General Discussion of Ibsen
Ibsen's Contemporaries Respond to Hedda Gabler
Continuing into the Twentieth Century
Hedda Gabler: An Introduction
Characterization of Hedda Gabler
Themes in Hedda Gabler
Hedda Gabler as Tragedy
Web Sites on Hedda Gabler

Henrik Ibsen's plays anticipate major developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries:

Ibsen exposed other stresses of modern life by showing the inner pressures and conflicts that inhibit and even destroy the individual. Some of these pressures stem from conditioning, i.e., from the individual's internalizing society's values. John Northam distinguishes the opposing elements within the individual as the social self and the essential self. The social self is the persona which conforms to the demands of family, friends, community, and society and which an individual generally develops for acceptance or as a protection. The essential self is an individual's true Self and expresses the individual's thoughts, feelings, desires, needs, etc. This distinction, which is a useful concept in general, has particular relevance to Hedda Gabler; I will refer to it repeatedly in our discussions of the play.

A primary value for Ibsen is freedom, which he believed to be essential for self-fulfillment. Of the "many things" which his later writings, including Hedda Gabler, were concerned with, Ibsen specifically identified "contradictions between ability and desire, or between will and circumstance, the mingled tragedy and comedy of humanity and the individual."

Ibsen was constantly experimenting and pushing boundaries in his writing. This habit of exploration often made him and his plays controversial and shocked conservative critics and audiences. Of this habit, he said, "Where I stood then, when I wrote my various books, there is now a fairly compact crowd, but I myself am no longer there; I am somewhere else, I hope in front." His constant changing often confused contemporary theater-goers and critics, who had to keep adjusting their expectations of an Ibsen play. His repeated changes and experimenting also make it difficult to place Ibsen and his plays in neat categories. Adding to the difficulty of classifying him is the complexity with which he presents his heroes and themes. The resulting ambiguity has enabled readers to find support for their own beliefs and to claim him as a member of their movements. This is true today, as it was in the nineteenth century. Over the years, Ibsen has been called a revolutionary, a nationalist, a romantic, a poet, an idealist, a realist, a socialist, a naturalist, a symbolist, a feminist, and a forerunner of psychoanalysis.

Ibsen had a profound effect on the drama both of his own time and in the twentieth century. His plays stimulated the avant-garde theater in Germany and France, and only the plays of George Bernard Shaw had a greater impact in England. The demands of his plays caused directors to find new ways of staging plays and actors to develop new ways of acting. The declamatory style of acting in vogue during Ibsen's day could not, for example, convincingly present the natural dialogue of Ibsen's later plays, with its sentence fragments, exclamations, and short statements. (Such dialogue is commonplace in plays, movies, and TV dramas today, and we take it for granted; however, in Ibsen's day it was an innovation which confused and upset many theater-goers.) In fact, Hedda Gabler failed when introduced in Germany largely because the actress played Hedda in the traditional declamatory manner, which did not fit Ibsen's natural dialogue.

Many critics, whether European, British, or American, were horrified by Hedda Gabler. One appalled response was to deny that such a woman could exist in real life. A Norwegian critic called her a "monster created by the author in the form of a woman who has no counterpart in the real world." Another response was to classify Hedda as abnormal or perverted. The Danish critic George Brandes found her "a true type of degeneration" who was incapable "of yielding herself, body and soul, to the man she loves." For Hjalmer Boyeson she was "a complete perversion of womanhood." Others explained her as an example of the New Woman, a female character common in fiction in the 1890s, when women were actively demanding equality with men.

The play aroused negative criticism for yet another reason; it violated the assumptions of traditional literary theory. A good example of this kind of response is an anonymous review which appeared in the Saturday Review:

The production of an Ibsen play impels the inquiry, What is the province of art? If it be to elevate and refine, as we have hitherto humbly supposed, most certainly it cannot be said that the works of Ibsen have the faintest claim to be artistic. We see no ground on which his method is defensible. . . . Things rank and gross in nature alone have place in the mean and sordid philosophy of Ibsen. Those of his characters who are not mean morally are mean intellectually--the wretched George Tesman, with his enthusiasm about the old shoes his careful aunt brings him wrapped up in a bit of newspaper, is a case in point. As for refining and elevating, can any human being, it may be asked, feel happier or better in anyway from a contemplation of the two harlots at heart who do duty in Hedda Gabler? . . . We do not mean to say that there are not, unhappily, Hedda Gablers and George Tesmans in 'real life'. There are; but when we meet them we take the greatest pains to get out of their way, and why should they be endured on the stage?
Even some supporters of Ibsen were confused by this play, because they expected another problem play; a number of his previous plays had dealt with contemporary social issues like syphilis or political corruption. For them, Hedda Gabler might be brilliant, but it was also pointless. Edmund Gosse could not find "any sort of general idea from Hedda Gabler...or satire on any condition of society."

The play, however, found many admirers. Justin McCarthy gave the play high praise, "Hedda Gabler is the name, to my mind, of Ibsen's greatest play, and of the most interesting woman that Ibsen has created." The anonymous reviewer for the London Sunday Times recommended the play without reservation: "one of the most notable events in the history of the modern stage, for, in spite of all prejudice and opposition, it marks an epoch and launches an influence." The Times reviewer based his judgements on a more liberal literary theory than the reviewer for the Saturday Review quoted above:

Now, to us Hedda Gabler appears a wonderful work of art, one that must produce a profound impression upon those who will accustom themselves to regard a stage-play from the point of view of real, living character in actual contact with the facts and sensations and possibilities of human experience, instead of gauging it by the conventional standard of playmaking, or the superficial observation of ordinary social intercourse. Ibsen has a way of going to the root of the matter, and exposing the skeleton in the cupboard, which is certainly not always a pleasant sight. But life, with its infinite subtleties and inconsistencies, is always interesting, and Ibsen shows the wonder and the pity of it, while perhaps he only infers its loveliness by contrast. But therein he proves himself a master artist, for his point of view is definite, and the impression he produces is complete and final. In Hedda Gabler he gives us a typical tragedy of modern life, and in the strange, sensitive, selfish heroine, he presents one of the most wonderful and subtle conceptions of woman in the whole range of dramatic literature.
Regardless of the mixed reviews, British and American audiences flocked to see Hedda Gabler and made it a financial success. They enjoyed its dramatic surprises and shocks. The play was (and still is) popular with actresses, because it provides "juicy parts" for them, as do most of Ibsen's plays. 

Many of the assessments of Hedda Gabler of the 1890s and the early 1900s continue to be expressed today. For F.L.Lucas, Hedda is a twentieth century New Woman, "the idle, emancipated woman--and what she is to do with her emancipation, the devil only knows" (1962). For James Huneker, she is the deficient woman, "the loveless woman." The schism between those who want art to be elevating or at least happy and those who accept grim portrayals of reality continues. Of course, new ways of reading the play have arisen in the interval; for example, Freudian critics interpret Hedda as sexually repressed or frigid, and Marxist critics focus on the repression of bourgeois society, which is represented by the Tesmans.

Ibsen said about Hedda Gabler, " was not my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day." His statement raises a number of questions for audiences and for readers of Hedda Gabler.

To answer these questions, we will look closely at the play. We will not necessarily answer the questions in the order listed, nor will our discussion always be phrased in Ibsen's terms, but we will arrive at answers. But we may not arrive at one answer or one interpretation that every class member, including me, agrees with. This is a highly complex play: Hedda Gabler's behavior is contradictory; the characters are not easily judged because they have positive and negative traits; the issues raised are numerous and complicated; finally, the structure of the play does not reveal Ibsen's point of view. What I mean by the play's not revealing Ibsen's point of view can be explained by referring to Hamlet. Hamlet is unquestionably an honorable man with upstanding qualities whom the audience is expected to admire. It is not so clear how we are to view Hedda: is Hedda to be condemned for her selfishness and destructiveness? is she to be admired for her courage and determination? is she both admirable and despicable?

The Characterization of Hedda Gabler

The question most commonly asked about this play is, why does Hedda behave as she does? This question assumes that Ibsen has given her adequate motivation. Not everyone accepts this assumption; for Elizabeth Hardwick, "Hedda Gabler is unusual, I believe, in having no motivation whatsoever." If Hedda's behavior is unmotivated or insufficiently motivated, then she would seem to be an adult Bad Seed. If you agree with Hardwick's interpretation of Hedda, you might decide that Hedda's lack of motivation is such a serious flaw that the play, which revolves around her, is a failure.

Most audiences and readers, though, see Hedda as propelled by an internal conflict, although they may disagree about the nature of the conflict. Is Hedda torn between her social self and her essential self? Is her conflict an unspoken rebellion against the restrictions her society placed on women? Or is she a victim of her class and of her upbringing as General Gabler's daughter?


What did Ibsen mean when he said that Hedda Gabler portrayed certain "social conditons and principles of the present day"? To try to answer this question, we will examine the major themes:

Hedda Gabler as Tragedy

Another major issue which Hedda Gabler raises is whether it is a tragedy. We will not pursue this issue in class; however, you may wish to explore this topic on your own, and the following selections should prove helpful:

  • Definition of tragedy.
  • Kinds of tragedy. Greek tragedy, medieval tragedy and the wheel of fortune, Elizabethan and Shakespearean tragedy, and the problem play, which is also called the play of ideas.
  • The tragic vision. The seven 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 responsibility.
  • Two Modern Views The critics Lou Salome and Caroline W. Mayerson answer the questions, "Is Hedda Gabler's death tragic?" and "Is Hedda Gabler a tragedy?" differently.

Ibsen Syllabus

Act I
Ibsen, Online overview
Hedda Gabler, Act I
      The Problem Play
      The New Woman
      Hedda Gabler as Tragedy
Act II
Hedda Gabler, Act II
Hedda Gabler, Act III
Act IV
Hedda Gabler, Act IV
The Other

Core Studies 6 Page || Syllabus