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In Henrik Ibsen’s acclaimed play Hedda Gabler, the main female character, Hedda Gabler, is a modern woman striving to attain her desires through manipulation. She persistently endeavors to create a world that matches her masculine character by exploiting the people around her. Gabler also accomplishes her task by p a character’s will, giving her subtle and deceptive control. Through Gabler’s exceptional skills as a manipulator, the play scrutinizes the feminine role and what defines a woman.
Through manipulation, Gabler discovers joy and a sense of power not often felt by women during her time. She takes advantage of her ability by constantly interfering in the lives of other characters, easily shaping their wills to meet her desires. Gabler admits this in her conversation with Mrs. Elvsted in Act 3. Mrs. Elvsted states, “You have some hidden motive in this, Hedda!” to which Gabler replies, “Yes, I have. I want for once in my life to have power to mould a human destiny”. Gabler is able to do so because she is surrounded by individuals who function solely on the basis of society’s values, rendering their actions predictable.
Gabler refers to individuals that she can manipulate as “specialists”, saying to Judge Brack in Act One, “Tesman is–a specialist, my dear Judge.” Judge Brack assumes that Gabler means Tesman is a specialist of his subject. Yer her definition also implies the narrow vision on life and living that often comes along with specializing in just one thing. This broader definition of a specialist is confirmed later when Gabler reveals to Judge Brack that he too is a specialist. By manipulating “specialists” and setting herself apart from them, Gabler creates her own world that runs parallel to the puppet stage of society. She is able to temporarily escape the social norms that she considers others to be trapped in.
A primary social norm that Gabler refuses to conform to is the traditional role of a submissive wife. In a sense, subjecting herself to the role of a wife and mother is the ultimate sign of failure to Gabler. Thus, when many try to gain knowledge about her role as a wife or potential mother, Gabler quickly dismisses the topic. For example, when Brack questions her about motherhood in Act 1, Gabler responds, “Be quiet! Nothing of that sort will ever happen!”. When questioned again by Judge Brack about her prospective parental role, Gabler replies, “I have no turn for anything of the sort, Judge Brack. No responsibilities for me!” Gabler especially feels the pressures of conforming to a feminine role with Aunt Tesman, who questions her about her weight and her stomach, almost hinting about the potential for children.
In reality, Gabler defies the definition of a conventional woman. She is not at all submissive; she manipulates people, especially men, for her own power; she absolutely refuses to take on the role of a wife and mother or even address it. The reason behind her defiance is that in Gabler’s mind, submitting to the role of society is to submit to the role of a wife and mother–and to submit to the role of a wife and mother is to lose power and freedom to pursue one’s own interests.
Throughout the play, Gabler repeatedly rebels against most aspects of being traditionally “feminine.” In the beginning of the play, Aunt Tesman comes over to check up on the married couple. Despite her new aunt’s kindness towards her, Gabler dislikes Aunt Tesman because Aunt Tesman reminds her that she is married and expected to soon bear a child. Gabler dislikes the idea of being pregnant. Thus, so as not to dwell on it any further, she makes a nasty comment about Aunt Tesman’s new hat. However, Aunt Tesman does not leave and the threatening subject of potential children arises, like Gabler feared it would. The conflict arises when Tesman says in Act 1, “Yes, but have you noticed what splendid condition she is in? How she has filled out on the journey?” His insinuation of his wife’s pregnancy is quickly dissolved when his aunt replies, “Oh, do be quiet—!”. However, Aunt Tesman picks the matter up further by clarifying Tesman’s statement with a question, “Filled out?”. The conversation serves as a reminder to Gabler of her forthcoming doom. Hence, she dislikes Tesman and Aunt Tesman for reminding her that pregnancy is what is expected from her as a wife, and not her own choice.
Mrs. Elvsted is also the kind of figure disliked by Gabler, because she is the embodiment of all that is considered womanly. This consideration is based on how Gabler interacts with Mrs. Elvsted, which is not at all kindly unless there is something to gain by being kind, another manipulative aspect Gabler utilizes. Even when the two were in school together, Gabler disliked Mrs. Elvsted. As Mrs. Elvstead reminds Gabler in Act 1, “when we met on the stairs you used always to pull my hair”. This utter dislike of Mrs. Elvstead is not only relegated to the past. In Act 3, Gabler muses to Mrs. Elvstead, “I think I must burn your hair off after all.” Thus, Gabler defies the feminine role by defying the individual who is the epitome of this role. She accomplishes this by manipulating Mrs. Elvstead to release information to her in the beginning of the play about Lovborg. Later, when she has no reason to be nice, Gabler treats her harshly.
Another example of Gabler’s unwillingness to conform to the feminine role is conveyed through the manipulation of Lovborg and the burning of his manuscript. A prime example of Gabler’s masterful manipulation of Lovburg is in Act 3, when she is able to persuade Lovborg to take her pistol and end his life “beautifully”. Also, while burning the novel towards the end of Act 3, Gabler cries, “Now I am burning your child, Thea!–Burning it, curly-locks! Your child and Eilert Lovborg’s. I am burning–I am burning your child.” The burning of the book as a substitute of a child is Gabler’s way of freeing herself from the chains of child-bearing. She physically refuses to submit to the roles of a mother and wife not only by refusing to be impregnated but by also burning the symbolic figure of a child. Her actions reveal the extremes of what she will do in order to not be caged in by society’s outlook on a female.
Her desperation becomes so extreme that Gabler believes her only true escape from the constrictive roles of womanhood is through death. When it is discovered in the final act that Gabler commits suicide, Judge Barack’s closing line is, “Good God!–people don’t do such things”. Thus, Gabler is finally able to escape the roles of femininity by doing the thing that “people don’t do”.
In sum, Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” reveals one woman’s persistent effort to fight off the pressures of assuming a traditional feminine role. Through her tactful manipulation of others, the play “Hedda Gabler” serves as a whole to question the social chains of femininity and what makes a woman. Despite Gabler’s efforts to have control over her life and the lives of others as well, she still cannot obtain the true control over her life that she wants. Hence, she shoots herself as the ultimate escape from the social roles of a woman–and in doing so, she manages to break the chains of society from around her.
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