‘A Metaphorical Woman Writer’-Feminist approach to Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler was published by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in the year 1890. Ibsen’s plays, particularly ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘Hedda Gabler’, are perfect models of feminism as they address a universal issue that women faced in the nineteenth century, mainly the discrimination pertaining in society between men and women, and he endeavored to write about them by presenting how women were the actual victims of this discrimination. In other words, it looks like Ibsen prefers to use matters of feminism to compose his plays despite the fact he proclaims that his intention was to write about humanist problems that need awareness. This essay attempts to condemn how women were oppressed and stereotyped in the nineteenth century literature.

The play presents a comprehensive depiction of society, outlining class differences between the aristocratic and bourgeois world as well as critiquing the treatment of women. Although the Victorian era was a period of great transformation, women’s roles were confined in household duties with little or no opportunities for upliftment in society along with being the intermediaries of wealth in marriage. Both real or fictional, women were placed under the two stereotypical categories suggested in ‘The Mad Woman In the Attic’ by ‘Gilbert and Gubar’ of being the ‘angel’ and ‘monster‘ where  the former had to be self-sacrificing, spiritually inclined, possessing a sense of purity and devoted to household but the latter appeared to be powerful, self-absorbed and materialistic. Ibsen’s heroine Hedda Gabler is seen to subvert and redefine the roles prescribed by the patriarchal standards of womanhood.

She is perceived as a free spirited but directionless young woman who marries a dull and insensitive but a reputable scholar, Jurgen Tesman dreading spinsterhood. She is under tremendous stress to conform either of the two roles set for her. Everybody expects her to be happy in her newly married life however, throughout the play she expresses a feeling of being suffocated and dissatisfied by the societal expectations for her to play the role of ‘angel in the house’. Hedda embodies the dark image of women in literature, who behaves inexplicably, or display signs of rebellion against their gender role of a mother or wife. Thus, it seems that her denunciation of patriarchal virtues labels her as a ‘monster’ and a ‘mad’ woman. It is a title which is given to any woman who displays signs of rejection to her conventional role as a dutiful wife or a responsible mother, or her gender as a non-significant other. The misogynistic society placed women in spot below the world as a punishment for revolting to gain freedom and their unconventional acts.

Ibsen gave Hedda her maiden name as to show her separate from the institution of marriage and family. Out of this frustration, she claims to want for “once in her life to have power to shape a man’s destiny.” Michel Faucault’s essay ‘The Subject and Power’ as in the ‘In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics’ states that “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free.  By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments, may be realized”.

He explains power as a relationship between people in which one affects another’s actions. It includes making a free subject do something he would have not done otherwise therefore power consists of restricting or altering someone’s will. Since society doesn’t allow her to control her own fate, she tries to mould other individuals by manipulating them.  She is an unpredictable and intelligent woman who wants to exercise her power over the men around her be it her husband or ex-lover. When Ejlert Loevberg, an alcoholic writer with whom she was once in love with returns to town, she relentlessly pushes him to relapse into drinking again. He looks upon her as a selfless angel with no desire other than to serve him. She tries to alleviate the monotony of her circumstances being suffocated in her marriage and possibly regaining some control of her own existence by encouraging Loevberg first to drink and then commit suicide through using his free will. Judge Brack on the other hand is able to apprehend her inner desires which for him only exist in a ‘whorish monster’ which can be a threat unless one is master of her.

Gilber and Gubar in explaining the ‘feminist poetics’ argue that until “the nineteenth century, writers were almost exclusively male and the act of writing was essentially and metaphorically an act of literary paternity.” Hedda burns the manuscript of Loevberg which is a metaphor of literary paternity. Furthermore, the play reveals Hedda as a ‘monster woman’ who acts wildly; whereas, Mrs.Elvsted presents the conventional ‘angel woman’ who sacrifices her life for others’ sake. She envies Thea Elvsted who is a paragon of the patriarchal morals. In burning the manuscript that Thea inspired Loevberg  to write, the metaphorical woman writer Hedda is monstrously destructing a text which propagates the suppression of women to certain patriarchally imposed roles in literature. Thus, it can be seen as accidental attempt at what Gilbert and Gubar call a “redefinition of self, art and society.” She pretends to be the angel in front of her husband by claiming that she burned Loevberg’s manuscript only out of immense love for Tesman and his career. She undertakes the role of a ‘monster’ so that she can express her agitation and opposition to circumstances in which she finds herself trapped. Her actions in no way can be described as moral or justifiable but are weapons of her rebellion. In ‘Towards a Feminist Poetics’, Elaine Showalter divides feminist criticism into sections which are ‘woman as a reader’ or ‘feminist critique’ and ‘woman as a writer’ or ‘gynocritics‘. On one hand Hedda Gabler is a male writer’s creation so can be placed under ‘woman as a reader’ but she can be interpreted even as a ‘metaphorical woman writer’ included within the realm of gynocritics as though unconsciously she is striving for transcendence and reform. She is not a writer in a literal sense but only as metaphorically.

In order to regain authority over others destiny she gives Loevberg a pistol to shoot himself and die ‘beautifully’, even after possessing his manuscript. However, Judge Brack compels her to be his mistress as he is aware of the reality behind Loevberg’s suicide. Unwilling to accept her life in its present aspect and unable to envisage the thought of being controlled by a man, she shoots herself in head signifying the triumphant rejection of patriarchy. Her quest for ‘self-definition’ is unspeakable as she isn’t aware about what she wants to be or do but is apparent about what she doesnt want to do or be that is ‘the angel of the house’.

Toril Moi in Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of ModernismArt, Theater, Philosophy ‘writes, “In the world of Hedda Gabler the everyday has turned poisonous, and idealism has become an incomprehensible anachronism….  In its late phase [to which Hedda Gabler belongs, however, Ibsen shows what the world looks like when we truly have to ‘live life without ideals.” She perceives her suicide as dauntless and idealist as it provides her escape from a world which Hedda has acknowledged as ‘trivial, trite, and a trap’ for herself.  She is seen as a heroic female who defies the norms of society and writes her own destiny as a metaphorical woman writer.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1)http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4093/4093-h/4093-h.htm

2)Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 316-20

3)Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’ ‘In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics’

4)Gilbert and gubar, The mad woman in attic, The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination

5) Showalter, Elaine. ‘Toward a Feminist Poetics’. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. London: Virago, 1986. 125- 143

SUBMITTED BY- RIJU TEWARI

ROLL No. 36

SECTION B

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4 thoughts on “‘A Metaphorical Woman Writer’-Feminist approach to Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler”

  1. Ibsen has always impressed me with his strong and independent woman characters. As you have discussed in this essay, Hedda serves as a forerunner to coming generation of Feminists. This essay provides an alternate reading using feminist approach to the novel and the way you’ve incorporated different concepts of literary theory in this essay is quite impressive.Well done.

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  2. The essay highlights the predicament of an independent women of that time. The insertion of Gilbert and Gubar’s “The Mad women in the Attic’ very well articulates how woman are supposed to align themselves within two binaries of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’. If they dare to break free the patriarchal system they are categorised as ‘monsters’ and those who adhere to patriarchal norms are ‘Angels’. A superb analysis.

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