“Hedda Gabler” is the story of a noble lady, who is a slave of her own ambitions. Henrik Ibsen has successfully achieved his target of writing tragedy by presenting a story in which the illicit desires of Hedda Gabler lead her towards annihilation. In other words, “Hedda Gabler” is not only a play but indeed a tragedy in which a woman herself is responsible for her destruction because of her desires. The play remains a debate for critics even after the death of Henrik Ibsen whether it completes the requirements of a tragedy or not as discussed in poetic by Aristotle. Most critics think that Henrik Ibsen exaggerated the role of Hedda Gabler. He has given this play a melodramatic touch. However, they agree that it fulfils the requirements of a modern tragedy though not of Aristotle’s to some extent.
It is evident from the play that the tragic character, illustrated by Henrik Ibsen, is of noble birth. Hedda Gabler suffers not because of fate but due to her desires. The concepts of peripetia and hamartia, which are the most important elements of a tragedy, are obviously available in Hedda Gabler. Hence, there is no denying the fact that “Hedda Gabler” is not merely a tale of a woman but a successful tragedy.
While discussing tragedy, neither Aristotle can be ignored nor can William Shakespeare be underestimated. There is a difference between Aristotelian tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy. Regardless of that purpose of tragedy is the same. The Aristotelian tragedy is preferred in this context because a wider definition of tragedy has been given in “Poetics”. Even otherwise, most of the tragedies are written in view of the definition provided by Aristotle.
The first and foremost element of a tragedy is the belonging of the protagonist (hero/heroine) from a noble family. The protagonist must belong to an upper or elite class. Chapter XIII of “The Poetics” deals with the tragic hero. The tragic hero, according to Aristotle, should be a man of a noble nature. Hedda Gabler, too, belongs to an elite class. She is the daughter of a general. As a general’s daughter, she has a good influence on society. Portrait of General Gabler that hangs above the sofa, time and again references to guns in the play and discussions between many of the characters reveal Hedda’s birth in a dignified family. Hence, “Hedda Gabler” fulfils the requirement of Aristotelian tragedy to the extent of the belonging of character from a noble class. Needless to mention that Aristotle does not prefer a woman for tragedy. He considers women inferior to men.
Secondly, a tragic character must not be virtuous. If a virtuous man falls from prosperity to adversity then it will merely shock us and will not excite pity or fear. Likewise, a bad man must not be shown in tragedy. Passing from adversity to prosperity is absolutely alien to the spirit of tragedy. Besides, if the hero is bad then again it will excite neither pity nor fear. It will just satisfy the moral sense. Thus, the tragic hero must be the combination of both these elements for the purpose of invoking pity and fear. As far as Hedda Gabler is concerned, she fulfils this requirement of tragedy. She is not a virtuous lady. She has unethical desires and she hopes that her desires would be fulfilled one day. She is also not too bad for a tragedy, therefore, a combination of good and bad makes “Hedda Gabler” a perfect tragic heroine.
Thirdly, in view of Aristotle, the tragic hero falls from a position of lofty eminence and the disaster which wrecks his life may not be due to deliberate wickedness but to some great error or frailty. Error or frailty may be regarded as a mistake due to inadequate knowledge of particular circumstances. It may also be regarded as hamartia (the act, which is conscious and intentional but not pre-planned). It may be an act which is committed in anger. Nevertheless, to be concise, a hero must suffer because of hamartia.
So far as “Hedda Gabler” is concerned, there are a lot of incidents in the play, according to which, Hedda’s rash judgment can be witnessed. We face much difficulty to identify which incident is most responsible for Hedda’s destruction. Her decision of leaving Loevborg. Her decision of marrying Tesman. Her decision of holding Eilert Loevborg’s manuscript and giving him the gun is her choice but all these are not pre-planned. Moreover, the spectator does not find that these choices were taken in rashness. Hedda was aged enough to take a decision of marriage and her choice of rejecting Loevborg as well as accepting Tasman was totally justified. She chooses a man, whom she does not love because he is destined to be a professor; therefore, he is better than Loevborg. She makes such decisions because she is compelled by time but somehow, we find her responsible for her decisions. For instance, her desire of spending life as single, go outside and enjoy parties, have illicit relationships etc. All these incidents are evidence that she brings her destruction by her own hands. Hence, the requirement of hamartia has also been fulfilled in this play.
The use of peripetia is also seen by the audience, which ultimately arouses feelings of piety and fear. In fact, it is the requirement, which makes “Hedda Gabler” a real tragedy. Hedda wants to achieve what she wishes and somehow she achieves it but it is a reversal of fortune as we find that what she wants is totally destructive for her. When she could not spend life as per her own traditions, she uses Loevborg in order to achieve her objectives in life. Furthermore, she wants those qualities in her husband, which are in Loevborg. Ultimately, when she could not accomplish her desires, she suggests that Loevborg should commit suicide. After the end of Hedda’s life, when it is disclosed that Loevborg dies due to an injury that robs him of his every manliness then it causes catharses due to piety and fear.
The upshot of the above discussion is that Hedda Gabler is, no doubt, a tragic character and the play “Hedda Gabler” is indeed a tragedy. A society has been presented by Henrik Ibsen, in which the women are unethical and afraid more of scandals than their innersole. The story is not merely a simple folk tale but a true tragedy in every sense. Henrik Ibsen achieves his target of creating a successful tragic character and eventually by the combination of every ingredient of tragedy, his play “Hedda Gabler” can be added to the list of tragedies.
- Can Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler be considered a tragedy?