Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children present two strongly defined female heroines whose actions not only adversely affect the other characters’ lives but also suggest a fundamental problem with their societies. Both playwrights establish the macroscopic view of society’s ills in the microscopic, individual characters of Hedda and Mother Courage. Both characters have an indomitable magnetism that, on the one hand, allows them to control others but, on the other, causes them to make desperate choices that reflect a repressive society.
Ibsen creates in Hedda Gabler a dominating, fiercely controlling female heroine who controls everyone in her circle, from her weak husband Tesman, to Lovborg, Mrs. Elvsted and even, to a lesser degree, Judge Brack, who reverses roles with Hedda by the end of the play. Hedda, as a chameleon figure, alternately shifts her manipulative tactics to maintain control, and each character cannot stay away from her influence. Only when Hedda has lost control of Lovborg, does she resort to an act of supreme self-control: suicide. Judge Brack believes he has won in his battle of wills with Hedda and believes he remains “the only cock in the yard…” at the play’s end. Nevertheless, her suicide reinforces her superiority because she has claimed the ultimate position of control in the play. Judge Brack cannot assert his lustful intentions through coercive blackmail, and she will not relinquish the power to any character or realization, whether it is Tesman’s loving yet remonstrative pleas or Judge Brack’s slyly conniving wiles. She defines her own role by her self-inflicted death...
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...she does choose this role, ultimately valuing profit over her children’s safety. She continues on this journey without her children even as the play ends.
Both characters, Hedda and Mother Courage, express values dictated by society. Though Mother Courage’s actions destroy her family and Hedda’s suicide destroys herself and her unborn child, both characters choose these destructive paths. In effect, they become like the society itself, embodying its values and motivations, its limitation and corruption. Neither Hedda nor Mother Courage possess any real individual power or self-control to overcome a society that forces them to act destructively. Ibsen and Brecht represent society’s power to coerce characters like Hedda and Mother Courage into accepting values that refract social ones as destructive to them as to the society that informs their characters.
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