The Individual and Society
Ibsen may be seen as a social dramatist in the sense that Hedda Gabler, like many of his greatest plays, is deeply engaged with the problems of the relationship between the individual and society. But he is not a social dramatist in the simpler sense that he is trying to find answers to remediable social ‘problems’. Rather, his great dramas, in various ways, deal with the major theme of Hedda Gabler, which is simultaneously a characteristic and tragic dilemma of modern man: how to be oneself, yet at the same time how to live in society? Because Ibsen sees no easy answer to this impasse or perhaps no answer at all, he has created one form of modern tragedy. John Northam’s remarks are apposite:
For a man of Ibsen’s generation the great opponent of man was seen to be society – not just society in its ‘problem play’ aspect, the source of definable, limitable, and often remediable misery, but society as a force working through a myriad of obscure agencies and trivial occasions, but working with a power and mystery comparable to that displayed by the Greek gods or the Elizabethan universe.
Is Hedda Gabler a Tragic Drama?
Many would object to the view that Hedda Gabler could be considered a tragedy. Such objections might be based, for example, on a feeling that prose is an inappropriate medium for the tragic vision, lacking the dignity and loftiness of the verse employed in Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, and incapable of embodying in language the large aspiration and greatness of soul associated with the traditional tragic hero. W. B. Yeats, for example, found in Ibsen only ‘the stale odor of split poetry’. Closely related is a traditionalist assumption that only certain types of characters are suitable for tragic treatment: Kings, Princes, those in high places. Hedda may seem ‘aristocratic’ to the mediocre Tesman, but her brand of aristocracy would not be of the kind to give her tragic status in the eyes of the traditionalists. Her fate does not involve the fate of nations; her drama is domestic rather than public and social. However, it can be pointed out to the traditionalists that to tie the essence of tragedy so firmly to a kind of social register seems more and more inappropriate in an egalitarian age, and that much literature of the last two hundred years – in the novel form as well as in the dramatic medium – has powerfully challenged ‘the assumption that tragic suffering is the somber privilege’ of the great and high-born, as in Greek and Elizabethan tragedy. It is true that verse can add immeasurably to the tragic effect, intensifying emotion, deepening our sense of character and widening the horizons of a drama to give it a quality of university. But it would be wrong to believe that Ibsen’s deliberate rejection of verse meant that he was not only committing himself to prose, but to the prosaic. Hedda Gabler (indeed all of Ibsen’s plays from The Wild Duck onwards) reveals his ability to imbue his realistic settings, natural and mundane object, and ordinary speech with a persistent and – to my mind – convincing symbolic resonance. Ultimately it is the power of Ibsen’s conception which he sees Hedda’s position ensures that we too see not merely a Norwegian housewife walking about in a drawing-room, but a theatrical image of trapped spirit in a cage; and the famous pistols and the references to the ‘vine leaves in the hair’ are only extreme examples of a tendency in all the dialogue to move towards deeper and ‘symbolic’ significances, as Ibsen strives to give dramatic embodiment not to the superficial externals but to the inner core of Hedda’s dilemma.
Is Hedda a Tragic Heroine?
It could still be argued that Hedda is not sufficiently sympathetic to be seen as a tragic heroine. Her contempt for her husband, her meanly destructive treatment of Thea, and her shocking and predatory interference in Loevborg’s life – none of these things is likeable. And what do her life and death teach us? Where are the positives in the play? Behind all this there lies the view that insists that the tragic hero must have nobility of spirit, and learn something positive from his suffering. R. P. Draper questions these prescriptions, which, as he says, work well for plays such as Hamlet but perhaps not quite so well for another kind of play, such as Macbeth:
Criticism which centers on this kind of tragedy (‘heroic tragedy’ like Hamlet, with its positive emphases) . . . tends to look for triumph in defeat, a tragedy that reassures rather than depresses. The tragedy which comes from distortion and perversion of the vital forces sustaining humanity, or the tragedy of bleakness deriving from a Schopenhauerian sense of the delusiveness of life itself – these are not catered for, or they are demoted to the level of non-tragedy.
Perhaps, as Draper implies, we need to broaden our notion of the tragic if it is too narrow to admit Hedda Gabler; we need to appeal to the theatrical experience.