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
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Provincialism and Patriarchy Theme Icon

Despite being well-educated and well-traveled, Hedda Gabler lives in a very small, small-minded world—that is, a provincial world. The streets she rode down as a young woman, accompanied by her father General Gabler, are the same streets she rides down now as a married woman. One of her early admirers, the academic Jörgen Tesman, is now her husband, a man who during the couple’s honeymoon abroad revealingly neglects the cultural riches of Italy in favor of toiling away in libraries. When financial strain curtails Hedda’s social life, her days become monotonous and stale. Consequently, she feels imprisoned: she has “not a single intellectual interest or moral enthusiasm,” as one critic describes it. She spends her long, dull, oppressive days planning to make purchases she and her husband can’t afford and gossiping somewhat deviously with Judge Brack—all the while fantasizing about freedom.

What’s more, Hedda is especially limited in exercising her considerable intelligence and fiery lust for life because she is a woman living in a society dominated by men: a patriarchy. The men in her social circle have war, politics, and wild drinking parties to give scope to their action, thought, and feeling. In contrast, the women in the play mostly care for and serve the men, as Tesman’s Aunt Julle cares for her rather dependent nephew, or as Mrs. Elvsted serves to inspire the self-centered Ejlert Lövborg (revealingly, Mrs. Elvsted thinks her own husband treats her like cheap and useful property). Tesman sees Hedda as a prize and as the mother of his child, while Lövborg sees her as a fascinating maze, and Judge Brack sees her as a charming pet and toy. No one sees Hedda for the great and destructive soul she really is. In response, Hedda attempts to downplay her womanhood—by repressing her pregnancy as best she can, among other things—and to influence and even participate in the sphere of action traditionally dominated by men. She seems to have established her early comradeship with Lövborg, for example, both to subtly challenge her father’s authority and also to live vicariously through her male comrade’s confessions. As Hedda explains, it’s understandable that a young girl should want to find out about a world that is supposed to be forbidden to her. The central symbol for her fascination with this male world, then, is General Gabler’s pistols, the phallic objects of authority and power which Hedda takes delight in brandishing.

While it would be an oversimplification to say that Hedda’s nihilism and cruelty are a product of patriarchal oppression, it is not too much to say that provincialism and patriarchy characterize the social world Hedda wages quiet war against.

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Provincialism and Patriarchy ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Hedda Gabler related to the theme of Provincialism and Patriarchy.
Act 1 Quotes

Berte: I’m really so scared I’ll never give satisfaction to the young mistress.

Miss Tesman: Oh, Heavens…just to begin with of course there might be this and that…

Berte: Because she’s ever so particular.

Related Characters: Miss Juliane Tesman (Aunt Julle) (speaker), Berte (speaker), Hedda Gabler
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Tesman and Berte are close friends from Berte's years of service in Miss Tesman's house, which came to an end recently when Miss Tesman sent Berte to work in her nephew Jorgen's house. They are discussing Hedda, Jorgen's new wife (and therefore Berte's new mistress), in a spare moment while Hedda is sleeping. Their voices are hushed. The scene has a sense of secrecy and haste, implying Hedda's power and ability to intimidate others even when she is not present. Additionally, Hedda's power and influence are felt in the portrait of her father, General Gabler, which looks out over the scene. 

The quote also suggests the various concerns and motivations of the characters. Both Berte and Miss Tesman are invested in the happiness of Jorgen Tesman, which means maintaining the domestic sphere in a way that will please Hedda. But the fact that Hedda is "ever so particular" suggests a few things. First, Hedda has higher standards than both Tesman and his Aunt Julle, both of whom are more provincial in their tastes. But Berte's fearfulness and dismay also gives a hint of something that will become more evident as the play continues: the fact that Hedda despises the domestic sphere entirely, and that Hedda's capriciousness—her being "ever so particular"—is in fact a way for her to wield power over other people. Meanwhile, the fact that Hedda wields such domestic power over her servants while under the dead gaze of her general father's portrait also emphasizes the way that women are marginalized in this society. Hedda wields power, but she is nonetheless stuck in the domestic sphere she hates. She will never be a general.


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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. 

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

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.

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. 

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: You’re quite a formidable person…when it comes to the point.

Brack: You think so?

Hedda: Yes, I’m beginning to think so, now. And I’m content…so long as you don’t have any sort of hold over me.

Related Characters: Hedda Gabler (speaker), Judge Brack
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Judge Brack has been telling Hedda the details of Lovborg's drinking spree the night before. In addition to drinking too much, Lovborg went to a brothel, started a fight, and was arrested. Hedda asks why Brack has been tracking Lovborg's movements so closely, and Brack responds that he wanted to ensure that Lovborg will not be invited to the Tesman villa again. He wants to the be the only other man in Hedda's life, and he will fight for the privilege.

Hedda and Judge Brack are the characters in the play with the most visible desire to exercise power and influence over other people, and in these lines we see them grappling with one another, trying to assert dominance.

In her lines, Hedda says that Brack is "formidable," and in this moment she realizes that he will not be satisfied until he has exercised his power over her by compelling her to have an affair with him. Brack is not a worthy opponent for Hedda, as the very way in which he wants to break social norms—an extramarital affair—is common and sordid to Hedda. Hedda responds defensively by reminding him that he doesn't have power over her, and that she could never live with herself if he did.

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.