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.
Provincialism and Patriarchy ThemeTracker
Provincialism and Patriarchy Quotes in Hedda Gabler
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.
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?
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.
Hedda: Hullo again, Mr. Brack!
Brack: Good afternoon to you, Mrs. Tesman!
Hedda: I’m going to shoot you sir!
I don’t want to look at sickness and death. I must be free of everything that’s ugly.
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.