The following article was originally published in The Ibsen Secret: A Key to the Prose Drama of Henrik Ibsen. Jennette Lee. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1910. pp. 20-36.
On the surface Hedda Gabler is as unlike as possible to Nora Helmer. From the moment she appears on the scene she moves with deadly precision. Yet there is about her, at times, a curious irresponsibility that harmonizes oddly with her direct intensity of movement. It allies her, by some subterranean process of thought, with the flitting, restless, inconsequent Nora. Her nature, like Nora's, apart from its symbol is inconsistent and incomprehensible. Lighted by it, as it is in every moment of the play from beginning to end, it stands out, simple, clear-cut, and comprehensible.
No two plays of Ibsen have been more discussed as to their meaning than Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House. Their obscurity lies, not in the depth of thought involved, but in the apparently perplexing character of the two women with whom they deal. Nora Helmer, as a light-headed daring, irresponsible, self-sacrificing, immoral, devoted wife, holds the interest but eludes the understanding. The same woman, lighted by the flare of the tarantelle, is comprehensible to the minutest shade of character. Hedda Gabler, the cold, straight, shining, passionless, explosive woman, fascinates the imagination, but does not satisfy it. Flashed upon by the symbol of the play, she becomes a living soul.
When the scene opens upon Tesman and Aunt Julie, who has assisted in planning and making ready the house for Hedda, it at once becomes evident that Hedda has had no voice in the arrangement. Everything has been prepared for her as absolutely as a case for its jewel. She is to occupy it, to fill it.
TESMAN: (Embraces her) Oh, yes, yet, Aunt Julie! Hedda--she is the loveliest part of it all! (Looks toward the doorway) I think she's coming now--eh?
(Hedda approaches from the left through the back room. She is a lady of twenty-nine. Face and figure dignified and distinguished. The color of the skin uniformly pallid. The eyes steel-grey, with a cold, open expression of serenity. The hair an agreeable brown of medium tint, but not very thick.)
From the moment of her entrance her indifference is clear. She moves about the room with irresponsible touches, complains of the excess of light and looks on with relief while her husband draws the curtain across the windows, shutting out the sun. She has but two interests in life: negatively, that she shall not be bored; and positively, that something exciting may occur. As the play progresses, two relations in her past life are revealed--one with Judge Brack, a man of the world, and one with Ejlert Lövborg, a poet. She had parted from Lövborg holding a pistol to his head and threatening him. But he still attracts and interests her. Judge Brack she no longer cares for. She is, however, watchful of him. He alone of the men she comes in contact with understands her, knows how to handle her. The poet, when he comes upon the scene, is drawn to her. Her student husband is puzzled by her. All three men are alike fascinated. The women of the play, Mrs. Elvsted and Aunt Julie, are also fascinated, but with a shrinking fascination. Mrs. Elvsted--a former schoolmate of Hedda's, now Lövborg's helper and his inspiration in his work--draws back from her even while she is helplessly attracted.
HEDDA: But to me, dear--! Goodness, we went to the same school together.
MRS. ELVSTED: Yes, but you were in the class above me! Oh, how fearfully afraid of you I was then!
HEDDA: Were you afraid of me?
MRS. ELVSTED: Yes, fearfully afraid. Because when we met on the stairs you always used to pull my hair.
HEDDA: No--did I really?
MRS. ELVSTED: Yes, and once you said you would scorch it off my head.
HEDDA: Oh, that was only nonsense, you know.
Throughout the scene the woman is in her power, yielding her secret inch by inch.
HEDDA: (Leans on the arm of the chair) Thea--poor, sweet Thea!--now you must tell me everything,--just as it is.
MRS. ELVSTED: Well, then you must ask me questions.
HEDDA puts them to her, as at the point of a pistol--short, sharp, searching. Nothing can escape her. With the men she does not intimidate. She fascinates.
The sheer art of the play lies, perhaps, in the fact that she is as fascinating to us as she is to the people of her own world. We do not pity her, nor love her, nor scorn her. She fascinates. One follows her cool, quiet, unprophetic movements with breathless interest. The explosion comes and sets the nerves a-tingle and the wits to work. Why has she done this? What will she do next? There is no why, no calculable what. The spark touches the powder and it explodes. It is easy to understand her now--a pistol, deadly, simple, passionless, and straight. But she still fascinates--like a dangerous thing come upon unawares, on the library table in a quiet home. One picks it up, examines it gingerly, peers into the barrel, lifts the trigger a hair, lays it down softly, and goes away. But he never forgets that it is there--lying behind his back, silent and straight and deadly. He comes back to it again.
Hedda bears re-reading.
One may, or may not, resent Ibsen's method. He may be interested, or amused, at the idea of presenting the heroine of a play as a pistol, or he may characterize it as inartistic and absurd. But, once suggested, he cannot escape the conviction that this is what Ibsen has done and what he deliberately intended to do. The whole play centers about Hedda, about her movements--past, present, and to come; and it is only when she is recognized as a human pistol walking about the stage that these movements become explicable.
The first description reveals the conception: "The color of the skin uniformly pallid. The eyes steel-grey, with a cold, open expression of serenity." The action carries out the conception. She is born of a soldier, cares nothing for ordinary interests. But if worst comes to worst--
TESMAN: (Beaming with joy) Oh! God be praised and thanked for that! And what may that be, Hedda--eh?
HEDDA: (At the doorway, looks at him with suppressed scorn) My pistols, George.
TESMAN: (In an agony) The pistols!
HEDDA: (With cold eyes) General Gabler's pistols. (She goes through the back of the room out to the left)
TESMAN: (Runs to the door and shouts after her) No, for goodness' sake, dearest Hedda, don't touch the dangerous things! For my sake, Hedda--eh?
In the scene between Brack, Tesman, and Hedda, when they discuss the probability of Tesman's election to the professorship:
TESMAN: No, but Judge Brack--that would show the most incredible want of consideration for me! (Gesticulating) Yes, for consider, I am a married man! We married on my prospects, Hedda and I. Gone off and spent a lot of money. Borrowed money from Aunt Julie too. For, Good Lord! I had as good as a promise of the appointment--eh?
BRACK: Well, well, well! You will get the appointment all the same. But there will be a contest first.
HEDDA: (MOtionless in the arm-chair) Think, Tesman, it will be almost like a kind of game.
TESMAN: But, dearest Hedda, how can you sit there and be so calm about it?
HEDDA: (As before) I am not doing so at all. I am perfectly excited about it.
The reader, the spectator, feels the excitement underneath. At any moment, at a touch, she may explode, and the event that sets her off is apparently no more important, no more irritating than hundreds that have preceded it. She is incalculable, mysterious, deadly. Yet there seems to be no intent in her death-dealing power. She fires into the air, at random, to kill time,--out of the open window.
BRACK: (Still outside) Don't play such silly tricks!
HEDDA: Then come in, Judge.
(Judge Brack, in morning dress, comes in through the glass door. He carries a light overcoat on his arm.)
BRACK: What the devil are you doing with that revolver? What are you shooting?
HEDDA: Oh, I was only standing and shooting up into the blue sky.
BRACK: (Takes the pistol gently out of her hand) Allow me, Mrs. Tesman. (Looks at it) Ah! I know this well. (Looks around) Where is the case? Ah, yes! (Puts the pistol into it and closes it) For we are not going to have any more of that tomfoolery to-day.
HEDDA: Well, what in the name of goodness would you have me do to amuse myself?
She never plans, never schemes, but woe to the thing that comes in her range, whether Lövborg or Lövborg's manuscript! Both are doomed. She will annihilate him, body and soul.
She longs for nothing so much as courage, physical courage, to pit herself and her power against, courage that will face and defy her and meet the moment without shrinking. She has seen only cowardice in men. They have paled before her, shrunk from danger. She seeks a man who will defy her and whom, in his defiance, she will destroy--a foe worthy of her mettle. The poet is the only man who has faced her with courage in his heart. She remembers it with longing. It is the only thing that can win her admiration, subdue her. The man of the world can handle her, coerce her. But the poet has faced her down with courage. He, with his passionate heart, is the only one capable of appealing to her explosive nature; and even he fascinates her only that she may destroy him. She cares nothing for him physically or spiritually--only to cast her spell over him, and annihilate him.
He attracts her, in spite of herself, but he is not bold enough, vital enough, tempestuous. He will not dare. She wants him to confront her, to sweep her off her feet with excitement. She could understand that. She spurs him on to drink, she dares him. He shall come back to her with "vine leaves in his hair." To Lövborg and to Thea they are the crown of the poet; but to Hedda they are Bacchus, the wild revel, and daring. Then, when he has "the courage of life, the defiance of life," he will need her.
MRS. ELVSTED: There is something mysterious about you, Hedda.
HEDDA: Yes, there is. I wish for once in my life to have power over the fate of a human being.
MRS. ELVSTED: Have you not got that?
HEDDA: Haven't--and never had.
MRS. ELVSTED: But not over your husband?
HEDDA: Oh, that would be worth taking a lot of trouble about! Oh, if you could only know how poor I am! And you are allowed to be so rich. (Throws her arms passionately around her) I believe I shall scorch your hair off, after all.
MRS. ELVSTED: Let me go! Let me go! I am afraid of you, Hedda.
At the supreme moment of the play she has her wish.
LÖVBORG: Good-bye, Mrs. Tesman. And give a message to George Tesman for me--from me.
HEDDA: No, wait! You shall take a keepsake from me.
(She goes to the writing-table and opens the drawer and pistol case. Comes back to Lövborg with one of the pistols.)
LÖVBORG: (Looking at her) This--is this the keepsake?
HEDDA: (Nods slowly) Do you recollect it? It was aimed at you once.
LÖVBORG: You should have used it then.
HEDDA: Look here! You use it now.
LÖVBORG: (Puts the pistol into his breast pocket) Thanks.
HEDDA: And do it beautifully, Ejlert Lövborg. Only promise me that!
LÖVBORG: Good-bye, Hedda Gabler.
(He goes out through the hall door. Hedda listens awhile at the door. She then goes to the writing-table and takes out the packet with the manuscript, peeps into the envelope, pulls one or two of the leaves half out and glances at them. She then takes the whole of it and sits down in the arm-chair by the stove. She holds the packet in her lap. After a pause she opens the door of the stove, and then the packet also.)
HEDDA: (Throws one of the sheets into the fire and whispers to herself) Now I am burning your child, Thea! You, with your curly hair! (Throws several sheets into the fire.) Your child and Ejlert Lövborg's child. (Throws the rest in) Now I am burning--am burning the child.
It is significant that she does not tear the manuscript. There is no rage, no rejoicing, no passionate emotion in the scene. She burns it, leaf by leaf, in the fire. But there is no heat--only cold, explosive intensity.
Side by side with Hedda Gabler in the portrayal of her destruction of Ejlert Lövborg, are Thea--the spiritual woman, the goddess, who strives to win him to his best self--and, more casually, Diana, the woman who would degrade him and in whose boudoir he is at last found dead with Hedda Gabler's pistol in his pocket.
The inner meaning of the play, the symbol within the symbol, indicated by these three women and their appeal to the poet, must be left for a later [discussion], as must also the details of the symbol, the double symbolism of the play, and the question as to the artistic value of a play that can only be spiritually understood when it is perceived, through the mechanical structure of the play, that the chief character is not a mere woman, but a slim, straight, shining, deadly weapon.
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