finally reveals to George (and admits to herself) that she’s going to have a baby? Or her words to Judge Brack: "I have no talent for such things! I won’t have responsibilities!" The fact that she takes the gun from the writing table BEFORE she comes under the Judge’s thumb and BEFORE she declares there’s nothing left to live for is a great piece of evidence for this theory.
4) She’s lost her aesthetic ideal. Hedda declares that she "doesn’t believe in vine leaves anymore" and is disgusted to hear the truth about Eilert’s death. "Does everything I touch turn ridiculous and vile?" she asks. And the events around her answer "yes." So much for being "free of everything ugly."
5) Hedda is afraid of breaking the rules. Because she’s being blackmailed, Hedda has to decide whether to face the public scandal of an investigation regarding the pistol, or the private shame of an affair with Judge Brack. She’s horrified of scandal, so she kills herself to escape it. If this one is true, it means that Hedda is still a coward when she dies.
6) She’s proving her own courage, maintaining her aesthetic ideal, freeing herself from Victorian values, and sticking it to the Judge and her husband. This is certainly the most optimistic interpretation. In this theory, Hedda’s suicide is victorious. She proves that a noble death (i.e., a gunshot to the temple) is possible, and she finally faces her fear of scandal (what’s more of a scandal than spontaneous suicide?). She stops living vicariously and takes strong action herself. George loses the one thing he prizes most – his trophy wife – and Brack never gets to have sex with the woman he’s been lusting after. Hedda wins.
So that’s that. But before we send you on your way, check out these two interesting critical theories.
Okay, here’s the question: if Hedda were on trial for her series of cruel machinations, could she plead mental incapacity? Answer: maybe. Depends on which critic you talk to. She might be insane; she might be bipolar; she might just be neurotic. But let’s look at the text. The much-discussed fist-clenching, silent-raging of Act I doesn’t exactly seem like the actions of a sane woman, right? Neither does the fact that she SHOOTS AT THE JUDGE for her own amusement and asks jokingly if she's hit him. After two people have died and her friends and family are grieving, she retreats to the inner room to play a "wild dance melody" on her piano. She seems to be incapable of love (and calls the word itself "syrupy"). Hedda even admits to Brack that she has no control over her own actions: "Well, it’s—these things come over me, just like that, suddenly," she says. "And I can’t hold back." She even says that "thoughts" are "not […] easy to control." Of course, the biggest moment of madness comes at the climax of the play – when she maniacally mutters the same words over and over while burning Eilert’s irreplaceable manuscript. As long as you’re going down this path, you might as well tally up a reason #7 for Hedda’s suicide: she’s insane.
We’re not kidding. Freudians have a field day with Hedda Gabler. The basic argument is that Hedda wants to be a man and resents her sex. That’s why she tries to live vicariously through men in particular. That’s why she plays with pistols, a clearly masculine prop in her day and, oh, right, a phallic symbol. She has no maternal instinct whatsoever. But at the same time, Hedda is ashamed of her own failings as a woman. That’s why she hates Thea so much – because Thea is the epitome of femininity (see her Character Analysis for more, especially the bit about the hair).
Before we get too caught up in hating this woman, let’s consider the one moment when we see a very human side of Hedda – her explanation of why she married George. Check it out:
Well, we happened to pass here one evening; Tesman, poor fellow, was writhing in the agony of having to find conversation; so I took pity on the learned man—
[Smiles doubtfully.] You took pity? H'm—
Yes, I really did. And so—to help him out of his torment—I happened to say, in pure thoughtlessness, that I should like to live in this villa.
So you see it was this enthusiasm for Secretary Falk's villa that first constituted a bond of sympathy between George Tesman and me. From that came our engagement and our marriage, and our wedding journey, and all the rest of it.
"Bond of sympathy?" "Feeling sorry?" This doesn’t sound at all like the Hedda we know and hate. Once we get into the sympathetic mood, we can really start to feel for poor Mrs. Tesman. Put yourself in her shoes for a second. You’re Hedda Gabler. You’re hot stuff. In fact, you’re the best catch around town. You come from a powerful, wealthy, aristocratic family. EVERYONE wants you. You’re going to marry someone equally powerful, wealthy, and aristocratic, and live a life of privilege and wealth. Then, the next thing you know, you’re married to an academic bore, living in what to you feels like poverty, and oh, right, you’ve been knocked up by this husband of yours and a smarmy Judge has just tried blackmailing you into sleeping with him…repeatedly.
See? We can’t just write Hedda off as evil. It’s complications like these that warrant this character’s label: "the female Hamlet."