Psychoanalysis in Hedda Gabler

The established view of Hedda Gabler sees the play as a study of the frustration and despair engendered in the exceptional individual by a conventionalized society. In this paper I present a psychoanalytic re-interpretation of the play which in certain respects inverts this received reading.

Insofar as it does so, however, my interpretation is intended not to cancel the received view but to play against it. The first section of the paper is predominantly Freudian in approach. The second section takes up certain Kleinian ideas which are broached in the first, and explores them more fully. The third section exploits some of Winnicott’s key concepts, especially as they have been elaborated by Christopher Bollas. The paper seeks to enlarge our understanding of the nature of Hedda Gabler’s alienation and despair through a fresh study of the dynamic structure of the play as a whole. I am also suggesting that Ibsen should be seen as a major precursor both of Freud and the object-relations tradition in psychoanalysis.

Section I – The Figure In The Carpet Introduction –
Ibsen And Psychoanalysis
‘Ibsen did not write or think as a Freudian,’ writes Robin Young in the Preface to his study of the dramatist (1989, p.12). As a scholar of the Norwegian language and its literature Young writes with at least one kind of indisputable authority. Unsurprisingly he asserts that Ibsen can only be understood in the context of the Norwegian literary culture he grew up with, and in this respect Young’s book makes interesting reading, especially in its provocative contention that Ibsen was in many respects an anti-Romantic. But if there is one truth which has emerged clearly from the age of theory it is that no text can be finally enclosed in a single defining and exclusive context, and of this truth Robin Young’s book provides striking illustration, for in reality both his general approach to Ibsen’s plays and his detailed interpretations of them would be unthinkable had Freud never written. Young consistently reads Ibsen’s symbolism as pointing to early experiences which have left his major characters emotionally crippled: Young’s Ibsen, like Freud, is an archaeologist of the psyche. It is in fact something of a regular feature of critical writing on Ibsen that where the critic feels impelled to distance himself from psychoanalysis (as several do), the Freudian infection will nevertheless be seen to have invaded his text in one surreptitious fashion or another. (Clurman, 1977, and Gray, 1977, are notable examples.)
Critical writing on a given author will frequently reproduce the field of forces which animate the author’s work. In my view psychoanalysis features as the ‘other’ of Ibsen criticism because the conception, birth and development of psychoanalysis are in fact profoundly foreshadowed in Ibsen’s major plays. In this paper I argue, indeed, that Ibsen writes and thinks not only as a Freudian, but that in Hedda Gabler in particular he is a major precursor of both Melanie Klein and D.W.Winnicott. Moreover among contemporary analytic writers one of the most interesting of the successors of Klein and Winnicott is Christopher Bollas. I shall suggest that the argument is strikingly confirmed, therefore, when we find that Bollas’s work on the ‘unthought known’, the ‘first human aesthetic’ and the ‘destiny drive’ resonates uncannily with Ibsen’s play (Bollas, 1978, 1987, and 1989) and in particular with the heroine’s characteristic preoccupation with the ‘beautiful’. As I attempt to substantiate these large claims I am also proposing a radical reorientation of the received understanding of Hedda Gabler, for in my view the play has been emptied of much of its originality through a reading which reduces it to a familiar critique of ‘bourgeois society’ – a reading, that is to say, which is itself shallow and conventionalised.
Plot And Themes Of The Play
The established reading of Ibsen’s play focusses very much on its central character, who is seen in some qualified sense at least, as an existential, or romantic, or tragic heroine. Hedda Gabler, it seems, presents us with a particular version of ‘liberal tragedy’, that form in which the claims of an alienated individual are uncompromisingly asserted against those of a conventional society (Williams, 1966 and 1971). At the age of twenty nine, and having ‘danced herself out’, the aristocratic Hedda Gabler has married Jorgen Tesman, an indefatigable scholar and pedant. If Tesman’s world seemed to offer her some sort of security, in the event she feels that she is suffocating in its claustrophobically middle class atmosphere. The action of the play is presided over by the portrait of Hedda’s father, General Gabler, which now hangs in the Tesmans’ drawing room. This portrait of Hedda’s dead father serves as the symbol of a moribund military-aristocratic world which no longer offers his daughter a home. Of her mother we hear no mention at all, and Hedda’s only other remaining connection with the world she comes from is the pair of pistols which she has inherited from her father. Her disconcerting habit of firing off these pistols, from time to time, dramatises the profound dissonance between herself and her present world, and her frustration with the emptiness of her life. It seems she can conceive of no future for herself other than a life of excruciating boredom. During the opening scenes of the play various hints are thrown out to suggest that Hedda is pregnant, but the prospect of motherhood is so far from providing her with a reason for living that it seems to be anathema to her. Certainly the child would be born into an unpromising environment, for throughout the play we have the utmost difficulty in thinking of Hedda and Tesman as a parental couple. Tesman’s assumption that they have everything in common is matched by Hedda’s inward belief that they have nothing. I shall suggest in my later discussion that the struggle to constitute the parental couple is one of the play’s deep preoccupations.
If Hedda’s character has been formed in a military-paternal setting, Tesman still lives in an atmosphere of motherly concern, brought up as he has been by a trio of adoring and self-sacrificing women – his two Aunts, Julle and Rina, and Berte, the maid. During the opening sequence of the action, with the Tesmans newly returned from a six month honeymoon trip in Europe, we are given an early indication of Hedda’s hostility to the world in which she finds herself when, on an impulse, she speaks slightingly of a hat which she knows to be Aunt Julle’s, but which she pretends to believe is ‘the maid’s’. That she knew the hat to be Aunt Julle’s is revealed to us through a subsequent passage of dialogue between Hedda and Judge Brack. The latter is a friend of the family with whom she shares a habit of risqué conversation; he is as cold-bloodedly cynical as Tesman is naďve and good-natured, and his one purpose throughout the play is to engineer an affair with Hedda.
Meanwhile much greater scope for the central character to act upon her world opens up before her with the arrival on the scene of Thea Elvsted, a younger colleague of Hedda’s during her schooldays. A good deal of our sense of the play’s direction is produced by the interplay between these two female characters. It can hardly be said, however, that the initial comparison suggests that Hedda is the more independent or romantic of the two women. Hedda has married Tesman apparently for no better reason than that ‘he insisted with might and main on being allowed to support me’ (HG, p.300). Thea, on the other hand, has just walked out of her own marriage of convenience on account of what now seems to her a higher vocation, for she has become dedicated to the role of companion and support to Ejlert Loevborg, a gifted but unstable writer, who might at any moment, it seems, return to his former drunken habits, but for Thea’s loyal ministrations.
Complications unfold when we learn that Hedda herself has had an earlier relationship with Loevborg, which broke up when she threatened to shoot him. It seems that she did so because, for her, Loevborg had in some undisclosed fashion begun to ask too much of the relationship. Since that time Loevborg’s life has taken another turn, for under the tutelage of Thea Elvsted he has written two books – the first, a general history of society, has been a succčs d’estime; the second, a meditation on the future, exists only in manuscript but promises to make a considerable stir when it is published. Hedda’s complex feelings about the relationship between Thea and Loevborg fuel the action of the play. To what extent her apparent belief that Loevborg should be liberated from the constraints of his relationship with Thea is a rationalization of her jealousy it is not easy to discern, but at any rate she so works upon him that he goes to a bachelor party given by Brack and gets drunk once again. The consequence is that he loses the manuscript, which by this time has acquired an intense emotional value for all concerned – they have come to think of it, in fact, as a child. When the manuscript comes into Hedda’s possession, via Tesman (who found it by the roadside), she burns it; and when the distraught Loevborg (who knows only that he has lost the ‘child’) returns to her house, she encourages his thoughts of suicide – and puts into his hands one of her father’s pistols. Loevborg makes his way back to the rooms of ‘Mademoiselle Diana’, where he believes the manuscript was stolen from him, and in an unruly scene (reported to Hedda by Judge Brack) the pistol goes off and Loevborg is killed. Brack attempts to use these circumstances to play upon Hedda’s fear of scandal and so to blackmail her into a liaison. But in the dénouement, while Thea and Tesman are beginning to try to reconstruct Loevborg’s manuscript from the notes which Thea kept, Hedda shoots herself. It is left to the dismayed Brack to pronounce the final speech: ‘One doesn’t do that kind of thing.’ (HG, p.364)
Imagining The Child
As I have indicated I think that Robin Young is correct when he argues that much of the published commentary on Ibsen’s plays gives an over romantic view of his work. In the case of Hedda Gabler even John Northam (1973), perhaps the most reliable of Ibsen critics (in English at any rate) seems to me to give a hugely distorted account of the play. Like other commentators Northam is preoccupied with the character of the protagonist, her supposed revolt against ‘middle class society’, the authenticity or otherwise of her final action, and hence the validity of her claims to heroic status. Though these issues routinely provide the agenda for most discussion of the play, I shall argue that they are only very partially what Hedda Gabler is about. The protagonist of Ibsen’s play is for all of us a deeply troubling dramatic creation – outside of Shakespeare and the Greeks, none more so perhaps. Northam attempts to escape from the challenging perplexity which Hedda Gabler arouses in our minds by producing a highly romanticised appraisal of her character and actions. When he attributes to Ibsen’s heroine ‘a residually creative sense of human potentiality’ (p.182) Northam undoubtedly points to something which is at the heart of the play, but his belief that she also displays ‘serene self-confidence’ (p.168) is simply astonishing, for what is Hedda Gabler if not a deeply troubled soul?
In producing his idealized portrait of Ibsen’s central character Northam is responding, albeit wrong-headedly, I believe, to the central dynamic of Ibsen’s play. It seems to me that as we watch Hedda Gabler we feel that the cast of characters as a whole faces the responsibility of nurturing the germ of life doubly symbolised by Loevborg’s book and Hedda’s unborn child. As the play goes forward it evokes in us a profound concern and apprehension for the future of this ‘child’. The play works upon us with such gravity and depth of feeling because from first to last we fear that the human group before us is mortally near to failure in the ‘holding’ and nurturance of its ‘offspring’. Critical misreading of the play derives from the obscuring of this very troubling question of the fate of the ‘child’ – and the corresponding flight into an attempt to redeem Hedda Gabler so that, however desperately, she may be seen not as a destroyer but as the carrier of the life-principle in the play. These processes of repression and distortion are at work in Northam’s paragraphs on the burning of the book. In describing this event Northam more or less veils from sight the eerily dreadful spectacle of the mother-to-be burning a ‘child’: ‘Now I’m burning your child, Thea – you and your curly hair! Your child and Eilert Loevborg’s. Now I’m burning – now I’m burning your child.’ (HG, p.345) The fearful ambiguity of that last sentence (‘I am burning…’) reveals that the annihilating hatred which is dramatised in this scene is directed as much against the self as against the object. To refer to this moment as a ‘tremendous fulfilment’, as Northam does (p.169), serves not only to obscure the horror of it, but to prevent us altogether from grasping the significance of the book-child theme within the play as a whole.
Triangular Patterns
To ignore this theme is to turn aside, understandably perhaps, from some of the deepest unconscious fears, phantasies and anxieties which the play arouses: that if we surrender to some of our darkest impulses, for instance, we may destroy everything that is good in the world. It is also, at the same time, to miss the way in which the book-child theme shapes the structure of the play as a whole. Throughout Hedda Gabler there is a triangular patterning which has been given remarkably little attention, despite the fact that it is very prominently highlighted during the scenes between Hedda and Brack:              
Brack:          All want is to have a pleasant intimate circle of friends where I can be useful, in one way or another, and can come and go freely – like a trusted friend.
Hedda:        Of the husband, you mean?
Brack:          (Leaning forward) To be quite frank, preferably of the wife. But of the husband, too, in the second place, of course. I assure you that sort of—shall I call it triangular relationship? – is actually a very pleasant thing for everybody concerned.
(HG, p.300-1)
I shall suggest that in the course of the play this triangular patterning continually forms and re-forms itself – as if in some shifting magnetic field – in three distinct but essentially related figurations. The book-child theme is embedded in the more overt drama of sexual liaisons and rivalries, for example, in that the various couplings suggest a range of possibilities as to the parentage of the ‘child’. And because the play generates so many different ‘subject positions’, in this and other ways, we come to feel that it is being staged in some figurative space in which the potentialities of human nature are being very profoundly explored.
(i) Sexual Jealousies
If, as I shall go on to show, the book-child motif is truly the figure in the carpet, it is the play of adult sexual relationships which provides as it were the setting for the more subliminal modulations of the theme. All of the major characters are most obviously defined of course by the parts they play in the kind of triangular situations which are of such absorbing interest to Hedda and Brack. The two female characters (three if we include the non-appearing Mademoiselle Diana) are combined with the three males (four if we include Thea Elvsted’s husband) to produce almost every possible coupling. Thea is married to Elvsted, but devoted to their children’s tutor, Loevborg; at the close she will form a relationship with Tesman to resurrect the ‘child’ she created with Loevborg. Hedda is married but not committed to Tesman. Earlier in her life she feared to commit herself to her affair with Loevborg, and now she toys dangerously with Judge Brack. Thea Elvsted is jocularly referred to as an old flame of Tesman’s. Now respectably married, however, this complacent husband has no thought that he might have rivals – though in fact Loevborg is jealous of him and Brack is determined to outflank them both. Finally, the two women are also involved in a complex pattern of rivalry. Hedda is jealous of Thea’s relationship with Loevborg and of the latter’s connection with Mlle Diana, while Thea is jealous of the ‘other’ woman of Loevborg’s imagination – who may again be Diana but is most probably Hedda herself.
The ways in which sexuality figures in human life are further dramatized in the play through such varying manifestations as the off-stage world of Mlle Diana, which shadows the bourgeois respectabilities, on the one hand, to Aunt Julie’s domestic rejoicing in Hedda’s pregnancy, on the other. In fact it is only the relationship between Hedda and Brack – a sterile and destructive sparring between egotisms – which has no reference at all to the theme of the ‘child’. From Hedda’s marriage to Tesman, to the relationship formed during the closing scene by Tesman and Mrs Elvsted (with a view to their resurrecting Loevborg’s book-child) each liaison is shaped by this second ‘triangular’ theme – that is to say, the parental couple with their embryonic offspring. At the level of social themes Ibsen’s supposed preoccupation with individual fulfillment is inseparable in this play from the equally powerful theme of responsibility. If it is obvious that Hedda Gabler reworks the plot and themes of A Doll’s House, one of the major differences is that, unlike the earlier play, Hedda Gabler does not sidestep the question of the children, or child. On the contrary, so intensely is the theme of the child-book imbricated in the sexual relationships that the play does not allow us to think of freedom, fulfillment and responsibility as separable concepts. Conventional readings and some of Ibsen’s polemical utterances notwithstanding, this play, as a whole, is so far from proposing an isolated individualism as an ideal that it presents the theme of human potentiality in terms of the creative/destructive couple and moreover makes the fate of the child-book within that setting an essential measure of the relationship itself. So central is this motif that, in my view, the struggle within the play to constitute a realm within which the child-book might survive is the play.
(ii) The Parents-And-Child Triangle – Klein, Winnicott And Creativity
In her chapter on ‘Art and the depressive position’ in Dream, Phantasy and Art Hannah Segal refers to the familiar notion that the ‘work of art is often felt by the artist as a symbolic baby’ (1991, p.95). In Kleinian terms symbol-making is linked, of course, with the idea of ‘reparation’. While the rage and frustrations of infancy are vented, in imagination, against the frustrating object (the breast/mother), the ‘depressive position’ is reached when the infant becomes able to deal with ambivalent feelings of love and hate towards the frustrating object, to experience guilt and depression about his/her own destructiveness, and to wish to ‘restore’ the maternal object which has been ‘destroyed’. For Hannah Segal this line of thought leads to an important Kleinian paradox, namely that ‘the artist’s work is new and yet arises from an urge to recreate or restore’. Insofar as creative work is a restoration of lost objects in the internal world it generates a sense of re-discovery; but insofar as the process is necessarily symbolic, the subject ‘has the freedom of its use – it is something created anew’. Hannah Segal goes on to capture this Kleinian paradox in a sentence which resonates extraordinarily, I believe, with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Of the dual process of restoration/creation she writes: ‘It is a restoring in one’s internal world of a parental couple creating a new baby.’ (p.95)
In my view this is a beautifully succinct statement of the dynamic which engages us so deeply in Hedda Gabler. The reason why we are so actively engaged in Ibsen’s play is that we are drawn into a realm of potentiality – by the means which I have outlined. The world of the play is not given – it is not there in the list of dramatis personae, in an account of the plot, or even in the action on the stage insofar as this might be the object of a spectator’s attention. The work which Ibsen has given us is there only as we participate in the play of effects whereby the existence of a realm in which the ‘baby’ might have a life is always in question: throughout the play this realm is always being created – and destroyed.
The play concerns itself with the making and unmaking of the human world. The sense of some fundamental breakdown within the community of the play is dramatised in the strange duality of the book-child theme. In ‘Living Creatively’ Winnicott writes:
… it has to be remembered that a baby may be conceived uncreatively – that is without being conceived of, without having been arrived at as an idea in the mind. On the other hand, a baby may start up just at the right moment when it is wanted by both parties. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee studies the fate of a baby that is conceived of, but without taking flesh. What a remarkable study in both play and film! (1970, p.48)
Albee’s play has striking affinities with Hedda Gabler. The unborn child of the Tesmans’ marriage has been conceived but not conceived of, while the book-child of Thea and Loevborg (like George and Martha’s imaginary son in the later play) has been conceived of, but is not a fleshly child. Like Albee’s play, Hedda Gabler uses the intriguingly subtle theme of the imaginary child to explore what it means to live creatively, and more particularly, what it means when one is unable to find the clue to doing so. For Ibsen, as for Winnicott, there is no more fundamental theme. In Hedda Gabler Ibsen’s most memorable character wages a life and death struggle to overcome her sense of futility, to escape from her despair at being unable to live creatively. For Hedda is no more able to create a living conception of her own life than she is to conceive of a life for the child she has conceived with Tesman.
In ‘Living Creatively’ Winnicott summarises much of his thinking on this subject when he says that ‘Creativity… is the retention throughout life of something that belongs properly to the infant experience: the ability to create the world.’ He goes on to say that, ‘for the baby this is not difficult, because if the mother is able to adapt to the baby’s needs, the baby has no initial appreciation of the fact that the world was there before he or she was conceived or conceived of.’ (p.40) In a later paragraph he outlines the process whereby creativity is retained as the ‘reality principle’ makes itself felt:
The infant becomes ready to find a world of objects and ideas, and, at the same pace of growth of this aspect of the baby, the mother is presenting the world to the baby. In this way, by her degree of adaptation at the beginning, the mother enables the baby to experience omnipotence, to actually find what he creates, to create and link up with what is actual. The nett result is that each baby starts up with a new creation of the world. (p.49)
When ‘what we create’ and ‘what we find’ are ‘linked up’ we are of course in the realm of the transitional object, that ‘third area’ or ‘potential space’ in which play and symbol-making begin, and continue throughout life (Winnicott, 1971). In the world of Hedda Gabler it is as if there has been some tear in the fabric of things whereby she is denied access to this realm of experience. For her the actual is no more than the actual. At a loss to find the gesture which would effect the transformation she yearns for, Hedda will seek to animate her existence through manipulation of the lives of others.
(iii) The Primal Scene
What are the obstacles to the creative realization of the powerful energies embodied in the heroine of Hedda Gabler and those around her? How is it that the birth and survival of the child-book, bound up as they are with the gestation of the play itself, are attended by so much anxiety and apprehension? An initial part of the answer to this question concerns the way in which Freud’s ‘primal scene’ figures in the play – haunts it indeed, from beginning to end. The opening exchange of the play, between Tesman’s Aunt Julle, and his servant Bertha, notify us that the young couple, Jorgen Tesman and Hedda Gabler, having returned the previous evening from a six month honeymoon trip, are still in bed, though it seems to be quite late in the morning. These events, especially as they are spoken of by these two good-hearted and motherly women, are natural enough in themselves, but everything which subsequently happens in the play serves to make the nature of the sexual relationship between the off-stage couple (which is of course variously constituted) a source of great perplexity for the ‘spectator’ both on and off the stage, this of course being the essence of the primal scene experience. Here then we have the third variation of the triangular figure which structures the play. The primal scene, in Ibsen’s play at least, is the troubling shadow of the process outlined by Hannah Segal. ‘The restoration…of the parental couple creating a new baby’ constitutes a set of good object relations in the ‘inner world’, but the primal scene engenders jealousy and, as Melanie Klein suggests, envy. The one promotes a secure relationship between self and world, the other a disturbing confusion between reality and fantasy: the benign autonomy of the inner stage on the one hand, and the anxious fascination of the peep-show – with the voyeur as victim, on the other.
Projected for us by Aunt Julle and Bertha, our initial impression of the sexual couple is, it seems, perfectly wholesome. In every aspect of the play, however, benign impressions rapidly give way to a sense of unease, anxiety and menace. If the primal scene effects are complex and multi-layered, however, one reason for this is that while Hedda Gabler features as the female partner in that opening sequence, for much of the play she figures as the child-spectator. Her intimacy with Judge Brack, for instance, is constituted not so much by any mutual passion but by his feeding her sexual curiosity with gossip about the goings on in circles which are closed to her:
Brack:          And so the procession starts, gentleman. I hope we shall have a gay time, as a certain charming lady puts it.
Hedda:        Ah, if only that charming lady could be there, invisible –
Brack:          Why invisible?
Hedda:        So as to hear a little of your gaiety—uncensored, Mr Brack.      (HG, p.323)
On the following morning Brack describes to Hedda how Loevborg ‘fetched up at a party at Mademoiselle Diana’s rooms’, and how – when Loevborg created a scene about the disappearance of his pocket-book, the result was ‘a general fight in which both the ladies and the gentlemen were involved’ (HG, p.336). And all this comes to a climax when Brack later reveals to Hedda that Loevborg did not die in hospital but was actually ‘found shot in – in Mademoiselle Diana’s boudoir’ (HG, p.358). Though the nuance of Ibsen’s text is apparently untranslatable, we are to understand that the bullet destroys Loevborg’s sexual organ. (See Durbach, p.47.) During the course of the play the scene of sexual coupling, which remains pretty constantly before the mind’s eye, is transformed from the domestic picture of the newly-weds asleep in bed, to that of an indiscriminate and deadly combat taking place in a house of ill-repute. Freud noted that the primal scene is felt by the child to be sadistic in nature, but he did not explain this finding. Melanie Klein holds that the child projects its own envious hatred into the scene – and into the phantasy of the ‘combined parent figure’ – which both denies the parents’ sexuality and embodies the child’s hostility (‘a general fight in which both the ladies and the gentlemen were all involved’). The processes of splitting, doubling and inversion in the play are beyond anything like exhaustive analysis, but perhaps the most important version of the primal triangle is that constituted by Loevborg and Thea – with Hedda as ‘spectator’. In my view Hedda’s notion that she breaks up the Loevborg-Thea relationship in order to ‘liberate’ Loevborg is a transparent rationalization of the ruthless envy which impels her to destroy this creatively parental liaison. In the end it seems that the only staging of the primal scene which Hedda will be prepared as it were to live with is the dreadful inversion of it which is constituted by the scene of her own death – where she turns the paternal pistol-phallus against herself and seeks an astonishingly paradoxical affirmation of selfhood through the psychic erasure of any trace of her own origin.
SECTION II -’THE WORST SYNNE THAT IS’ CREATIVITY, ENVY AND DESTRUCTIVENESS
The restoration within the play of a realm embodied in ‘the parental couple creating a new baby’ is menaced, as I’ve said, by its shadow – in the form of primal scene anxieties, and more obviously by the drama of sexual conflict and rivalry. The dramatis personae in Hedda Gabler can rather crudely be classified in two categories – the concerned (Thea Elvsted, Tesman, Aunt Julie, Berte) and the demonic (Loevborg, Brack, Hedda). If the play is viewed in this way then the theme which I have explored might be expressed as a search for a profoundly elusive sense of integration. But if it is the case that creativity would be realized in the marriage of imagination and concern, then this union seems to be (almost) beyond the play’s conceiving, for within the collective psyche of the play imaginative energy seems to be entirely dissociated from concern and inseparably linked with ruthlessness. It is clear in fact that the sense of creative potentiality which the play generates is matched, if not overborne, by a will to destruction which threatens to leave us with nothing but its own epitaph to contemplate.
Envy In Chaucer And David Fincher’s Seven
In my view the treatment of human destructiveness in Hedda Gabler presents us with a remarkable anticipation of Melanie Klein’s writings on the theme of envy. In everyday speech the word envy carries no very sinister vibration perhaps, but there is nevertheless a variety of testimony to the effect that this sin is the most deadly aberration of which human nature is capable. In Chaucer’s ‘Parson’s Tale’, for instance, we are told that ‘Envye… is the worst synne that is’, for two very similar reasons: one is that envy is the malicious enemy of ‘bountee’ – which is the quality which characterises the ‘Hooly Goost’ itself; and the second is that envy is ‘ageyns alle vertues and alle goodnesses’. Envy, we are told, is the only sin which does not have ‘som delit in itself’ but only ‘angwissh and sorwe’ (Chaucer, 1957, pp.242-3). The medieval theme of the seven deadly sins is re-examined in David Fincher’s horrifically gruesome but highly intelligent film with the laconic title Seven. What is of particular interest here is that while the sins come up in more than one order as the action proceeds, the traditional list is in the end re-arranged so that envy features, very dramatically, as the final one – underwriting, as it were, all the others. In the course of the film the psychotic character refered to as ‘John Doe’ (Kevin Spacey) stages a series of seven murders, each of which revolves around one of the seven sins, each of his victims being guilty of one of them. John Doe’s project is to preach a shattering sermon on the condition of the times: his view of their grim corruption links him, ironically, with one of the two detectives who are pursuing him – the humane but very disillusioned Detective Lieutenant played by Morgan Freeman. In the dénouement of the film John Doe contrives so to work upon the irascible temperament of Morgan Freeman’s younger colleague, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), that the latter shoots John Doe himself, as Doe had always intended that he should. This final episode dramatises the last two sins on John Doe’s list – wrath and envy – for John Doe has revealed that this latter is his own sin: ‘I wish I could have lived like you’, he says to Mills, ‘I envy your normal life.’ While no summary can evoke the appalling grimness of this dénouement, and all that has led up to it, the logic of the final revelation is clear enough. As we are told in the ‘Parson’s Tale’, envy is different from and worse than the other sins, and, as understood here – as the envy not merely of the other’s possessions (covetousness) but of the quality of his life – it is the most consuming and destructive of those seven sins. This view of the matter is also exactly in keeping with René Girard’s analysis, as he summarises it in the introduction to A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare: ‘Envy involuntarily testifies to a lack of being that puts the envious to shame… that is why envy is the hardest sin to acknowledge.’ (1991, p.6)
Iago, ‘John Doe’, And Hedda Gabler
Mention of Shakespeare in this context will not necessarily bring to mind Othello, but I shall suggest that both this play and Hedda Gabler are dramas of jealousy – each of which masks a more rooted tale of envy. Hedda and Iago are compulsively driven to destroy that which puts them to shame – the creative being of the other. One of the metaphors which animate the speeches of Iago is the notion of riches and poverty as a figure for the individual’s sense of himself and his relationship with the other:
…Poor and content is rich, and rich enough,
But riches, fineless, is as poor as winter
To him that fears he shall be poor… (III iii 176-8)
Like many of Iago’s speeches which are apparently calculated to create a certain effect upon others, these lines are in reality expressive of something in Iago’s own nature. Hedda Gabler is also a calculatingly ruthless manipulator of other people’s lives, and in a transitory moment of self-revelation she gives expression to the link between her desire to control and her own poverty of being in similar terms:
Hedda:        I want, for once in my life, to have power over a human being’s fate.
Mrs Elvsted: But haven’t you got that?
Hedda:        I have not. I never have had.
Mrs Elvsted: Not over your husband’s?
Hedda:        That would be worth having wouldn’t it? Ah, if you could only realise how poor I am. And here you are, offered such riches! (Throwing her arms passionately round her.) I think I shall burn your hair off, after all.             (HG, p.324)
There is, then, a certain affinity between Iago, ‘John Doe’, and Hedda Gabler – a gnawing life-emptiness which drives on to extreme solutions. If it is obvious enough that each of these three characters is a manipulator of other people’s lives, what is so revealing is that none of them has in view any object which might be classified as worldly gain. (Iago is ostensibly put out over Cassio’s promotion, but this no more explains Iago than his fantastical notion that Othello has cuckolded him does so.) Frighteningly unable to find the experience of guilt, still less the impulse to make reparation, each of them seeks to fill the void of his or her own being through control of the lives of others. What is then above all so strikingly similar is that each of these characters is driven to stage a scene, or scenes, of appalling human destruction; for envy, of the kind we are dealing with here, emerges as the most dramatic – or rather the most dramaturgical – of the seven deadly sins. Envy in Hedda Gabler presents us with the antithesis of the ‘restoring in one’s internal world of a parental couple creating a baby’. It stages the destruction of the parental couple and the abortion/murder of the life of the baby. Once the exposition is complete this dynamic shapes the action of the play: Hedda undermines the relationship between Loevborg and Thea; she burns the manuscript which they created; she incites Loevborg to commit suicide, providing him with one of her pistols so that he may do so; and with the other pistol she shoots herself, thereby ending the life of the child she has conceived with Tesman.
‘The capacity to give and to preserve life,’ writes Melanie Klein, ‘is felt as the greatest gift and therefore creativeness becomes the deepest cause for envy’ (1957, p.40). Observations such as these are grounded of course in Klein’s reading of the relationship between infant and mother in some of its earliest phases. The ‘good breast’ – the mother’s life-giving nurturance of the child – is experienced as the first, the primal ‘good object’. While identification with this good object provides a first ‘impetus to creativeness’, these processes are always complex: envy and aggression may also be engendered against the magical but at times frustrating powers of the good object, and while these primitive dynamics will as a rule be more or less overcome when, in the ‘depressive position’, the capacity to live with ambivalence begins to develop, envy of creativeness will (like the Oedipus complex) remain in varying degrees as a component of the individual psyche.
From a Kleinian point of view the choice of alcoholism as the weakness of character which Hedda is able to exploit – in order to wreak havoc upon the relationship between Loevborg and Thea – is by no means an arbitrary one. If it is obvious enough that Thea Elvsted plays the part of the good mother who literally weans Loevborg, lovingly, from his addiction, how is Hedda Gabler’s cruel exploitation of that addiction to be understood? Like a number of other accounts of her motives which she puts forward, Hedda’s claim that in driving Loevborg back to drink she is liberating him clearly lacks authenticity. Like Iago’s more or less fantastic rationalisations, and indeed John Doe’s claim that for him to carry out a series of psychotic murders is to preach a sermon to humanity, her assertion bears all the signs of a perverse rationalisation. Gnawed by her emptiness Hedda gives herself the phantasy ‘satisfaction’, through her identification with Loevborg, of both greedily consuming and wreaking vengeance upon the frustrating good object.
Hedda Gabler, Jorgen Tesman and the Masks of Envy
The stereotypical reading of Hedda Gabler, which sees Tesman, with his relatives and household, as representing a claustrophobically bourgeois complacency – and Hedda, by a simple antithesis, as the imprisoned spirit of authentic protest – makes the real complexities of Ibsen’s play impossible to discern. Within the terms of this conventional opposition Hedda’s marriage, for example, can only remain an unaccountable riddle. Her own explanation – ‘I had simply danced myself out…’ (HG, p.299) – is patently inadequate, another characteristic rationalisation. Are we not invited to ponder the idea that in some very much unacknowledged fashion Hedda Gabler is actually drawn to Jorgen Tesman and what he represents for her? A powerful insight of Melanie Klein’s seems to me to make clear how this might be so:
A particular cause of envy is the absence of it in others. The envied person is felt to possess what is at bottom most prized and most desired – and this is a good object, which also implies a good character and sanity. Moreover the person who can ungrudgingly enjoy other people’s creative work and happiness is spared the torments of envy, grievance and persecution. Whereas envy is a source of great unhappiness, a relative freedom from it is felt to underlie contented and peaceful states of mind – ultimately sanity. (p.41)
The subject of envy comes up at a crucial moment in one of the scenes between Hedda and Tesman, when Tesman is about to reveal that he has Loevborg’s manuscript in his possession. Before revealing this he makes clear in his own way how much the book has impressed him:
Tesman:       You can’t think what a book that’s going to be. I should think it’s going to be one of
the most remarkable things that’s ever been written. Just think!
Hedda:        No doubt. That doesn’t interest me.
Tesman:       I must admit one thing Hedda. When I read it, a perfectly detestable feeling came over me.
Hedda:        Detestable?
Tesman:       There I was envying Eilert for having been able to write a thing like that. Just think, Hedda.
Hedda:        Yes, yes. I am.              (HG, pp 330-1)
The ironies which arise from this interchange are by no means what might be expected. To begin with let us note that it is Tesman who is stirred by the book, and Hedda who is too self-enclosed to take any interest in it, even though the play leads us to believe that she is one of its begetters, and the critics would have us believe that she is the poetic-imaginative spirit of the play. At the same time, if the kind of innocence which Tesman displays in this passage makes him frequently appear comically naďve in the eyes of the audience and tediously limited in Hedda’s, the ‘relative freedom’ from discontent which very much goes with it, is also itself enviable.
That Hedda should despise what she is drawn to is a not unfamiliar trait in human nature. In my view she is not only drawn to Tesman’s good nature in itself, but to the atmosphere of motherly concern which has given him a sense of well-being not always distinguishable, it’s true, from the self-centredeness of the spoilt child. Nor is Aunt Julle’s affectionate concern for those around her merely shallow or sentimental. Her care for her sister is uncomplaining and long-suffering, and whether Hedda Gabler’s dealings with death are any more ‘authentic’ is, I would suggest, at least debateable. At any rate Hedda’s irrational attacks on Tesman’s world, as exemplified by the episode with Aunt Julle’s new hat, can clearly be read as expressions of her destructive envy.
Hedda Gabler and Her World Of Objects
If the play gives us many indications of the benign experiences which Tesman has incorporated in his psyche, what does duty for the good object in Hedda’s inner world is the pair of pistols previously belonging to her father. The inner poverty of which she speaks to Thea is highlighted by the fact that the pistols are indeed the only objects, animate or inanimate, real or imaginary, with which she has what might be referred to as positive relationship. It is an obvious feature of the play that whereas Tesman’s world is a maternal one, it appears that for Hedda the only available identifications are with paternal objects. What is equally obvious from a Kleinian point of view is that the phallic pistols substitute as good object for the maternal breast. If the portrait of Hedda’s father presides over the action of the play and his pistols figure so significantly within it, of course it is conspicuously the case that no reference is made to Hedda’s mother. That the mother figures as absence is highlighted, I think, when Hedda explains to Brack in Act III how she and Tesman have come to be living in ‘the very home (she) wished for’. Hedda recalls that once when Tesman was at a loss for something to talk about, and feeling sorry for him, she said – ‘quite casually – that I should like to live here in this villa.’ This ‘thoughtlessness’, she goes on, ‘had its consequences’, for it led to their marrying:
HEDDA:      …You see, it was through this passion for the villa of the late Mrs Falk that Jorgen Tesman and I found our way to an understanding. That led to our engagement and marriage and wedding trip and everything. Well, well. As one make’s one’s bed one must lie on it, I was going to say.
Brack:          This is delightful! And all the time, it seems, you weren’t interested in the least?
Hedda:        No. Heaven knows, I wasn’t.
Brack:          Well, but now? Now that we have made it more or less comfortable for you?
Hedda:        Oh! I seem to smell lavender and dried roses in all the rooms. But perhaps Aunt Julle brought the smell with her.
Brack:          (laughing) No, I should think it’s more likely the late Mrs Falk bequeathed it to you!
Hedda:        It reminds one of the departed, all right. Like one’s bouquet, the day after a ball… My friend you can’t imagine how horribly bored I’m going to be out here.
Brack:          But won’t there be some object or other in life for you to work for, like other people, Madam Hedda?
Hedda:        An object … that would have something fascinating about it?
Brack:          Preferably, of course.
Hedda:        Lord knows what kind of an object it could be…
(HG, pp 304-5)
According to Hedda’s account her interest in the house of the late Mrs Falk is as casually motivated as her marrying Tesman, but the intensity of the play of effects in this passage again gives the lie to Hedda’s dismissive rationalisations. The house is not only that of a dead woman, but is linked by sensuous association with the world of Aunt Julle, who represents loving concern on the one hand, but is linked with the dying Aunt Rina on the other. It reminds Hedda of ‘the departed’, and like ‘one’s bouquet the day after a ball’, it seems to be associated with absence and loss, with a bliss which is gone forever.
In her conversation with Brack, Hedda goes on to toy with the notion that Tesman might go into politics, but, having pointed out why this is an unlikely development, Brack hints broadly that before long she might have another kind of responsibility to live for, whereupon Hedda declares that she has ‘no gift for that kind of thing’, and that indeed the only thing she does have a gift for ‘is boring (herself) to death.’ (HG, pp 306-7) A sequence is established here which will be repeated later in the play. It is in Act III that the book-child comes into Hedda’s possession, and it is at the end of the act that, bloodcurdlingly, she burns it. Meanwhile, when Tesman has told Hedda how he came to find the manuscript and has confirmed that such an ‘inspired’ production could not be re-written, she hands him – ‘casually’, as the stage direction says – a note in which, as he quickly informs Hedda, Aunt Julle tells him that her sister is dying. At certain moments, when Hedda faces the prospect of motherhood, it is as if she finds herself haunted by the shadow of a dead or dying mother figure; and her impulse at this moment is to erase the existence, real or imagined, of any offspring she herself might have. That is to say, it is as if she seeks to destroy the creative at the very roots of her own being.
SECTION III – FATE OR DESTINY?
Why is Hedda Gabler so preoccupied with style? Why is the aesthetic of suicide of such importance to her? And how are we to judge this final action of hers? If Hedda is bidding for the full tragic effect, does the setting of her action after all render it grotesque, absurd, overblown? Is she in the wrong play – a tragic heroine framed by the elements of farce? When the curtain falls, has the play’s heroine brought about a transformation of her life, or been mocked in the attempt? Imposed her own poetic shape upon her life and circumstances, or lent herself, in the endeavour, to scandal and derision – or mere incomprehension?
Transition And Transformation
This familiar array of unresolvable questions indicates that the dénouement of the play is the climax of the oscillating relationship between Hedda and her environment which has been apparent from the earliest scenes. I have already suggested that, in spite of herself, Hedda is drawn to Tesman’s world on account of the enviably benign object-relations which it appears to embody. In the final section of this paper I extend the argument by calling on Winnicott’s thinking about ‘the use of an object’ (Winnicott, 1969), especially as it has beeen elaborated by Christopher Bollas, through the concepts of the ‘transformational object’ and the ‘destiny drive’. I suggest, paradoxically enough, that in throwing in her lot with Jorgen Tesman, Hedda Gabler is seeking an environment in which she might experience a transformation of her life. In the event she is unable to use the objects in her internal and external worlds to give shape to her belief in the ‘beautiful’, or what Northam calls her ‘residually creative sense of human potentiality’. At the end of everything what she stages is a dramatisation of her strange illusion that only through destruction can her world come into being – that destruction is creation.
The audience is alerted to the problematic relationship between Hedda and the setting in which she finds herself even as the play begins. Almost her first words are: ‘One has to get used to anything new. By degrees.’ (HG, p. 273) During the next few moments she appears concerned about the open veranda door, the sunlight pouring in, and the flowers which fill the room. It is then that Aunt Julle presents Tesman with a package containing the old pair of slippers to which she knows he is attached. ‘Aunt Rina embroidered them for me in bed, lying ill like that. Just imagine how many memories are worked into them’, he says to Hedda. ‘Not for me, particularly’, she replies. For readers of Winnicott it must be evident that the slippers are for Tesman a transitional object; they belong to a mode of experience in which past and present, self and other are interwoven to create a fabric which is always in the making and therefore gives point to life. Moreover we sense that his preoccupation with ‘domestic crafts’ in Brabant in the middle ages is a continuation of the same theme – which has carried him little further into adult life. It is precisely because Tesman remains caught up in his early attachments of this kind that Hedda is drawn to him in spite of herself. Tantalisingly, for Hedda, Tesman and his slippers represent the baffling clue to the way in which ‘objects’ are used to create a world.
Several moments of related significance follow the exchange about the slippers, in an interesting series. Hedda’s unconscionable behaviour over the hat dramatises her immediate response to this initial episode. Though she later tells Brack that such behaviour ‘just comes over (her)’ and she has no idea ‘how to explain it’ (HG, p.303), her impulse in this case is clearly to desecrate the signifier of her deprivation. A moment later, when Tesman invites his Aunt to notice how ‘plump’ Hedda has grown, Miss Tesman: is overjoyed to think that she is pregnant. Hedda’s reaction during the subsequent exchange gives the first indication of the way she recoils from the prospect of motherhood. There is no potential space in her life for a child to come into; she cannot, as I’ve argued, conceive of the idea. If Tesman can scarcely conceive of it either, the reason is that he himself is still in the place of the child. From this point of view, then, there is an oddly inverted mirror relationship between Hedda and her husband.
When Miss Tesman: has departed we see Hedda, alone on the stage, ‘raising her arms and clenching her hands, as if in fury’ (HG, p.276). On Tesman’s return she remarks to him how withered the flowers look, and goes on to reject her husband’s appeal to her to behave a little more like one of the family. There follows a brief discussion on the question of her piano. It is a conversation which shows how different is Hedda’s life-world from Tesman’s. What we would like to feel at this point is that the piano suggests one way in which Hedda might be accustomed to express her potentia, to elaborate a personal aesthetic, and to acquire a sense of ‘living creatively’. But the turn of the conversation oddly undermines any such expectation. For Hedda’s concern is simply that this ‘old piano’ of hers ‘doesn’t go with these other things’ (HG, p. 277). She wishes to see it moved to ‘the back room’ and a new one purchased for the drawing room. The result is that we see the piano, after all, as a mere physical object occupying a physical space in the house. We do not feel that two pianos would fill up the absences in Hedda’s life any more than one.
If the first act of the play is among other things a remarkable study of the life-worlds of Hedda and Tesman through their relationships with a range of environmental objects, then of course the two most dramatically significant of these objects are the portrait of Hedda’s father, and the pair of pistols. Each of these emphasises the dissonant relationship between Hedda and her new environment – the portrait because it is a presence which, hauntingly, is never refered to directly throughout the play; the pistols because, somewhat similarly, they create the impression of a potential detonation which would destroy this world at a stroke. In psychoanalytic terms the portrait and the pistols are signifiers of Hedda’s ‘object-relations’ (as are the slippers in Tesman’s case). Hedda’s desire is to articulate her inner world (her object-relations) in a way which would promote a sense of living creatively, but the way in which the portrait and the pistols figure in her world suggests that she is caught up in the repetition of a ghost-filled past rather than engaged in the creation of a future.
The First Human Aesthetic
In my view certain developments in Winnicott’s thought which have been introduced by Christopher Bollas illuminate, and are illuminated by, Ibsen’s presentation of Hedda’s quest to realise her life in terms of her own dramatic idiom. In The Shadow of the Object Christopher Bollas summmarises his thought about ‘the first human aesthetic’ in the following way:
The mother’s idiom of care and the infant’s experience of this handling is one of the first if not the earliest human aesthetic. It is the most profound occasion when the nature of the self is formed and transformed by the environment. The uncanny pleasure of being held by a poem, a composition, a painting, or, for that matter, any object, rests on those moments when the infant’s internal world is partly given form by the mother since he cannot shape them or link them together without her coverage. (1987, p.32)
The first aesthetic moment belongs to a phase of experience which is pre-cognitive and certainly pre-verbal. At the same time it remains beyond the subject’s cognitive grasp or verbal articulation; it is ‘neither social nor moral; it is curiously impersonal and even ruthless.’ What is also to be noted is that ‘transformation does not mean gratification…(and), likewise, aesthetic moments are not always beautiful or wonderful – many are ugly and terrifying but nonetheless profoundly moving because of the existential memory tapped.’ (p.29) While ‘the search for symbolic equivalents to the transformational object, and the experience with which it is identified, continues in adult life’, the quest may be pursued ‘to the utter shock or indifference of the person’s subjective experience of his own desire. A gambler is compelled to gamble. Subjectively he may wish he did not gamble, even hate his compulsion to do so.’ (p.27) Bollas concludes the second chapter of his book with this statement: ‘Transformational object-seeking is an endless memorial search for something in the future that resides in the past. I believe that if we investigate many types of object relating we will discover that the subject is seeking the transformational object and aspiring to be matched in symbiotic harmony within an aesthetic frame that promises to metamorphose the self.’ (p.40) I am suggesting of course that Hedda Gabler is seeking just such a transformation of the self.
Aware that the spectre of ‘reductionism’ haunts such accounts of human experience, Bollas observes: ‘It is possible to see how the reduction of spiritual experiences to the discrete administration of the mother always strikes us as somehow an insult to the integrity of uncanny experience, as the sacred precedes the maternal. Our earliest experience is prior to our knowing of the mother as an object in her own right.’ (p.39) What seems to me more important than this ingenious observation, however, is that in introducing the category of the aesthetic he makes it possible to think the relationship between psychoanalysis and art in a way which does not ‘privilege’ the one against the other, or ‘insult’ the experience of being a person. Considered from this point of view Ibsen and Freud are alike in that they think of becoming a person as the struggle to shape a style out of an inheritance. Winnicott’s contribution can then be taken to suggest a revised formulation to the effect that becoming a person is the process of staging our inheritance in the space of (the) play.
Fate and Destiny
Embedded in this metaphor is the issue which haunts our thinking about psychoanalysis and literature. Does psychoanalytic interpretation commit us to the idea that literary characters (and real human beings) are to be seen, necessarily, as acting out a script which is always already written? In my view the issue has been greatly clarified by certain formulations which Christopher Bollas has developed in Forces of Destiny (1989) and Being a Character (1993). The essence of the matter is the distinction he makes between ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’. In the earlier book he writes:
A person who is fated, who is fundamentally interred in an internal world of self and object representations that endlessly repeat the same scenarios, has very little sense of a future that is at all different from the environment they carry around with them. The sense of fate is a feeling of despair to influence the course of one’s life. A sense of destiny, however, is a different state, when the person feels he is moving in a personality progression that gives him a sense of steering his course.                         (1989, p.41)
The first two sentences give us an extraordinarily apposite description of the haunted world which Hedda Gabler inhabits during most of the play. The third sentence encapsulates the mode of existence she is reaching for – in which the ‘spontaneous gesture’ would open up the sense of a living future. It is the difference between conforming to a blueprint and fulfilling a potentiality; between living out time and creating one’s own arc in time. In an earlier chapter of the book Bollas formulates the ‘sense of destiny’ in a passage which, again, might have been composed with Hedda Gabler in mind:
The fashioning of life is something like an aesthetic: a form revealed through one’s way of being. I think there is a particular urge to fashion a life, and this destiny drive is the ceaseless effort to select and use objects in order to give lived expression to one’s true self. Perhaps the creativity of a human lifetime is the talent in articulating one’s idiom. If the person continues to be and feel true to himself (not living compliantly) and is surprised by the continuing elaboration of his self, then he is fulfilling his destiny.                                   (1989, p.110)
My suggestion is that Hedda’s despair arises from the fact that she is not able ‘to use objects in order to give expression to (her) true self’. She is not able to do so because, from a Winnicottian point of view, she scarcely lives in a world of objects at all. Bollas takes up the obvious question:
What does it mean to ‘live a life in the world of objects’? Do we not all live in a world of objects’? Do we know of anyone who does not? The issue Winnicott addresses can only be understood if we grasp that he does not assume that we all ‘live’ a life. We may construct the semblance of such and certainly the false self attests to this. But to live a life, to come alive, a person must be able to use objects in a way that assumes such objects survive hate and do not require undue reparative work.                                              (p.26)
The word ‘object’ is of course laden with ambiguities, and very usefully so, I think. In the first place it may refer to a physical object, or, in ‘object-relations’ theory, to a human figure; but in the second place it may also refer to external or to internal objects, that is, internalised figures or ‘part-objects’ (the breast, the phallus). As we know, it is the question of the relationship between the subjective and objective which energises a great deal of Winnicott’s thinking. In ‘The Use of an Object’ he makes a remarkable contribution to our understanding of the way in which the subjective/objective distinction is established in the course of individual development. It is in assigning a positive value to aggression within this process that, as Adam Phillips writes, Winnicott ‘makes his final, and in some ways decisive, revision of the work of Freud and Klein’. Phillips goes on to summarise the Winnicottian argument as follows: ‘If, in Winnicott’s terms, the self is first made real through recognition, the object is first made real through aggressive destruction, and this, of course, makes experience of the object feel real to the self. The object, Winnicott says, is placed outside omnipotent control by being destroyed while, in fact, surviving the destruction.’ (1988, p.131) In other words the object acquires a quality of ‘out-thereness’ as a result of surviving (repeatedly) its destruction in phantasy. Consequently, as Winnicott himself writes, ‘the subject may now have started to live a life in the world of objects, and so the subject gains immeasurably…’ (1969, p.90) The gains are those that have been extensively elaborated upon by Christopher Bollas in his discussion of the way we ‘select and use objects’ to give expression to an individual idiom or ‘aesthetic’.
My reading of Ibsen’s play can now be stated in a very few words. The figure of the book-child is a wonderfully imagined device for exploring the theme of ‘the use of an object’. Within the play as a whole this object is, firstly, both human and non-human; secondly, both internal and external; and thirdly, both literal and metaphoric. Thus we may think of the book-child as the play’s transitional object and we can go on to say that the reason why Hedda Gabler is unable to ‘fashion a life’ is that, in her personal world, objects (for the most part) do not survive. That is to say in the realm where it matters they do not survive her envious hate and destructiveness, and are therefore not available to be used creatively.
Why does Hedda Gabler commit suicide? It is a moment of astonishing complexity. She has been trapped by Judge Brack and the humiliation of it is too much for her to live with perhaps. At the same time she is in despair at the failure of Loevborg’s suicide to ennoble his life, or hers. Yet, almost concealed by the superficial ironies, a greater despair haunts the following exchange:
Hedda:        …Doesn’t it feel strange to you, Thea? Here you are sitting with Jorgen Tesman just as you once sat with Eilert Loevborg.
Mrs Elvsted: Well, if only I could inspire your husband too –
Hedda:        Oh, that will come out all right – in time.
Tesman:       Yes, do you know, Hedda, I really think I am beginning to feel something of the kind.
But you go back and sit down with Judge Brack again.
Hedda:        Is there nothing here I can help you two with?
Tesman:       Not a thing in the world… (HG, p.362)
How ironic that Tesman should have the unwitting power so to exclude Hedda Gabler from the circle of life, and that the two objects of her envious scorn, Tesman and Thea, should unite to restore the object she has destroyed. And how ironic also that they should begin to use the book-child (however ineptly and improbably) to create a new future. A moment later, with inevitable dramatic logic, Hedda Gabler ‘goes into the inner room…draws the curtain’, and sits down at her instrument: ‘Suddenly she is heard playing a wild dance tune on the piano’. The last nail is hammered home when, on account of Aunt Rina, and ‘Eilert’, Tesman cuts short her first defiant gesture of aesthetic self-expression. Then, within Hedda’s hearing, he goes on to suggest to Mrs Elvsted that she should move into Aunt Julle’s house so that they can continue their work together. During these moments Hedda Gabler is thrust back, even more deeply, into the void of her self-experience: it is as if life has no place for her, whether as begetter or begotten.
In whatever terms we think of it Hedda Gabler’s inheritance is death and despair, absence and loss. Experiencing herself as an uncreated void her ‘unthought’ project is to stage the scene of her own conception. Yet at the same time the play reveals in all its workings that Hedda has no ‘inner image of psychic procreativity.’ (Bollas, 1993, p.84) While the play as a whole is struggling to create such an image the troubling enigma of the central character is that for her this same struggle constitutes a maddening aporia: to conceive the inconceivable. The logic by which the dilemma finds its resolution is even more strange. It is when she destroys everything – that is to say, herself and the future (her unborn child) – that Hedda Gabler finally succeeds in making her own idiomatic gesture. To destroy everything is to leave nothing left to want, nothing left to envy. If nothing is left to be reduced to nothing, something may begin to be. ‘A terrible beauty is born’, and a destiny is fatefully fulfilled.
Epilogue – Staging The Play
Finally I shall claim that the two best known and most distinguished productions of Hedda Gabler in recent years lend support to the reading of the play which I have developed in this paper. I have in mind Trevor Nunn’s version, filmed for television, with Glenda Jackson in the central role (RSC,1975); and Deborah Warner’s production, also made for television, with Fiona Shaw as the protagonist (BBC,1993). In many ways these two productions are remarkably different from each other, above all in the central performances. From moment to moment Glenda Jackson’s Hedda is barely able to conceal her disdain for the people and the world around her; Fiona Shaw’s Hedda, on the other hand, is almost girlishly unsure of herself. It has to be said that Fiona Shaw’s Hedda is entirely lacking in aristocratic hauteur, and the production is to that extent unsatisfactory; but in certain other respects Deborah Warner’s interpretation of the play provides some uncanny insights and effects – which, I shall suggest, go to the heart of the play.
 What the two productions have in common is that in different ways they are both very carefully conceived explorations of dramatic space, organised around the shifting relationships between the major characters, the thematic objects and the setting of the play. Trevor Nunn’s production is based on the triangle. Again and again we see two characters face to face – and between them we see either the face of a third character, or one of the thematic objects – slippers, pistols, fire, or manuscript. The potentialities, both creative and destructive, of the space between two human beings are fascinatingly explored in this production. The space we are continually aware of in Deborah Warner’s production, on the other hand, is the total dramatic environment. The set is a drawing room whose proportions are beyond any ordinarily domestic scale. Costumes and set are in a range of colours which merge into each other – grey, green, silver, black. The overall tone merges in turn with that of the enormous gilt-framed mirror which, daringly, seems to take the place of the portrait of the General. The surface of the mirror is not clear, but misted over with an unevenly opaque grey, so that neither Hedda, who looks searchingly into it from time to time, nor any of the other characters, is able to see herself or himself in it. Often the characters speak to each other from an unusual distance; frequently they stand very close to the wall, mirror, or curtains, almost losing their identities. Hedda herself makes her first entry into the room by backing into it, carrying a chair. During the course of the play she continues to move the furniture about, and, at dramatic moments, to smash things or throw them across the room. In short it is as if she can make no sense of the relationship between herself, her environment, and the objects in it: the relationship remains beyond both her and the audience’s grasp. The dramatic energy of these two productions is generated, then, through their exploration of the questions concerning the relationship between internal and external space which are inscribed in Ibsen’s text.
Conclusion – Ibsen’s Contribution
In my view the nature of Ibsen’s contribution to the drama in the late nineteenth century is inadequately stated in the commonplace notion that he created a naturalistic drama which represents a fixed bourgeois world, and that he went on to extend the range of this theatre by introducing a ‘natural’ symbolism. As we know Ibsen inherited what had become a highy conventionalised dramatic tradition. This petrified object he broke down and recreated in a new form, fashioning in the process his own poetics of the theatre. The outcome was not merely the staging of a determinate social reality, with a later admixture of symbolism. It was, more vitally, the re-creation, for the modern period, of the potential space of the drama.
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