The Effect of Victorian Gender Roles on Hedda Gabler Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen was first performed in the 1890’s. Most critics did not receive it well because many of them felt that no such woman existed. Oswald Crawford, a critic for the England’s Fortnightly Review, shared the opinions of many at the time. He called Hedda Gabler “an impossible, inhuman woman-a savage that real women should be angry at Ibsen for inventing” (Crawford 738). Critics were reacting to Hedda’s behavior and manner, believing that she did not reflect women in Victorian society.
Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, unable and unwilling to accept the roles assigned to women in Victorian Norway, commits suicide simply so she can have control over her own life. While many critics vilified Hedda, others saw past her callous exterior. They recognized her for the wonderfully complex character she is. Justin McCarthy of Black and White called Hedda Gabler “the most interesting woman that Ibsen has ever created” (221). Although Ibsen directly denied being a feminist, he did strive to illuminate societal issues.
Author, Tanya Thresher explains, “Ever since [A Doll House] was published in 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s social dramas have been recognized for their depiction of women who exhibit a gendered identity that strays from traditional nineteenth-century femininity, an identity that necessarily puts them at odds with their surrounding society” (406). Ibsen obviously felt that Victorian Norway provided little opportunity for women to define their own lives. Expected to adhere to the set societal restrictions placed upon them, women had limited options in Victorian Norway. Still acking the right to vote until 1913, they had little influence (Victorian Norway). Society expected women to concern themselves only with portraying femininity and caring for their husbands, children, and home. Askin Haluk Yildirim, the author of The Woman Question and the Victorian Literature on Gender, explains “A woman was literally the servant of her children and husband, and she was required to be domestic, nurturing and docile” (46). Husbands controlled every aspect of their spouse’s life. These outdated gender roles combined with Hedda’s unique personality set the stage for her downfall.
Hedda feels pressure to conform to the restrictive Victorian societal mold. Doing so would require that she abandon her true desires for power and freedom. She does not fit the Victorian mold for women either in terms of physical beauty or in temperament, and she resents the other women who do. Ibsen’s physical description of Hedda Gabler immediately sets her apart from the other women in this story. She has attractive, but not particularly abundant, brown hair (Ibsen 859). He describes her eyes as “steel-grey, cold and clear,” alluding to her emotionally cold and unfeeling nature (Ibsen 859).
During her first scene, Hedda complains of the abundant sunlight and flowers in the home, preferring a darker, less feminine environment. This behavior supports the idea that she is less feminine than the other women in this story. In a world that values femininity, Hedda is a misfit. As critic Richard D. Altick explains “a woman was inferior to a man in all ways except the unique one that counted most [to a man]: her femininity” (54). In addition to her lack of feminine characteristics, Hedda displays many masculine interests and behaviors.
Both horseback riding and shooting, activities which she enjoyed with her father, set her apart from other women. Hedda’s most prized possessions are the portrait of her father and his military pistols. As Jenny Bjorklund, author of Playing with Pistols points out, these pistols represent Hedda’s longing for masculinity (9). The portrait has a prominent place in the living room and is a constant presence in her life. These objects and her attachment to them signify that she is more her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife. It is clear that Hedda has no intention of letting go of the pistols or of her traditionally masculine ideas.
She both admires and longs for power and free will, but these are areas reserved for men. She lacks compassion for what she considers weaker and submissive creatures such as Thea. At the same time, she respects the power of Judge Brack and the independence of Lovborg. Hedda’s desire for such power and independence leads her to resent others. She spends much of the play conspiring against and manipulating others. This is the only way in which she can exert any power over another. As she proclaims to Mrs. Elvsted, “Just once in my life I want to help shape someone’s destiny” (Ibsen 888).
Hedda’s marriage to George Tesman does not allow for such influence. The marriage makes her dependent upon her husband and places additional expectations on her. She has no interest in fulfilling the Victorian expectation of devoting her life completely to her home and family. Romantic marriage was a popular notion during Victorian times, but most marriages, including Hedda’s, did not involve love. Rather, they were financial transactions or arranged for political positioning because women had neither political power nor governance of their own wealth once married (Zelster).
Men were to provide financially for the family, and women were to take care of men physically, sexually, and spiritually (Zelster). While George does seem to love Hedda, she does not return his feelings, and she shows little affection for him. As psychiatrist Karl Stern puts it, Hedda is “a textbook case of the phallic woman who refuses the normal female desire to receive, to hold and to nourish” (32). Her issues with George’s family exacerbate her already strained marriage. Hedda’s annoyance with the manner with which the aunts coddle her husband is obvious, and she makes her distaste known.
She feels no sympathy for the invalid Aunt Rina and refuses to see the dying woman. In addition, she refuses to address Miss Tesman as Aunt Julie as requested by George. This signifies her rejection of the entire close-knit Tesman family. However, the resentment Hedda harbors for Aunt Julie goes beyond her bond with George. Aunt Julie embraces the role of caretaker and nurturer, a role valued by Victorian society but foreign to Hedda. Making sacrifices for George brings Aunt Julie happiness. Asking George, “What joy do I have in the world, my dearest boy, other than smoothing out the path for you,” illustrates this (Ibsen 858).
Since George’s marriage, Aunt Julie has sent her personal maid to George’s new home and is personally caring for her invalid sister Rina. After Rina’s death, Aunt Julie decides she will look for some other needy person to whom she can open her home and offer her assistance. Hedda is unable to grasp the unselfish desire to take on such a burden. Her upbringing leaves Hedda with little patience and understanding for this Victorian role. As the typical helpmate, Thea Elvsted offers the perfect foil for Hedda. Thea exemplifies the ideal woman in Victorian Norway both in looks and actions.
With her flowing hair, slight figure and big blue eyes, Thea is everything that society considers feminine and desirable. While she does make the decision to leave her husband, she behaves within societal bounds in every other aspect. She works as a governess to the sheriff’s children until his wife dies. Then she quickly steps into the role of wife and mother. Later becoming a muse for Lovborg and acting as his helpmate in two ways, she further reflects the ideal Victorian woman. Thea not only helps Lovborg transcribe his book, she also redeems him by pushing him to give up alcohol.
In contrast to Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda has no desire to become a helpmate or to care for children. Less than the ideal image of a wife in Victorian times, Hedda cannot begin to imagine playing the role of a mother. Brack’s suggests that motherhood could bring her fulfillment in life and offer an outlet for the innate talent he believes all women have. This suggestion angers Hedda. Unfortunately, Victorian society deemed it necessary for women to become mothers, regardless of their desires or ability to do so (Barrett).
Trapped by her inevitable circumstances, Hedda searches for an escape. She feels she can only find it in death. Hedda’s story is a tragic tale, but one that seems unavoidable given her personality and the time period. “Hedda does not conform to the woman’s role of the time: she feels imprisoned in her gender role, her marriage, and her presumed pregnancy… ” (Bjorklund 1). She is unable to find fulfillment in the typical role of a woman, and as Ibsen explains in his no “she really wants to live the whole life of a man” (Oxford VII 488).
Hedda’s character still resonates today because she represents the disenfranchised and the struggle for control over one’s own life. While her actions might appear the epitome of selfishness, they come from the human desire to assert oneself and be responsible for one’s own life. Ibsen explains in notes written while working on A Doll’s House in 1878, “A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view” (Oxford V 436).
Judge Brack’s sexual blackmail offers one final reminder that she lacks all control. This proves too much for the strong willed Hedda, and she does what she deems necessary. As Muriel C. Bradbrook explains in his book Ibsen the Norwegian, “self-murder… is the most primitive form of self-assertion, and frustrated as she is, Hedda is ruled by her militant blood” (116). With her suicide, Hedda is finally able to establish control over her own destiny. In the end, she dies on her own terms, just as she wished to live. As Judge Brack would say, she dies doing what “people just don’t” (Ibsen 910).