Hedda Gabler

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Hedda Gabler Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen was born into a wealthy, highly respected family. His father, Knud, was a merchant who met with success early on in life, but suffered a great financial loss when Henrik was seven. As a result, Knud became jaded and began to drink heavily. He took out his troubles on his children and his wife, Marichen Altenburg, who remained loving and self-sacrificing throughout this period of hardship. Ibsen would later model many of his characters after his mother and father. At the age of fifteen, Henrik was forced to discontinue his education after his father declared bankruptcy. He then moved to Grimstad to become an apprentice pharmacist, and also began writing plays. Ibsen resolved to seek a university education in Christiania (present-day Oslo), but did not pass the entrance exams. Fortunately, by this point Ibsen had persuaded himself that a university education would not help him succeed in writing great plays—he committed himself wholly to his art as a playwright from then on. He was, incidentally, remarkably unsuccessful in this vocation at first, and he and his wife Suzannah Thoresen were very poor. Their household survived on Ibsen’s meager income as a writer, director, and producer at the Det norske Theater in Bergen. As his threadbare years of artistic anonymity ground on, Ibsen became increasingly dissatisfied with life in Norway. As a result, in 1864 he left his wife and their five-year-old son, Sigurd (who grew up to become the Prime Minister of Norway), and moved south, first to Sorrento, Italy, and later to Dresden, Germany. He didn’t return to Norway until 1891. It was during this self-imposed exile that Ibsen came into his own as an artist. During this period he composed his visionary verse plays Brand (1865) and Peer Gynt (1867), which won him fame and success. A little more than a decade later, he had pioneered and perfected the realist, bourgeois drama, as evidenced by the stream of masterpieces he published between 1879 and 1886, including A Doll’s House(1879), Ghosts (1881), and what some consider to be his masterpiece, The Wild Duck (1884). This period saw Ibsen ascend to his highest level of fame—he became a household name internationally, and was perhaps the most famous writer of his time. He was both celebrated for his perfectly crafted plots and deep character studies, and also denounced for his unflinching penetration into the sickness of modern life. After the most successful career in the theater since Shakespeare’s, Ibsen died in Oslo in 1906, the result of several strokes. He is often considered to be “the father of modern drama” and has served as an influence for artists ranging from Arthur Miller to James Joyce.
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Historical Context of Hedda Gabler
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Ibsen focused his energies on writing what we have learned to call “problem plays” (e.g. A Doll’s House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People)—plays that, in the words of one critic, investigate “contemporary controversy of public importance—women’s rights, unemployment, penal reform, class privilege—in a vivid but responsibly accurate presentation.” A Doll’s House is one of Ibsen’s most famous problem plays, and it shares the same social groundwork as the later Hedda Gabler. The late nineteenth century was dominated by strict Victorian social codes and laws that severely restricted the rights of all women, and especially married women like Nora in A Doll’s House and Hedda herself. While this historical background is important to Ibsen’s purposes in Hedda Gabler, this play nonetheless represents a marked turn away from the earlier problem plays and toward the more personal, visionary, symbolic, and evocative dramas that constitute Ibsen’s late period.
Other Books Related to Hedda Gabler
As is perhaps inevitable for a dramatist, Ibsen was deeply influenced by the plays of Shakespeare. Hedda Gabler is particularly indebted to Shakespeare’s plays Othello and Antony and Cleopatra, for Ibsen’s portrait of Hedda draws on the character of the devilish Iago in the former and the melodramatic, charismatic Cleopatra in the latter. Like Iago, Hedda is egotistical, sadistic, and deceptive, and, to some minds, both characters are motiveless in their acts of destruction. Just as Iago plots the downfall of his dear general Othello, so Hedda plots the downfall of her intimate comrade, Ejlert Lövborg. Like Cleopatra, on the other hand, Hedda has a touch of the diva about her, and she is also committed to a vision of beauty (unlike Iago). Formally speaking, in plays like Hedda Gabler Ibsen pioneered and perfected realistic modern drama—that is, drama which focuses on everyday, middle-class life, written in a prose that imitates everyday speech. In this regard, Ibsen’s influence cannot be overstated, as Chekov, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, and Arthur Miller all wrote plays indebted to Ibsen’s dramatic innovations.
Key Facts about Hedda Gabler
  • Full Title: Hedda Gabler
  • When Written: 1889-1890
  • Where Written: Mostly in Munich, Germany
  • When Published: December of 1890
  • Literary Period: Theatrical realism, modernism
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: The Tesmans’ villa, located in a Norwegian city modeled on Christiania
  • Climax: Hedda burns Lövborg’s manuscript
  • Antagonist: Hedda Gabler herself, to some extent, in her role as an antihero
Extra Credit for Hedda Gabler

What’s in a Name? It may seem surprising that Ibsen titles his play Hedda Gabler given that, when the action of the play begins, his main character is actually named Hedda Tesman. Why does he do this? The playwright wants us to understand, in his words, “that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife.” After all, she shares her father’s aristocratic and warlike temperament, much more so than Tesman’s bourgeois and bookwormish one. Hedda’s first name, it should be added, appropriately means “strife.”

A Stormy Rivalry. Ibsen’s great dramatic rival and contemporary was the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, whom Ibsen regarded as “delightfully mad” and whose portrait hung in Ibsen’s study as a provocation. After reading Hedda Gabler, Strindberg recognized that he himself had served as source material for the character of Ejlert Lövborg, whom Hedda inspires to suicide. Of this, Strindberg wrote: “It seems to me that Ibsen realizes that I shall inherit the crown when he is finished. He hates me mentally… And now the decrepit old troll seems to hand me the revolver! … I shall survive him and many others and the day The Father [a play by Strindberg] kills Hedda Gabler, I shall stick the gun in the old troll’s neck.”