Hedda Gabler: Theme Analysis
Throughout the play, Hedda claims that she is seeking “an act of spontaneous courage… An act that has something of unconditional beauty” (p. 258). Ibsen thus alerts audiences and readers that courage and beauty are interconnected themes in the play. What is courage, and who possesses it? What is beautiful, and where may beauty be found?
Courage seems to be, in terms of the drama, the ability to face the consequences of one’s own actions. Courage thus emerges as a quality largely defined in negative terms; that is, we know it only through its conspicuous absence in the cast of characters. Tesman does not face the consequences of having married: he neglects his wife, even during their honeymoon, in favor of his dry academic work among old papers. Mrs. Elvsted does not face the consequences of her affair with Lövborg, but hides it from her husband. Hedda, clearly, does not face the consequences of her marriage to Tesman, her giving of a pistol to Lövborg, or, most dramatically, her destruction of Lövborg’s manuscript. Ironically, perhaps only Lövborg shows willingness to face the consequences of his actions. He acknowledges but is trying to move beyond the rash actions of his past that have damaged his reputation, telling Tesman, for instance, that he intends to write a book about the future; and it is when Lövborg thinks that he has lost his manuscript that he goes in search of it, including back to Mademoiselle Diana’s salon, where he is fatally shot. Lövborg thus may be the only character in the play who demonstrates courage—although not in the way that Hedda first supposes (that is, in suicide). Audiences may be divided as to whether we are to view Hedda’s suicide at the play’s conclusion as a courageous act. Certainly, she implies that is the only way she can find to be free, to assert her autonomy; but, in fact, suicide resolves nothing, leading only to her death. It is, in that sense, a capitulation to the circumstances (of her own making) that she considers so crushing, not a demonstration of being able to achieve transcendent or free living in spite of them.
This realization suggests, then, that perhaps beauty is to be found in such transcendent living. It certainly seems appropriate to Hedda’s notion that Lövborg’s supposed suicide is an act of beauty: in taking his own life (so Hedda believes), Lövborg would be asserting his ability to control his own fate (even though he has, to a large degree, allowed himself to be manipulated by Hedda). According to one editor of Ibsen, the mention of “vine leaves in [Lövborg’s] hair” (p. 227 and repeatedly in Act Three) is “a very obvious image or symbol of the beautiful, the ideal, aspect of bacchic elation and revelry” (http:classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/hibsen/bl-hibsen-hedda-intro.htm). And while we hear of such “elation and revelry” at Brack’s bachelor party, we do not see evidence of it ourselves. Beauty seems to find no place in these characters’ lives. They all allow other people and social circumstances to control and limit them, instead of asserting their individuality in the midst of such circumstances. Even Hedda, as we have seen, is controlled by her past identity as Hedda Gabler (hence the title of the play) rather than her present identity. Ibsen may be arguing that, until we are willing to let go of others’ definitions of us and our own outdated definitions of ourselves, we will never create or recognize moments of either beauty or courage.