Act II

Continue to read the stage directions carefully; the details are often significant. In this act, the piano has been moved into the inner room, which increasingly becomes Hedda's space. It reflects her self-containment and her separateness.

General Gabler's portrait keeps him present throughout the play, as do the guns and Hedda's insistence on being his daughter rather than Tesman's wife. Does the General symbolize the aristocratic social class which shaped Hedda and dominates her still? As Act I established, class differences are a crucial element in this play.

If you took Core Studies 3 or 4, you are familiar with the history of the rise of the bourgeoisie (middle class) and the decline of the aristocracy politically and economically, if not socially. You probably also discussed the hostility and conflicts among the classes, which Marx called class warfare.

In a sense, class warfare has taken the form of Hedda's resisting the Tesmans' intrusions and claims on her. Even though she rebuffs them, she remains for the Tesmans an admired, superior being. Would it be accurate to say that she is a valuable possession who enhances their status and sense of self-worth and achievement?

Pages 25-29

Act II begins with General Gabler's guns, with which Act I ended. What is the difference between Tesman's reaction to Hedda's merely talking about shooting the guns and Brack's reaction to actually being shot at? Does Brack take her seriously? His taking her gun allows him to look at it closely; his familiarity with the appearance of the gun is important later. His taking control of her and the situation foreshadows later events.

Brack reveals another aspect of himself. Under the cover of family friend, he wants to have an affair with Hedda. Hedda's reference to his coming the "back way" refers not only to his using the back entrance to the house but to his being sneaky and underhanded. Though Hedda rejects his sexual overtures, she is willing to engage in the titillation of a flirtation with sexual undercurrents and no physical involvement. Hedda enjoys Brack's company; she engages in a verbal duel with him, even jokes with him ("jestingly," p. 28) and laughs (p. 27) for the first time in the play. Her rejecting Brack has caused her to be called frigid or sexually repressed. Is she? Under her cold manner and eyes, is there passion, intense in not having an outlet? or is there only more ice? If she is repressed, what kinds of feelings are being suppressed--love, lust, rage, frustration, fear, etc.? Is it possible that some of her unexpressed feelings come out in hostile statements and actions, like her deliberate insult regarding Miss Tesman's hat?

The sexual play between Brack and Hedda starts subtly. At the beginning of their conversation, he bends "a little forward" and she withdraws, "leaning further back in the sofa" (p. 26). Then there is the little tug of war over the use of "night" vs. "everlasting" (p. 27). Hedda rejects Brack's referring to "night" with its remote suggestion of sexual intimacy with Tesman (Hedda continues to be quick at picking up sexual implications). Then in the conversation she forgets and uses the term "night" herself, since it is a natural way of phrasing the idea. Brack immediately turns her previous objection against her and scores a point in their verbal game or struggle for dominance.

Using the analogy of riding on a railway carriage, Brack propositions her by suggesting, "the passengers jump out and move about a little" (he means, Hedda should jump out of her marriage). She emphatically rejects any sexual relationship, "I never jump out" (p. 28). He makes a counter offer of flirtation, "suppose a third person were to jump in and join the couple"; she accepts this relationship, "Yes, that would be a relief indeed" (p. 29). Tesman enters to the line, "The triangle is completed." Brack accepts her terms--for now. Hedda feels in control of the triangle and Brack. The alliance which Hedda and Brack have just cemented is seen by the audience when they "exchange a confidential smile," but George sees nothing.

This scene answers the question almost every reader of this play asks, why did Hedda Gabler ever marry George Tesman? Hedda states the reasons bluntly--she was getting older, no one else asked, and, as we already know, she could not maintain the lifestyle she enjoyed as General Gabler's daughter. In other words, she sold herself ("he was bent, at all hazards, on being allowed to provide for me," p. 28). Compensating for George's lack of social status was her expectation that he would attain, as Brack expresses it, "the highest achievement" (p.28). A little later in this act, her hopes that Tesman might achieve political success are squelched by Brack, for Tesman has neither the talents nor the wealth to succeed in politics. She did not accept Tesman for personal reasons, as she neither likes nor respects Tesman; her question makes this clear, "And I don't see anything absolutely ridiculous about him.--Do you?" (p. 28). She implies that Tesman is ridiculous though not absolutely or unacceptably ridiculous.

How narrow her view of the world is and how limited her values are emerge clearly in her conversation with Brack. Though she has been home less than a day, she is bored because "our set are still out of town" (p. 26). [I have added italics to the quotations in this paragraph to emphasize how restricted Hedda's interests are.] Lacking the resources to occupy herself in a productive or satisfying way, she shoots her father's pistol at nothing, with no real purpose. Although she spent nearly six months traveling on her honeymoon, she could not enjoy the culture and learning of any country they visited. She was bored, "To go for six whole months without meeting a soul that knew anything of our circle, or could talk about the things we are interested in" (p. 27). Unlike Thea, she is uninterested in exploring the unfamiliar and in expanding her knowledge and understanding. Intellectually, culturally, and spiritually, Hedda is barren or sterile.

Pages 29-33

George praises Lovborg's book and confirms Thea's influence, "He never wrote like that before" (p. 29). Because Tesman is a scholar himself, his praise establishes Lovborg's abilities for the audience. Unlike Thea, Hedda has no interest in Eilert's book. She wants vicarious experience from Lovborg, not enlightenment. This is yet one more way that Thea serves as a foil for Hedda.

Tesman's concern about his Aunt Rina's ill health may not be the real or, perhaps, the only cause of Hedda's outburst, "Oh, those everlasting aunts!" (p. 30). It pushes away George's reference to her gaining weight, i.e., to her pregnancy. Not once in this play is Hedda able to acknowledge her pregnancy explicitly, and references to it anger her. Hedda rejects the roles expected of women: she is the dominant partner in her marriage; she has no use for love, "that sickening word" (p. 27) and has "no turn" for motherhood (p. 32). It has been suggested that Hedda is seeking an outlet for her life, for a freedom of expression and being, which neither her class in particular nor her society in general allows women. Do you see evidence to support this theory? What else might be motivating her behavior?

Pages 33-40

Does Eilert Lovborg's appearance reflect the dissipated life he has led? what about the red patches on his cheeks? His new suit suggests his recent conversion to respectability. He approaches Hedda hesitantly, "Will you too shake hands with me, Mrs. Tesman?" (p. 34). What in his past behavior in general or in their relationship in particular might make him hesitant in speaking to her?

The differences between Tesman and Lovborg become clearer. Lovborg is an artist--creative, filled with the life force, and lacking in control. His next book will express his "true self" (p. 34); it projects into the future, which has to be lived. In contrast, Tesman is, as Hedda called him, a specialist. His planned work on the domestic arts of the Middle Ages in the Middle East is narrow, safe, and irrelevant; the past is dead, and the Middle East is certainly remote from Norway. Nothing about his project expresses individuality and a "self." Lovborg took as his topic for the book which has been published, the "march of civilization in broad outline" (p. 13).

Lovborg assures Tesman that he does not plan to compete for the professorship and will not publish his book until Tesman has been appointed to the professorship. Lovborg cares not for position but "the moral victory." Tesman, on the other hand, cares for the position and the money. He jubilantly exclaims to Hedda that Lovborg won't "stand in our way" (p. 36). Hedda rejects the "our" which associates her and Tesman; as she speaks these words, she moves towards the inner room, a visual expression of her separateness.

Brack and Tesman withdraw into the inner room, leaving Lovborg and Hedda alone. Their conversation, conducted with Tesman in possible earshot, reveals an unsuspected intimacy. Lovborg insists on calling and referring to her as Hedda Gabler and addressing her with the familiar form of "you"; she squashes these expressions of closeness, "What? I can't allow this!" (p. 37). At the same time that she rejects these expressions of closeness, she continues their former intimacy by discussing the past and her feelings. She acknowledges to yet another man that she does not love her husband while warning that she will not "hear of any sort of unfaithfulness!" (p. 38). She evades Lovborg's question whether she felt any love, even just a spark, for him. Is her response calculated to discourage Lovborg and end their past relationship or to keep him interested in her, to keep him hooked? Does Hedda project a sexual attraction, since all three men in this play are interested in her sexually?

Her conversation with Lovborg also reveals her skill at hiding socially unacceptable interests under socially correct behavior. When he visited her in the past, they discussed his sexual life while pretending to read the newspaper; General Gabler, representing society's restrictions on young ladies, dozed nearby. In this scene, they pretend to look at the photograph album while conducting a highly improper conversation. In fact, secrecy itself appeals to Hedda and gives her pleasure, "I think there was really something beautiful, something fascinating--something daring--in--in that secret intimacy--that comradeship which no living creature so much as dreamed of" (p. 38). Hedda was able to fulfill safely desires which were forbidden to respectable women. She vicariously gained sexual knowledge without any damage to her reputation or loss of control over her life, and she is able to break society's rules and express, however indirectly, her essential self.

Lovborg makes conventional assumptions about Hedda's interest in his wild life, that she loved him and that she wanted to "save" him. But Hedda has contempt for the "reclaimed" or socially conforming Lovborg and immediately lets him know her motive, the desire of a young woman to peep into the world of male experience "which she is forbidden to know anything about" (p. 39). Then Hedda hedges, by saying this was "partly" her motive. Hedda is reluctant to be straightforward; she makes partial statements or partially retracts statements. For instance, her questions about Lovborg's life were asked "in roundabout terms" (p. 39). Thus, she consistently holds back or hides part of herself. This trait is one reason why she seems contradictory and has puzzled so many audiences and readers.

Pages 39 and 40 are worth studying closely, because they give us insight into Hedda's motives and desires.

Lovborg twice attributes to her a passionate desire to know life, "the thirst of life" (p. 39) and "your craving for life" (p.40). This thought stimulates Lovborg's imagination; it is a passion he knows and has lived without restraints. But Hedda is ambivalent about experiencing life. In this conversation, she warns him, "Take care! Believe nothing of the sort!" (p. 40). In their past intimacy, Lovborg, encouraged by her questions, asked her to have sex; she responded violently, warning him off with General Gabler's pistols. Why was she so threatened? Did she fear sex? losing her status in society? losing control of their relationship and being reduced to a mere love object? Or did she fear involvement with life, of being overwhelmed by experience and passion and losing her essential self? If she had an affair, would she lose what sense of freedom and/or control she had? Other explanations are certainly possible; my questions are meant to stimulate your thinking about Hedda's response, not to limit you to these choices.

According to Hedda, her behavior is partly determined by her "dread of scandal" (p. 40). You have seen already evidence of her conventionality and conformity to society's rules. In the Aunt Julia hat incident, she exclaims, "But what an idea, to pitch her bonnet about in the drawing-room! No one does that sort of thing" (p. 10). Her response to Thea's leaving her husband focuses on the public perception and scandal, "to take flight so openly" and "But what do you think people will say of you, Thea?" (p. 18). Both Lovborg and Hedda agree that she is a coward. As Ibsen noted, "Hedda is fundamentally conventional," and one form her conventionality takes is cowardice, her avoiding the possibility of scandal.

Then Hedda confesses that she committed a worse cowardice that evening, without identifying it. This leaves Lovborg--and the audience-- to assume her cowardice was not having an affair with him. This implication has caused many to see her as sexually frigid, for she refuses to sleep with Brack and with Lovborg, both of whom she is attracted to. What do you think she means with the reference to her cowardice in rejecting Lovborg's advances? Is it evidence of sexual frigidity?

Ibsen writes of Hedda, "She really wants to live the whole life of a man. But then come her reservations. Things inherited and acquired." By "things inherited and acquired," Ibsen means the values, beliefs, and behavior patterns expected of General Gabler's daughter, i.e., she is a member of the aristocracy and the daughter of a man with high status in his community. These values, beliefs, and behavior patterns were imposed on her by society ("inherited"), and they were internalized or accepted by her ("acquired"). What does "to live the whole life of a man" mean? Do you think this accurately describes Hedda?

The last point I want to make about this conversation involves Thea. Hedda naturally wants to know whether he has told Thea anything about their relationship. Lovborg responds rather brutally, "She is too stupid to understand anything of that sort" (p. 40). By "stupid," he means naive, and this raises another contrast between the two women, Hedda with her quickness to see sexual undercurrents and Thea with her blindness.

Pages 40-45

When Thea enters, Hedda greets Thea warmly, encouragingly, even though earlier she forgot that Thea was coming (p. 38). Hedda uses Thea's good will to manipulate Thea into sitting next to her on the sofa, rather than in a chair by Lovborg; Lovborg then sits on the other side of Hedda. This seating arrangement places her in the center; the other two have to talk to her or through her. It enables her to function as a go-between and vicariously participate in the relationship of Lovborg and Thea.

This conversation has a level hidden from Thea; Lovborg and Hedda use Thea to talk to each other. Hedda's using Thea as an object is reflected in her stroking Thea's hair. To Lovborg's question "Is not she lovely to look at?" Hedda replies with a question suggesting that their relationship was sexual. Lovborg's praise of his true comradeship with Thea is really a put-down of Hedda; it implies that his relationship with Hedda was of a lesser quality. He even uses the term "comrade," which was how he described his relationship with Hedda, for his relationship with Thea. Lovborg's referring to Thea's courage is a clear attack on Hedda; when Hedda murmurs, "If one only had that!" (40), she means "If I only had courage!"

What are Lovborg's feelings for Hedda and Thea? The conventional answer to this question would be that only one of the women is his real or true love, because an individual can truly love only one person. Ibsen, however, did not hold this view. He jotted down this fragment, "The traditional error that one man is made for one woman." In another note, Ibsen applies this generalization explicitly to Lovborg,

Ejlert Lovborg is a double nature. It is a fiction that one only loves one person. He loves two--or more--(speaking frivolously) by turns. But how to explain his own situation. Mrs. Elfsted, who forces him into respectability, runs away from her husband. Hedda, who eggs him on beyond the limits, flinches from the thought of scandal.
(Note how ironically Ibsen describes the women and how Thea serves as a foil for Hedda.) What do you think his feelings are for the two women?

There is another undercurrent in this conversation. Hedda is competing with Thea for control over Lovborg. When Lovborg refuses Hedda's offer of a drink and Thea supports his not drinking, Hedda laughs, "Then I, poor creature, have no sort of power over you?" (p. 41). If he drinks, Hedda would have evidence of her power over him and have defeated Thea. To achieve this end, she reveals Thea's lack of trust in her comrade; angry and disillusioned, Lovborg drinks and ironically toasts Thea.

Hedda explicitly acknowledges her desire, "I want for once in my life to have power to mould a human destiny." The destiny she wants to mold is Eilert's. Ibsen several times calls Hedda's desire demonic, "The demonic thing about Hedda is that she wants to exert an influence over another person." His use of "demonic," with its powerful negative meanings, indicates how strongly Ibsen feels about Hedda's behavior in this matter. The distinction must be kept in mind that he is not necessarily calling Hedda demonic, just one aspect of her character.

Lovborg shows signs of excess once he starts drinking; he stops because of Hedda not his own self-control. Although he acknowledges Thea as his inspiration, he ignores her pleas not to go to Brack's all-male party.

Hedda contiues to show a tendency to violence; she pinches Thea's arm and threatens to burn Thea's hair, behavior which prepares for subsequent actions. Her warnings to Thea not to reveal her feelings for Lovborg show her conventionality, just as her wanting to be present at Brack's party "unseen" shows her desire for forbidden knowledge and her liking of secrecy (p. 44).

Hedda's conversation with Thea introduces the vine-leaves, a major symbol which expresses her desire for freedom. Hedda has idealized Lovborg's drinking and sexual excesses into a rejection of society's restrictions. His overindulgence seems to her an act of courage, which she equates with beauty. The vine-leaves and the riotous behavior connect this image to Dionysus or Bacchus. Ibsen was interested in myth, drew on Scandinavian myth in several plays, and certainly knew about Dionysus/Bacchus and the association of vine leaves. The symbol of the vine-leaves, which expresses her highest aspirations, reveals her lack of culture, intellectual values, and spiritual depth. Her ideal is shoddy (i.e., trashy) because the reality it refers to is destructive and futile. Her class has failed her by not providing her with higher ideals and values. The aristocracy--as can be seen in the lives of Hedda, Brack, and Lovborg--is morally corrupt and spiritually bankrupt. The values of the bourgeoisie, as represented by the Tesmans, promote decent enough behavior but do not allow for higher aspirations; this class, too, is spiritually and intellectually lacking. 

The connection among the vine-leaves, freedom, and courage is clearly stated. Hedda expects him to return "fearless." For Hedda, the reformed Lovborg lost his love of life, his courage, and his freedom; therefore, by resuming his former lifestyle, "he will have regained control over himself. Then he will be a free man all his days" (p. 44).

Ibsen Syllabus

F, March 30, Online class
Ibsen, Online overview
Hedda Gabler, Act I
Caucus: To read and to send postings
**Supplemental Reading**
      The Problem Play
      The New Woman
      Hedda Gabler as Tragedy
M, April 2 Hedda Gabler, Act II
W, April 4 Hedda Gabler, Act III
F, April 6 Online class
Hedda Gabler, Act IV
The Other
Caucus: To read and to send postings

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