Large Print Edition
By Henrik Ibsen
BiblioBazaar (2007), 220 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 5, 2010
Is Hedda Gabler selfish, bored, and tired of her marriage, and does she need to relieve her frustrations by interfering in other people's lives and hurting them, as many readers contend? Or, is this an over-simplification of her character and motive? Is the play obscure?
Jorge Borges once wrote that two people write a novel, the writer and the reader. The reader, he is saying, frequently reads something that the writer never intended. Saul Bellow wrote something similar in a letter in 1942: a novel "sets up the hypotheses and tests them in various ways, and it gives answers, but these are not definitive." Thus, all good literature is filled with obscurities and ambiguities. Even biblical narratives have these qualities, as it must. People read good literature and, because of their cognitive dissonances, they see what they need to see and are convinced that this is what the author intended. Thus the answer to the questions is that the portrait of Hedda Gabler is obscure, as it should be, and whatever we read into the narrative is objectively wrong, although personally right.
Simply stated, 33 year old beautiful and vivacious Hedda Gabler has just returned from her long honeymoon to a large beautiful house that she talked her husband into purchasing. In fact, as she states in the play, it was this purchase, not love, for she does not love her husband, that prompted her to marry him.
Two men are infatuated with her besides her husband, perhaps even love her: Brack and Lovborg. She has no amorous feelings for them, but she clearly, and this is significant, enjoys their adoration. Her relationship with Brack is perfect. She and the bachelor Brack agree that they will live their lives as a triangle, the third being her husband. She speaks openly with Brack, but not with her husband.
She hears that Mrs. Elvsted loves Lovborg, and while it is clear to Hedda that Lovborg prefers her, the disclosure that Lovborg led Elvsted to think he loved her, this desertion, this infidelity, although small, not boredom, sets Hedda off. She destroys the relationship between Elvsted and Lovborg, gets hold of Lovborg's manuscript, destroys it, and ruins his life, and she gives him a gun to kill himself.
True, Hedda says in the play that she is bored and admits that this boredom is causing her to interfere in people's lives, but is this true? Does she really know her motive? Is it her only motive? Is this somewhat simple idea all that the great playwright wants to convey? If so, why does he write so much about the two men who adore her?
Hedda Gabler is the heroine's maiden name, not her current married name, and by naming the play in this way, Ibsen seems to suggest that readers need to seek the solution to her character in her pre-marriage state, not in her boredom with her recent marriage. It is possible, and this is the obscurity in the play, that Hedda's motivation is based on her need to be adored by men, completely. She must control her men and not be dominated by them in any way. Once she heard that Lovborg was loved by another and that he led this woman to believe that he reciprocated her love, to the extent that she left her husband, she felt betrayed and sought revenge.
This possible explanation of Hedda's motive, that she needs to totally control her relationships with men, helps explain why she shoots herself at the end of the play. Brack gains control over her when he learns that she gave Lovborg a gun, even though he said that he would keep her act secret. She says, "So I am in your power, Judge Brack. You have me at your beck and call, from this time forward…. I cannot endure the thought of that! Never!" And she loses her husband as well. He agrees to spend the rest of his life with Mrs. Elvsted, if necessary, to try to reconstruct Lovborg's lost book. As a result, in her mind, she has lost all three men who adored her and there was no reason to continue living.
This may be what Ibsen intended. However, there is no certainty that this is Hedda's motivation. The play is a masterpiece and it is obscure.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.