Study Guide

Hedda Gabler Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Henrik Ibsen

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Names

As evidenced by the title, names are a big deal in Hedda Gabler (see "What's Up With the Title?"). They reflect the tension between formality and intimacy or between single and married life. Here are some examples. Eilert calls Hedda "Hedda Gabler" because he still imagines her as the girl he once knew, not the married woman she is now. Hedda won’t call Aunt Julie by her first name because she feels it’s too informal and wants to keep her distance. On the other hand, Julie calls Hedda by her first name – until the hat incident goes down and she gets peeved. George keeps calling Mrs. Elvsted Miss Rysing because he remembers her as the girl he used to date. Eilert calls Mrs. Elvsted Thea, so we know that they are on intimate terms. At the same time, Hedda won’t let him call her by her first name because it’s not proper. When she wants to manipulate Mrs. Elvsted into thinking they are good friends, Hedda insists that they use each other’s first names. At the beginning of the play, Julie makes a big deal out of Berta referring to George as Dr. Tesman now, instead of Mr. Tesman.

The most illustrative example is the use of names between Hedda and George. George addresses his wife by name 73 times in the course of the play – not to mention all the times he refers to her by name to others. Hedda hardly ever addresses her husband by name. When Tesman thinks that Hedda has destroyed Eilert’s manuscript because she loves him, he hopes that she will now start using his name. George clearly feels much closer to his wife than she feels to him. Hedda prefers to keep her formal, aristocratic distance.

Fire

Hedda is repeatedly associated with fire, the stove, and burning stuff up. All the hints of fire in the first three acts lead up to the climax at the end of Act III, when Hedda burns Eilert’s manuscript and rants about "burning" Thea’s child. Look at all the times she sits by the stove: in Act I, she retreats to the stove when George wants her to look at his smelly old slippers; again when she converses with Thea; again when bantering with Brack; once more in Act IV shortly before she commits suicide. She’s all about her pistols, of course, which FIRE a bullet. When she imagines Eilert reading poetry, she visualizes him "all fiery" with vine leaves in his hair. Even George calls her feelings for him "a burning love" when he discovers she’s destroyed the manuscript.

We start to get a picture of burning discontent inside Hedda, despite her cool exterior. Clearly, she’s harboring some intense passion that rises to the surface every now and then. Notice that she feeds the fire after the night of Brack’s stag party – right before the scene in which she convinces Eilert to kill himself. Hedda’s games and intrigues are essentially feeding the fire she feels inside – the burning desire to escape the confines of her very stifled life.

A Tad Bit of Greek Mythology (This is where we talk about the vine leaves, FYI)

There are two allusions to Greek and Roman mythology that crop up in Hedda Gabler. The first is that of Dionysus (also called Bacchus), the god of wine, a.k.a. the craziest party animal ever. Back in the days of Greek mythology, Dionysus was the guy throwing parties your mother warned you about. We’re talking orgies, wild animals, crazed dancing, fire, and of course, lots and lots of alcohol. Orgies…alcohol…does this sound familiar? When the men return from their wild stag party, Tesman and Brack both report on the night’s festivities. Tesman uses the word orgy, and we all remember that Eilert is a raging alcoholic. Hedda must sense this connection, at least on some level, because she always imagines Eilert reading poetry with vine leaves in his hair. This is a romanticized image, but also has its roots in the ancient Greek world, where the god Dionysus was very often depicted wearing a wreath of vine leaves on his head. Hedda is attracted to Eilert’s Bacchic traits: his free spirit, his drinking, and his rebel courage.

Then you’ve got Diana – Mademoiselle Diana, to be more specific. We might write her off as a prostitute at first, but when Brack calls her "a mighty huntress of men," we have an "Aha!" moment. Diana is another Greek divinity, and she was – you guessed it – a huntress. What’s odd is that Diana was a virgin, and in fact a goddess of chastity. It seems a bit weird to name a prostitute after her…right?

The truth is, there’s a lot of really interesting (if dense) critical work on this topic. If this really interests you, we say: great. Go read. For the time being, rather than identify specific characters in Hedda Gabler as corresponding to specific figures in ancient myth, it’s more instructive to think about the tension between these two deities and the way that struggle is manifested in the play. Bacchus is about drunken orgies; Diana is about chastity. Eilert deals with this very sort of struggle himself, as does Hedda (who is afraid of scandal yet discontent with a life of propriety). Which force wins out in Hedda Gabler – Dionysus or Diana?

The Babies = Death Motif

Typically, we would expect babies to be associated with spring, flowers, light, life, and some very cuddly Easter bunnies. But in this play, babies are associated with destruction. What is life to everyone else spells death for Hedda. Let’s take a look.

In Act I, Hedda enters the parlor and is distraught to find the glass door open and light pouring in. She immediately has George draw the curtains. She also dislikes the overly abundant smell of flowers permeating her house, and instructs her husband to keep the door open for fresh air. Already we’re seeing that for Hedda, light and flowers – typical signs of life – are distressing. Why? Because she doesn’t want to have a baby. Later, in Act II, Hedda comments again on the smell of flowers, this time to Judge Brack. She declares there is "an odor of morbidity about it." It reminds her "of a bouquet—the day after a ball." The implications here are clear. Hedda, no longer in the prime of single gal life, is herself like a bouquet after the ball, especially now that she’s pregnant.

Throughout the course of Hedda Gabler, the image of death is repeatedly tied to the image of birth. In Act IV, Hedda finally admits her pregnancy – moments after news arrives that Rina is dead. Aunt Julie even draws a parallel between weaving a shroud for her dead sister and making new clothes for Hedda’s baby. Thea and Eilert’s "child" is destroyed at the play’s climax. And did you read "Character Role Identification," where we establish that Mrs. Elvsted is about construction while Hedda is about destruction? Good, because notice that Hedda is the one having the baby while Thea "[has] no children of her own."

Hedda Gabler reflects Hedda’s psychological state. Because Hedda finds the thought of new life morbid, that is how the motif manifests itself in the play.

Those Guns

This symbol is a little less complicated. The pistols once belonged to Hedda’s father, so they serve as a constant reminder that she is Hedda Gabler still and not Hedda Tesman (see "What’s Up With the Title?"). In the Victorian age, the guns were a decidedly masculine object, par for the course since Hedda shies away from traditional feminine interests. There’s also the cool exterior and fiery interior of a gun, a metaphor for Hedda herself. It’s interesting that the guns are dangerous to everyone else but that Hedda sees them as toys; this is very similar to the way that her lethal manipulations are likely devised solely for her own amusement. Also notice that Hedda keeps her guns in the writing desk. Check out "Character Role Identification" for a discussion of the foil between Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted. We argue that Thea is all about creative construction while Hedda is about violent destruction. This point is really driven home when we see that Hedda uses her writing desk not for writing (not for creation that is) but for keeping her guns (for destruction). Lastly, if you buy into Freudian theories, keep in mind that the guns are a phallic symbol, and that Hedda’s obsession with them may just be all about her wanting to be a man.

The Inner Room

The stage set-up of Hedda Gabler is important stuff. It’s important to remember that there is both an outer and inner room, with the latter at the back of the stage and sometimes shielded by curtains over the doorway. Critics have pointed out that the inner room increasingly becomes Hedda’s own personal space. When the play begins, the portrait of General Gabler hangs on the wall inside this room. Later, Hedda remarks that her old piano doesn’t fit in the outer drawing room and has it moved to the back room. Of course, this is where Hedda chooses to shoot herself – behind the curtains no less. She retreats from the outer world of practicality into her own private world of aesthetics, hence her own "beautiful" death and the way it is shielded from the world.