by Henrik Ibsen
As a woman in Hedda Gabler, Mrs. Elvsted struggles with the same question as Hedda and Miss Tesman: to what or whom can she possible devote her life? Her answer is a simple one: Eilert Løvborg. Mrs. Elvsted isn’t exaggerating when she claims to have reformed, if indirectly, the formerly debauched Eilert. Løvborg himself confirms this when he sits in the parlor with Hedda and Thea. She has really inspired him, both personally and professionally. He even gives her credit as the co-author of his book, and Tesman confirms the value of such a muse when he declares that Eilert has never written this well before.
What is it about Thea that gives her so much power? That’s the question that Hedda poses, aloud, at the end of Act III. Mrs. Elvsted isn’t manipulative, strong-willed, or even that intelligent. Eilert even tells Hedda that Thea is "too stupid" to understand their past relationship. So how can she "hold [Eilert’s] fate in her hands"? Thea may lack some of Hedda’s abilities, but she makes up for lost skills with sheer femininity. With her flowing hair, slight figure, big blue eyes, and naturally sweet demeanor, Mrs. Elvsted is the perfect picture of a Victorian housewife. This is one of the reasons Hedda resents her so much, especially if you buy into the "Hedda wants to be a man but is ashamed at her lack of femininity" theory. Just look at Hedda’s obsession with Thea’s hair, arguably the symbol of her womanly ways. Hedda refers in Act I to Thea’s "irritating hair that she was always showing off." Ibsen’s stage directions note that it is "remarkably light, almost a white-gold, and unusually abundant and wavy." Compare this to the description of Hedda’s hair, which is "an agreeable brown" and "not particularly abundant." As children, Hedda used to pull Thea’s hair and threaten to burn it off – which she does again, by the way, at the end of Act II (old habits die hard, we guess). When Hedda sees Mrs. Elvsted working side-by-side with her husband to reconstruct the lost manuscript, she strokes her hair, and we know what she’s thinking by this line: "here you are, sitting now beside Tesman—just as you used to sit with Eilert Løvborg." This is perhaps Hedda’s first moment of insecurity. She’s wondering if Thea, the ultimate woman, will do for George what Hedda herself cannot.
Of course, it’s equally possible that Hedda resents Mrs. Elvsted because she’s ruined everything Hedda likes about Eilert. She’s "broken" his wild spirit. On the other hand, maybe Hedda doesn’t resent Thea at all – maybe she’s just a pawn in Hedda’s amusing game.
But for all her weak and feminine ways (unfortunately, these adjectives DO go together in Hedda Gabler), Mrs. Elvsted is perhaps the most (or only?) courageous character in the play. Look at her dialogue with Hedda when the confesses to leaving her husband. "God knows [people] will say what they please," she says. "I only did what I had to do." To leave your husband for another man in the 1890s was a bold move. Mrs. Elvsted says "to hell with the rules" the same way that Eilert used to back in his alcoholic days. It’s odd that Hedda doesn’t recognize this – or perhaps she does, subconsciously, which is potentially a third reason for her to dislike this woman.
Still, at the end of the day, Mrs. Elvsted is still a woman who, facing emptiness, has to devote her life to a man. When the object of her subservience is no longer an option, she openly declares that she "doesn’t know [her]self what [she] will do," adding that "everything’s dark for [her] now." She even asks that ever-popular question before making her grand exit in Act III: "What will I do with my life?"