Hedda Gabler takes place in an un-named city in Norway--probably the capital--in a large, comfortable house previously owned by Cabinet Minister Falk, "in the fashionable part of town." The setting is important for a number of reasons.
First, it identifies Hedda Gabler and her husband, George Tesman--the owners and new residents of the house--as financially comfortable members of the educated, professional class--the social group whose lives Ibsen dramatized obsessively during the final phase of his career. By taking over the house of a high government official they implicitly announce their own intentions of joining "the establishment."
More importantly for our understanding of this particular couple is the role this house has played in the relationship between Hedda and George. At one point, Judge Brack, Hedda's admirer, congratulates her on having "gotten just the home you've always wanted." She laughs and responds, "You believe that story too?" Far from having longed to live in this house, Hedda has come to inhabit it almost by accident. As she tells Brack, she and Tesman, who used to escort her home from parties, walked by the Falk mansion one evening during the previous summer:
HEDDA. Tesman, poor thing, was writhing in torment, because he couldn't find anything to say. And I felt sorry for a man of such learning. . . . And so--just to help him off the hook--I came out with some rash remark about this lovely house being where I'd always wanted to live.
Thus, idle talk about a house fills the gap at the center of the relationship between Hedda and George. Neither of them has anything urgent or important to say to the other, and so they discuss real-estate. Out of this conversation about property--rather than any talk of feeling or love--arises the marriage that now joins them.
HEDDA. But don't you see, it was this passion for the old Falk mansion that drew George Tesman and me together! It was nothing more than that, that brought on our engagement and the marriage and the wedding trip and everything else. Oh yes, Judge . . . you make your bed and then you lie in it.
The house, then, embodies the emptiness of Hedda's relationship with George; it is a material object that stands where her feelings should be. Even more disturbing than the emotional emptiness of the house is the actively oppressive effect it exerts on Hedda's spirit:
HEDDA. All the rooms seem to smell of lavender and dried roses. . . .
Ibsen uses the setting of this play to create an emblem of the hollowness and lifelessness of Hedda's marriage. What binds these people together are impersonal forces: property, social convention, legal constraint. Where there should be passion and spiritual fulfillment, there is only a house with a mortgage.
The play begins on the morning following the return of Hedda and George from their honeymoon, a six-month tour of Europe. We learn from a conversation between Tesman's Aunt Julia and the maid, Berta, that Hedda cut a formidable figure in local society. The daughter of a general, she was often seen out "galloping" on horseback, smartly dressed in a "long black riding outfit--with a feather in her hat." Both Aunt Julia and the maid are somewhat amazed that such a beautiful and glamorous creature would wind up married to a quiet, scholarly soul like George.
When Tesman enters, we understand their puzzlement. A "youngish-looking man of thirty-three, medium sized, with an open, round, cheerful face," Tesman proves to be a thoroughly bookish and naive young man. He returns from his honeymoon with a "suitcase stuffed full of notes" which he collected "rummaging through archives." Having recently attained his doctoral degree, he is now at work on a book about "the domestic handicrafts of Brabant in the Middle Ages." When Aunt Julia asks winkingly whether her nephew has any "expectations" following his wedding trip, he responds, "I have every expectation in the world of becoming a professor shortly."
When Hedda enters, looking pale and wearing a loose-fitting gown, she seems utterly detached from her husband and her new life. After demanding that the curtains be drawn so as to block out the sunlight, she treats Tesman mockingly, and plays a cruel joke on Aunt Julia, pretending to believe the old lady's new hat belongs to the maid. If George is oblivious to the meaning of Aunt Julia's question about "expectations," Hedda is positively hostile to the subject. When Tesman notes--without grasping the implication of his comment--that she has "filled out" on their trip, Hedda snaps, "Oh, do be quiet--!" And when George persists, Hedda declares "brusquely," "I'm exactly as I was when I left." Between the bookish Tesman, who is too naive even to imagine his wife's pregnancy, and the frosty Hedda, who vehemently recoils from the idea, Ibsen creates a mordant picture of an emotionally sterile marriage deeply inhospitable to new life. Left alone for a moment on stage, Hedda "moves about the room, raising her arms and clenching her fists as if in a frenzy." Clearly, like the young Ibsen, she feels imprisoned by her home and family.
The next arrival is an outsider, Thea Elvsted, an old school-mate of Hedda's. She comes bearing news of the return to town of Eilert Lovborg, a man who has been living in the country, serving as tutor to Thea's stepchildren. Lovborg, we learn, is a brilliant intellectual with a disreputable past. His weakness for drink and other sordid diversions has led to his social downfall, and his life at the Elvsteds' has been a kind of penitential exile. While there he has reformed his habits, and has written a brilliant book about "the course of civilization in all its stages" which has been just published. To celebrate this event, Eilert has come back to the city, and Thea, worried that he might return to his old habits, has followed to keep an eye on him. She comes to the Tesman house knowing that George and Eilert were old friends, and hoping that Tesman will help her keep Eilert on the straight and narrow.
Hedda seems powerfully affected by the news of Eilert's presence, and she instructs Tesman to write a letter immediately inviting Lovborg to visit. When she and Thea are left alone on stage, Hedda soon elicits from her old school-fellow a confession that Thea is in fact Lovborg's lover, and that she has abandoned home and husband to follow him to the city. Hedda further learns that Thea has been Lovborg's inspiration for the new book:
MRS. ELVSTED. Whenever he wrote anything, we'd always work on it together.
The more Hedda learns about the relationship between Thea and Lovborg, the more enthralled she becomes, and we soon perceive that her interest goes well beyond friendly concern. When Thea declares that between her and Eilert there is the "shadow" of a woman who "carried loaded weapons" and who threatened him with a pistol, Hedda declares "with cold constraint," "That's nonsense! Nobody behaves that way around here." We will soon see, however, that one person in particular behaves precisely like that.
The final new arrival in the first act is Judge Brack, who comes to invite Tesman to a stag party he is giving that evening. He also informs George and Hedda that Lovborg is likely to be a rival candidate for the professorship on which Tesman has been counting. With George's anticipated income in jeopardy the family will need to cut back on some of the extravagant spending they were planning--specifically, Hedda will need to forgo the riding horse she was expecting to acquire. The act ends with a disappointed Hedda declaring, "Well at least I have one thing left to amuse myself with. . . . My pistols, George."
Act Two begins later that day, with Judge Brack's return for a private conversation with Hedda. As he arrives, she is loading a revolver, and upon seeing him approach the house, she points the pistol in his general direction and fires. A shocked Brack demands to know why Hedda is "playing such games." Her response is revealing: "Well, what in heaven's name do you want me to do with myself?"
As Brack's visit proceeds, we learn that he and Hedda have been fairly intimate friends for some time, and we begin to see that Brack has designs on Hedda that are far from honorable. He is interested, he says, in establishing a "triangular arrangement" with Hedda, meaning that he wants to take advantage of George's gullibility to become his wife's lover. Hedda rejects the idea, not because she is morally repelled by it, but because, as she suggests, she is frightened at the possibility of scandal. Brack asserts that Hedda is unhappy because she has "never experienced anything that's really stirred" her, and that perhaps some truly "solemn . . . new responsibility" is on the way--yet another allusion to Hedda's impending motherhood. As in the first act, Hedda's response to the merest suggestion of childbearing is vehement and agitated: "I have no talent for such things . . . I won't have responsibilities. . . . I often think I have talent for only one thing in life. . . . Boring myself to death."
Tesman's arrival, dressed for Brack's party, puts an end to this intimate encounter. Tesman is expecting a visit from Lovborg in response to his earlier invitation, and within moments the rehabilitated and newly successful author arrives, bearing the manuscript of yet another book he has written, this one a set of bold speculations about the future. He informs Tesman that he will not be his rival for the professorship, and he then offers to spend the evening reading to George from his new work. Unfortunately for this plan, Tesman must attend the Judge's party. Brack then invites Lovborg to join the soiree, but the author declines, presumably wishing to avoid the temptation to drink that goes with such an event. As Tesman and Brack withdraw for a glass of punch, Lovborg sits with Hedda, ostensibly to look at photographs from her honeymoon trip, but really to resume a relationship that had been cut short by his earlier fall from grace.
In that former relationship, Lovborg and Hedda would sit just as they are doing at present, pretending to look at magazines, but actually discussing Lovborg's escapades at the establishment of Mademoiselle Diana, a local prostitute. Hedda would ask Lovborg "devious" questions about his adventures, and he would answer, apparently in explicit detail, thus satisfying her intense desire for "some glimpse of a world that . . . . she's forbidden to know anything about." In other words, Hedda experiences vicariously through Lovborg the delights of illicit sex. Eventually, we learn, an aroused Lovborg begged to consummate their relationship in the flesh, but Hedda refused, threatening him with her pistols. And when he now asks why she didn't shoot him, she responds, "I'm much too afraid of scandal."
Following these revelations, Thea Elvsted arrives to spend the evening with Hedda and Lovborg. Drawing an implicit comparison with the "devious" Hedda, Lovborg asserts that he and Thea "really are true companions. . . . We can talk things out together without any reservations." Hedda is piqued by this affront, and decides to challenge Thea's influence over Lovborg. She tempts him to drink the alcoholic punch that Tesman offers. When he stoutly refuses, Hedda turns to Thea and stages an embarrassing and destructive scene:
HEDDA. Firm as a rock. . . . Didn't I tell you that when you came here so distraught this morning--
Thus, Hedda demonstrates her continuing control of Lovborg, convincing him that he should attend Judge Brack's party, there to read from his powerful new book. As the second act ends, Lovborg has promised to return to Hedda and Thea by ten o'clock. Hedda is elated at the idea of having regained her influence over her old admirer, and she seems once again to be living vicariously through his reckless spirit. She imagines his return to her later in the evening as a kind of Dionysiac triumph: "ten o'clock--Eilert Lovborg comes with vine leaves in his hair."
The third act begins early the following morning with Hedda and Thea asleep on the living room furniture, still waiting for a Lovborg who has never returned. Thea awakes with a start, realizes her lover has not returned, and is distraught. Hedda convinces the exhausted Thea to go to sleep in her bedroom, and Thea exits. Then Tesman arrives and tells the story of Lovborg's disastrous evening. After reading from the manuscript of his brilliant new book, and then becoming drunk at Brack's party, Lovborg set out, apparently for home, with Tesman following to insure his safety. En route, the precious manuscript fell out of Lovborg's pocket without its author's noticing; Tesman picked it up, and has now brought it back to his own house for safekeeping. Before he has the opportunity to return it to Lovborg, however, Tesman receives word that his Aunt Rina--Julia's ailing sister--is dying. He leaves to be with her, handing the manuscript to Hedda.
Judge Brack then arrives and gives Hedda further details of the evening's orgy. Far from returning home after Brack's party, the drunken Lovborg paid a visit to Mademoiselle Diana's brothel, where he engaged in a brawl after accusing his hosts of robbing him. The police were summoned to the scene, Lovborg attacked one of the officers, and he was arrested. Now, says Brack, Lovborg's disgrace means that he must be turned away from all the respectable houses in town, including, of course, Hedda's. Thus does Brack profit from the downfall of a potential sexual rival.
Immediately after the Judge's departure, Lovborg arrives, followed shortly by Thea. Lovborg announces that his squalid conduct has erased his faith in himself. He claims, falsely, that he has destroyed his manuscript, and he informs Thea that their relationship must also now come to an end. Devastated, Thea says, "for the rest of my life it will seem to me as if you'd killed a little child. . . . my child. . . ." Hearing all this, Hedda chooses nevertheless to withhold from Lovborg the fact that his manuscript is safe with her. Instead, she lets him believe that he has irretrievably lost it. When Thea leaves heartbroken, Lovborg confesses that in fact he did not destroy the manuscript, but lost it during his drunken spree, an act that burdens him with unbearable guilt. He feels his life is now utterly without hope, and he must commit suicide. Hedda urges him to do so "beautifully," and to assist him she gives him one of her father's pistols. When Lovborg leaves, presumably to kill himself with General Gabler's gun, Hedda pulls his manuscript out of its hiding place and thrusts it into the fire, declaring, "Now I'm burning your child, Thea. . . . Your child and Eilert Lovborg's."
At the beginning of Act Four, George returns from his aunt's deathwatch. He tells Hedda that he is eager to restore the manuscript to Lovborg, and she reveals that she has burned it, convincing her husband that she did the deed out of a loving desire to undo his intellectual rival. She also chooses this moment to inform Tesman that she is pregnant, seeming to suggest that her destruction of the book is linked to her delicate condition. George is both horrified at his friend's loss and delighted at this unexpected show of affection from his previously distant wife. Thea then arrives to report that she has heard news of Lovborg's being hospitalized. This is confirmed moments later by Judge Brack, who adds the news that Lovborg has in fact shot himself. Hedda's response surprises everyone: "At last, something truly done. . . . There's beauty in all this. . . . Eilert Lovborg's settled accounts with himself. He's had the courage to do what--what had to be done."
The guilty Tesman suggests that he could spend time with Thea reproducing the lost manuscript from the notes she has kept, thus creating a kind of final tribute to Lovborg. The two move off together, leaving Brack and Hedda alone. Hedda continues in her ecstatic mood, saying Lovborg's act is a "liberation" for her, that she finds a kind of fulfillment in his "courage to live life after his own mind. . . ." As with his tales of wild sexual escapades, Lovborg's daring behavior continues to furnish Hedda with vicarious joy, in this case a sense of moral transcendence over the banality of her life that she lacks the courage to pursue herself.
Brack moves swiftly to undermine Hedda's "beautiful illusion." The truth about Lovborg is that after leaving Hedda's that morning he returned to Mademoiselle Diana's, where he demanded the return of his "lost child." While he was there, yet another physical struggle occurred, in the course of which Lovborg was somehow shot with his own pistol, not in the head or in the heart--as Hedda imagines--but in his intestines. Thus the "beautiful" act that she commissioned him to commit turns out instead to be "ridiculous and vile." What she imagined as a poetic sacrament of self-affirmation turns out to be nothing but a sordid death in a whorehouse--an event by which, because of her vicarious presence, she has herself been sullied.
Worse still for Hedda is the power Brack now has to blackmail her. He has recognized the pistol used by Lovborg as belonging to Hedda. If he informs the police of this fact, Hedda will be faced with what she dreads most in life: scandal. She will be summoned to court, placed on the very same witness stand as the prostitute Diana, forced to explain how Lovborg acquired her gun, and confronted with the choice between perjury or the revelation of her darkest secrets. Brack is now in the position to extort from Hedda what he had hinted at in the second act: her cooperation in the sexual triangle he longs for. Hedda, realizing that she is a helpless pawn in Brack's sexual game, cries out, "I'm in your power. Tied to your will and desire. Not free. Not free . . . !" In the space of a few minutes Hedda has moved from her feeling of vicarious liberation by Lovborg’s "beautiful" suicide to the realization that she is imprisoned by the scheming Brack. This 180 degree change from one state of affairs to its opposite is called a "reversal," an element of play structure that creates a particularly powerful sense of dramatic development.
For Hedda this condition of entrapment, of utter spiritual bondage, is intolerable. She rushes into an adjoining alcove, separated by a curtain from the main room, and begins to play a wild tune on the piano. Tesman admonishes her, reminding her that the presence of death, both Aunt Rina's and Lovborg's, must be observed with respectful silence. "From now on," Hedda responds, "I'll be quiet." Moments later, we hear the sound of a pistol shot. Brack and Tesman pull back the curtain to reveal Hedda, dead from a bullet in her head. She has carried out the beautiful act botched by Lovborg. "But good God," says Judge Brack in the famous curtain line, "people don't do such things!"
HEDDA GABLER. We begin by noting that both the main character and the play named after her are called "Hedda Gabler," even though, as a married woman, she ought to be known as "Hedda Tesman." For a woman to take her husband's name at the time of marriage implies many changes in her life, including the acceptance of a new identity, a partial surrender of her former self to the demands of a shared existence. Hedda, however, seems fundamentally untouchable in her innermost being--utterly resistant to the transforming power of marriage. Eilert Lovborg senses this when he meets Hedda for the first time after her wedding and, during their initial few moments alone together, repeats the name "Hedda Gabler" four times. He cannot come to terms with the idea that "for the rest of my life I have to teach myself not to say Hedda Gabler."
Hedda's permanent identity as "Hedda Gabler" is directly connected to her father's exalted social rank. As a general, he would have occupied a position of great distinction, quasi-aristocratic in nature, both in the town and in Norway at large. His daughter would have shared this stature, and would thus have stood apart from--and well above--all but a few of the other young women of her generation. Hedda's distance from others, her aloofness, her spiritual pride, the indelibility of her identity as a Gabler, all derive from this social eminence.
She is distinguished not only by her pedigree, but also by her looks and behavior. We have already seen how her beauty impresses Aunt Julia and Berta, and how her dashing appearance on horseback creates a profound impression among the lesser townsfolk. Had such a person been a man--well-born, high-spirited, intelligent, attractive--he would certainly have pursued an active and challenging career. As a late-Victorian woman, that possibility is closed to Hedda; it is only through the men in her life, at second hand, that she can achieve that kind of fulfillment. We see in her frustrated hopes for her husband's success how she longs to participate in a life of action and achievement, if only vicariously:
HEDDA. There's every chance that, in time, he could still make a name for himself.
Moreover, Hedda cannot--like some women of her time--simply defy the convention of female domesticity to pursue her own desires, precisely because she is Hedda Gabler--the daughter of a general, and thus committed to upholding the social codes that simultaneously elevate and constrain her. Thus, to be the General's daughter is a two-edged sword for Hedda: it confers on her the spiritual pride and self-regard that set her apart from the common herd; but it also requires her absolute conformity to the rules of propriety that she finds so stifling. And Ibsen makes it quite clear that for Hedda utter conformity is the price she is willing to pay--however grudgingly--for her social eminence.
It is this bargain that accounts for Hedda's overwhelming fear of scandal--a quality which she and others note frequently in the course of the play. To suffer scandal is to experience social disgrace as a result of behavior that violates the code of respectable conduct. To be the object of scandal would mean that Hedda could no longer occupy the exalted position that goes with being a general's daughter; it would mean in some sense that she was separated from her identity as a Gabler--without which she fears she may be nothing. And yet, Hedda is powerfully driven by desires and ambitions that could destroy her reputation.
Her solution to this conflict between scandalous yearning and the need for absolute propriety is to live out her forbidden longings indirectly, through the experience of others--principally Eilert Lovborg. We saw how she did this before her marriage, when Eilert would visit her at her father's house and, behind the General's back, describe his sexual adventures; and we also saw how she drew the line--with her father's pistols--at Eilert's attempt to go beyond description and, scandalously, make real love to her. Then she married Tesman, and quickly discovered that her hope for excitement through his fame and power was not to be satisfied. She returns from her honeymoon oppressed by the knowledge that she must spend the rest of her life trapped in a boring marriage with a mediocre and conventional man--a spiritual affront for the proud-hearted daughter of a general. Worse still, her fear of scandal prohibits any open rebellion against this entrapment, as we learn from her sexual fencing-match with Judge Brack. Unable either to defy convention or to embrace it in good faith, she becomes that wretched creature who tells the Judge that she is capable of only one thing: boring herself to death.
Lovborg's return gives Hedda one more chance to rise up against her empty existence without risking personal exposure. If she can wrest control of Lovborg from Thea, she will have recaptured a soul-mate--and pawn--in her shadow-life of whispered obscenity and transgression by proxy. And when Lovborg is wrecked by his scandalous conduct at Mademoiselle Diana's, Hedda sees in his intended suicide an opportunity to appropriate for herself his grand, romantic gesture of social defiance and contempt.
Out of her frustrated desires for a full life of her own grow those impulses to deny and destroy the lives of others that are the most frightening aspects of her character. She repeatedly refuses to acknowledge that she is pregnant, because motherhood would be one more intolerable obligation binding her to marriage and Tesman. She is cold and cruel toward Aunt Julia, an unwanted relative acquired because of that marriage; and she flatly refuses to visit the dying Aunt Rina, likewise because of her contempt for Tesman's family. Toward Lovborg her conduct is a strange combination of passion and exploitation. Although sexually stirred by him, she refuses his advances, choosing instead to satisfy herself by manipulating his weaknesses: she contrives his return to drink, she sends him off to Brack's party, she withholds the information that his manuscript is safe, she puts the fatal pistol in his hand, and she burns his book--all to advance her desires for vicarious rebellion and transcendence. She loves what she can do through Lovborg, not Lovborg himself.
Finally, when she realizes that Brack has become her master, she is forced to do something in her own person to escape her misery. Her choice of suicide rather than rebellion or flight is the only logical option for this character, her final act of self-concealment: she dies leaving utter bafflement behind her, a stranger to Brack and Tesman who will never understand what she has done. Death confers on her ultimate immunity from exposure and scandal and absolute freedom from the control of husbands and would-be lovers.
THEA ELVSTED. Thea's character is a striking contrast with Hedda, both morally and physically. In describing Hedda, Ibsen notes that her hair is "an attractive medium brown, but not particularly abundant." Thea, on the other hand, has "hair [that] is remarkably light . . . and unusually abundant and wavy." In fact, Thea's "abundant" hair has long been a source of annoyance to Hedda who describes her to Tesman as the "one with the irritating hair. . . . An old flame of yours, I've heard."
Hair is for both men and women a conspicuous index of sexual appeal and energy. As the 1960s demonstrated, long hair vividly communicates social defiance and implies bold eroticism. Hedda, with her skimpy locks, exhibits neither; Thea, with her abundant tresses, seems to radiate both.
In fact, we learn that Thea is the opposite of Hedda in almost every important way. Thea openly abandons her husband and stepchildren to follow Lovborg to town, a scandalous act which prompts Hedda to ask, characteristically, "what do you think people will say about you." To which Thea responds, also characteristically, "God knows they'll say what they please. . . .I only did what I had to do." Hedda, by contrast, chooses to live miserably in her marriage because she fears the scandal that would arise should she abandon it.
Nowhere is the difference between the two so clear as in their relationships with Lovborg. As we have seen, Hedda thrives on Lovborg's depravities: whoring, drunkenness, suicide. Thea, by contrast, encourages his creative tendencies, begetting with him the books about civilization, past and future, that almost save him from his vices. As the play ends, Thea and her "old flame" George are patching together Lovborg's lost book out of the surviving notes. Under Thea's benign influence even Tesman's meager talents--which Hedda only sneers at throughout the play--are turned to creative ends.
GEORGE TESMAN. As we have seen, George is scholarly and naive, a newlywed who spends most of his honeymoon burrowing through dusty archives in search of information about medieval handicrafts. Ibsen gives him a peculiar habit of speech: Tesman attaches a grunting, interrogatory syllable to the ends of his sentences--"uh?"--as if to demonstrate that he is not a polished social performer, but rather a hesitant and unworldly academic--exactly the wrong sort of husband for the ambitious Hedda. Spoiled by his doting aunts, he is nevertheless fundamentally decent--genuinely concerned by Lovborg's reckless conduct at Brack's party, eager to rescue his friend's lost manuscript, guilty at his wife's destruction of the book, and innocently delighted by her false declaration of love--and by the discovery of his impending fatherhood.
Unlike Hedda, George has no sense of his own superiority. He is from a much more modest social background, and quite delighted at his good fortune in life. He is pleased to have earned his degree, eager to begin his job as a professor, happy with his new house, and above all quite delighted at having acquired a distinguished beauty for his wife. He likes the world as it is. Far from chafing under its restrictions, he finds in his conventional universe an arena quite spacious enough for his modest abilities.
JUDGE BRACK. Like Tesman, Brack is also comfortable in his world, but not out of innocent acceptance. Instead, Brack is the canny and cynical insider, the one who enjoys the status quo because he knows how to exploit it for his own benefit. His favorite pastime is to take advantage of bored wives eager to commit indiscretions behind the backs of their inattentive husbands. And he benefits from the fact that both the deceiver and the deceived, determined to avoid exposure and embarrassment, will cause him no trouble. He believes that Hedda Gabler will be only too happy to join in this game of respectable adultery, not realizing that the General's haughty daughter feels both superior to and terrified of such intrigues.
When he discovers that Lovborg has been shot with Hedda's pistol, he uses his insider's knowledge of police procedure and judicial protocol to intimidate Hedda into sexual compliance. So little does this provincial Don Juan understand General Gabler's daughter, however, that when she commits suicide rather than submit to him he is completely stunned, pronouncing the famous line, "People don't do such things." In his sordid world, of course, they don't. But in Hedda's universe of frustrated romantic longing, such a gesture is inevitable.
We should also note Brack's social position: as a Judge, he ought to be a model of rectitude and honesty. Instead, he is a sexual trespasser in his friends' houses, and a thoroughgoing hypocrite. In creating this figure, Ibsen expresses his contempt for the dishonesty of the respectable establishment.
EILERT LOVBORG. Lovborg is several times associated by Hedda with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and the patron of tragedy. She imagines him appearing at Brack's party, and later at her own house, with "vine leaves in his hair"--the god's invariable headgear. The image of Lovborg, dressed in his somber Victorian evening clothes and sporting a crown of leaves, is incongruous if not downright absurd. But this incongruity is appropriate to a character who, like Hedda, is torn between a desire both to accommodate and to defy the social world.
Lovborg's rebellion, moreover, is often absurdly low-minded. He describes his and Hedda's unfulfilled yearning as a "thirst for life," but in his case this often seems merely like a thirst for liquor and prostitutes. Perhaps Ibsen is suggesting that, in a suffocating environment like the Norway of his day, spiritual revolt finds no outlet except in self-indulgence and vice. In any case, this drawing-room Dionysus is most authentically alive, not in the ecstasy of his evening escapades, but in the disciplined pursuit of his work. He becomes most fruitfully himself through his relationship with Thea, a "true companionship" that may stand for Ibsen's vision of the ideal marriage: a bond sustained by honesty and shared spiritual goals rather than by social constraint. It is in this healthy "marriage" that Lovborg thrives, and it is because of his entrapment in the tangled, deceitful, clandestine labyrinth of his sterile "affair" with Hedda that he perishes.
Many of the important ideas and themes have been covered above, in the sections on playwright, plot, and character. It is most important to bear in mind that Hedda Gabler, like many of Ibsen's most famous plays, explores the playwright's concern with the conflict between individual fulfillment and social constraint, focusing on this problem within the institution of marriage.
We may note that the characters who thrive in the world of this play--Tesman and Brack--are those whose mediocrity or mendacity render them unaware of or indifferent to the shortcomings of their social environment. They are happy to obey the rules because they see nothing wrong with them and can envision nothing better.
Those, like Hedda and Lovborg, who show some spark of spirit or genius are annihilated, done in by the self-destructive rage they feel at the banality of their lives. They can neither bear the world as it is nor find a way to bring a different life for themselves into existence.
In Thea's survival we may detect a note of optimism on Ibsen's part: here is a woman who has followed her own inner lights, defied conventional morality, and discovered, at least for a time, a life of authenticity and happiness as Lovborg's lover and collaborator. Of course, we don't know what fate she will suffer in the future, when her scandalous conduct with Lovborg--still unsuspected even by Tesman as the play ends--becomes general knowledge.
In any case, it is a mark of Ibsen's dour view of the central human institution of marriage that escaping it seems the only road to happiness. We should perhaps note that Ibsen was married to the same woman for forty-eight years.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why does Hedda pretend to think that Aunt Julia's hat belongs to the maid?
2. How do you interpret the differences between the book Tesman is writing and the books Lovborg has written?
3. Why is Hedda so attached to her pistols?
4. What impression is created by the information that George spent much of his honeymoon in medieval archives?
5. How important is it that Hedda's father was a general?
6. What is the nature of the goddess Diana? Why did Ibsen use that name for the prostitute visited by Lovborg? Do any characters in the play exhibit the attributes of the goddess? If so, what do you make of the resemblance?
7. Why does Hedda imagine Lovborg with vine leaves in his hair?
8. Can you see parallels in today's world to the conflicts Hedda experiences? Can you think of characters in movies or on television who are like her? Or like Tesman, Lovborg, Brack, or Mrs. Elvsted?
9. Do you think Hedda's attitude toward her husband is justified?
10. Why is Hedda so attached to Lovborg? Why does she want him to commit suicide? What does she mean when she tells him to do it "beautifully?"
11. Why does Hedda burn Lovborg's manuscript?