Hedda Gabler is one of those evil but interesting characters we like to talk about here on Postcards from Purgatory. And along with being kind of evil, Hedda has a bonus streak of crazy. The crazy ones are the best ones. I have few to no memories of reading Hedda Gabler in high school, which is interesting to me because I found it quite memorable this time around. And that makes this play unique: it’s the only work of literature on the docket for the AP English Challenge about which I have no pre-existing opinion. That actually made me a bit less excited to read it. But at least I wasn’t filled with a free-floating dread, like I am about January’s selection (more on that another time).
I definitely enjoyed Hedda Gabler more than A Doll House. In A Doll House I found the supporting cast more interesting than the Helmers. In Hedda Gabler, the titular character is the play. She’s spoiled and mean and more than a little bit crazy. The foreshadowing here is less than subtle (perhaps audiences were less sophisticated back then?), but the journey to the final gunshot is quite entertaining. The entertainment was, for me, of the “I can’t believe she just did that” variety. We first meet Hedda shortly after she and her husband George Tesman return from their wedding trip. George’s doting aunt Julie has come to visit them. They two spend several minutes catching up and talking about how happy George is to be married and how fancy Hedda is. When Hedda comes in the entire mood changes. She does not seem to embrace Miss Tesman’s appearance in their home and in fact offends her on several occasions. She calls her hat old and unfashionable even though Aunt Julie had just told George she had bought it so Hedda would not be embarrassed to be seen with her in public. The whole interaction put me off at first (and at second, if truth be told), but when I reread it, I got less of a “Hedda is a big meanie” than a “Hedda has no social skills” vibe. I’m sure the truth is probably somewhat betwixt and between. She does not seem like the kind of person who wants to be friendly with someone for the sake of being friendly, but at the same time perhaps one should make an effort with one’s husband’s favorite auntie?
Hedda learns at the end of Act I that her glorious life of society and wealth is not assured as she thought. George must compete for a university position that was initially thought to be a given with an old rival, Eilert Løvborg, who also happens to be an old flame of Hedda’s. Hedda is obviously distressed by this news, but says that “at least [she] has one thing left to amuse [her]self with…. [Her] pistols (247).” I expect the presence of a female character such as this in a play that was written in the nineteenth century was a bit revolutionary. Hedda is definitely a much stronger female character than Nora Helmer in A Doll House. At first I didn’t like her much, but as I’m going back through the play to write this post, I realize that though she is not entirely likeable, she is fun to watch. She is her own person, and is not about to change herself for anyone, least of all her husband.
At the beginning of Act II Judge Brack, a friend of the couple, comes to visit and Hedda points one of the aforementioned pistols at him and actually shoots. She obviously misses, but that was weird, and I can’t find a good reason in the text for it, other than to show that Hedda likes to play with guns and that she may be crazy. She and Judge Brack have a conversation in which Hedda confesses that she married George because “he kept pressing and pleading to be allowed to take care of me—I didn’t see why I ought to resist (251).” She said she finds George an “acceptable choice” with nothing “especially ridiculous about him (251).” How’s that for damning with faint praise? She says as well that she felt that she had “danced herself out (251),” and mentions that none of her other numerous suitors ever bothered to ask to marry her. I found this exchange a bit sad, actually. Hedda is twenty-nine, which in these days is a fine age to be unmarried, but back then I expect she was well into spinsterhood. Of course, Hedda Gabler doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of woman who would care what others thought of her, so her motivations for marrying George Tesman are a bit of a puzzle to me. Perhaps she does love him but has a hard time admitting it? Or she knew marriage was what she needed to do to maintain her place in society?
The plot thickens when Eilert Løvborg appears midway through Act II. Now we know that he and Hedda were involved at some point in the past but it isn’t clear how close they were. The way they converse in Act II leads me to suspect they were quite close but that it wasn’t a matter of public knowledge. Strange things start happening when Løvborg’s current paramour, Thea Elvstead (who has left her husband to be with Løvborg) arrives and Hedda starts goading him into drinking. That Løvborg has a problem with drink is implied, and that he is no longer living that kind of life thanks to Thea is more or less directly stated. Hedda’s motivations here are unclear to me: is she trying to ruin Løvborg as revenge for him treating her poorly long ago? Is she jealous that he is with Thea? Does she wish to make him look bad so George looks better when they are competing for jobs? I think the last is least likely because Løvborg says right off that he has no desire to be a professor like George; he wishes to keep writing. She says at the end of the Act that she wishes to “have power over a human being,” and that is why she made Løvborg go out drinking with George and Brack. When Thea asks her if she has power over her husband, Hedda replies, “Yes, what a bargain that was! Oh if you only could understand how poor I am. And you’re allowed to be so rich! (Passionately throws her arms about her.) I think I will burn your hair off, after all (272)!” This triangle with Hedda, Thea, and Løvborg is really interesting to me. Hedda seems to still harbor feelings for Løvborg, and yet she broke things off with him ages ago. She must feel the need to ruin his happiness since she is not happy in her marriage, and she is angry that he knew right off that she couldn’t possibly be happy with George Tesman: “Hedda—how could you throw yourself away like that (263)?”
In the aftermath of the “boys night out,” Løvborg has lost the manuscript of his new book, which George has found and brought home to give to Løvborg when he returns to his senses. Hedda knows this, but when Løvborg shows up, devastated, she does not give it to him. She lets him end things with Thea, who is heartbroken, both about the end of their relationship and the loss of the book, which she considered to be their child since they had spent so much time together working on it. Hedda gives Løvborg one of her pistols so he can kill himself, and then she starts burning the pages of the manuscript, saying, “Now I’m burning your child, Thea! You, with your curly hair! Your child and Eilert Lovborg’s. Now I’m burning—I’m burning the child (288).” Is that or is that not one of the most insane lines ever spoken in theater? Okay, that may be a bit of hyperbole, but it’s certainly one of the craziest lines I’ve read in a while. I can just see how that could be played onstage. If I were an actress I think I would love to play Hedda Gabler. So that like makes it fairly clear that Hedda resents Thea and Løvborg’s relationship and that undermining it has been her motivation throughout the play.
And of course the play ends with Hedda shooting herself. I don’t think this happens because she is sad about Løvborg or jealous that Thea and George are going to try and put his manuscript back together. She does this because Judge Brack threatens her freedom—he knows the gun Løvborg used belongs to Hedda, and he has every intention of holding that over her head for years to come. Hedda feels these things pressing down upon her: a marriage she doesn’t want, pressure to have children she doesn’t want, the unrequested attention from Brack and the stress of worrying whether or not he will open his big mouth about the gun. And that’s the end of that. Off she goes to the other room and shoots herself in the temple.
Hedda Gabler truly is one of the most interesting female characters I’ve read about in the recent past. Emma Bovary is a close second, but there was something about Emma that really, really bothered me. I found Hedda’s actions to be morally questionable, but at the same time I think she may have been a bit wacko, and as such not entirely in control. I wonder what people thought of her character when this play was first performed. More specifically, I wonder what women thought of her character. Were they disgusted? Jealous? Did they want to stand up and cheer? I don’t know that I’ll ever know. I do know that I would not want to cross Hedda Gabler.