In Hedda Gabler, Ibsen immediately presents the affluent and elegant lifestyle Hedda aspires to through the ‘handsomely and tastefully furnished’ setting which provides the focus of the dramatic action. This in turn reveals the social conventions of the upper-class imposed on Hedda, of which she feels obliged to conform to in her current middle-class society. Through the setting, Ibsen effectively depicts the synonymous confinement and oppression of Hedda, who is in conflict with the ideals of her society. For example, the first detailed stage direction places considerable emphasis on the ‘dark colours’ and the uniform dï¿½cor; the ‘dark colours’ create a heavy and oppressive atmosphere and the uniform dï¿½cor leaves little scope for personal and creative expression, mirrored by the ‘autumn colours’ outside.
Also notable is the abundance of furniture, which contributes to the restriction of freedom of movement, thus embodying Hedda’s personal confinement in physical terms. Ibsen confines the dramatic action in order to for his characters – particularly Hedda- to emerge in relation to a strictly defined space, imposed upon them by society’s conventions, thus depicting her confinement. Also significant in the staging is Hedda’s ‘old piano’ which is included in the description of the setting in the first Act. Typically symbolising creativity and a mode of personal expression, it is significant that it is moved from the drawing-room to Hedda’s smaller room – a visual representation of her mind and inner thoughts – symbolising the repression of her creative ‘self’. Through the tightly controlled setting of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen effectively portrays the restriction of Hedda in her house, thus confirming the audience’s interpretation of Hedda as a prisoner.
In addition to this, the ‘french windows’ are a specific aspect of the setting which contributes significantly in emphasising Hedda’s confinement within her home and her desire to be emancipated from the restrictions imposed on her, as with doors in A Doll’s House. For example, she is seen at various times during the play gravitating towards the french windows – which are, perhaps significantly, not only windows but doors- and looking searchingly at the outside world.
Significantly, she is seen ‘drumming on the pane’ of the french windows when her husband, Tesman, comments that he would never consider writing on the topic of the future, as Lovborg has. This effectively symbolises her desire to venture out into the outside world, but is thwarted by Tesman’s preoccupation with conforming to the conventions of his bourgeois society which offers him security as a man, encapsulating patriarchy’s inhibiting influence on Hedda. It is notable that on the only occasion Hedda opens the french windows, she does not walk out into the garden, but instead shoots a pistol aimlessly ‘at the sky’, thus emphasising her internment within her home stemming from the conflict between her ideals and society’s. Ibsen effectively portrays Hedda’s confinement through this particular aspect of setting, which embodies the conflict between the individual and society and conveys the inhibiting nature of established conventions on individual expression encapsulated through Hedda.
Hedda is immediately presented as incongruous to the society in which she inhabits. This is conveyed even before Hedda’s initial entrance in Act one, where the class difference between Hedda and the family she has married into is implied through Bertha and Miss Tesman’s numerous references to Hedda as ‘madam’. This incongruity stems from Hedda’s upper-class upbringing; she inherited a strong sense of social conventions from her father and was entirely dependent on men, as suggested in Act one: ‘General Gabler’s daughter! Think of what she was accustomed to when the general was alive’. It is generally perceived that Hedda exchanged her previous affluent lifestyle, being General Gabler’s daughter, for economic and social security within a bourgeois society through marrying Tesman, not love. This resulted in her having the expectations of a respectable upper-class woman in a middle-class society, encompassing the conflict between her ideals and society’s. Unlike Nora in A Doll’s House, Hedda is seen from her entrance attempting to reject the confines of her newly acquired middle-class society – she intends on living the life of the upper-class lady she is accustomed to and not that of the wife of a bourgeois academic.
In addition to this, Hedda is faced with the prospect of further restriction exemplified through her pregnancy which would result in her becoming wholly dependent on Tesman, and her identity being absorbed into the Tesman family who represent the epitome of conformation to bourgeois conventions. As Ibsen stated: ‘Jorgen Tesman, his old aunts, and the elderly serving maid Berte together form a whole and a unity…For Hedda they appear as an inimical and alien power directed against her fundamental nature’; her existence would essentially be ‘for Jorgen’s sake’. The prospect of ‘the most solemn of human responsibilities’ and her conflict with society gradually result in Hedda’s despair at her state of dependence, which is illustrated through her desire for control: ‘For once in my life I want to have the power to shape a man’s destiny’. On a larger scale, this essentially conveys her desire to defy the constraints of her patriarchal society and the confines of her gender.
As in A Doll’s House, her increasing despair is emphasised through her restlessness; she is seen at various points in the play gravitating between the french windows and the stove, which offers her the warmth and security she utilises to retreat into a fantasy where she can control the actions of others, offering her a form of self-liberation. Hedda’s craving for control is exemplified particularly well in her preoccupation with the nature of Lovborg’s death; she orders him to commit suicide ‘beautifully’ and offers him the pistol to complete the action. However, Hedda’s liberated control is eventually shattered towards the end of the play when her actions and movements are shaped by others. For example, when Tesman and Mrs Elvsted move into Hedda’s room to piece together Lovborg’s burnt manuscript, Hedda’s is forced out of her private sanctuary, and is forced to confront the reality of her situation. As with A Doll’s House, Hedda’s gradual realisation of her situation is influenced through character mirrors. For example, Lovborg is depicted as a foil to Hedda, offering her the prospect of a life free from conventions as an iconoclast. However, Hedda is rejected this emancipation through society’s denial of self-expression which eventually resorts in negative behaviour.
Hedda’s confinement is further conveyed through her dialogue with Judge Brack in Act two. As with A Doll’s House, the subtext of this conversation emphasises Hedda’s confinement within her marriage and her gender. This dialogue not only exemplifies a means by which Hedda keeps in touch with her past social standing – as Brack epitomises upper-class conventions – but also reveals Hedda’s true emotions regarding her oppressive marriage and offers the opportunity of self-expression. For example, Hedda immediately takes to mocking her husband when in private conversation with Brack through her comment that Tesman ‘ran off to his aunties’, depicting him as a somewhat immature character. The dialogue in this scene possesses sexual overtones, hinting at a secret fling between the two characters, when Brack overtly suggests an affair: ‘this kind of triangle is a delightful arrangement for all parties’. This fling offers Hedda the opportunity to defy the restrictions of marriage and to express a sexual ‘self’. Unfortunately for Hedda, she feels the weight of social condemnation far more than men so she does not dare to venture out into the world for fear of a ‘scandal’, as much as she craves the freedom.
The least elusive symbol in the play is undoubtedly Hedda Gabler’s pistols. As a representation of Hedda’s ties to her past affluent lifestyle as General Gabler’s daughter, the emphatically male symbol is very effective in conveying Hedda’s rebellion against her constrained gender role; women would not stereotypically be associated with such obtrusive suggestions of violence or masculinity. This symbol could also take weight to phallic significance when she threatens to shoot Brack in the course of the play, – and Lovborg before the actions of the play – as a representation of Hedda attempting to exert her authority over men and defy patriarchy, still on the trail for self-liberation. Hedda’s determination to defy conventions is further emphasised through her ‘frenzied dance melody’ on the piano before her suicide. This can be perceived as a representation of Hedda trying desperately to express herself creatively. She is immediately silenced by her husband, offering a clear representation of patriarchal authority and the inhibitions this idealist society imposes on the self-expression of women.
As with A Doll’s House, Ibsen makes effective use of denouement in order to emphasise the moral significance of Hedda Gabler. Hedda eventually shoots herself in response to the confines of bourgeois society conventions: ‘Nevertheless, I’m in your power. Dependent on your will and your demands. Not free. Still not free! (Rises passionately) No. I couldn’t bear that’. Alienated by reality, she retreats into a fantasy world in which she can preserve her creative and idealistic ‘self’ and essentially commits suicide in order to exist within a fantasy, free from the confines of patriarchy and social conventions. The patriarchal society in which she existed offered no positive outlet for personal expression, and repressed the sexual and emotional desires of women, and to a lesser extent, men.