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To what extent is Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler a feminist play?

By Georgia G – U6

 Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is often labelled a feminist play, but this has not been universally accepted. This essay explores arguments for and against the assumption that the play is feminist; one can argue that it is since its protagonist is undoubtedly oppressed by society’s patriarchal conventions, contemporary audiences identified with her for this reason, and there are reasons to suggest that we can all sympathise with Hedda. Arguments to the contrary are that Hedda is in fact entirely unsympathetic so cannot positively advocate feminism, that Ibsen’s intentions point away from feminism, or that her suffering is the result of her own weak character, not society’s gender inequality. I will conclude that Hedda Gabler is an implicitly feminist play since it asserts that women are primarily human beings, and equal to men in the sense that they are allowed universality, and are not restricted to the feminine. To complete my research, I used a range of critical articles from 1891 (the year the play premiered) to today, as well as extracts from books on Ibsen and his plays. Conscious that a play is about more than the written word, my research includes references to Hedda Gabler productions and the views of actors and directors, again from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Context, Hedda Gabler, and feminist plays

In January 1891, Hedda Gabler was introduced to the world. Met with shock, bafflement and a new, quiet recognition, it continues to captivate today. Hedda Gabler is a classic of both realism and nineteenth century theatre; its creator is the world’s most frequently performed dramatist after Shakespeare. Indeed, Ibsen has been described as “the best since Shakespeare”[1], as well as a father of both realism and Modernism in theatre. James Joyce described an “extraordinary knowledge of women” in his plays. Paradoxically, Hedda Gabler’s ambiguity is notorious. Hers is considered a great dramatic role, timelessly enigmatic, repellent and intoxicating; she is “a scorpion in amber”[2]. The gunshot with which Hedda ends her life is, perhaps, even louder than Nora’s slamming the door, itself ‘a shot heard around the world’.

Hedda Gabler is often referred to as a feminist play. For many, it offers a pointed critique of marriage and conventionally defined femininity, and echoes nineteenth century feminist sentiment. At the play’s opening, beautiful, aristocratic, newly pregnant Hedda has returned from an extended honeymoon with George Tesman, a kind and mediocre scholar. She soon learns from sweet, impressionable Thea Elvsted that the passionate yet degenerate intellectual Eilert Lovborg, a former suitor, has been reformed. He and Thea have written a manuscript together, which surpasses Tesman’s efforts in the field. Within hours of her return, Hedda has destroyed Thea’s trust in Lovborg, destroyed their manuscript, and tempted Lovborg back to alcohol, debauchery and, eventually, his own suicide. Still, Hedda is bored, miserable and dissatisfied; she is now also powerless under Judge Brack who, knowing what she’s done, threatens her with sexual blackmail. The play ends with the shock of Hedda’s suicide and the others’ reactions to it.

In many ways, Hedda was not alone. Society’s patriarchy was unmistakeable in late nineteenth century Europe. It was an era of separate spheres, defined by ‘natural’ gender-based characteristics. Women, morally superior, were seen to belong at home in the domestic sphere, complacently enacting Patmore’s ‘angel in the house’ ideal. Men, intellectually superior and allowed moral lapses, worked and existed in the public sphere. Women were expected to want marriage, but only to reproduce, not for emotional or sexual fulfilment, which was frowned upon.[3] Although most kept quiet, (particularly middle-class) women were increasingly confined, isolated and purposeless. Given this context, Hedda Gabler was in some sense revolutionary; never before had a role of this complex, troubled nature been written for women, and never before had women recognised their own concealed plight onstage.

Feminism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of equality between the sexes”. A feminist play can therefore be defined as a play that advocates women’s rights on the grounds of equality between the sexes, through various means. It tends to “identify women’s roles as unequal to those of men… and generally portrays the consequences to women, men, families, communities and societies as undesirable”[4]. Feminist literature is often about the experience of being female, and challenges established or antiquated gender roles and inequalities to argue for change.

It remains a question, however, whether Hedda Gabler is a feminist play. Many critics and audiences have identified it as such; many of Hedda’s constraints are unquestionably the result of being female amid the pressures and expectations of patriarchal society. Not only did many of Ibsen’s female contemporaries identify with Hedda, but perhaps we all can. Male or female, it can be argued that we all sympathise with Hedda, and recognise elements of her identity and suffering in ourselves. This, therefore, makes her plausible as a feminist heroine striving to further the goals of her cause, by movingly opening our eyes to the trials she and we endure in an unequal society. The play, in addition, did much to further gender equality within the theatrical world. Despite these arguments, many are not convinced. Hedda Gabler has also been viewed as a bewildering play with a monstrous, entirely unsympathetic heroine, so unlikeable that she cannot serve to advocate women’s rights, so this cannot possibly be the cause of the play. Ibsen’s intentions also point away from feminism; he claims to have written Hedda Gabler simply as an exploration of humanity, and critics have argued that it serves as a self-portrait of the playwright himself. Even if we sympathise with Hedda, she may exist primarily as an individual. Her plight is not all women’s plight, but the result of her own unique and twisted mind. Her story does not advocate gender equality, perhaps, but is simply the psychological journey of a disturbed and doomed individual, pained as much by her own weakness as by society’s injustices.

It is precisely this, though, which will lead me to conclude that Hedda Gabler is, in fact, a feminist play. It is not feminist in an obvious, explicit sense, or even intentionally so. It is because Hedda exists primarily as a human being, not a woman, that makes Ibsen a feminist, if an unconscious one. She is flawed, complex, often unlikeable, if sympathetic; she is an individual before anything else. In Hedda Gabler, Ibsen seamlessly dissolves the distinction between men and women. As human beings, he recognises, the sexes are equal. This is perhaps the subtlest, most profound advocacy of gender equality possible, and will therefore lead to my conclusion.


Hedda’s place in a restrictive society

Without question, Hedda Gabler is unsuited to the patriarchal society in which she lives. She feels imprisoned by conventional gender roles, her marriage, and her pregnancy. She resists conformity, though she never quite breaks free of it. She needs power, despite her powerless position. Hedda’s distaste for and subversion of convention suggest a feminist message in Ibsen’s play; it seems to tell the story of a woman struggling to accept subordination, who challenges the norms but ultimately fails to overcome them, with disastrous consequences for her and those around her. Throughout the play, there is evidence that this is Hedda’s apparently feminist role.

From her introduction, Hedda is averse to family life. This is shown, for example, in her malice towards Aunt Julle and her hat. In his notes, Ibsen writes that “Hedda is strongly but imprecisely opposed to the idea that one should love ‘the family’. The aunt means nothing to her.”[5] She feels denial then revulsion towards her pregnancy, crying “nothing of that sort will ever happen!” at Brack’s suggestion of a child[6]. She ends its life, after all, when she ends her own. Hedda is enamoured with her father’s pistols, a traditionally masculine and even phallic symbol, and she is far from contentedly submissive. The play’s name is no accident; Hedda Gabler dominates the stage and as far as she can, the others’ lives. She has a self-proclaimed compulsion “to feel that [she] control[s] a human destiny”[7], manipulates others, and refuses to act passively as her female contemporaries Aunt Julle, Thea Elvsted and Berte essentially do. Hedda’s very desires oppose those that society expects of her; she is fundamentally unable to function in the roles she must take on. As an acceptable wife, mother or lady, she cannot exist.

Yet while Hedda’s character protests against society, society continues to restrain her. It is this, perhaps, that points most towards Hedda Gabler as a feminist play. If it’s not clear from her boredom and tendency to try to live vicariously through men, Ibsen writes “it’s really a man’s life she wants to lead. In all respects.”[8] It is clear that Hedda wants a different life but “such a dread of scandal”[9], society’s inevitable response, prevents her from any real rebellion. She is obsessed with appearances and terrified of ridicule, and it’s possible that her suicide was even an escape from the scandal that would follow public revelation of her role in Lovborg’s suicide. Expressed throughout the play, Hedda simply “cannot bear the thought of the ostracism which unconventional women… suffer when they individually fight male restrictions”[10]. The Oslo Nye Dukketeatret’s 2006 production opens with an image of Hedda lacing herself into a corset, literally squeezing herself into femininity’s confining role within the patriarchy[11].

These feminist suggestions only strengthen as the play’s climax approaches. In Brack’s sexual blackmail (“I am in your power, Mr. Brack. From now on I am at your mercy”[12]), Hedda is caught in an “explicitly sexualized trap… [that] adds concretion and embodiment to her experience” of being a female victim, and unfree[13]. Perhaps, too, her inability to participate in male discourse is emphasised as she wildly plays the piano, moments before her suicide[14]. Hedda Gabler, it seems, could be a critique of society’s expectations of women, and the suffocating pressures to conform. As Walkington points out, Lovborg is socially accepted despite the immorality of his past, purely because he is a man[15]. A feminist play advocates women’s rights on the grounds of gender equality; simply taking the text itself, it seems clear that Hedda suffers from a lack of these rights, with the convincing implication that hers is a feminist play.


Initial reactions: Hedda as an unsympathetic monster

If a character is unsympathetic, how can she further her cause? The New York Times described the Hedda of an 1898 Broadway production as “selfish, morbid, cruel, bitter, jealous… something of a lunatic.”[16] Another critic labelled her “a horrid miscarriage of the imagination, a monster in female form to whom no parallel can be found in real life[17]”. To many in 1891, Hedda really was an irredeemable monster. The play itself was equally bewildering. It left one “muddled and mystified, fascinated, but—in one’s intellectual sympathy—snubbed”, wrote Henry James on the first London performance[18]. It was not only mystifying, but repelling for some; “What a horrible story! What a hideous play!” and “The play is simply a bad escape of moral sewage gas” were among reviewers’ reactions. “Its only message seemed to be despair”[19]. This response is not limited to nineteenth century audiences. Refuting Gelber’s comment that Hedda Gabler is the New Woman as femme fatale, Templeton calls her a “moral and sexual coward”[20].  Evidentially, these accusations are not without weight. In a matter of hours Hedda cruelly teases Aunt Julle, betrays Thea’s confidence, engineers Lovborg’s self-destruction, burns the manuscript (a metaphorical “little child”) and, in her final act, kills herself and her unborn child. She seems to have no conscience, no conviction, and comes across as “mean, envious, insolent, cruel in protest to others’ happiness… a bully in reaction from her own cowardice”, in the words of Bernard Shaw[21].

If Hedda and her story are this unlikeable, this confounding, it seems unlikely she was written to further a social cause, or that she would succeed in doing so. Hedda Gabler cannot be feminist if it cannot advocate women’s rights; it cannot call attention to the lack of them if there is no wronged woman to sympathise with. A monster, in short, does not make a good advocate. If these interpretations of the play are to be accepted, then, Hedda Gabler is almost certainly not feminist. The problem with this argument is the comment of one Victorian woman attending the matinée: “Hedda is all of us”.


Contemporary female identification with Hedda

Despite many critics’ reactions, response to the play was not disastrous. In London for example, Ibsen’s plays usually lasted one or two performances, but Hedda Gabler lasted six weeks. This was almost unanimously due to women in the audience (explaining why matinée performances were so much more popular). While men’s reactions tended to be cool, critical and aloof, women reacted emotionally; they identified with Hedda. Elizabeth Robins, the first English actress to play Hedda and later a suffragist, famously wrote how “one lady of our acquaintance, married and not noticeably unhappy, said laughing ‘Hedda is all of us’” at a performance[22]. Hedda was adopted to represent normal Victorian bourgeois women, who felt “a sense of personal involvement”[23] in the play, not only due to its realism, but because of its familiarity. Actress Margaret Webster recognised in Hedda Gabler, as her mother had, “the dreadful sense of being trapped, the resentment, the banked-down passion, the incredulous desperation”, echoing her own life[24].

Hedda offered shared identity among these women, a collective voice for formerly unspoken dissatisfactions. This implies that Hedda Gabler must have a feminist side. For many, it was the first step towards the fight for gender equality: active recognition of the long-established inequalities. Ibsen’s play had a profound effect on the minds of women and the already-forming feminist movement; it may even have “great social and political significance”[25]. In the Coronation Suffrage Pageant of 1911, for example, Hedda Gabler literally led the Actresses’ Franchise League towards its goal of emancipation[26]. If unintentionally, Ibsen opened eyes and advanced feminist goals with Hedda Gabler, meaning on some level, it must be a feminist play. The male-female dichotomy of reactions to it can also be explained. As Robins writes in her essay, “the particular humiliations and enslavements that threaten women do not threaten men. Such enslavements may seem so unreal to decent men as to appear as melodrama”[27] – or so alien as to be baffling or contemptable onstage, in Hedda’s ambivalent form.


Ibsen’s intentions

Critics, suffragists and matinée-goers alike may embrace Hedda Gabler as a feminist play, but its author did not. Ibsen made this clear; when honoured by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League for his 1879 play A Doll’s House, he replied, “I have been more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than people generally tend to suppose… I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights.”[28] Writing Hedda Gabler, Ibsen seemed to see himself as a passive observer of the human condition, or the instigator if his own “curiously detached, objective, almost brutal ‘exercise’”[29]. Supporting this, Henry James refers to “the artistic exercise of a mind saturated with the vision of human infirmities”, and Ibsen’s “enjoyment of difficulty and a preconceived victory over it”[30]. His own explanation is that “what I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a groundwork of the social conditions and principles of the present day”[31]. In Ibsen’s own words, Hedda Gabler is not a feminist play – at least, he didn’t write it with the active intention of advocating women’s rights. He simply seemed to be challenging himself, enjoying an exploration of the extreme dramatic potential of the human mind. Perhaps the play sprung from ambition; having achieved fame, Ibsen’s aim may have been to progress his career by successfully capturing a personality so radically unexpected, so challenging, onstage.

Ibsen’s self-professed intentions, then, imply that Hedda Gabler is not a feminist play. This is supported by arguments that Hedda Gabler is a self-portrait, a ‘portrait of the dramatist as a young woman’, as Meyers suggests, if a subconscious one.[32] Having suppressed his emotional life for years, trapped in a loveless marriage, Ibsen met eighteen year old Emilie Bardach in 1889, aged sixty-one. They grew infatuated, corresponding for several months, and a series of romantic relationships between Ibsen and much younger women then ensued. They probably never developed into physical relationships. Ibsen had suppressed his emotions for so long and now he had a chance to fulfil them, he was unable to do so (perhaps due to fear of scandal, a sense of duty towards his wife, or consciousness or fear of aging and physical impotence)[33]. Like Hedda, Ibsen felt frustrated and repressed. In Ibsen’s own words, the play after all is “about ‘the insuperable’ – the longing and striving to defy convention”, without ever succeeding[34].

To argue this, Duve asserts that Lovborg and Tesman are aspects of Ibsen’s own self, too: Lovborg as an idealised portrait of the wildly emotional young man he was, and Tesman as the intellectual self he chose to become[35]. Haunted by his own repressed emotional self Ibsen, like Hedda, longs to be like Lovborg, but ultimately lacked the courage; like Hedda he “dares not take the jump” (Ibsen)[36]. Hedda and her playwright live vicariously through the play’s other characters instead, crippled by fear of scandal and ridicule. Hedda Gabler, perhaps, was not a reaction to societal injustices faced by women, or an objective study of the human mind – it was a manifestation of Ibsen’s own emotional frustrations.

As an exploration of human psychology and ‘the insuperable’, or as a self-portrait of the author, it is clear that Ibsen did not write Hedda Gabler with feminism in mind. He clarifies this himself. Even subconsciously, advocating women’s rights was not his main preoccupation. Yet Ibsen recognised gender inequality in society, whether or not it troubled him personally; he even made notes[37] on the subject, and considered it important to the play. “They aren’t all created to be mothers”, he noted, and “Women have no influence on external matters of government. Therefore they want to have an influence on souls”. Clearly these sentiments reflect Hedda, and referring to her directly, Ibsen wrote “It’s really a man’s life she wants to lead. In all respects. But then scruples intervene. Some inherited, some implanted.” Women of her position, he believed “realise that life holds a purpose for them, but they cannot find that purpose”. Ultimately, indeed, Hedda realises life does not hold the purpose and beauty she searched for, and this is another theory for her suicide. Whether or not Ibsen recognised this purposelessness and constraint in his own life, his awareness of many women’s restrictions is incontestable. He may have chosen to use them as an outlet, a vehicle to express his own emotional situation.

Arguably, Ibsen’s intentions are essentially irrelevant. He recognised the subjugation and suffering of many women, and he clearly expressed this in his play. He was successful; women recognised it, sympathised with Hedda, and used it to further their own social cause. Ibsen may not have been intending it, but Hedda Gabler was advocating women’s rights on the grounds of gender equality, as a feminist play requires. The question addressed in this essay is not ‘did Ibsen intend Hedda Gabler to be a feminist play?’; his intentions must be considered in asking whether or not the play is feminist, but it may be feminist regardless of his motives.


Hedda deserves universal sympathy

For a play to be feminist, it tends to portray the experience of female suffering under established patriarchal norms. It should, as discussed earlier, portray the damage of these norms, and incite sympathy from the audience. This emotional response is what effectively inspires recognition and support of feminist goals. I have summarised how Hedda is oppressed by society, and that contemporary women identified with her. It remains, however, whether Hedda can be sympathetic to us all, across centuries and gender boundaries. If she is, as I will argue, this defends the view that Hedda Gabler can be a truly feminist play.

Ultimately, Hedda is trapped. Her life, her marriage, her pregnancy, her gender and her own character disappoint, repel, and suffocate her. Despite her dominance onstage, she is essentially helpless, to a potentially pitiable degree. Throughout Hedda Gabler, there are moments when she forcefully suppresses emotion, releasing it only when alone. “It is that which is locked up in Hedda, her hysteria, which actually motivates all her conduct”, wrote Ibsen; terms like “hysteria”, “torment” and “desperation” frequently describe her in his initial notes[38]. More tragically still, Hedda is beyond reach, beyond help. Thea, Lovborg, Brack and Tesman cannot understand why she is not happy, blind to her vision and need for personal freedom. She is alone: in her marriage, she is isolated from society; as a woman, she is isolated from the male sphere and everything within it; by her very nature, she is isolated from the simple, open, affectionate Tesman family. Explaining her cruelty towards Aunt Julle, Ibsen writes “For Hedda, [the Tesmans] appear as an inimical and alien power directed against her fundamental nature”[39].

Hedda’s frustration, her destructiveness both derive from a fundamental need to be free. In Marber’s 2017 production, shadows cast on the walls by a window’s shutters echo the bars of a cage, in which Hedda paces like a wild animal. In the Robins and Lea production of 1891, the unchanging set, heavy curtains and close air reflect her claustrophobia; she is, as Jones asserts, effectively housebound[40]. She transforms from boredom to excitement when she hears of the outside world, wanting only the influence of men. “Do you think it quite incomprehensible”, she asks Lovborg, “that a young girl… should be glad to have a peep into a world which she is forbidden to know anything about?”[41]

For all Hedda’s talk of aesthetics and Lovborg coming “with vine leaves in his hair”[42], Ibsen writes that “she doesn’t care about great ideas – nor about great affairs either – but about great human freedom”[43]. She is simply lost, suffocated, and with no other purpose, “throws her entire being into a passionate attempt to reclaim human life from its stifling, ignoble, bourgeois present”[44]. Tragically, Hedda never succeeds. In her “idealist yearning for beauty”[45], she looks for freedom, and tries to create it. Her dreams, if twisted, are crushed by the ugly reality of Lovborg’s death, despite her pleas that he “try do it beautifully”[46]. Near defeat, Hedda’s cry “everything I touch seems destined to turn into something farcical and mean”[47] implies, perhaps, her final acceptance that life cannot offer what she asks of it, and the futility of trying to be free. Maybe, therefore, “Hedda commits suicide because Lovborg does not return with vine leaves in his hair”[48]. She cannot find fulfilment in her search for beauty, though it would “give [her] such a sense of freedom[49]”, and without it she has no purpose (“is there anything I can do to help you?” she asks Tesman, to which he replies, “No, nothing in the world”[50]).

The audience, I’d argue, can sympathise with her ideals, if disapproving of her methods. Hedda is “a serious thinker but lamed by her social conformity”[51], an optimist in her insistence that the world can be greater than it is. She is repressed by her constraints, and her reaction is not unexpected; “such fury can be ironic, healthy and even heroic”[52]. She is flawed, but not irredeemable. Rafe Spall, who played Brack in Marber’s production, describes Hedda as an “extraordinary universal character that everybody, men and women, can identify with because she mercurial… we all know people like that, we all have elements of that in us”. She is even, as he suggests, “totally internally and existentially lost”[53]. Hedda is someone who expected too much from the world, who could neither cope with nor reject what society asked of her. Her dilemmas are human dilemmas; both men and women can identify with the pressures of society, the frustrations and disappointments of life, our own inner conflicts. Jacobs’ 2014 production, in which Hedda was played by a man, stressed this point that she needn’t be wholly male or female[54]. She is primarily human. It is this that lends her sympathy, relatability, and influence to further a feminist cause. Hedda is not reduced to an unemotional caricature of a woman, moral or immoral, but entirely unsympathetic. She is not cut off from male audiences, or from anyone who doesn’t share her precise situation, because there are elements of her in all of us. Hedda can promote women’s rights because like all of us she is human, and women’s rights are human rights.


The role of personal weakness

This argument requires, however, that Hedda’s misery and confinement are the result of patriarchal society. Perhaps, instead, her own weak character is entirely to blame. If this is the case, Hedda Gabler is simply the story of a troubled individual, and inequality between the sexes, and cries for social change, do not come into it. Ruth Wilson, who played Hedda in Marber’s production, suggests that while Hedda is “deeply vulnerable, deeply lonely… she creates that herself”[55]. She rebels, derives some power from a powerless position, but she remains a coward. Hedda doesn’t respect herself, she can’t, because “she can’t quite break free”[56]. Her overwhelming fears of scandal, ridicule and ostracism prevent her from recreating herself outside the restraints of society (which would otherwise be an option – patriarchal society’s power is not absolute). “Oh courage,” Hedda herself cries, “oh yes! If only one had that then life might be livable, in spite of everything”[57]. She is angry, frustrated, but mostly at herself – she is imprisoned by her own cowardice, by the knowledge that she isn’t brave enough to find the freedom she so poetically, obsessively depicts. Hedda cannot face the reality of her own weaknesses and inhibitions, to the point where she’d rather die than do so. She “says no to marriage, motherhood, selflessness, and separate spheres. Yet… Hedda has no idea what she does want”[58]. She lacks even the courage to find it, before destroying her chances forever. In Hedda, Ibsen writes, “there is a core of deep poetry. But her surroundings scare her”, like “the very thought of becoming ridiculous”[59].

Yet is seems that Hedda’s cowardice, too, is realised by her society. It is society’s response, after all, that she is so afraid of; it is its unequal gender roles and conventions that she cannot bring herself to defy. Hedda’s despair, then, comes from both society and herself. “Life becomes for Hedda a farce which isn’t worth seeing through to the end” (Ibsen)[60]. Conventional gender roles give her no reason to take life seriously and to this extent she is trapped by the patriarchy. It is due to her own lack of courage that she cannot escape it. This adds to Hedda’s tragedy; society’s ideals and condemnations not only confine her, but destroy her self-respect. This can be, perhaps, a further expression of Hedda Gabler’s feminist accents.



Whether the audience is a Victorian woman of the bourgeois or a twenty-first century male critic, there is no denying that Hedda is an individual. She is not a monster or the ideal woman, but a real, multifaceted character, with “great alertness to manners and speech, quick scorn, strange humour, cowardice… snobbishness, and a frightening distaste for both birth and death. And she is very intelligent… because her mind works very rapidly”[61]. Even Henry James, who first described Hedda as a “wicked, diseased, disagreeable woman”, admits we can’t help but notice that she’s “various and sinuous and graceful, complicated and natural; she suffers, she struggles, she is human”[62]. This is the keystone of my conclusion.

Hedda Gabler shows a woman confined by society, living a hated life because convention tells her to, and because she is too afraid to subvert it. The results are powerful; women identified with Hedda, used her as a voice for their unhappiness, and men were astounded and repulsed, unaware that this radical character could have such an effect. Both recognise her complexities and contradictions, and eventually see her in themselves. Hedda is the exploration of humanity that Ibsen intended; she also embodies his own emotional repression. As many women did, we can project the feminist cause onto the play, arguing for Hedda’s miserable, sympathetic side, how it illuminates the plight of all women.

Ultimately, though, Hedda Gabler’s real feminism is much less obvious. In writing it, Ibsen dissolved the artificial distinctions dividing men and women. He recognised the genderless inner afflictions that can affect and motivate us all; in his own life, he felt “the same forces that stultified women”[63], even in an era of separate spheres. As Moi argues, “Ibsen dared to make a woman the bearer of his play’s most fundamental philosophical preoccupations.”[64] Hedda Gabler, with its mood of “restrained and balked individuality”[65] and a female lead “stand[ing] out in bold relief by contrast with the other characters in the play”[66], defied all social and theatrical conventions of its time. Hedda Gabler is not feminist because Hedda is primarily a woman, but because she is primarily human. She is not restricted to one gender, or one gender’s characteristics; she is familiar to us all, she suffers, dreams and destroys like us all. Hedda Gabler, and Ibsen, refuse to recognise separate spheres, social conventions, and traditional gender roles. Instead, consciously or otherwise, the play asserts feminism’s central proclamation: that men and women are equal. In Hedda Gabler, they are equal insofar as both are as human as each other, equally complex, flawed, compelling, sympathetic and monstrous.

Feminist plays advocate women’s rights on the grounds of equality between the sexes, and quietly, Hedda Gabler does just that. It allows women access to the universal as well as the feminine; it asks women to be human while social forces proclaim sub-human inferiority. Hedda is a “contradictory, sad, lonely, brilliant character”, and endlessly inexplicable[67]. She continues to baffle over a century later, and continues to captivate too. The challenges of enacting and understanding her remain. Yet it is her uniqueness, complexity and chilling enchantment that make the play so timeless, indelible, and so profoundly feminist.



[1] Pp. 685-691. Richard Hornby. 2004. Ibsen Triumphant. The Hudson Review.

[2] Charles Isherwood. 2009. Hedda Forever: An Antiheroine for the Ages. The New York Times.

[3] Kathryn Hughes. 2014. Gender roles in the 19th century. The British Library.

[4] List of feminist literature. Wikipedia. Having searched extensively for a definition of feminist literature, while I realise Wikipedia is often not the most highly regarded source material, I found this to be the best concise expression of a fairly universal sentiment.

[5] Christopher Innes. 2002. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre.

[6] P.63. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[7] P.90. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[8] Ibid.

[9] P.75. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[10] J.W. Walkington. 1991. Women and Power in Henrik Ibsen and Adrienne Rich. Vol.80, No.3. The English Journal.

[11] Tanya Thresher. 2006. The Performance of Sex and Gender in Oslo Nye Dukketeatrets Hedda Gabler. Vol.78, No.4. Scandinavian Studies.

[12] P.140. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[13] Toril Moi. 2013. Hedda’s Silences: Beauty and Despair in Hedda Gabler. Vol.56, No.4. Modern Drama.

[14] J.W. Walkington. 1991. Women and Power in Henrik Ibsen and Adrienne Rich. Vol.80, No.3. The English Journal.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Charles Isherwood. 2009. Hedda Forever: An Antiheroine for the Ages. The New York Times.

[17] Alfred Sinding-Larsen. 1891. Morgenbladet.

[18] Henry James. 1891. On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler. New Review.

[19] Halvdan Koht. 1934. Introduction. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen)

[20] Joan Templeton. 1989. Ibsen and Feminism. Vol.104, No.3. PMLA.

[21] Christine M. Bird. 1980. Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer. Vol.95, No.1. PMLA

[22] Elizabeth Robins. 1928. Ibsen and the Actress.

[23] Susan Torrey Barstow. 2001. “Hedda Is All Of Us”: Late-Victorian Women at the Matinee. Vol.43, No.3. Victorian Studies

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Penny Farfan. 1996. From “Hedda Gabler” to “Votes for Women”: Elizabeth Robins’s Early Feminist Critique of Ibsen. Vol.48, No.1. Theatre Journal. In the pageant, an actress dressed as Hedda led the Franchise.

[27] Elizabeth Robins. 1928. Ibsen and the Actress.

[28] Belinda Jack. 2016. Theatre and Individualism: Henrik Ibsen, ‘A Doll’s House’. Gresham College.

[29] Michael Meyer. 1960. Introduction. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen).

[30] Henry James. 1891. On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler. New Review.

[31] Mark Stone. 2014. Henrik Ibsen: Poet, Playwright and Psychologist.

[32] Michael Meyer. 1960. Introduction. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Christopher Innes. 2002. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre.

[35] Arne Duve. 1945. Symbolism in Henrik Ibsen’s Plays.

[36] Christopher Innes. 2002. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Christopher Innes. 2002. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre.

[39] Ibid.

[40] David Richard Jones. 1977. The Virtues of “Hedda Gabler”. Vol.29, No.4. Educational Theatre Journal.

[41] P.78. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[42] P.89 et. al. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[43] Christopher Innes. 2002. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre.

[44] David Richard Jones. 1977. The Virtues of “Hedda Gabler”. Vol.29, No.4. Educational Theatre Journal.

[45] Toril Moi. 2013. Hedda’s Silences: Beauty and Despair in Hedda Gabler. Vol.56, No.4. Modern Drama.

[46] P.117. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[47] P.136. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[48] Christine M. Bird. 1980. Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer. Vol.95, No.1. PMLA

[49] P.133. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[50] P.141. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[51] John Northam. 1973. Ibsen: A Critical Study.

[52] David Richard Jones. 1977. The Virtues of “Hedda Gabler”. Vol.29, No.4. Educational Theatre Journal.

[53] Rafe Spall. 2017. Playing Hedda Gabler. National Theatre Discover.

[54] Ian Dickson. 2014. Hedda Gabler. Australian Book Review.

[55] Ruth Wilson. 2017. Playing Hedda Gabler. National Theatre Discover.

[56] Ibid.

[57] P.82. Henrik Ibsen. Hedda Gabler.

[58] Susan Torrey Barstow. 2001. “Hedda Is All Of Us”: Late-Victorian Women at the Matinee. Vol.43, No.3. Victorian Studies.

[59] Christopher Innes. 2002. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre.

[60] Ibid.

[61] David Richard Jones. 1977. The Virtues of “Hedda Gabler”. Vol.29, No.4. Educational Theatre Journal.

[62] Henry James. 1891. On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler. New Review.

[63] Susan Faludi. 2001. Foreword. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen).

[64] Toril Moi. 2013. Hedda’s Silences: Beauty and Despair in Hedda Gabler. Vol.56, No.4. Modern Drama.

[65] Edmund Gosse. 2005. Henrik Ibsen.

[66] Joanne G. Kashdan. 2010. Hedda Gabler. Fourth Edition. Masterplots.

[67] Patrick Marber. 2016. Hedda Gabler: A Conversation with Patrick Marber. National Theatre.ra



Barstow, S. T. 2001. “Hedda Is All Of Us”: Late-Victorian Women at the Matinee. Vol.43, No.3. Victorian Studies.

Bird, C.M. 1980. Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer. Vol.95, No.1. PMLA

Duve, A. 1945. Symbolism in Henrik Ibsen’s Plays. Nasjonalforlaget.

Farfan, P. 1996. From “Hedda Gabler” to “Votes for Women”: Elizabeth Robins’s Early Feminist Critique of Ibsen. Vol.48, No.1. Theatre Journal.

Hornby, R. 2004. Ibsen Triumphant. Vol.56, No.4. The Hudson Review.

Hughes, K. 2014. Gender roles in the 19th century. The British Library.

Ibsen, H, Gosse, E & Archer, W. 2003. Hedda Gabler. Project Gutenberg.

Innes, C. 2002. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre. Routledge.

Isherwood, C. 2009. Hedda Forever: An Antiheroine for the Ages. The New York Times.

Jack, B. 2016. Theatre and Individualism: Henrik Ibsen, ‘A Doll’s House’. Gresham College.

James, H. 1891. On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler. New Review.

Meyer, M. & Ibsen, H. 1960. Hedda Gabler. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Moi, T. 2013. Hedda’s Silences: Beauty and Despair in Hedda Gabler. Vol.56, No.4. Modern Drama.

Robins, E. 1928. Ibsen and the Actress. London, L. & Virginia Woolf.

Sinding-Larsen, A. 1891. On Hedda Gabler. Morgenbladet.

Stone, M.H. & Wagner, C.A. 2014. Henrik Ibsen: Poet, Playwright and Psychologist.

Templeton, J & Gelber, M.W. 1989. Ibsen and Feminism. Vol.104, No.3. PMLA.Thresher, T. 2006. The Performance of Sex and Gender in Oslo Nye Dukketeatrets Hedda Gabler. Vol.78, No.4. Scandinavian Studies.

Walkington, J. W. 1991. Women and Power in Henrik Ibsen and Adrienne Rich. Vol.80, No.3. The English Journal.

List of feminist literature. Anon. Wikipedia.

I also saw the National Theatre Live’s showing of the 2017 Hedda Gabler production directed by Patrick Marber, which I reference in the essay, and which helped inspire me to base my project on this play.




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