Can Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler Be Considered A Tragedy?

Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is a definitive look at social conditions involving women at the turn of the Century. His title character is a complex individual who is driven to destruction by her great desires. Hedda epitomizes women of that time period by their dependency on social convention, and she is motivated to do so many things but unfortunately is without the courage to act upon them. There are many elements used by Ibsen to depict a tragic hero, and therefore a tragic play. For example, the reader sees a specific worldview, a main character of noble birth, and both concepts of the hamartia and peripetia which are vital to the tragic plot. This raises the question of whether this work can be considered a tragedy. Critics have continuously debated this issue, even since it was written in 1890. Many thought the character of Hedda to be too unrealistic, thus the play melodramatic rather than tragic. However, through the elements mentioned above and by using literary techniques such as symbolism and irony, Ibsen succeeds in creating this timeless tragedy.

Firstly, Ibsen creates a specific worldview to his audience, and he does this by suggesting a mirror dependency between genders. The male characters in this play are dependant on women, and the women are dependant on social conventions. Jorgen Tesman, Hedda's vacant minded husband is dependant on his Aunt Juliane whereas Hedda is constantly restrained by her reliance on her 'what would other think/say' mentality. The female characters of this play are dependent on the fact that others depend on them, and Rina is a striking symbol of this very fact. She symbolizes the vulnerability of everyman being the invalid that she is thus projecting Ibsen's idea that everybody is dependant in some way. This viewpoint is extremely accurate in describing women's roles in European society in both the 1800's and present day. Men are generally viewed as the bread winners, who come home after a hard day at work expecting to be taken care of by their wives. Women on the other hand, are expected to be seen and not heard, keeping both the house and family name in tact.

Secondly, the author has created a character of noble birth, another important characteristic of a tragic play. Evidence of Hedda's nobility is found in the converstation between Aunt Julie and the servant Berte. Julie is reminiscing about Hedda riding by with her father, obviously an important general of some kind. There is a portrait of General Gabler that hangs above the sofa, and the reference to the guns that he has left his daughter represent something with a much deeper meaning. The guns are kept in the back room along with the piano and writing desk, every outlet of energy for her. This symbolizes the entrapment that Hedda feels in marrying a man that is perhaps in a lower social class, and it is this background that leads directly to her hamartia, rather the decision that leads her to a tragic end, and perhaps one of the more important factors in categorizing this play as a tragedy.

Hedda makes quite a few rash judements throughout the course of this play so it is difficult to pinpoint which one to be the most detrimental. There is her decision to hold on to Eilert Lovborg's manuscript, to give him the gun that would be the cause of his accidental death, and the final, fatal choice to end her life. However, none of these errors in judgement seem as harsh as one that the audience doesn't even witness, that being her marriage to Tesman. Hedda is nearing her thirtieth birthday and felt pressured to get married, so she entered into a union with a man she didn't love. She thought he was destined for greatness in his becoming a professor, but has merely set herself up for disappointment when she sees his true nature. As a result we see the entrapment that Hedda feels, a feeling that leads to her demise.

Lastly, the audience sees the use of peripetia, the concept that suggests that the progression of a tragic character will lead them to a reversal: that they get what they want, but what they want is destructive. This is perhaps central to this play, for it is this that truly defines Hedda Gabler as a tragic character. Hedda's motivation in this play is to control somebody's destiny, and preferably male. Hedda wants to live vicariously through Lovborg, and so to some extent she does get what she wants, but the outcome is disastrous. The moment that Hedda has control of Eilert is when she gives him the gun encouraging him to kill himself, without coming out and saying so. This is what clinches Lovborg for he feels that he is no longer useful, exemplifying his dependance on women. The peripetia becomes obvious when Brack tells her that Eilert has been accidentally killed and the audience sees that Hedda truly is a destructive character. This reversal is extremely ironic in terms that she wanted Lovborg to be a real man (as opposed to her husband who behaves according to his infantile dependency) and at the end we discover that Lovborg dies due to an injury that robs him of his every manliness.

The complexities of Hedda and the rest of characters in this play are all puppets of Ibsen's view and mentality. He creates a vivid picture of a woman who is socially tortured beyond her control, and she eventually is led to the tragic end of what was presumably a tragic life. Through his literary techniques and tragic elements, Ibsen creates a tragic masterpiece of his time, and one that could well be applied to this time. She portrays women in society so afraid of social scandal, and she was willing to avoid one at all costs. This is another example of irony because during that time women like Hedda did not commit suicide, and therefore in choosing to end her life she creates something to talk about. This is ironic for the simple fact that her death arose out of a situation that she so desperately tried to avoid.

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