Death dominates this act, from the beginning to the end. Death
suggested visually in the beginning with the dark living room, Hedda's
black dress, Berta's black ribbons, and Miss Tesman's black dress. The
first lines spoken explicitly refer to death.
Why is it ironic that Miss Tesman
calls Hedda's home "the house of life" (p. 60)? Think of Hedda's
in Act III and what news Hedda is expecting about Lovborg. Another
ironic note sounds when Miss Tesman calls Aunt Rina's end "beautiful"
60), and we remember Hedda's refusal to make a last visit because "I
not look upon sickness and death. I loathe all sorts of ugliness" (p.
51). Certainly, Miss Tesman
rejoices in Hedda's pregnancy.
Hedda, on the other hand, turns away all references to it, including
Miss Tesman's in this scene. Even
when Hedda is manipulating Tesman to cover up her real reason for
burning Lovborg's manuscript, she
can't bring herself to
say that she is pregnant. Tesman continues oblivious to his aunt's
about Hedda's pregnancy.
Miss Tesman acknowledges her need to have a purpose, "it's
absolute necessity for me to have some one to live for" (p. 61). Like
Thea and Berta, she finds purpose in caring and sacrificing for others
and looks forward to finding a needy occupant for Rina's room. Hedda
finds Miss Tesman's need to serve incomprehensible, "Would you really
take such a burden upon you again?" (p. 61). To her, it would be a
"burden." Hedda herself has no purpose, and the only meaning in her
is the affirmation of values (beauty, heroism, courage, and freedom)
expects from Lovborg's suicide. Both Hedda and Miss Tesman find
affirmation of life in death and an expression of the life force in
death; Miss Tesman finds them in the peace, beauty, and release of her
sister's death and in the new life Hedda carries; Hedda finds them in
prospect of Lovborg's suicide and her role in that suicide.
Is Tesman's worrying about Lovborg an expression of his
decency? Or does he feel guilty at having taken the manuscript? Does he
perhaps fear public exposure? Tesman's fundamental decency and love of
his aunt move him
to begin to suggest that she come to live with him and Hedda, "Yes,
just fancy what a nice time we three might
have had together, if--?" (p. 61). Hedda cuts him off, rejecting his
idea "If--?" (p. 62). Tesman backs down and leaves the suggestion
unspoken. Why doesn't he insist?
Another consideration in analyzing Tesman is his response to
that Hedda has burned the manuscript. Initially he expresses "a
violent movement of terror" (p. 62). But at the news she did it for
him, he has "an outburst of mingled doubt and joy" (p. 63). Once
he believes that she loves him, he laughs "in irrepressible glee"
63). After some expression of happiness, he thinks of Lovborg, "Great
God! it is terrible to think what will become of poor Eilert now" (p.
64). Does he make himself an accomplice in Hedda's crime by agreeing to
secrecy? What else could he have done? What do his response and
acquiescence show about
Tesman morally and emotionally? Is he morally corrupt or merely weak?
Or is he, as Weigand suggests, "every bit as honorable as the average
of commonplace people"? Is he indeed like most of us in his behavior,
his morality, and his moral decisions--an ordinary man who is neither
better nor worse than most of us?
Does his conversation with Hedda show his naivete and
immaturity regarding male-female relations?
Throughout this scene, Hedda warns Tesman to be quiet so that
won't hear; she wants to avoid scandal and to maintain her privacy. Why
does Hedda find it ridiculous that Tesman wants to tell Berta that
loves him or that she is pregnant? This prospect makes her clench
"her hands together in desperation" and cry out, "Oh, it is
killing me,--it is killing me, all this!" (p. 63). What is so offensive
to her in Tesman, his response, and her situation?
Hedda betrays her eagerness to hear about Lovborg's suicide; she seizes
Thea's arm and asks if she thinks something has happened to him. At the
same time, she
repeatedly expresses her fear of scandal and her acceptance of
society's rules: she responds to Thea's (very improperly) going to
Lovborg's lodgings, "You
could make up your mind to that" (p. 64); she whispers a warning not to
reveal herself to Brack, "Thea--Thea--be careful!" (p. 65); also, she
Tesman not to get
Hedda's response to Lovborg's death confirms Brack's
Hedda's involvement with Lovborg. Though she is at first disappointed
shooting himself in the breast, she still believes that his suicide is
a beautiful death. Her statements make clear the significance for her
of his dying "beautifully":
Lovborg's choosing to die affirms free will for Hedda; in other words,
the free Lovborg shapes his own
destiny and life. She sees in his suicide proof that freedom, beauty,
and heroism do exist. Also, because
Lovborg used her gun, does she feel that she participated in his choice
to die? and so, symbolically, is
she also free?
- "At last a deed worth doing!" (p. 66).
- "I say there is beauty in this" (p. 66).
- "Eilert Lovborg has made up his account with life. He had
courage to do--the one right thing" (p. 66).
- "It gives me a sense of freedom to know that a deed of
courage is still possible in this world,--a deed of spontaneous beauty"
- "I only know that Eilert Lovborg has had the courage to
life after his own fashion. And then--the last great act, with its
beauty! Ah! that he should have the will and the strength to turn away
from the banquet of life--so early" (p. 68).
The reality of Lovborg's death turns out to be a far cry from
her vision of a heroic death. Lovborg
died ingloriously, in a brawl with a prostitute and of an undignified
bullet to the bowels. She is revolted
at Brack "with an expression of loathing" (p. 68). An
overwhelming sense of life as unheroic and absurd causes her to
"Oh, what curse is it that makes everything I touch turn ludicrous and
mean?" (p. 68). Note: she is using "mean" in the sense of ignoble,
inferior, having little value. Why do Hedda's ideals fail? Is
it because of the nature of life, the nature of her society, the nature
of the ideals themselves, her own character, or some combination of
With Lovborg's death, Mlle. Diana's role as a foil for Hedda
continues. With the first reference to Diana
in Act I, she is confused with Hedda as the woman who threatened
Lovborg with a gun. She, like Hedda,
carries a gun. Both have just returned to town. Hedda avidly listens to
Lovborg's stories of orgies; Diana
takes part in these orgies. Lovborg accuses Diana of killing his child;
Hedda destroyed his child-manuscript. Lovborg is shot in Diana's
boudoir with Hedda's gun, and Hedda is appalled at the possibility of
to testify in court with her. Both women sell themselves, though in
Thea, the other foil for Hedda, begins to resume her role as
inspirer of men. She sees the
possibility of recreating Lovborg's work. Tesman's willingness to
dedicate himself to this task sounds like an effort to atone for the
destruction of the manuscript, a noble gesture of self-sacrifice. But
is it? Might he be trying to quiet his conscience? Is he motivated by
self-interest in furthering his own career? Recreating Lovborg's book
would make his career; he would be riding to success on Lovborg's
Tesman says, "And arranging other people's papers is just the work for
me" (p. 69).
When Tesman and Thea move into the inner room to begin their
work and their
alliance, Hedda is displaced from the space that was identified with
her, just as she is being displaced in
Tesman's life by Thea and Lovborg's book. They reject the inner room as
having insufficient light and
take over Hedda's writing table, again appropriating her space. Hedda
at this point moves the remaining
gun into the inner room.
Thea has again found a purpose for her life. Ibsen called Thea
"the type of conventional sentimental,
petty bourgeoisie." Is Thea as soft and vulnerable as she appears? She
does abandon her husband, her home, and her stepchildren regardless of
defies society in showing her attachment to the disreputable Lovborg.
Now, having just learned of Lovborg's death, she starts to work on
manuscript without a moment's hesitation. Her quickly attaching herself
to Tesman upsets some readers,
who feel she should mourn the man she loved longer. Does she love
Lovborg, or does she love what
Lovborg did for her in enlarging her life? Is she motivated by loyalty
to and a romantic love for Lovborg, or is she seeking her own
she determined to hang on to the purpose and sense of self Lovborg gave
her? What do you think of Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's description of Thea?
that fragile blond exterior lies a manipulative, iron will and a
agenda that will let nothing stand in its way, not even Hedda; this is
shown brilliantly in her winning-over of Tesman in the end, driving the
last nail into Hedda's coffin.
Will Thea fit in with the Tesmans--George, Aunt Julia, and Berta? Will
the desires of the Tesman circle
be fulfilled? Will Tesman work out his guilt over the manuscript's
destruction, establish his reputation
with Lovborg's book, and get his professorship? Will Thea find meaning
and identity in inspiring a great
work? Will Aunt Julia find Thea an acceptable replacement for Aunt
How does Brack gain control over Hedda through the guns and her fear of
scandal? Why does Hedda refuse to lie about Lovborg's stealing the gun?
Tesman and Thea return to the living room, leaving the inner
Hedda to reclaim. That space becomes the symbol of her isolation from
- She is excluded by Tesman and Thea; she clearly
recognizes that Thea will displace her influence over Tesman. Is it
significant that she twice runs her hand over Thea's hair--"gently
ruffling her hair" (p. 69) and "Passes her hands softly through
Mrs. Elvsted's hair" (p. 71)?
rejects Brack's sexual affair and control over her life, "I am
in your power none the less. Subject to your will and your demands. A
slave, a slave then! (Rises impetuously.) No, I cannot endure
thought of that! Never!" (p. 71).
Hedda has indeed lost control of her life--caught in the
circle and values, trapped by her own pregnancy and impending
and enslaved by Brack. What is she feeling? Are her feelings expressed
by the wild music she plays?
The ending is filled with dramatic
irony. Why are the following statements ironic for the audience?
- Tesman: "Oh, I daresay Judge Brack will be so kind as to
now and then, even though I am out" (p. 72).
- Brack: "Every blessed evening, with all the pleasure in
Mrs. Tesman! We shall get on capitally together, we two!" (p. 72).
- Brack: "Good God!--people don't do such things" (p. 72).
Brack has the last words of the play; do they show his
limitations? Through Brack, is Ibsen making a comment about society
and/or the values
and limitations of Brack's class, Hedda's aristocratic set? Is it
significant that Hedda dies isolated in the
inner room surrounded by her inheritance--or heritage--from General
Gabler? She dies playing the piano,
shoots herself with the gun, and dies under the portrait, all of which
she inherited from General Gabler
Ibsen wrote, "With Hedda, there is deep poetry at bottom. But her
surroundings frighten her. Think of it, to make oneself ridiculous!"
Her "deep poetry" is expressed in her yearning for beauty, for heroism;
society, her class, her upbringing, and her circumstances do not offer
an outlet for her deep poetry. Not even a male genius like Lovborg
support from this society. Consequently, her poetry is repressed and
takes the form of distorted idealizations, such as the vine leaves and
Lovborg's beautiful suicide.
In death, has Hedda successfully expressed her ideals? Has she
last found an outlet for her poetry? Has she transcended (risen above)
her personal weakness and the limits imposed by her society? Is her
death a courageous act which affirms
her free will? Does she find freedom through her death? Or is she
avoiding responsibility for her actions
and their consequences? Would courage be facing scandal and defying
Brack? Is her death beautiful?
or heroic? Or is it
merely shocking or appalling? If you see her death as beautiful, does
that mean you also have to accept
At the end, who remains to carry on society or civilization?
Is it significant that only Hedda and
Lovborg were creative (she with her baby, he with his books)? Is
Hedda's scorn for the Tesman
circle/values justified? Does she scorn society? Does Ibsen scorn the
society he portrays in this play?
The bloody ending reminds the critic Stein Haugom Olsen of the ending
of Hamlet. Because we
read and discussed Hamlet in this class, you may find Olsen's
statement about the two plays interesting:
As in Hamlet, there is a bloody stage when
the curtain falls. But in Hedda Gabler there
is no Fortinbras, no principle to bring in a new order. Nor is there
here an Horatio who, for love, would
sacrifice his life for the dead hero. Not here an Horatio who shall
tell a tale of woe.
Hedda Gabler and Tragedy
Olsen raises another issue, a controversial one. Is Hedda's
death tragic and is the play a tragedy? Critical opinion is divided.
Ibsen said of
the ending, "Life is not tragic.--Life is ridiculous--And that cannot
borne." Do you think that this statement applies to the entire ending
or just to Hedda's views at the end? To answer these questions, you
first define tragedy and the tragic experience and identify the tragic
We will not pursue in class the issue raised in the preceding
paragraph, nor will I ask a question on the final based on it. However,
you should be aware of this issue. If you would like to pursue this
question and perhaps write a paper on it, background reading materials
exist online. Just click on the following links.
Definition of tragedy.
The Tragic Vision
The seven interrelated elements traditionally
regarded as elements of tragedy: (1) a catastrophic conclusion, (2)
that will seem inevitable, and (3) that
occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of the
protagonist, (4) who suffers terribly, and
(5) whose suffering often seems disproportionate to his or her
culpability. Yet (6) the suffering is usually
redemptive, bringing out the noblest of human capacities for learning,
and (7) for accepting moral
Kinds of Tragedy.
Greek tragedy, medieval tragedy and the wheel of
fortune, Elizabethan and Shakespearean tragedy, and the problem play or
play of ideas.
Two Modern Views.
The critics Lou Salome and Caroline W. Mayerson offer
opposite answers the
questions, "Is Hedda Gabler's death tragic?" and "Is Hedda Gabler
|F, March 30, Online class
|Ibsen, Online overview
Hedda Gabler, Act I
read and to send postings
The Problem Play
The New Woman
Hedda Gabler as
|M, April 2
||Hedda Gabler, Act II
|W, April 4
||Hedda Gabler, Act III
|F, April 6 Online class
|Hedda Gabler, Act IV
Ibsen Page || Core
6 Page || Melani Home Page