Hedda Gabler: Essay Q&A
1. How does Ibsen develop and employ parallels between Mrs. Elvsted’s marriage to her husband and Hedda’s marriage to Tesman?
Ibsen presents his audience with two marriages that are, as Hedda calls hers, farces (p. 251). Like Hedda’s loveless marriage to Tesman, Mrs. Elvsted endures a lonely marriage with her husband: “There’s simply nothing… we just haven’t a thought in common. We don’t share a thing, he and I” (p. 188). The speaker in this instance is Mrs. Elvsted, but the words could come from either woman. Both have allowed themselves to be maneuvered into matches that do not satisfy them. We do not know why Mrs. Elvsted married her husband—perhaps she was “marrying up” in terms of social mobility, since her husband is away much of the time on important business trips (p. 188)—but we do know that Hedda married Tesman largely because he would support her financially (“…he came along and was so pathetically eager to be allowed to support me…”, p. 203). Both women make the best of their situations by entering into affairs with two other men: Mrs. Elvsted with Lövborg and (it is strongly implied in Act Four) with Tesman; Hedda also with Lövborg (although this relationship exists largely in the past in the play), and with Brack. Unlike Hedda, however, Mrs. Elvsted (as even the use of her married name throughout the play could indicate) subordinates herself to socially expected and acceptable roles—primarily in supporting Lövborg as he works on his manuscript, and then on Tesman as he reconstructs it—whereas Hedda yearns to control her own fate and so not subordinate herself to others. Perhaps the differing fate of the two women is Ibsen’s way of commenting on the consequences (an important theme in Hedda Gabler) for women who do not subject themselves to society’s standards; if so, Ibsen’s comment should probably best be viewed, not as an uncritical reinforcing of such standards, but as a challenge of them.
2. For what artistic or thematic reasons do you think Aunt Rina, Auntie Julle’s invalid sister, is never seen in the play? How does she influence the action or develop Ibsen’s themes, despite her physical absence?
For a character who is only ever mentioned in other characters’ dialogue, Aunt Rina nevertheless exercise a palpable presence and real influence on the action of Hedda Gabler. Practically from her first mention she receives (“I get so worried about her, too, lying at home,” p. 168), Rina is a symbol of sickness and disease that lingers over the action. Auntie Julle cannot ever stay long at the Tesmans’ home because she must care for Rina, for example; and Rina’s impending death occasions Tesman’s absence at the beginning of Act Four, making an opportunity for Brack to have his final, secret, manipulative meeting with Hedda. Perhaps Ibsen wishes us to connect Rina’s never specifically diagnosed or identified yet fatal sickness with the “sickness” of the various interpersonal relationships in the drama, which lead to two deaths (Lövborg’s and Hedda’s). Furthermore, Aunt Rina anchors Auntie Julle to the past, just as Auntie Julle, in turn, infantilizes Tesman by seeking to contain him in the past. Without pressing the point too far (for surely Ibsen would acknowledge the importance of caring for a dying relation), we might “see” the unseen Aunt Rina as a symbol of the sickness of remaining mired in the past rather than looking toward the future.
3. How does Ibsen utilize the absence of children to develop his thematic concerns in the play?
The absence of children is a symbolic motif that occurs in two significant ways in Hedda Gabler. First, we are led by Aunt Julle to wonder along with her whether the newlywed Tesmans will produce children. Aunt Julle in Act One speculates about the use to which the spare room in the Tesman household will be put, for instance, and also, in Act Four, suggests that there will soon be work to do (presumably, knitting baby clothes) in the Tesman home. For these repeated references, however, some subtle and some less so, we never do learn for certain whether Hedda is expecting, though her reactions and stunted confession to Tesman at the beginning of Act Four lead us to believe she is. Children represent the natural consequences of marital relations—but, of course, neither Hedda nor Tesman want to accept these consequences and thus move into the future: Tesman is too preoccupied with his studies of medieval material culture (and later, studying “material culture” of another kind by reconstructing Lövborg’s manuscript: “putting other people’s papers in order… that’s just the sort of thing I’m good at,” p. 260); and Hedda is too preoccupied with asserting her autonomy to wish to be burned with children. Second, Mrs. Elvert in Act Four identifies Lövborg’s book as her child, a child into which she and Lövborg poured their very souls. Significantly, it is Hedda, who is refusing the role of mother, who destroys this child, this (symbolic) future potential life. By rejecting the possibility of being a mother, then, and choosing instead the absence of children, Hedda reinforces Ibsen’s theme that growth is only possible when we choose to move into the future.
4. What significance do you assign to Ibsen’s use or avoidance of personal (i.e., first) names for various characters in the play?
A consummate dramatist, Ibsen no doubt chose the way in which he uses or avoids using personal names with care. His title character is not referred to by her married name (as social conventions of the day would have dicated), but as Hedda Gabler—her maiden name (“That was once my name,” p. 216), suggesting Hedda’s refusal to integrate herself into the Tesman clan and her desire to continue asserting her own authority and autonomy. Ironically, of course, the “Gabler” name is her legacy from her father, as surely as are his pistols; and it may be that Hedda’s insistence on clinging to that past identity kills her as surely as does the bullet she fires. Juliana Tesman is called “Aunt Julle,” Tesman’s own diminutive, childish name for her, indicating, perhaps, the degree to which she has infantilized him. The most significant use of a name may be with Mrs. Elvsted: although Hedda makes a joke of forgetting her proper name (p. 186), and Tesman seems abashed that he calls her by her maiden name (p. 192) (as Lövborg calls Hedda by hers, p. 216), there may be serious significance in her identification as “Mrs. Elvsted.” This is the name, the identity, to which the former Thea Rysing has chosen to submit herself; and it is that submission, while no doubt crushing her spirit as much as Hedda’s is crushed, nonetheless ensures her physical survival, a fate Hedda chooses not to share.
5. What significance, if any, do you see in the change of the stage directions for the Tesman home between Acts One and Two?
While it is a small detail in the stage directions, the absence of the piano as the curtains rise on Act Two is probably meant to indicate that Hedda is being forced, against her will, to adjust to her new husband’s unexpected change in “prospects”—after all, while she wanted the old piano removed to a back room, she also wanted it replaced with a new one, “[a]t a suitable moment” (p. 180). Instead, however, the piano has been replaced with “an elegant little writing-desk with a bookshelf” (p. 199). While this substitution may only be a temporary one, audiences could also just as easily infer that no new piano will arrive. Since Ibsen has gone to the trouble of indicating this detail in the stage directions, it is most likely meant as an insight into Hedda’s characterization.