Hedda Gabler: The Historical and Social Context

Hedda Gabler is not an easy character to get to know. At first reading she seems a bitter personality portrayed in an old-fashioned script set in an out-outmoded and foreign society. How could a woman in 102-year-old play possibly be understandable or relevant to the late-twentieth-century student? However, upon further examination, Hedda Gabler‘s fictional reality not only offers us the opportunity to observe the art and social concerns of Ibsen’s day, but extends to us a paradigm by which we may compare and evaluate the principles of our day.

In approaching this play, it is important to recall that Hedda was written as a theatrical work in the realm of contemporary realism, not as a historical curio. While the differences of culture and period now put a certain distance between ourselves and the subject, Ibsen was most emphatic that his characters were representative of actual human beings. Although in his two previous works, Rosmersholm and The Lady From the Sea, Ibsen had begun exploring the human psyche in more symbolic, mystical terms, Hedda marked a return to the theatrical style which we term “realism,” a method of playwriting in which the internal motivations of the personalities in the play are explored within a specific social context. Other hallmarks of the realistic style include the avoidance of devices such as soliloquies in favor of more natural exposition, causally related scenes leading logically to a denouement, and the creation of individual behavior directly attibutable to the heredity or environment of the character. All external stage details were authentic to the specific and current environment; all costumes, dialogue, and settings were carefully chosen to reveal the characters’ more critical psychological impulses. Though his dialogue may appear to modern readers as somewhat awkward and even coy, part of Ibsen’s genius was the ability to use conventional surroundings and conversation to express sentiments and circumstances that were considered unspeakable to the audience of the time. The original spectators would have been involved in the social, political, and scientific climate of the moment and thus able to grasp many of the implications of Hedda’s relationship to the prevailing world view. The filter of the present may prevent us from realizing that Ibsen was attacking his own social milieu head-on.
Ibsen’s views were recognizably part of the cutting edge of his time. He was well-traveled and read, and acquainted with the social movements of the period‹his reading included the daily, detailed perusal of a number of newspapers‹even as he was up-to-date on theatrical advancements. Although he himself expressly denied being “a feminist,” such scholars as Elinor Fuchs and Joan Templeton have convincingly shown that he was at the very least sympathetic to the beginnings of the women’s movement, and was even actively involved in the push to redefine the role of women in society. Certainly the creator of such seminal feminist archetypes as Lona Hessell, Nora Helmer, Helena Alving and Ellida Wangel could not have been blind to the implications of the plays in which they appeared.
Norway was not so remote that it was unaffected by the feminist debate of the Victorian age. While in 1871 Denmark led the Scandinavian countries in initiating an organization for improving women’s status, by the 1880s Norway had established a woman’s rights movement of its own. Growing economic pressures made it increasingly difficult for the middle-class family to provide for unmarried daughters in the home, but both prejudice and legislation barred women from either meaningful education or dignified employment. Some change was soon forthcoming; women were admitted to the University of Christiania (Oslo) in 1882, and 1884 saw the founding of Norsk Kvinnesaksforening (Norwegian Women’s Movement Association), a pioneering liberation coalition that remains active to this day. That same year Ibsen himself presented a petition to the government demanding that married women be granted the right to earnings and property.
Victorian attitudes were slower to change. While the lower class woman had for sometime been allowed to work in the factories, concessions had never been made in the home. Men did not assist with domestic responsibilities, leaving the women their “natural” duties in keeping the house and raising the children. This order of affairs had support in the nineteenth century Darwinian sciences‹medical and social experts alike taught that cultural, physiological, and psychological differences between genders were caused by evolutionary forces. The belief was that “women’s individual evolution was arrested earlier than men’s to permit the conservation of their energies for reproduction” (Lewis, Labor 2). Women were considered biologically more intuitive, self-sacrificing, and tender then men, and thus naturally disposed to choose marriage and motherhood‹any other choice was considered tragic. Even the arts of the day perpetuated this “ideology of domesticity”:
The “angel in the house,” sexually passive and refined, whose responsibility it was to oversee the provision of a sanctuary of well-ordered comfort and peace, became the literary ideal for middle-class women. In all classes of society, hearth and home acquired the significance of religious symbolism.
Steven Mintz explains in A Prison of Expectations that a woman was expected to maintain a “walled garden” of a home, a place where her husband could find refuge and be purified from his encounters with the harsh realities of his ruthless business world, and a place where the innocence of her children could be protected. A wife was thought able to maintain this refuge because of her special virtues of femininity…”Women, by their very natures, were intended to purify the sphere of family and home” (Boswell 33).
The special feminine traits attributed to women and extolled in literature included a capacity for cheerful docility, sentiment, delicacy of thought, goodness, unselfishness, joy in serving others, and tact, all springing from a woman’s instinctive moral superiority (Boswell 21). Part of the feminine moral superiority was the self-sacrifice of her own sexuality…”indeed, the idolized wife of the period was portrayed as asexual, void of desire herself and loved for her virtue, not her flesh” (Boswell 23). Her only passions were to be love of children and home and domestic duties.
In order for a woman to preserve this “moral superiority,” she had to be kept in her place, away from the manly affairs of economics and politics. In his book Victorian People and Ideas, Richard Altick concludes:
Putting aside woman’s lack of sexual passion, which… was universally accepted as a biological fact because to assume otherwise was indecent, there was the wider implication that woman was inferior to man in all ways except the unique one that counted most (to man): her femininity. Her place was in the home, on a veritable pedestal if one could be afforded, and emphatically not in the world of affairs.
The realm of womanly affairs, both literary and social, included motherhood. A mother was accountable for the health, manners, and morals of her children (Agress 34). She was to be conscientious in training her daughters to assume future angelic duties. In addition to passing along the complex body taboos designed to defend purity from earthly animal passions, the middle-to-upper- class mother was to drill her girls in the niceties of the intricate feminine social duties that marked her place in the pecking order of bourgeois society. An unfortunate error in either discipline could destroy the young woman’s reputation, and bar her from the polite circles that were her only outlets. Mothers were not as responsible for the daughters’ intellectual education:
Schooling was often seen as of secondary importance to the influence of the home in the education of middle-class girls….The more prosperous families might send their daughters to expensive and select boarding schools for a while; the less wealthy were more likely to patronize small homely “academies” which aimed to foster those same ideals of bourgeois that were nurtured in the middle-class home. An examination of the curriculum (both formal and informal) of the majority of girls’ boarding schools of the period will show that social values and objectives took precedence over academic goals: girls were educated with their marriage prospects and the ideal of the “cultivated homemaker” in mind. (Dyhouse 37)
Keeping in mind the ultimate goal of a “good marriage,” both parents and schools tended to strongly discourage bookishness, vocational aspirations, and other unfeminine behavior (Dyhouse 37). Instead, young women of all classes “expected to look after their families and hoped above all for a ‘good’ husband; that is, a good provider” (Lewis 11). Such would be the education that Hedda and Thea received both in society and at the school where they were classmates.
Viewed in the context of Ibsen’s era, Hedda becomes the embodiment of the identity crisis facing the middle-class woman during that transitional time. If women were to modify the accepted, limiting codes of behavior, what rules would the “new woman” follow? Hedda herself is unable to solve the dilemma, and in belonging to both the old and the new, is torn apart.
Raised by a privileged father in the unlanded Norwegian upper-class, Hedda is seasoned in freedoms more typical of males of the period, including experience with rough horsemanship and guns. Her guns, however, are not tools but mementos and dangerous toys. She has been granted masculine leisure and tastes, but not corresponding responsibilities or a useful education. She can never be the son that the Victorian General would have wanted.
Neither can she be her mother’s daughter. Significantly, Hedda’s mother is completely absent from the narrative, whether destroyed by the loss of the old values, the coming of the new, or merely by childbirth‹the reason is unknown. The system designed to transmit traditional values has broken down. There is no one to teach Hedda the specifics of the feminine codes in behavior or etiquette. The only inheritance which may have come from her mother is a shabby old piano, a possession she both values and disdains. She will not discard it, but neither will she put it on public display as she will the pistols and the portrait of her father.
Hedda seems reluctant to face either the passing of the old ways or the changes she faces in marrying Tesman. She dislikes the smell of the decaying potpourri, and spends her time reminiscing and re-enacting portions of her past relationship with Lövborg. Having out of necessity achieved her destiny of a respectable marriage, she sees no hope for the future of that union. Sighing over September, she seems to have somehow missed her own summer: “Hedda is not unripe, but rather is like an all-too-early decayed Autumn, as she returns to the narrow perspectives of a child and its playful self-seeking” (Salomé 131).
Certainly she does not look forward to the birth of the child whose presence in her womb propels her inevitably towards a future of either death in childbed, or life as a mother (which, in her childhood situation, also meant absence or death). She has no alternative. By temperament and upbringing she is as unsuited for Thea’s work as she is for Diana’s. As a female, she can only covet parasite Judge Brack’s male prerogatives. While she professes a desire to control destiny and make some real difference in a life, she sees no value in wife and motherhood, so vicariously participates in the romance of Lövborg’s dissipations. Endowed with a taste for the trappings of wealth (such as servants and expensive clothes), and ambitious to make her mark in social circles, she lacks both the social training and the inherited money to advance beyond her bourgeois desires. She clings to the fading glories of her fame as the dashing Miss Gabler and seethes in impotent jealousy.
Discontented as she is, Hedda’s suicide is still unexpected. One explanation of the violent act can be discovered in the Ibsen’s own pattern of playwriting, shaped in part by the world that shaped the playwright. As Charles Lyons explains in Hedda Gabler: Gender, Role, and World,
The dramatic character, Hedda, is not determined merely by the social restrictions imposed upon the female at the end of the nineteenth century as that world is represented by the social dynamics of the play; the character is also configured by the social dynamics of Ibsen’s basic sexual paradigm, a sexual paradigm that voices the male-dominated sexual ideology of Ibsen’s moment in history mediated through the idiosyncrasies of his own psyche.
Conscious as he was of the changing world around him, Ibsen could not help be influenced by the literary constructs that in part framed his developing intellect. Hedda, as well as Thea, may be seen as children of those literary constructions. According to the prevailing literature, if a woman was unable to succeed as an angel, she must be dealt with as a monster. And Ibsen not only attacked such a notion, in some ways, he can be seen as perpetuating it.
“Angelic” was indeed the term of the day, as reflected and reinforced by Coventry Patmore’s immensely successful poem “Angel in the House.” Published in 1854, this poem “describes the bliss that comes from marrying the pure, self-sacrificing Victorian maiden…and describes the bride-to-be in ‘other worldly’ terms”:
A rapture of submission lifts
Her life into celestial rest…
And round her happy footsteps blow
The authentic airs of
Paradise. (Boswell 22)
Patmore was by no means alone in comparing the Victorian wife and mother with angels. Poems, books, and plays of the day used the term and description freely, depicting heroines that “codified the womanly ideal…[as they] conform to the idealized stereotype of self-effacing, self-sacrificing ‘helpmeets'” (Boswell 22). And, in opposition to these heroines, were “wicked step-mothers,” or other monster women‹the independent and unfeminine characters who suggest, as Thackeray implied in Vanity Fair, that “every angel in the house…’proper, agreeable, and decorous,’ ‘coaxing and cajoling’ hapless men‹is really, perhaps a monster, ‘diabolically hideous and slimy.'” (Gilbert and Gubar 29). Victorian “angels in the house,” were expected not only to have power to run the house but the power to use their suppressed sexuality to give birth, which denotes power over the male. As Gilbert and Gubar explain, the angel of life is also an angel of death‹she may deny life or give death. The angel may be a much repressed demon who wants out.
In Hedda Gabler, wife Hedda becomes just such a death-giving fiend. Masculinized out of her angelhood, she turns her powers to malevolent manipulation, pitching family members against each other, dominating her friends, burning the fruits of Lövborg’s labors before driving him to emasculate himself, and finally murdering her own child. Unlike most of Ibsen’s heroines, she makes no real self-discovery and achieves no growth. Like the wicked queen of “Snow White” fame, she destroys herself in the mad pursuit of malignant “beauty.” Her suicide accomplishes nothing. Is Thea, therefore, the real heroine of the play? She is the one with the courage to ignore respectability, to change her life and leave her passionless marriage in pursuit of the man she loves. It would seem that Thea is as deserving the death sentence as surely as Hedda. Thea’s abandonment of her role as step-mother can be construed as a drive to actually fulfill her destiny as the snow-white angel. It is her purity that has reformed Lövborg, it is her presence that has so inspired him to write his masterpiece; the book is acknowledged as Lövborg’s and Thea’s sexless “Brain child.” Thea, of course, did none of the actual writing, as the ingrained belief of the Medieval, Romantic, and Victorian eras was in the actual “sonship” of the written text. According to that belief, an author literally fathered, with his female muse, a posterity of “brain children.” The power to create was thus exclusively male, and women attempting to write were considered presumptuous, freakish, unnatural, and subject to various health problems (Gilbert and Gubar 6-8).
Thea accomplished her angelic potential while actually in the Elvsted home, surviving in a dual marriage as she kept house and raised one man’s children while supporting another man with her love and inspiration. When that double-husband divided, and Thea was forced to divide her devotions and chose to leave the home, disaster ensued. She could neither keep Lövborg from falling back into evil ways, nor protect their literary child. In fact, Lövborg blamed her distrust of him for driving him back to drink. Thea could only redeem herself by offering to sacrifice herself in resurrecting Lövborg’s book. The play seems to suggest that she will additionally serve Tesman as a far superior replacement for Hedda. Once Hedda is destroyed, and Thea suitably paired Tesman, literary moral order will once again be restored.
Hedda Gabler is not only a fascinating play in itself, but it also serves as a reminder of a blind spot in our own day. Here at BYU, at the center of a community of people who sometimes succumb to the tendency to confuse Victorian cultural values with the teachings of the Restored Gospel, it can be helpful to recall the unhappy results of expecting women to conform to a social code that blames women for the failures of men, and expects young women to define themselves and their abilities solely within the parameters of patrocentric marriage.
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