Hedda Gabler

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Themes and Colors
Power and Influence Theme Icon
Provincialism and Patriarchy Theme Icon
Modern Society v. the Individual Theme Icon
Marriage, Love, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Beauty, Tragedy, and Farce Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hedda Gabler, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Beauty, Tragedy, and Farce Theme Icon

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.

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Beauty, Tragedy, and Farce ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Beauty, Tragedy, and Farce appears in each act of Hedda Gabler. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Beauty, Tragedy, and Farce Quotes in Hedda Gabler

Below you will find the important quotes in Hedda Gabler related to the theme of Beauty, Tragedy, and Farce.
Act 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Jörgen Tesman (speaker)
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In the moments before this exchange, Tesman has embarrassed Hedda by hinting to Miss Tesman that Hedda is pregnant. Throughout the play, Hedda is at pains to deny her pregnancy, changing the topic or cutting Tesman off when he mentions it. After Tesman and his Aunt leave, Hedda is alone. She clenches her fists violently, revealing how aggravated she is by Miss Tesman's commonness, as well as Tesman's insistence on revealing her pregnancy. Hedda seemingly views the pregnancy as a burden, something shackling her to bourgeoisie domesticity, as well as a disgusting reminder that people might view her as a sexual being.  

In these lines, Tesman returns and we see how bitterly Hedda feels towards him and the domestic, procreative world he represents. Tesman's question is blundering—he does not recognize how much his hints about the pregnancy to Miss Tesman upset Hedda. Hedda's answer then illuminates her resentment for him (although not to him), as well as for the child she's carrying and all that comes along with her pregnancy. In the early stages of her marriage and pregnancy, a time of beginnings, she notices only the yellow, "withered" leaves, which are symbolic of stale repetition, death, and rot. Although Hedda's body is fertile, in this moment we see that her mindset is barren and hostile.


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Act 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker)
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

Lovborg has arrived at the Tesman's villa, after being invited by Tesman earlier in the day. Judge Brack and Tesman have retired to drink alcoholic punch together in another room, leaving Hedda and Lovborg alone together. They fall to remembering their youthful relationship, which Hedda insists was merely friendly—they were "companions." Lovborg, however, asks Hedda repeatedly if she was not in love with him to some degree. These lines are her response.

This moment is as close as Hedda will come to admitting genuine feeling for someone, but she pulls up short of saying that she loved Lovborg. Her description of their relationship, however, can be seen as a kind of personal ideal. It is the opposite of her banal, public, sexual relationship with Tesman. It was "courageous," "beautiful," and secret from others. And as we know, beauty and courage are in short supply in Hedda's current life. 

We see here that Hedda relished her relationship with Lovborg as something exceptional and different—beyond the stifling bourgeoisie social norms of what is acceptable between men and women. And, after these lines, we can understand why Hedda goes to such extraordinary lengths to reestablish her control over Lovborg. 

Act 3 Quotes

I don’t want to look at sickness and death. I must be free of everything that’s ugly.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker)
Related Symbols: Lövborg and Thea’s Manuscript
Page Number: 235
Explanation and Analysis:

Lovborg failed to control himself and went on a drinking spree, during which he lost his precious manuscript. Tesman found the manuscript in a gutter, and is now discussing the night with Hedda. He resolves to return the manuscript to Lovborg immediately. A letter then arrives from Miss Tesman, telling Tesman that his Aunt Rina is about to die—and this distracts him from the question of the manuscript. Here, Tesman has just asked Hedda to come with him to Aunt Rina's deathbed, and Hedda responds that she does not "want to look at sickness and death."

Her response illuminates her cruelty as well as her disdain for social norms. Hedda frames going to a family member's deathbed as a matter of "want," when most people, Tesman included, would consider it a necessary, humane duty. Hedda, however, is disgusted not only by the ugliness of death but by its commonness. Aunt Rina's death, particularly, which is caused by a long illness, is pathetic and disturbing to Hedda in its lack of agency. A woman who is obsessed with a "beautiful death" will not go and sit by a sick bed. 

In terms of the plot, Hedda's refusal to go with Tesman then leaves her alone with Lovborg's cherished manuscript. 

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.

Related Characters: Mrs. Thea Elvsted (speaker)
Related Symbols: Lövborg and Thea’s Manuscript
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

After Judge Brack leaves, Lovborg bursts into the Tesman's sitting room and speaks to Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted. He omits the details of his drunken debauchery and says only that Mrs. Elvsted is no longer of use to him, and that he has torn up his precious manuscript and thrown the pieces into the fjord (an inlet of sea bordered by cliffs). Mrs. Elvsted is horrified. Lovborg tells this lie to give the impression of self-control and artistic passion—tearing up the manuscript is much more impressive than the truth, which is that he lost it in a drunken stupor. Lovborg tries to make the scene tragic, but in reality it is farcical.

Here, Mrs. Elvsted tells Lovborg how terribly he has wounded her, referring to his act of tearing up the manuscript as the murder of a child—their child. She tells him that this is a permanent wound. She will resent him for "the rest of [her] life." 

Before this point, Mrs. Elvsted's feelings for Lovborg have been veiled by propriety, but in this moment she reveals how close the two of them were. By calling the manuscript they created together a child, she implies that their relationship was as intimate as husband and wife. The life of the manuscript is over, and so too is Mrs. Elvsted's. In her mind, there is nothing to live for without Lovborg's manuscript. 

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?

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Ejlert Lövborg (speaker)
Related Symbols: General Gabler’s Pistols, Lövborg and Thea’s Manuscript
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

After Mrs. Elvsted leaves in tears, Lovborg confesses to Hedda that he has in fact lost the manuscript. Here, Hedda asks him what he will do now, and Lovborg replies that he will "put an end to it" by killing himself. Hedda, whose first plan to influence Lovborg's life has failed, encourages him towards a new path—a beautiful death. She sees suicide as the ultimate sign of control over one's life, and since Lovborg could not control his drinking or the fate of his manuscript, he must make his last action purposeful and beautiful.  

Of course, this is Hedda's last chance to influence Lovborg's destiny, and she knows it. She tells him never to return to the Tesman villa, and gives him one of General Gabler's pistols before he goes, intending for it to be the instrument of his suicide. The pistol, a symbol of control and violence, is an extension of Hedda's influence. It is also a symbol for their youthful time together, where they use to meet in General Gabler's home. For all of its symbolic importance, however, the gift is poorly thought out, as it will directly link Hedda to Lovborg's death when he kills himself with it. 

Now I’m burning your child, Thea! With your curly hair! Your child and Ejlert Lövborg’s. I’m burning…burning your child.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Ejlert Lövborg, Mrs. Thea Elvsted
Related Symbols: Lövborg and Thea’s Manuscript, Fire and the Tesmans’ Stove
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

After Lovborg leaves, Hedda feeds his manuscript into the fire and murmurs these lines to herself. She addresses her lines to Mrs. Elvsted (and again refers to her famously beautiful hair), revealing the part that jealousy plays in this action. By referring to the manuscript as their child, Hedda confirms Mrs. Elvsted's influence and intimacy with Lovborg. The fact that Mrs. Elvsted influenced Lovborg productively (as Hedda has not been able to) enrages Hedda, and she is compelled to destroy the product of their partnership. 

Her investment in Lovborg's beautiful death also motivates her to burn the manuscript. Without the manuscript, Lovborg has nothing to live for, and Hedda wants to ensure that neither he nor anyone else has a way of discovering it. 

Finally, this moment is one of Hedda's most desperate acts of control. She destroys the manuscript for many reasons, of course, but perhaps the primary reason is a yearning to destroy as a means of control. Since she cannot create anything beautiful, she must content herself with destroying something precious. 

Act 4 Quotes

Hedda: Oh, it’ll kill me…it’ll kill me, all this!

Tesman: All what, Hedda? Eh?

Hedda: All this…this farce…Jörgen.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Jörgen Tesman (speaker)
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Hedda has told Tesman that she destroyed the manuscript. He is angry with her, and she soothes him by telling him it was for his sake, because he had been jealous of Lovborg. Tesman is touched but still upset, and so Hedda must go further. She admits her pregnancy for the first time in the play, and Tesman is predictably delighted. 

In these lines, Hedda reveals how much she despises the "farce" that she is trapped in. The farce is her life with Tesman, and the role of wife and now mother that she must play in it. It is disgusting to her that she has had to pretend to love Tesman in order to protect herself—so disgusting that she says that it will kill her.  

Hedda is brilliant and violent, but after this moment she must submit her spirit to the banal, cliched role of the caring woman, the domesticated wife. She must live in the farce that she has spent her life mocking and denying, and the idea is hateful to her. 

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.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Judge Brack (speaker), Ejlert Lövborg
Related Symbols: General Gabler’s Pistols
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

Judge Brack and Mrs. Elvsted enter and Brack tells them that Lovborg is in the hospital after a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and is not expected to survive. Hedda's delight at this news is clouded by Brack's information that Lovborg was shot in the breast. 

Here, Hedda confirms that he did not shoot himself in the temple. She is surprised and upset by this fact. The temple, she feels, would be the correct, most beautiful way to commit suicide. Presumably, because it would destroy the brain and be an instantaneous death, whereas the breast would target the more sentimental organ of the heart, and be a slower, more prolonged and less dignified death. Additionally, the fact that he shot himself in the breast undermines Hedda's control over Lovborg, which would have been total had he shot himself where she wanted him to. Brack, for his part, is growing suspicious of Hedda during this exchange.

After a moment, Hedda says nearly inaudibly that "the breast is good, too." The control of suicide itself is the most important part of the beautiful death, and shooting oneself in the breast is still courageous and beautiful, she feels, if slightly less so than the temple. Hedda compromises here by accepting the breast into her plan for Lovborg, and in doing so reveals further how desperate she is to feel that she had control over Lovborg's final, fatal action. 

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.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Ejlert Lövborg
Related Symbols: General Gabler’s Pistols
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

To everyone's shock, Hedda says that she admires Lovborg's suicide. She describes it as an act of "spontaneous courage." Hedda's disconnect from the society around her is violently clear in this moment. Everyone else considers Lovborg's suicide to be motivated by temporary insanity. Hedda, however, sees it as the clearest sign of sanity and control, marked by "unconditional beauty." She is revealing her fiercely independent nature in this moment, and the people around her are horrified when she takes off her social mask and says what she really thinks.

Hedda is pleased with Lovborg, but also feeling her own absolute power here. If Lovborg achieved a moment of unconditional beauty, of grand tragedy, it was under her guidance. He was led by her influence, and guided by her hand. We see here how desperate Hedda has felt for beauty and tragedy up to this point in her life. Her admiration for Lovborg's act reveals just how petty and ugly everything else in her life has seemed to her. 

Everything I touch seems destined to turn into something mean and farcical.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker)
Related Symbols: General Gabler’s Pistols
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

Hedda and Judge Brack continue discussing Lovborg's suicide with one another. Hedda is surprisingly open with Brack about how Lovborg's action has impressed her. Brack, however, disabuses Hedda of this beautiful illusion. He reveals to her that Lovborg was actually shot in a brothel trying to retrieve his lost manuscript, and that the pistol went off accidentally. The final revelation is that Lovborg was shot in the stomach, not the breast. 

Here, Hedda's response reveals her horror and disgust at Brack's news about Lovborg. Lovborg's actions were far from being heroic or courageous. Instead of the beautiful suicide Hedda imagined for him, Lovborg died accidentally, scrambling with prostitutes, from a shot to the gut. Nothing could be more ugly. If one's temple is the most tragic and beautiful place to shoot oneself, then the stomach is the most disgusting, banal, and sordid.

Hedda has led Lovborg to a grimy, farcical death. In this line, she suggests that what has happened to Lovborg is symptomatic—"everything" she touches rots and becomes ugly. For a woman who wants nothing more than for her touch, her influence, to inspire tragedy, beauty, and courage, this is the most horrifying realization possible. She feels now that there is no chance for her to create or influence something beautiful in the world (as Mrs. Elvsted managed to do with Lovborg's manuscript). Hedda has lost her hope of controlling others or creating beauty, and with it she has lost her primary motivation to live. 

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.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Judge Brack (speaker)
Related Symbols: General Gabler’s Pistols
Page Number: 262
Explanation and Analysis:

General Gabler's pistol links Hedda to Lovborg's death. If it is discovered that the pistol was hers, she will be forced to testify in court that he either stole it, or that she gave it to him. In either case, it will be a terrible scandal. Judge Brack says, however, that no one need know that the pistol was hers—that he will not tell anyone. 

Here, Hedda sees at what cost Brack's silence will come. She will have to subordinate her will to his. He has been attempting to gain control over her for the length of the play, and now, finally, he has found a way to trap her. Brack's falsely benevolent response that he will "not abuse the position" is disgusting to Hedda. It is a reminder that the position is his to abuse or not—he has complete control over her.

Hedda responds accordingly. The situation is unlivable. She cannot endure even the "thought" of being controlled by another person, much less the act of being in their power. This is the deciding moment for Hedda. She can either go along with Brack, and be "no longer free," or she can make a last free choice—to kill herself. Hedda's will is much stronger than that of Lovborg's, and her death will be as beautiful and courageous, as she can make it. She then excuses herself and shoots herself in the temple. Rather than spend a moment under the thumb of another human being, Hedda exercises her last, spectacular display of power. The question for us, then, is whether to view this suicide as Hedda intended—a beautiful tragedy—or as the cliched ending to a farcical attempt at manipulation and creation—or as both.