Modern life, at least to Hedda’s sensitive mind, is full of routine ugliness. Because nothing is sacred, people become sentimental about personal trifles, as Tesman is about the slippers his Aunt Rina embroidered for him and which his Aunt Julle brings for him as a gift. “Oh, you can’t imagine how many memories they have for me,” Tesman exclaims. “But not for me, particularly,” Hedda responds. Then there is the ugliness of being married “everlastingly,” as Hedda is, to a solid man who nonetheless lacks the charisma necessary for the glories of politics. There is also the associated ugliness of being in the company of men like Judge Brack, who vulgarly sexualizes and tries to intellectually battle with Hedda. There is, moreover, the ugliness of debt, which threatens the Tesmans from the beginning of the play. It is no wonder, then, that Hedda defiantly longs for beauty, and not the trivial beauty of a new hat and parasol, but for tragic beauty—what she herself calls “an act of spontaneous courage… of unconditional beauty.”
But where is such beauty to be found? Hedda would respond that one does not find beauty—rather, one creates it. So it is that she sets about like a theater director to produce a tragic spectacle, full of pity and terror. She opportunistically casts Ejlert Lövborg at first as a vine-crowned god on the rise and then, failing that, as a tragic hero, the flawed man who is nonetheless superior in degree to other men. Then, with a ruthless commitment she has never had the courage to make before, Hedda inserts her will into his destiny (and it is here that Hedda’s accumulation of power at last finds a worthy purpose): she pressures him to drink because of his vulnerability to alcohol, she destroys the manuscript he loses that night, and then, in her crowning moment, Hedda gives Lövborg one of her father’s pistols so that he can kill himself, asking Lövborg to “let it happen…beautifully.” This suggests that Hedda consciously thinks of Lövborg’s death as a work of art. As further evidence of this, Hedda imagines Lövborg throughout the play as having vine leaves in his hair: an allusion to the Greek god Dionysus, who presides over intoxication and tragic insight. In the end, Hedda praises Lövborg’s “performance” of suicide, declaring, “I say that there is beauty in this deed.”
Judge Brack, however, feels “compelled to disabuse [Hedda] of a beautiful illusion”: Lövborg did not shoot himself intentionally, and, it would seem, he did not have the intention of committing suicide after leaving the Tesmans’ house for the last time. To Hedda, then this means that Lövborg’s death is not tragic at all, but rather farcical—that is, ludicrously futile and hollow—a mockery of her noble purpose. It is this disillusionment, and also the recognition that Judge Brack has control over her at last (through his knowledge that Hedda gave Lövborg the pistol he shot himself with), that compel Hedda to kill herself—dying what she perhaps thinks of as a beautiful death. We ourselves are left wondering, when the curtain falls, whether we have just witnessed a beautiful tragedy—the fall of the great Hedda Gabler—or instead something more farcical, hollow, and ironic.
Beauty, Tragedy, and Farce ThemeTracker
Beauty, Tragedy, and Farce Quotes in Hedda Gabler
Tesman: What are you looking at, Hedda?
Hedda: I’m just looking at the leaves on the trees. They’re so yellowed. And so withered.
When I think back to that time, wasn’t there something beautiful, something attractive…something courageous too, it seems to me…about this…this secret intimacy, this companionship that no one even dreamed of.
I don’t want to look at sickness and death. I must be free of everything that’s ugly.
I want you to know, Lövborg, what you’ve done to the book…. For the rest of my life it’ll be for me as though you killed a little child.
Hedda: And what are you going to do, then?
Lövborg: Nothing. Just put an end to it all. The sooner the better.
Hedda: Ejlert Lövborg…listen to me…. Couldn’t you let it happen… beautifully?
Now I’m burning your child, Thea! With your curly hair! Your child and Ejlert Lövborg’s. I’m burning…burning your child.
Hedda: Oh, it’ll kill me…it’ll kill me, all this!
Tesman: All what, Hedda? Eh?
Hedda: All this…this farce…Jörgen.
Hedda: He was shot in the breast?
Brack: Yes…as I said.
Hedda: Not in the temple?
Brack: In the breast, Mrs. Tesman.
Hedda: Well…the breast is good, too.
It’s a liberation to know that an act of spontaneous courage is yet possible in this world. An act that has something of unconditional beauty.
Everything I touch seems destined to turn into something mean and farcical.
Hedda: And so I am in your power, Mr. Brack. From now on I am at your mercy.
Brack: Dearest Hedda…believe me…I shall not abuse the position.
Hedda: In your power, all the same. Subject to your will and your demands. No longer free! No! That’s a thought that I’ll never endure! Never.