I would like to start by saying that the play Hedda Gabler is one of Ibsen’s masterpieces that will be discussed in the essay. Using examples drawn from the play as well as knowing some facts about Ibsen’s life, I will argue that Ibsen is a feminist as can be understood from reading the text.
One should remember that Ibsen lived most of his life in poverty and thus opposed the status quo of the modern society which besides separating the rich from the poor also had the rules for males and females established in the society. It was the rich of the society who did not want any changes in rules and social norms that could potentially jeopardize their well-being. Still one should understand that even in the upper-class English society, the rules regulating the behavior of males and females were present and expected to be followed by both genders if they expected to be viewed as proper and normal citizens.
Being married to a daughter of the priest, he was probably exposed to the biblical readings about all people being made in the image of God, equal and thus deserving equal treatment rather than social rules and norms that kept them separated from the society as a whole. As feminism in the broadest sense can be called the teaching of feminine emancipation, fight for the equal rights and status, let alone independent decision making and financial freedom, one can already note that Ibsen’s philosophy was egalitarian and feministic. What I will call feminism in this play would be female characters’ ability, freedom and desire to break the social rules and expectations that their society has for females. A feminist woman would be the one different from the typical female of that time with respect to choices, and obedience. The choices one will speak about further in the essay are nothing special according to the modern day social rules for females, yet at the time the play was written, these were truly uncommon instances of females engaging in doing something different from what they were supposed to do.
Speaking about the play, one can find certain moments where the female characters would behave contra-social norms and rules established for females of their days and thus one can call them emancipated, and feministic, which once again will hint that Ibsen was a feminist. For instance, Hedda was depicted many times in the play as manipulating Jurgen Tesman with this amiable intelligent young scholar most of the time never realizing such a thing. Hedda as a character was seen as very independent in her thoughts, judgment and decision making and that was counter the rules for females of her time, which implies that she was feministic. Hedda as a child was used to being high-class and thus wanted financial well being. She did not agree with everything as a typical female would be expected to behave in her marriage. Hedda would not sit at home spending all her time cooking, doing the dishes and laundry, pleasing her husband and agreeing with him on every matter and supporting his every idea and desire. Besides her husband she was not afraid to manipulate her other friends and acted somewhat cunning and aggressive, as one can attribute to emancipated female. When thinking about the life story of Mrs.Elvsted, one remembers that she went to the same school as Hedda, and oftentimes would be tormented by her, an act of violence, typically attributable by the society to males. Typical females of any time are viewed as soft-hearted, nice and ingressive, let alone obedient and agreeable. Males are viewed to be normal when aggressive, determinate and impudent.
Feminism, pursues equality in this case, too, and thus finds it ok for females to engage in violent acts against each other or males.
As one could observe from the text the leadership in the family was certainly with Hedda while Tesman assumed subservient and obedient position not ever forcefully getting his opinion or idea through. Traditionally the family and the society is viewed to be patriarchic with males ruling over females in society as well as in families, while females are supposed just to do what they are told by their masculine masters. In Hedda Gabler, the case was just the opposite as Hedda was emancipate enough not to do what she was told by Tesman, yet rather as she wanted. Her freedom and emancipation led her to getting close with another male behind Tesman’s back, something that males in the society as believed to be doing, with typical females remaining shy, unsophisticated and believed to be lacking healthy sexual drive outside the family. Feminists were among those who placed sexual freedom as a determinant of an emancipated and free female with rights equal to those of males. Ibsen, as one can see from the play attributed these qualities and ideas to Hedda and thus can be considered a feminist in his thinking and writing.
Julianne Tesman or Aunt Julie as one calls her in the play is another feminist character in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Unlike other females which at that time typically depended on males (fathers or husbands) financially and emotionally, Aunt Julie, was single and affluent enough to finance Jurgen Tesman. What one can call feminism is the fact that she assumed the role of a bread-winner and a ‘hunter’ for Jurgen, a typical masculine (and inappropriate for females) role.
Speaking about the action in the play which might make us understand that Ibsen was a feminist, one can certainly find quite a few of them. The first moment is when Aunt Julle arrives and meets with Hedda. Hedda, unlike typical females of her time was not all that nice, smiling, shiny, and talkative. On the contrary, she would be rather rude and impolite, something that was not possible for females in the high society, where Hedda grew up. By breaking these social norms, she shows her independence and willful decision making power to choose who she smiles to and who she disdains (McFarlane, 77). A non-emancipated female of that time would be expected to behave as her husband tells her, and especially would pretend to be nice if that was necessary for her husband’s financial well-being. By being rude to the aunt, she could possibly cause her discontinue her financial aid to Jurgen, yet even when asked to be nicer, she chose to act independent as she wanted rather than to act as being told.
Another element that shows female emancipation would be seen in Mrs.Elvsted’s choice to leave her husband to help Ejlert. At the time the story was created, only males were free to initiate a divorce or rule in the family, while females would care for the family, husband, children and the kitchen.
Playing with the pistols, typical masculine toys and artifacts, shows the readers that Hedda is a powerful woman rather than some housewife as one would expect her to be.
Dishonesty that one spots in Hedda as she talks with Brack about forming more personal and stronger bond between them, is another sign of female’s free choice which was present in feminists and absent in typical women at that time. While talking, Hedda breaks the social norm of not washing one’s dirty underwear in public, and tells Brack about her lack of feeling towards Tesman and her dislike of the house that he had bought her to live in (Snodgrass 204).
The final culmination of female’s violation of social rules was the incident with the manuscript of Ejlert when Hedda would have no mercy whatsoever and chose to manipulate him into shooting himself with a pistol in order to have a beautiful death. Her burning the manuscript, or the child of Ejlert and Mrs.Elvsted, shows us another violation of social norms as females are supposed to be gentle, merciful and nice, especially with children. Ultimately, Hedda makes another free choice of shooting herself and again violates the social expectations of females living their lives for their families, husbands and children. At the time Hedda finished her life, she was pregnant.
In conclusion, I would like to say that according to the style of the Hedda Gabler play and most of the female characters depicted there, one can say that Ibsen was a feminist. The female characters were feministic in a sense that they did not follow the rules and norms of the society pertaining to females of their time. Instead of being housewives, spending their time at home raising kids, cooking, or doing the dishes, and obeying their husbands, they would manipulate others, lead one male to commit a suicide, and disagree with their husbands. Some would support financially and emotionally other males or choose to kill themselves at a will even at the time of being pregnant.
Ibsen, Hedda Gabler, Prentice Hall, 2004 (reprint).
McFarlane, James, The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen (Cambridge Companions to Literature), McGraw Hill, 2003.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, Four great plays by Ibsen: Henrik Ibsen (Living literature series), NY Random House, 2004.
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