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.
Modern Society v. the Individual Theme Icon

Throughout his career, Ibsen investigated the interplay between modern society and the heroic individual, and in his plays he generally privileges the latter. The ordinary members of society whom he represents tend to be materialistic, and uncommitted to anything other than maintaining the status quo and advancing their petty self-interests. Jörgen Tesman, amiable though he may be, is just such a person: he mostly concerns himself with bourgeois comforts and conventions, and his academic specialization in history and medieval domestic crafts is at once arbitrary and spiritually trivial. He is in all senses a “secondary” man, studying only what other men have done and made instead of doing or making anything for himself. Indeed, by the end of the play Tesman vows not to imagine the future of civilization for himself, but rather to reconstruct Lövborg’s partially destroyed manuscript on that subject. Nonetheless, Judge Brack refers to Tesman as “outstanding,” if only because Tesman holds a socially prestigious academic post, makes good money, and is married to the great beauty Hedda. Judge Brack, for that matter, is also rather ordinary. His one violation of social convention—seeking intimacy with a married woman—is itself very conventional.

In contrast to the Tesmans and Judge Bracks of the world, Ibsen gives us the visionary Ejlert Lövborg and the extraordinary Hedda Gabler. Lövborg has risen from social disgrace to academic prominence with the publication of a conventional book that was met with enormous praise: “I put nothing into the book but what everyone would agree with,” he explains (again suggesting that the most efficient means of rising in modern society is to tell people what affirms their prejudices and beliefs). However, Lövborg is no plodder like Tesman—he has also written a manuscript he has put his true self into, one not about the past but the future: a subject fit only for visionaries. Whether or not Lövborg really is a man of genius, Ibsen declines to reveal, but we know that he is at least a courageous thinker with passionate commitments. Lövborg’s inability to drink in moderation is a sign of this passion, and it also suggests the extent to which an extraordinary person is out of place in modern society and especially vulnerable to its vices.

But it is ultimately Hedda who is the most extraordinary figure in the play. She is more intelligent, more elegantly destructive, and more possessed by a vision of courage and beauty (albeit a terrifying one) than any other character. She is an antihero who sees society as an abyss to play in, and she also has the skill to conceal her nihilism from others. We know this because her destructiveness, at least until the main action of the play, has not affected her high social standing. She limited herself to such cruelties as pulling the hair of fellow schoolgirls, brandishing General Gabler’s pistols, and tactfully mocking Aunt Julle’s hat—that is, she has been, in Lövborg’s words, “a coward,” unwilling or too canny to wholly reveal her true self. That all changes, however, when she takes it upon herself to pressure Lövborg to drink and tempts him to kill himself “beautifully.” These actions, and her consequent suicide, at last prove that Hedda is supreme in the passion of her commitments and distinctly an individual over and against modern society. “People don’t do such things!” Judge Brack exclaims after Hedda commits suicide, and, for the most part, he’s correct. Hedda is unique in her isolated individualism and her more than unconventional commitment to fulfilling herself by destroying others.

Modern Society v. the Individual ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Hedda Gabler related to the theme of Modern Society v. the Individual.
Act 1 Quotes

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. 


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Act 2 Quotes

Hedda: Hullo again, Mr. Brack!

Brack: Good afternoon to you, Mrs. Tesman!

Hedda: I’m going to shoot you sir!

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Judge Brack
Related Symbols: General Gabler’s Pistols
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

The second act opens with Hedda loading her father's pistols before Judge Brack arrives in her garden. This shocking moment between Hedda and Judge Brack reveals how dramatically Hedda can exert her power and influence, as well as how detached she is from the "normal" social norms of the bourgeoisie.

The first two lines are regular and even friendly. Hedda and Brack refer to one another politely, and they are operating well within their established social boundaries. Hedda's next line, "I'm going to shoot you sir!" is then a shocking satire of their earlier greeting. By calling him "sir" as she threatens to shoot him, she mocks their superficial politeness even as she reveals the brutality beneath it. Judge Brack and Hedda spend the length of the play trying to control one another, and it is telling that this darkly comic moment is the first time we have seen them alone with one another onstage.  

This is not an idle threat, either, as Hedda does go on to shoot at (and purposefully miss) Judge Brack. In doing so, she further reveals how detached she is from the society that surrounds her. To joke about shooting at people is scandalous enough—to actually do it is astonishing. Hedda is a loose gunshot in a hushed, provincial world.

Brack: But my dearest lady, how could you do such a thing! To that harmless old soul!

Hedda: Oh, you know how it is…these things just suddenly come over me. And then I can’t resist them. Oh, I don’t know myself how to explain it.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Judge Brack
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Hedda and Judge Brack have been speaking privately, and Hedda has told Brack that she was bored on her honeymoon and that she is not in love with Tesman. Brack propositions Hedda to begin an affair with him, but she turns him down, feeling that an affair would be sordid, unbeautiful, and limiting.

Here, she has just confessed that she mocked Miss Tesman's hat on purpose in Act One, and Brack is admonishing her for it. In this exchange, we see the tension between modern society and the individual, with Brack on the side of society, and Hedda expressing herself in radically individual terms. 

Brack's surprise is dependent on social norms—Miss Tesman is "harmless" and "old," and therefore cruelty towards her is unwarranted. For Hedda, however, these considerations are not important. She is capriciously cruel and decided to hurt Miss Tesman simply because the opportunity presented itself. 

In her lines, Hedda reveals her lack of motivation for the act. "These things just suddenly come over" her, she says. Hedda is desperately stifled by her life and the people surrounding her, and because of this, she takes every chance of exercising power, regardless of how petty or arbitrary it may be.  

Hedda: I’ve often thought there’s only one thing in the world I’m any good at.

Brack: And what might that be, may I venture to ask?

Hedda: Boring myself to death.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Judge Brack
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

Later in her conversation with Judge Brack, Hedda laments how there is nothing to interest her in the future—no potential for excitement or intrigue. Brack says that she will soon have a new responsibility (presumably motherhood) which will fill her days. Here, we see her response to this allusion, which again reveals her animosity towards the role of motherhood. 

The only talent Hedda has, according to Hedda, is boring herself "to death." We see that Hedda would prefer to die of boredom than to become a mother, which would entail a complete loss of power and agency to her child. 

This line is especially interesting in the context of Hedda's suicide. We might wonder how much of a part boredom and frustration play into her eventual death. 

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. 

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. 

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.