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Hedda Gabler: The Struggles Of Conscious And True Expression For Women Of The 19th Century

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The play “Hedda Gabler” was written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright, who was sometimes referred to as woman’s rights activist. The play was first performed in 1890,focusing on gender and societal roles within the Victorian Era. The story is told through symbolic meaning as seen by protagonist Hedda Gabler. Hedda is a young newlywed married to an academic man named George Tesman. Despite having all the things sought after by women of this era, Hedda is very unhappy; finding the role of housewife stifling and oppressive. She describes feeling suffocated by the typical expectations of being a good wife and mother. Hedda conveys a sense of powerlessness which she attributes to the passive role society expects of women. This frustration and desire to fully express herself leads Hedda to become quite manipulative. The play captures this sentiment best with the line: “once in [her] life to have power to mold a human destiny.” To this end, Hedda choses to manipulate the lives of people around her, since society appears to dictate that she cannot shape her own destiny.

Hedda apparently wants nothing more than to have some sense of control. Ibsen portrays the conflicting societal mores of this era, and the corresponding emotional dynamics which ensue, with deeply flawed and human characters. Each character is presented as part of their own “social organization.” Hedda appears as an extreme representation of “feminism.” The play expresses the obvious inequality between men and women. The male characters each represent a form of “patriarchy;” independent entities valued for their intellect, money, physical strengths or talents. Men are essentially viewed as the caretakers of women. Hedda’s character is a great contrast to other females of this era. Most women in the play are depicted as openly accepting of their lesser status to men; presenting as genuinely demure and respectful. What’s interesting is how these women still manage to secure things they want; in a subtle, non-threatening way that doesn’t draw attention. The character of Hedda is fascinating because she is so obviously flawed.

Her behavior is clearly immoral. Yet, as a reader, you sense her yearning for something better which makes her darkness almost sympathetic. Hedda makes references to classical mythology, hinting that while her action may be terrible, she is searching for some something good to offset her sad life. This play, especially the character of Hedda, represents the struggles of conscious and true expression for many women of the 19th century. In my essay, I will address how this play was intertwined with powerful messaging that still resonates with women’s rights issues that persist today.

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Hedda’s uniqueness as a female character is distinguished from the onset of the play. She is a general’s daughter who has had many admirers. Yet she marries a scholar of modest accomplishment, George Tesman, which is puzzling. Hedda is not a conventional heroine, however Ibsen presents her sympathetically, as a victim of circumstances beyond her control. In the middle of the first act, an old school friend, Thea Elvsted, is introduced along with Eilert Lovborg, formerly a rival of Tesman’s and lover of Hedda’s. Lovborg is a recovering alcoholic and accomplished author. He’s recently completed the manuscript of a sequel book. Lovborg is presented as a romantic poet figure who seems to have knowledge about the future. Looking for an escape from her unhappy married life and eager to assert her power, Hedda actually encourages Lovborg to start drinking again. Lovborg then gets drunk and misplaces his manuscript. Tesman finds it but in a fit of jealousy, Hedda burns it! This is especially cruel since Lovborg considers the manuscript to be the symbolic child born out of his relationship with Thea. The reader sees the depth of Hedda’s darkness as she burns the manuscript, whispering, “Now I’m burning your child, Thea.”

Hedda is a strong character to show the difference between the opposing ideals of womanhood in the 19th century. Many females of that era were aligned to characters such as Thea. I believe Hedda and Thea were created to highlight these two polarizing images of women. Hedda was brought up by a very powerful, strict father (General Gabler) whom she constantly battled against his authority. In many ways General Gabler raised Hedda like a male child, teaching her how to shoot and ride, which enhanced her existing dominant qualities in contrast to other women. It’s interesting how Hedda distances herself from family throughout parts of the play; this was most noticeable with Aunt Julie. Hedda seems almost repulsed by looking at her pregnant body, again another unusual trait for a woman in the nineteenth century. Hedda clearly dislikes people who seem weak or and passive, such as Thea and Aunt Julia. Only characters who exude strength and power, like Brack and Lovborg. get praise from Hedda. I found it telling that even while Hedda was married to her husband, Tesman, she continued to keep out photos of her father shooting their guns. This seemed like a sign that Hedda wanted to maintain control and power in the marriage. All her odd behaviors appearpurposeful with an aim to rebel against what is clearly a male dominated society. Hedda wants to feel in control of her destiny. However, as a woman in this era, she feels trapped and powerless.

This realization seems to occur shortly after her marriage to Tesman. Hedda soon learns that the financial stability and respect that came with marriage, isn’t truly fulfilling. She realizes that she wants a richer and more interesting lifestyle than Tesman aspires for. In quest for self- fulfillment, Hedda disregards what is best for her husband or others. She creates havoc in her selfish quest to achieve her goals. Manipulation is one of Hedda’s favorite things to do in this play, however, it’s presented almost as a necessary evil. As Hedda begins to feel more trapped by these unfair social norms; a sense of desperation develops that makes her character sympathetic on many levels. Her behavior often seems more shocking and ruthless simply because she is a female. If you imagine her character as a male, I wonder if it would come across in such a striking way. It’s relevant to note that Hedda is aware of how her good looks and sexuality provide her some unique power. It’s interesting how Hedda uses this power as a form of entertainment or game of wits. The role of power and gender is constantly evolving in this play.

The male characters are also quite unique in this play. They each hold an air of arrogance and power which they wield over the women in their life. Lovborg represented this by trying to make his friendship with Hedda into a sexual relationship. Judge Brack carried himself with much of the classic “male superiority.” Yet, he and Hedda were matched with regards to their skills for manipulation and basic lack of compassion. However, after Hedda causes Lovborg’s suicide; Judge Brack reveals his knowledge of her role in this tragedy, hinting of future blackmail. Unable to accept the idea of being controlled by yet another man, Hedda takes her father’s pistols into the study and shoots herself offstage. As awful as Hedda could be, she ultimately is conveyed as a heroine. She is viewed as a woman whose flaws were a symptom of an unfair society that fueled her frustrations and evil behavior. When she shoots herself, the final irony is conveyed in the last line of the play: “Good God, people don’t do such things!” Sadly, even at the very end, Hedda’s life was dictated by what others said she should, or should not, do. This intense control pushed her to manipulate others which, ultimately created her own tragic demise.

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Hedda Gabler: The Struggles Of Conscious And True Expression For Women Of The 19th Century. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from
“Hedda Gabler: The Struggles Of Conscious And True Expression For Women Of The 19th Century.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Hedda Gabler: The Struggles Of Conscious And True Expression For Women Of The 19th Century. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 Aug. 2022].
Hedda Gabler: The Struggles Of Conscious And True Expression For Women Of The 19th Century [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2022 Aug 17]. Available from:
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