Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen tells the story of a newly wed couple in Patriarchal, Victorian Norway during the late 19th Century. It explores the relationship between a female aristocrat becoming part of middle class society through marriage, representing a female power struggle. There were high expectations of women, which include expectations of marriage and taking on domesticated roles in society. Ibsen demonstrates female oppression as well as the pressure of societal expectations through the confinement of setting, characterisation of female characters and symbolism.
Ibsen uses the confinement of setting to demonstrate strict societal structure and the limitations felt by women. Ibsen sets the entire play in a single room, which Hedda never leaves. Hedda thinks that whilst Tesman is out it is better to “Sit down... And wait” than do anything else. Ibsen uses the words, ‘sit down’, demonstrating a conscious effort of not leaving. It is used to highlight how women have this expectation of being stuck at home not having a chance to metaphorically stand up and claim power. Ibsen uses a caesura to emphasise the word, ‘wait’, demonstrating Hedda’s confinement of herself. This confinement is also represented because she is reluctant to move, showing the lack of power and active change in a woman’s life. To further this idea of confinement, Ibsen creates the inner room as a symbol for the domestic cage that women lived in. Ibsen represents claustrophobia and the domestic cage enhances how trapped women felt because it is a physical reminder of them being restricted to a home where men are able to leave, but Hedda never does. In the final act, Hedda claims her moment of power in this inner room through suicide. Brack says, “people don’t do such things”, which Ibsen writes to express shock other characters felt about Hedda’a actions. Emphasis on the word ‘don’t’ suggests surprise because it is a firm statement that is now being challenged by what Hedda has done. This idea of challenge also links to Ibsen’s challenge on society and how he is trying to target the immorality of societal expectations. People are surprised that Hedda has the power to take control over her own life, which is why setting is important in developing this idea of oppression.
Through his characterisation of the female characters, Ibsen shows their oppression and why women felt this way. Ibsen creates a comparison between Hedda and Thea to express different methods of dealing with deprived freedom. Ibsen uses Thea as a foil for Hedda, and her dependency on men is significant because Hedda uses her to represent societal values and oppression. After Lovborg confesses that he has torn up the manuscript, Ibsen has symbolically destroyed his relationship with Thea. She risks a scandal by being involved with Lovborg, and after their relationship is destroyed she“[shrieks] Oh no, no...!”. Ibsen has written the shriek and the repetition of ‘no’ as a stage direction to highlight a moment of deep fear and disbelief. Ibsen characterises Thea differently to Hedda is because she is a character that has risked a scandal by leaving her husband for Lovborg. Hedda’s reaction to this is, “what do you think people will say about you, Thea?”, which highlights how Hedda is more interested in the scandal than Thea’s happiness. This act also demonstrates bravery in Thea’s actions because it was uncommon to do this in society and shows a desperation for something greater than what she had. However, Hedda is then able to exploit this and use Thea as a foil to try and achieve power. Ibsen compares Thea to Hedda to demonstrate how females respond differently to domestication. Hedda becomes manipulative as a result and tries to claim power in society by having power over others. Hedda confesses that she has burnt up the manuscript, which Tesman is furious about. She argues, “I did it for your sake, Jorgen”, which he quickly believes. Hedda burnt the manuscript to gain control, and Ibsen uses irony to expresses how she is able to manipulate the situation to win Tesman over. Hedda is also using this to protect herself because she needs the support of marriage in order to conform to societal values. Ibsen compares how each female character copes with social pressure as a way to try and feel strong by themselves.
Symbolism is used by Ibsen to demonstrate an underlying theme of female oppression and how this contrasts to male power in a time of patriarchy. The symbols are used to show the male upper hand and the female power struggle. Ibsen uses the manuscript to show that even after Hedda burns it, Tesman will, “devote my life to this work”, and put the manuscript together again. ‘Devote’ is a strong word that Ibsen uses, which connotes passion and deep desire to repair something that Hedda has ironically destroyed. By Tesman putting it back together, Ibsen describes how Hedda is not able to establish authority. Ibsen also uses this symbolism to reflect the power that men had in society and women did not. Furthermore, earlier in Act 2, Hedda is playing with the pistol her father gave her and Brack tells her to “stop fooling about”, which represents how society does not take her seriously with such a masculine object. Ibsen is building on how men have the upper hand and the word ‘fooling’ is something that is used to express a lack of seriousness towards Hedda. An object like this is not something women used during the time because they were unable to claim power by themselves.
The expectation of women in society was domestication. Trapped at home without power or a voice, which is a social criticism against the position of women. Ibsen explores this in his play by using a restrictive setting to express feelings of claustrophobia and confinement. He also characterises the female characters by showing how they would deal with oppression and finally, Ibsen uses symbolism to express a theme of female limitations seen throughout the play.
Ibsen, Henrik, et al. Four Major Plays: (doll’s House; Ghosts; Hedda Gabler; And the Master Builder) (Oxford World’s Classics). New York, Oxford University Press, USA, 8 May 2008.
Author: Henrik Ibsen
Translators: James McFarlane and Jens Arup