Hedda Gabler

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Marriage, Love, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Analysis

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.
Marriage, Love, Sexuality, and Jealousy Theme Icon

Lӧvborg accuses Hedda of fearing scandal because she is a coward, and Hedda concedes that she is. But it is perhaps her marriage to the mediocre Tesman that represents the far greater concession to her cowardice. Hedda chose Tesman for his socioeconomic solidity and respectability, and also because her own “marriageability” was ebbing. She does not love him—she finds the very word “love” to be “glutinous” and “sickening”—nor is she even amused by him. It is with a sense of wry deprivation that she now anticipates being in his company at all times, in all seasons, consoled only by the fact that he stands to attain to the highest social distinction. For Hedda, then, marriage is a wretched compromise one has to make with one’s body and one’s society in order to live respectably and without scandal.

Hedda wants nothing to do with other men—at least sexually—either. Judge Brack repeatedly insinuates that he would like to be more than a trusted friend in the Tesman household, and he obliquely propositions Hedda. The passengers aboard the train of marriage jump out and move about a little, he suggests—meaning that people often and casually indulge in extramarital affairs. “I never jump out,” Hedda responds. Her fidelity to Tesman may be motivated by her aversion to scandal, but it may also be motivated, as many critics have suggested, by sexual frigidity and repression on Hedda’s part. She does tend to disengage from her male companions as soon as their relationship threatens to “develop into something more serious,” in her words, just as she did with Lӧvborg when the two were adolescents. Furthermore, she is ashamed when Tesman announces to Aunt Julle that she, Hedda, is pregnant—and she is perhaps also disgusted that anyone should have a reason to imagine her engaging in intercourse. Ibsen, however, leaves us few clues as to the cause and significance of Hedda’s sexuality. Perhaps she is disturbed by the fact that her destructive spirit is housed in a body capable of sexual reproduction, or perhaps she is merely unable to muster much more than egotism and hatred in relation to others.

While Hedda is evasive of her sexuality, she is readily and openly prone to jealousy. Her social world, after all, is fraught with love triangles: Judge Brack tries to get between Hedda and Tesman, Lӧvborg succeeds in getting between Mrs. Thea Elvsted and her husband, Hedda tries to get between Lӧvborg and Mrs. Elvsted, and so on. Hedda’s jealousy of Mrs. Elvsted, however, is not so much motivated by love as by a lust for power and influence over the fates of others. Indeed, Hedda seems to confuse the products of love and the products of power. For example, she thinks of Lӧvborg’s manuscript about the future as being his child, conceived by his helpmate and muse Mrs. Elvsted—and she burns this manuscript, murmuring as she does so, “Now I’m burning your child, Thea.” If the manuscript is Lӧvborg and Thea Elvsted’s labor of love, which Hedda’s jealousy destroys, Hedda in contrast conceives with Lӧvborg the idea of his courageous, beautiful suicide. It would seem that she is keen to produce only destruction, despite being literally pregnant herself.

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Marriage, Love, Sexuality, and Jealousy ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Hedda Gabler related to the theme of Marriage, Love, Sexuality, and Jealousy.
Act 1 Quotes

Tesman: Oh, Auntie…you’ll never stop sacrificing yourself for me!

Miss Tesman: Isn’t it the only joy I have in the world, to help you along your road, my darling boy?

Related Characters: Jörgen Tesman (speaker), Miss Juliane Tesman (Aunt Julle) (speaker)
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

Tesman and his aunt have been speaking about his extravagantly expensive honeymoon, as well as the huge cost of the villa he has bought, both of which expenses he was inspired to by Hedda. Now, Miss Tesman has just revealed that she's taken out a mortgage against the annuity (a fixed income) that supports her and Aunt Rina in order to purchase the household furnishings for Tesman's villa. This sacrifice, which puts her own income in jeopardy, is excessive, especially in light of the fact that she has already given him the services of her valued servant Berte. Tesman's lines reveal him to be grateful for these sacrifices, but also complacent—his aunt has always sacrificed herself for his benefit, and he accepts as fact that she will never stop. In fact, she cannot stop, as she herself goes on to say. Helping her nephew is the sole source of "joy" in her life.

Through all of the above, the quote portrays Miss Tesman as the unwitting victim of the patriarchal social conventions that compel her to put all of her energy and resources toward the men in her life, even to her and her sister's detriment. At the same time, her generosity and loyalty to Tesman stand in sharp contrast to Hedda, who continues to make demands of Tesman despite his limited resources, and who purposefully humiliates Miss Tesman for her provincial tastes. 


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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.

Hedda: Frightened? Of me?

Mrs. Elvsted: Oh, dreadfully frightened. When we met on the steps you used to pull my hair.

Hedda: No, did I really?

Mrs. Elvsted: Yes, and once you said you were going to burn it off.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Mrs. Thea Elvsted (speaker)
Related Symbols: Fire and the Tesmans’ Stove
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Elvsted and Hedda have not seen one another in years. Their romantic histories have been intertwined, however, as Mrs. Elvsted used to be Tesman's sweetheart, and Hedda had an intense friendship with Lovborg, the man that Mrs. Elvsted is currently in love with. Although these connections are largely unspoken at this point, they contextualize the play of power and sexual jealousy in this exchange between the two women.

Here, Mrs. Elvsted is recalling how she was frightened of Hedda when they were younger. Her fear recalls Berte's earlier confession of being "so scared" of her mistress. Hedda inspires fear in the women around her because she exerts power over them, which goes against provincial stereotypes of feminine delicacy and sisterhood. Hedda is, of course, aware of these stereotypes and exploits them for her own gain later in this conversation, gossiping with Mrs. Elvsted in order to gain control over her.

In her lines here, Hedda acts as if she has forgotten that she used to bully Mrs. Elvsted, although we suspect that she has not, and that she takes pleasure in hearing Mrs. Elvsted recount her earlier manipulations and cruelties. The fact that the young Hedda targeted Mrs. Elvsted's hair is telling, as her hair is widely acknowledged as beautiful, and is attractive to men. Hedda's competitive social instincts were on display when she attacked it. 

Finally, Mrs. Elvsted recalls a young Hedda's threat to burn her hair off. This foreshadows the coming moment in the play when Hedda burns Lovborg's cherished manuscript. We see that Hedda has long had an impulse to destroy, often by fire, those things that others love best. 

Hedda: Oh, well…I’ve got one thing at least that I can pass the time with.

Tesman: Oh, thank the good Lord for that! And what might that be, Hedda? Eh?

Hedda: My pistols… Jörgen.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Jörgen Tesman
Related Symbols: General Gabler’s Pistols
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the first act, we learn from Judge Brack that Tesman will have to compete with Lovborg for the academic position that was promised him. The new uncertainty about his employment, when coupled with their existing debt, leads Tesman to tell Hedda that she will not be immediately able to entertain guests or get the manservant and saddle-horse she wanted. Hedda's sphere of influence and power is getting smaller and smaller. Socializing is one of her primary methods of manipulation and control, and the saddle horse and manservant are objects over which she could have exerted power. Without these things available to her, Hedda says that she has only "one thing" to pass the time.

Tesman is delighted and responds with excitement. He incorrectly assumes that Hedda is speaking about their unborn child and that she is looking forward to being a mother.

In the context of Tesman's hope, Hedda's response is brutal. She has been referring to General Gabler's treasured pistols, not her unborn child. The pistols are symbols of male, phallic power and destruction, as well as of the aristocratic world in which Hedda was raised and now misses. They are the polar opposite of a baby. They take life where a baby brings life. They are power embodied, while a baby is the embodiment of vulnerability. 

Of course, the only thing one can do with pistols is shoot them, which foreshadows the violent ways in which Hedda actually will pass her time. This exchange is made more potent by Hedda's eventual suicide—she will literally pass her time with one of her father's pistols. 

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 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. 

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: 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.