Hedda Gabler

Learning to Empathize with Hedda Gabler

“It’s a liberation to know that an act of spontaneous courage is yet possible in this world. An act that has something of unconditional beauty.”― Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler

Reading a play produces a very different experience than seeing it performed before your eyes. In a play, every detail adds layers to the words–the subtleties of tone, movement, stance. Characters are brought to life; their emotions scrawled across their faces and written in their gestures. Without these actions and inflections, the words lose something of their power. However well-written, no play can convey it’s whole tale unless it speaks on stage.

The Mystery of Hedda Gabler

This truth I realized last weekend when I saw Hedda Gabler preformed live for the first time. I read her story several years ago in college, and mistakenly thought I understood it. After watching Hedda walk across the stage, I realized how much I didn’t catch. Even now, there’s so much about her I don’t understand and probably never will.

In the story, Hedda is a character no one can fully grasp. Her actions and thoughts are a mystery to all around her, especially to her husband, George Tesman.  Unlike Hedda who seems trapped in discontent, Tesman glows in the positive aspects of his life. He has a beautiful wife living with him in their dream home. A pair of doting aunts down the street. Good friends who only want happiness for him. And his life passion–his work as a scholar and specialist.

In his propensity to seek out and cherish the good around him, Tesman is blind to the shadows in his life. He notices Hedda’s unhappiness but refuses to dwell on it. He’d rather believe the lie that all is well than delve deeper and uncover unhappy truths. He doesn’t understand his wife–can’t understand his wife–because their perspectives differ so vastly. To Tesman, happiness exists as the default, and only outside forces can disrupt its flow. In contrast, restlessness plagues Hedda, and she searches for outside reasons to be happy. Reasons that consistently elude her.

As someone who relates strongly to the optimistic–albeit oblivious–Tesman, I struggle to understand Hedda. I struggle to see the root of her pain; struggle to comprehend why she finds more beauty in death than in life. When I first read her story, I thought she refused to communicate honestly with Tesman because she didn’t care. But I no longer believe that. I think Hedda cared a great deal; she just didn’t have an outlet to direct her passions toward.

 Looking at Hedda’s Perspective

“Hedda is as real an individual as myself or you. She is everyone who has felt trapped and hopeless and has turned to the path of destruction. I believe that empathy and understanding are some of our greatest tools, and that by exploring the aspects of humanity that we would normally shrink away from, these tools will be sharpened and strengthened.” –Aidan Beasley, Director’s Note from the 2020 NGU production of Hedda Gabler

After watching Hedda Gabler preformed by a cast so richly invested in the story, I felt challenged to extend more empathy to Hedda than I previously had. No longer believing her to be simply a cold character, I wanted to know what drove this intelligent woman to the actions she chose. My pondering led me to focus on aspects of her personality I hadn’t paid much attention to when I read the play years ago.

1: Her fierce independence and desire for freedom:

Hedda is clearly a strong woman with a will of her own. She resists any attempt to control her, and she intentionally defies the expectations placed on her. What I didn’t notice before watching the play, though, is how Hedda’s passion feeds her longing. She is a spirited woman full of life, but with nowhere to go and nothing to occupy her time.

At the beginning of the play, she mentions that part of her agreement with Tesman when they married was that they would keep an open house and enjoy society. That she would have a horse. A butler. In other words, that she would have opportunities to engage with the world. To meet people, to be a hostess, to go riding–to see something of what goes on beyond her domestic daily life. She would have occupations independent of Tesman and free from household responsibilities.

Hedda constantly complains of boredom, and that boredom stems partly from a lack of freedom. She’s a wife, and though there’s little danger of Tesman imposing his will on her, Hedda’s role as a wife and as a woman limits her ability to act as she wants.

2: Her courage and desire to be brave:

“Hedda–‘Ah, yes—courage! If one only had that!’  / Lovborg –‘What then? What do you mean?’ /Hedda–‘Then life would perhaps be liveable, after all.’

Throughout the play, Hedda speaks of courage as a virtue she admires, perhaps above all other virtues. As the daughter of a General, it seems unsurprising that bravery would be a trait she desires and approves of in others. However, her definition of courage drifts beyond the norm. She seems to define courage as the willingness to direct your own fate; the willingness to partake freely in all things and to break free of expectations. In other words, to do what just isn’t done.

Perhaps that’s partly why she has impulses to insult Tesman’s aunt, to burn books, to shoot her pistols in the air–she wants to prove to herself that she’s brave enough to chart her own course in life. She wants to have the courage to push back against the limits others so willingly accept.

3: Her fear of being trapped; of being powerless:

“I want for once in my life to have power to mould a human destiny.”–Hedda Gabler

Battling with Hedda’s courage, strength, and spirit, is fear. Judge Brack believes Hedda’s greatest fear to be scandal, but I think her fear is deeper than that. Hedda expresses a desire to have influence over others and to have some measure of control over events around her. I think what Hedda fears most is the inability to choose her own fate. She wants to be able to shape a destiny, and the destiny she most wants to shape is her own.

Throughout the story, Hedda puts herself in positions of power. She shoots her pistols and points them at Judge Brack. She convinces Mrs. Elvsted to confide in her, and she manipulates Lovborg. Maybe all these actions are just attempts to convince herself that she still has power over her circumstances.

When Brack threatens her with scandal, he threatens her independence. He traps her with the choice of either conforming to his will or losing her status–both of which options appear as a cage. Tesman unwittingly closes the walls around her further by posing the possibility of Brack being her companion while he daily leaves to work on Lovborg’s book.

So faced with a fate she’s helpless to alter, Hedda sees only one course of action: to turn herself away from the banquet of life early, in an act of deliberate courage (Act 4).

Could Hedda’s Tragic End Have Been Prevented?

As I look at Hedda, a woman so strong and yet so lost, I wonder if her end could have been different. If Tesman had seen her inward struggle, if he had pressed against her lies and tried to understand her, would she have been willing to open up? If Hedda had been willing to reveal herself to someone–Tesman, Mrs. Elvsted, even Lovborg– and made herself vulnerable, would her choices have been different? Perhaps if she had witnessed acts of greater courage in life, maybe she wouldn’t have believed death to be so beautiful. Perhaps if she could have found freedom instead of bindings in her relationships, she wouldn’t have found herself so trapped. Hedda kept herself shrouded in mystery, but perhaps lowering her walls would have been the act of courage she so desperately sought.

In the end, Hedda chose her own fate.

And yet, Hedda, was it really the fate you wanted?

About kconklin

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