One of the social issues dealt with in Ibsen's problem plays is the oppression of women by conventions limiting them to a domestic life. In Hedda Gabler the heroine struggles to satisfy her ambitious and independent intellect within the narrow role society allows her. Unable to be creative in the way she desires, Hedda's passions become destructive both to others and herself.
Raised by a general (Ibsen 1444), Hedda has the character of a leader and is wholly unsuited to the role of "suburban housewife" (1461). Since she is unable to have the authority she craves, she exercises power by manipulating her husband George. She tells Thea, "I want the power to shape a man's destiny" (1483). Hedda's unsuitability for her domestic role is also shown by her impatience and evasiveness at any reference to her pregnancy. She confides to Judge Brack, "I've no leanings in that direction" (1471). Hedda desires intellectual creativity, not just the procreative power that binds her to a limited social function. But because her only means of exercising power is through a "credulous" husband (1490), Hedda envies Thea's rich intellectual partnership with Eilert Loevborg (1484), which produces as their creative "child" a bold treatise on the future of society (1473-74, 1494). Hedda's rivalry with Thea for power over Eilert is a conflict between Hedda's dominating intellect (symbolized by her pistols) and the traditionally feminine power of beauty and love (symbolized by Thea's long hair).
Because Hedda lacks Thea's courage to leave her husband and risk ostracism, she tries to satisfy her intellect within society's constraints. First she seeks power through wealth and social status, marrying George on the condi...
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...da bows to Thea's beautiful hair and, after playing a last dance on the piano, admits defeat: "Not free. Still not free! . . . From now on I'll be quiet" (1506-07).
Hedda's tragedy is that she is denied the freedom to realize her creative potential, and so have the self-esteem that comes from personal achievement. Her attempt to retain her independence within society prevents her, through fear of scandal, from marrying the man with whom she might have had a relationship both individually satisfying and mutually supportive. In Hedda's suicide are seen the stifling of intellect and the emotional isolation caused by oppression, even within a commonplace bourgeois family where "People don't do such things!" (1507).
Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Trans. Michael Meyer. Third Edition. New York: Norton, 1981. 1443-1507.
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