In the Tesmans’ drawing room is a dark porcelain stove which Ibsen invites us to pay attention to throughout the play. Hedda goes toward it when Tesman tries to show her his cherished old slippers, Hedda forces Mrs. Elvsted to sit next to it, and she sits next to it on several occasions herself. The fire in the stove also almost dies in Act III, only for Hedda to revive it. We learn that the stove is onstage to serve a treacherous purpose only at the end of Act III, when Hedda kneels beside it and feeds into its fire Ejlert Lövborg’s precious, irreplaceable manuscript. The seeming innocuousness of the stove parallels Hedda’s own seeming harmlessness—but of course this is an illusion of which we are disabused over the course of the play. Just as the stove conceals the fire in its belly, so too does Hedda conceal within her heart a fantastic, hateful violence. The stove and its fire, then, symbolize destruction—and how domestication can conceal but not contain destruction’s powers. It should also be pointed out that when Hedda destroys Lövborg and Thea’s manuscript, she refers to it as their “child.” The image Ibsen is evoking here is that of child sacrifice, specifically the ancient pagan practice of making children go into a furnace where they would be burned to death in honor of the god Moloch. The peoples who practiced this form of sacrifice must have been despairing indeed, to think that their god was so cruel as to require this act of them—and Hedda, it would seem, is similarly despairing.
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The timeline below shows where the symbol Fire and the Tesmans’ Stove appears in Hedda Gabler. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.