Often the subject of academic dramatic discourse of the 20th Century, Henrik
Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler can be said to be among the first dramas to infuse the
theatre with art; to construct a drama that is also an important work of art.
The final scene of the play immediately arouses a sense of uncertainty
regarding its seemingly contradictory nature, but rather than attempt to
derive some sub-textual meaning to attribute to this apparent ambiguity, I
would like to suggest that it is the striking effect such an ambiguous
narrative has upon its audience members that becomes an invaluable
contribution to the drama’s effectiveness as a work of art.
Attempting to construct the fragments of insight into Hedda’s personal
motivations allows for many arguable interpretations. It could seem that the
romantic ideals associated with freedom and beauty make Hedda their slave,
she would do anything to uphold their importance, perhaps even take her
own life in a beautiful and courageous act.
Accordingly, the act of taking her own life could also offer Hedda an escape
from her harsh and loathsome surroundings. Hedda detests almost all
aspects of her life; she loathes her husband, her home, her circumstances,
and is obsessed with her everlasting boredom. She feels utterly trapped,
stuck in a life she abhors with every bone in her body, and this she expresses
clearly in the opening of Act II as she exclaims, “Oh, Judge, you don’t know—
I’ve been so dreadfully bored.” In an attempt to relieve herself of her
horrendous boredom, Hedda contrives a plan for Lovborg’s own suicide, and
when this does not occur she takes it upon herself to escape from the world
she hates so much. The taking of her own life may seem to Hedda the best
escape option she has, the most viable way she could be set free of her
husband, home, and boredom.
It seems logical to point out that Hedda has made several crucial decisions to
bring her to this point. She has decided that she must somehow escape her
current dreaded circumstances, and also that her most appealing option to
achieve this escape would be to take her own life. She makes a free and
conscious choice, she chooses to perform the act of spontaneous beauty that
Lovborg so miserably failed to, while at the same time emancipating herself
from the world she so deeply despises.
By simply interpreting these small fragments of insight in a slightly dissimilar
manner, the audience could come to a much different conclusion. It can also
be argued that Hedda Gabler’s life is one filled with and consumed by fear. In
particular, her explicitly stated fear of scandal governs almost every action
she takes, and in due course leads to Judge Brack’s grasp of power over her.
As well as resulting from Hedda’s fear, the power Brack has over Hedda
generates a substantial fear of its own. Hedda may genuinely fear that she
will be forever under the control not only of others, but the entire life she has
such a deep hatred for. She is so afraid of living in a world where she will be
eternally controlled that she can find relief only in her own death.
This intense fear that seems so central to Hedda’s motivations not only
places a great deal of pressure on her, but also causes her to feel utterly
incapacitated and helpless. As she admits just moments before her suicide,
“So I’m in your power, Judge. You have your hold over me from now on.” (IV,
302) There is absolutely nothing she can do to strip Judge Brack of his power
and control over her, there is nothing she can do to rid herself of her
boredom, and there is nothing she can do to transform her life into
something happy, something worth living for. In Hedda’s mind she has
simply no other option but to surrender to her fear; she cannot face this
terribly boring life, so she bows down in defeat before it.
To make a definitive claim in support of only one of Hedda’s possible
motivations for suicide would be to miss the point entirely. The contradictory
and ambiguous motivations for this singular action contain meaning in and of
themselves; they spark a remarkable reaction in the minds of the audience.
By providing the audience with no clear or concise indications of the true
nature of Hedda’s character, he leaves the audience with no choice but to
work out something for themselves. Because we can never truly know all the
workings of Hedda’s brain, and no one account can be said to be the only
motivation for her suicide, it is altogether impossible for us to make a quick
and easy decision concerning the meaning of the drama. Instead, the play
lingers in our minds, causing complex internal thought and reflection, and it
is in this fashion that Ibsen is able to construct a brilliantly ambiguous