Jun 19, 2012

Some notes on Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House

The article “Miracle and Vine Leaves: An  Ibsen Play Rewrought” by Arthur Ganz, PMLA, 94.1 (Jan. 1979), 9-21 is quite useful for discussing and writing about both Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House. I recommend it highly. (You can find it in the JSTOR database).

Some highlights from Ganz's article:

“…[A]t quite different stages of his career Ibsen has written the same play or, more precisely, that he used again in Hedda Gabler the same pattern of action and character relationships that he had employed eleven years earlier in A Doll’s House.” (9)

Some shared plot points between the plays: “threats of blackmail, a secret declaration of love, a struggle between rivals for professional power, a fatal document concealed from its owner, a woman resolved on suicide…” (10).

Ganz sees the plays meeting on a shared theme: the common aspirations of Nora and Hedda.

“Both heroines dream of achieving self-realization by seeing an admired man perform an act of extraordinary courage. In each play the failure of the man to do what the heroine desires precipitates her decisions to take her destiny into her own hands and separate herself drastically from the life she has previously known” (10)
“Both works are finally about a transcendent quest for the self, about creatures hemmed in by social circumstance and the limits of their own natures who yet are committed absolutely to a vision of fulfillment — of a self fully known, fully gratified, unimpeded by the bounds of common reality” (11).

Torvald's supposed act of sacrifice would testify to his courage, love and devotion. It would also glorify Nora’s own life and self (and the sacrifices she had already made on his behalf). After her epiphany, she realizes that this task must be undertaken by herself. 

When Hedda asks Lovborg to kill himself beautifully, “she is demanding that he perform a similar transformation for her, that he miraculously alter her from a woman who can only bore herself to death to an exultant creature who has known, even if only vicariously, joy and power” (11). 

Both Nora and Hedda long for the extraordinary, the miraculous, and they think that they can attain these by proxy, vicariously, through the men in their lives. 

The shared bangs at the end of both plays — slamming door and pistol shot — signal “the end of a life of dependence and deception” (11). 

Both heroines’ suicides (one contemplated, the other achieved) incur similar responses: Krogstad says “people don’t do that sort of thing, Mrs. Helmer.” Judge Brack says, upon seeing Hedda’s dead body, “people don’t do such things.”  These lines constitute a motif in Hedda Gabler. Who are these “people”? The vox populi, the normal, the mundane ways of the middle classes. 

We might wonder why Ibsen re-wrought the Doll House material in this later play, and why the atmosphere becomes “crueler, more mordant, far more mysterious” (11) in Hedda.

We might also investigate the transformations undergone by characters between plays: Nora / Hedda, Krogstad / Lovborg, Torvald / Tesman, Dr. Rank / Judge Brack, Kristine Linde / Thea Elvsted. 

For instance, with the Kristine/Thea pair: we move from maturity, self knowledge, practicality, ruthlessness, to timidity, innocence, devotion, and sincerity. 

The relationship pairing of Kristine/Krogstad with Thea/Lovborg has undergone transformation too. The first pair is based on honesty, frankness, sincerity, certainty; the second on affection, inspiration, contempt, lack of confidence, mistrust. Note also Thea’s quick turnaround in Act 4. In devotion to Lovborg’s memory, she is already moving in on Tesman by helping to reconstruct the missing manuscript, and one can already sense the coming of an intimate relationship between them, a hint that Hedda instantly foresees. Ibsen depicts Thea’s adaptability and tendency towards self deception as character flaws. 

The Dr. Rank / Judge Brack pair: Rank’s corruption is fobbed off on his father’s dissolute past. Rank’s amorality is discrete, concealed, suggested, but he never presses his advantage. In Brack, we have outright corruption. Brack boldy insinuates himself into the triangle and dominates Hedda through blackmail. 

The Torvald / Tesman pair: we have a transformation from a domineering, self-satisfied prig to a more amiable, industrious, pedantic, kind provider.  There are, however, some shared features. Both husbands are “upwardly mobile.” Both are on the brink of career advancement and financial security. Both take pride in their roles as providers. Both are peeved at the threat to their entitled position in society (Krogstad’s familiarity at work, then his blackmail efforts; Lovborg’s intellectual rivalry for professorship and status). Both are hastily restored to “normal” when the threat to their success is removed. 

The Krogstand / Lovborg pair: the transformation is one of added mystery and self-destructiveness in Lovborg. Krogstad, like Kristine, is harsher, clearer of mind and purpose. Lovborg is murkier, richer, more elusive. Both characters have lost social respectability. They are rogues, renegades. Both are seeking to reboot their lives, restore their reputations, live a cleaner, more respectable life. Lovborg’s intentions, however, are less clearcut. He has greater doubts, doubts which Hedda manipulates to tragic ends. 

Nora/Hedda:  Some points of comparison. Nora uses her sexual charms to manipulate; Hedda is sexually recessive. Both are beautiful women. Nora uses her power to get money and stall for time; Hedda uses her power to control another human’s destiny. The stakes are higher. 

We could argue that Ibsen’s vision has darkened over time. In moving from Nora to Hedda, the theme of self-fulfillment has been transformed from a heroic act of liberation with the promise of self-transformation, to a tragic, corrupt, impulsive act of escape, verging on nihilism. If Hedda’s move toward fulfillment results in suicide (Lovborg and hers), we may begin to wonder, what’s the point, and is self-realization all it’s cracked up to be? 

“The ‘miracle’ that Torvald is to perform and the crown of vine leaves that Lovborg is to wear are to have similar effects on the women who contemplate them. For each of them this act — carried out on her behalf or under her influence — is to justify a life of restraint, conventionality, sacrifice, secret repression. It is to offer a moment of transcendence that constitutes and adequate fulfillment of life and self” (18).

Hedda, unlike Nora, “has not sacrificed her self by acting against the most significantpart of her own nature; she has merely restrained impulses” (19). “The sense of transcendent power and beauty that she longs for is inseparable from the fierceness and self-absorption of the Dionysiac frenzy. Ibsen knows that the dream of fulfillment cannot be exultant without being cruel, cannot be heroic without being destructive, for only in the darker recesses of the self can the aspiring energy be found…. Hedda’s vision of vine leaves and ecstasy, though it tells us little of her life of furtive voyeurism, says much about the aspirations toward beauty and violence that lurked beneath them. Like Nora, Hedda must ultimately accept the loss of her dream — no Dionysiac hero will perform a miraculous act on her behalf — and assume the burden of self-realization; like her creator, it is she who must shape a drama in which beauty and violence achieve a final form” (19). 

Work Cited

Ganz, Arthur. “Miracle and Vine Leaves: An  Ibsen Play Rewrought” PMLA, 94.1 (Jan. 1979), 9-21.