Henrik Ibsen portrays a microcosm of 19th-century Norse society in his drama “Hedda Gabler.” Hedda, the protagonist, exhibits a mixture of masculine and feminine traits due to her upbringing under General Gabler and the societal mores imposed upon her. However, although this society venerates General Gabler because of his military position, his daughter Hedda is not tolerated due to her non-conformity to the accepted gender stereotypes.
Hedda’s gender-inverted marriage to Jorgen Tesman, her desire for power, and her use of General Gabler’s handguns are unacceptable in her society and a motive for the exclamation “One doesn’t do such a thing!” that is alluded to during the drama and expounded upon after Hedda’s death. This shows that Hedda’s unsure stance between masculine and feminine gender roles and their associated traits is not tolerated by her society.
Ibsen employs a reversal of traditional gender roles within Hedda and Jorgen Tesman’s marriage to underscore Hedda’s masculine traits. Hedda displays no emotion or fondness towards her husband Jorgen. This aspect of indifference is a trait that is normally common to men. Tesman says, “My old morning slippers. My slippers look! I missed them awfully. Now you should see them, Hedda.” Hedda replies, “No thanks, it really doesn’t interest me.”
In another gender role reversal, Hedda displays a financial consciousness that her husband Jorgen does not possess. Although Brack corresponds with Tesman about his honeymoon travels, he corresponds with Hedda regarding financial affairs. This is a role that is normally reserved for men.
Hedda does not merely display traits that are definitively masculine or feminine, she also objects to and frequently defies the conventions established for her gender by society. She rejects mentions of her pregnancy as a reminder of her gender. Tesman says, “Have you noticed how plump Hedda’s grown, and how well she is? How much she’s filled out on our travels?” Hedda replies, “Oh, be quiet!” Here, Hedda is reminded not only of her feminine role of mother and nurturer but also as a wife and “possession” of Tesman. “And to think it was you who carried off Hedda Gabler! The lovely Hedda Gabler! Now that you have the wife your heart was set on.”
As an adult female of the haute middle class, Hedda is “sought after” and has “never had so many supporters” and has been “acquired” by Tesman as his married woman. Hedda resents the gender conventions that dictate that she now “belongs” to the Tesman household – a situation that would not happen were she a male. Tesman says, “Merely it seems to me now that you belong to the household,” to which Hedda responds, “Well, I truly don’t know.”
Although the traits displayed by Hedda are masculine, they are not those that her society can tolerate. To entertain herself in her “tiring” marriage, she plays with her father’s, General Gabler’s, handguns. Hedda says, “Sometimes I think I just have a talent for one thing—tiring myself to death! I still have one thing to kill time with. My handguns, Jorgen. General Gabler’s pistols.” Tesman implores Hedda to discontinue playing with them, but even his “superior” position as her husband does not deter Hedda, who is found playing with them by Brack at the beginning of Act Two. Brack reminds Hedda of the inappropriate nature of her “amusement” and physically takes the handguns from her. Hedda threatens Brack, saying, “I’m going to shoot you, sir!” but he calmly takes the gun away and tells her they will not play that game anymore that day.
As a parallel to Hedda’s masculine game of playing with General Gabler’s handguns, Hedda plays the traditionally female role of a “minx” with Brack. Hedda says, “Doesn’t it feel like a whole eternity since we last talked to each other?” Brack responds, “Not like this, between ourselves? Alone together, you mean?” Hedda agrees, saying, “Yes, more or less that.” Brack confesses that he has been wishing for her to come back home, and Hedda says that she has been wishing the same thing.
At the beginning of Act Two, Hedda encourages Brack’s flirting with her by revealing to him the true nature of her marriage to Tesman: “But tell me, I don’t quite see why, in that case er… Why Jorgen and I ever made a match of it, you mean? I had just danced myself out, my dear sir.”
My clip was up. “Brack is emboldened by Hedda’s looking handiness and pursues the impression of a ‘triangular relationship’ with Hedda. Not merely does Hedda’s ‘flirtatious’ behaviour towards Brack exhibit the feminine side of her nature, it besides demonstrates that in some cases, she conforms to society’s outlooks of females. Hedda’s mention of ‘(her) clip (being) up’ shows the socially recognized position that adult females must get married because they are not venerated as old maids. By conforming to this facet of her society’s mores and marrying before she becomes a socially unacceptable old maid, Hedda demonstrates that she is undeniably female and accepts this.
Hedda constantly seeks power over those people she comes into contact with. As a woman, she has no control over society at large and therefore seeks to influence the characters she comes into contact with in an emulation of her father’s socially venerated role as a general. Hedda pretends to have been friends with Thea to beg for her assurance.
Thea said, “But that’s the last thing in the world I wanted to talk about!” Hedda replied, “Not to me, dear? After all, we were at school together.” Thea answered, “Yes, but you were a class above me. How awfully frightened of you I was in those days!” Once Hedda learns of Thea’s scruples about Lovborg’s newfound resoluteness, she uses it to destroy their “chumminess.” Hedda said, “Now you see for yourself! There’s not the slightest need for you to go about in this deathly anxiety.” Lovborg replied, “So it was deathly anxiety on my behalf.” Thea whispered, “Oh, Hedda! How could you!” Lovborg said, “So this was my companion’s absolute faith in me.”
Hedda then manipulates Lovborg by challenging his masculinity into going to Brack’s bachelor party and restarting his bibulous ways of old. Hedda’s “reward” for this is to find that Lovborg’s manuscript, his and Thea’s “child,” falls into her hands, where she burns it, thus destroying the child and the relationship, both of which Hedda was jealous of.
Similarly, Hedda seeks to push her husband, Jorgan, into politics: “(I was wondering) whether I could get my husband to go into politics.” This would raise Hedda’s social standing and allow her to achieve and maintain power. Hedda’s use of people to achieve power is a trait that is stereotypically prevalent in men. The society of 19th-century Norway venerates the image of submissive, inactive, passive, and pure women. Roles of power are usually allocated to men in such a society.
The society in “Hedda Gabler” demonstrates its intolerance of Hedda’s masculine behavior by lending to her death. In Act Two, Brack discovers Hedda playing with her handguns. After Lovborg dishonors himself and returns to his “immoral” ways at Hedda’s behest, she manipulates him into “taking his life beautifully” and gives him one of General Gabler’s handguns. However, Lovborg dies from an accidental wound to the stomach instead of a noble death from a shot to the head. Brack, using his position of power within the judicial system, recognizes the handgun that Lovborg killed himself with as General Gabler’s and returns to Hedda to stake his claim.
Hedda refuses to be in the power of Brack, stating that she had been “heartily thankful that (he had) no power over (her)”. However, her fear is realized as Brack attempts to force his way into a “triangular relationship” with Hedda (and Tesman) in exchange for not exposing the fact that she provided Lovborg with the instrument of his death. Hedda is “as fearful of dirt as all that” and takes her own life, ironically avoiding the dirt surrounding Lovborg’s death but creating a scandal regarding her own. Hedda’s preference for masculine pursuits, such as playing with handguns, over feminine tasks, and her fear of dirt due to non-conforming with society’s accepted gender roles, lead her to commit suicide. This demonstrates that actions which are not in accordance with societal norms are not tolerated in 19th century Norway.