Literature has witnessed the representation of women evolve through the course of various time periods. Despite the various portrayals of women, their roles depend entirely on the contextual and cultural circumstances in which they are being portrayed. In a similar way, Henrik Ibsen questions the accepted social practices of Norwegian women during the Victorian Era.
With the creation of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen develops one of the Norwegian theaters’ most infamous characters: Hedda Gabler. Gabler, a general’s daughter, is a newlywed who comes to loathe her erudite husband, George Tesman, and a woman who seeks to control the characters around her. Ibsen delineates the character of Hedda Gabler to display women as powerful beings through Hedda’s non-traditional behavior, aristocratic nature, and use of sexuality. Instead of being enslaved by her gender, Hedda Gabler defies the accepted role of women by acting in a way that is stigmatized in Norwegian society. From the beginning of the play, Hedda is illustrated not as a submissive wife, but a rather dominant figure. To further elaborate, Hedda refers to George Tesman by his last name rather than his first name. Hence, when Hedda reveals to Tesman that she burned the manuscript, which belonged to Eilert Lovburg, Hedda’s former love, Hedda proclaims she did it out “love for [George]”; therefore, Tesman marvels at the fact that Hedda has “begun to call [him] George” (Act IV). Tesman’s surprise at an action already enforced by the patriarchal society highlights Hedda’s unwillingness to bow to his authority, which depicts women as strong and independent against the status quo. In addition, Hedda’s nonconformist personality is made clear by her disregard for Tesman’s memorable slippers brought by Aunt Julia when Hedda proclaims, “I really don’t care about it” (Act I). Her indifferent reaction to one of Tesman’s precious memories clarifies her resistance in being controlled by him.
Apart from her treatment of Tesman, Hedda pays George’s Aunt Julia, a mother-like figure, no respect. For instance, Hedda blatantly insults Aunt Julia by referring to her bonnet as an “old bonnet” belonging to a servant (Act I). Later in the play, Hedda reveals that she “pretended to think [the bonnet] was the servant’s, ” revealing her true intentions (Act II). Once again, Hedda's obstinate and implacable personality comes in the way of her confirmation to the acquiescent roles of daughter-in-laws. In the Victorian Era, women were expected to play the role of an ideal housewife; however, Hedda denies the restrictions enforced by the male dominant culture, illustrating women as authoritative figures fighting society’s injustice. Moreover, to represent women as influential entities, Ibsen creates Hedda as a powerful and socially privileged character. Before the play commences, the stage directions disclose a “portrait of a handsome elderly man in a General’s uniform” hanging over “the sofa” (Act I). From the beginning, Ibsen depicts Hedda as an elite member of the upper-class society because the portrait of her father stresses the upper class’s dominance over Tesman, a member of a lower social class. Throughout the play, she uses her background as a tool for control. Berta, the household servant, expresses her distress as she is “mortally afraid [that she should not] be able to suit the young mistress” because “she’ll be terrible grand in her ways, ” to which Aunt Julia replies, “think of the sort of life she was accustomed to in her father’s time” (Act I).
Through Berta’s fear of not meeting Hedda’s standards, it becomes clear that Hedda belongs to a higher social class than her and Aunt Julia’s family, including Tesman. Exuding superiority in terms of wealth, Hedda uses her upbringing to her advantage as she portrays herself in an authoritative manner rather than subservient as expected by society. Acknowledging Aunt Julia’s new bonnet, Tesman exclaims, “what a gorgeous bonnet you’ve been investing in, ” with Aunt Julia responding “[she] bought it on Hedda’s account, ” so that she would not be “ashamed if [they] happened to go out together” (Act I). Hedda’s overarching power is displayed when Aunt Julia buys a bonnet to please Hedda and match her clothing style, according to her social class. Furthermore, when Thea Elvsted, Eilert Lovburg’s comrade, and Hedda Gabler are predicting the state Lovburg will come back in from the social event at Judge Brack’s house, Hedda, in distraught, expresses her wish to Thea that “for once in [her] life” she wants “to have [the] power to mould a human destiny” (Act II). Following that, she exclaims to Thea that only if she “underst[ood] how poor [she] is” and how “fate made [Thea] so rich” (Act II). Her desire makes it clear that she realizes how poor she has become by marrying Tesman and believes having wealth means possessing the power to control human destiny. Her words justify her desire to attain more power throughout the play. Regardless of Tesman’s actions to please her, such as buying her the Secretary Falk Villa because she would not “care to live anywhere” else, she always craves more (Act I).
The typical role of women in a Norwegian society would accept such a gift; however, due to her luxurious lifestyle prior to her marriage, she is portrayed as dissatisfied. Society expects women to leave behind their previous lifestyle and accustom to their new lifestyle with their husband, but Hedda challenges this practice by continuing to utilize power from her father’s social class, which depicts women as empowered beings. . Furthermore, Hedda Gabler’s character portrays a visage of a woman’s power through her sexuality. When Aunt Julia and Tesman meet in the beginning, Aunt Julia brings up the topic of how it is astonishing “that [Tesman] should be the one to carry off Hedda Gabler - the beautiful Hedda Gabler, ” adding that she “was so beset with admirers” (Act I). It becomes clear that Aunt Julia is enchanted by Hedda Gabler because her nephew made a prestigious feat since Tesman has “several good friends about town who would like to stand in [his] shoes” (Act I). Aunt Julia’s admiration of Hedda displays one method of Hedda’s manipulation and control of others: beauty, a sexual aspect of women. After the bonnet incident took place with Hedda and Aunt Julia, Tesman changes the topic and urges for Aunt Julia to acknowledge Hedda’s “splendid condition” and “how she filled out on the journey, ” to which Aunt Julia responds by saying “God bless and preserve Hedda Tesman” (Act I).
Her joy presents a direct contrast to when Aunt Julia agrees with Berta that “[they] should never have dreamt in those days that [Hedda] and [George] would make a match of it” in regards to Hedda’s aristocratic nature (Act I). However, as Aunt Julia insinuates, her perception of Hedda changes, thus portraying the impact of a sensual quality and the way Hedda unintentionally uses the quality to secure control. Furthermore, Judge Brack, a friend of Tesman and Hedda, comes over to Tesman’s home. In excitement, Hedda notes that it “seem[s] like a whole eternity since [their] last talk, ” and Brack specifies that it was a “confidential talk. ” In addition, Brack reveals his intentions of becoming “a trusted friend” of “the mistress, ” suggesting a “triangular friendship” with Brack in their marriage (Act II). Brack is intrigued by Hedda as Hedda's high level of comfort with Brack is clear from her willingness to complain to him about her marriage, such as exclaiming, it is intolerable “to [be] everlastingly in the company of the one and the same person, ” referring to Tesman (Act II). When talking alone to Tesman or Mrs. Elvsted, she seems to be manipulating them or merely whining, but here she seems to be truly revealing her grievances.
The reference to a “triangular friendship” seems to indicate an adulterous relationship, which is Hedda’s way of controlling Brack. Eilert Lovburg, a former lover of Hedda, comes over to the Tesmans’ as Tesman earlier had written a letter to him. Striking up a conversation regarding their former relationship, Lovburg asks Hedda if there was “love in [their friendship], ” and Hedda responds that they were “two good comrades, ” and her previous desire for the “secret intimacy” and “craving for life” (Act II). Hedda clearly keeps Eilert in a fairly high regard. A key method for controlling Brack and Eilert is to make them think that she wants to keep them in her confidence without letting Tesman know. Similar to their relationship in the past, this conversation is kept secret, and this intimacy intrigues Eilert. Hedda unintentionally and intentionally uses sexual aspects of her gender to control the characters in the play, displaying women as powerful sexual beings.
Through the portrayal of Hedda Gabler’s character, Henrik Ibsen depicts women as formidable through Hedda exuding power through her actions, aristocratic background, and sexuality. Hedda challenges the stereotypical female expectations of the Victorian Era as a result of her nontraditional behavior and spoiled aristocratic demeanor. Also, her use of sexuality to control the characters emphasizes her dominance over the men and women in the play. Ultimately, women should be accurately represented in literature, as well as in reality.
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