Middle Class Standards in the Play “Hedda Gabler”

Henrik Ibsen, the “father of modern drama,” centered his stories on middle-class society and its standard ideals of what a woman should be and do. Prior to Ibsen, gender stereotypes were not a new concept. Much of early literature shone a light on the expectations of a woman’s behavior and role both in her society and in her family. If she did not marry, bear children, and run a socially acceptable household, then she was seen as a social outcast. In Ibsen’s play “Hedda Gabler,” this status quo plays an important part in the main character’s external and internal conflicts.
Newly married to George Tesman, Hedda Gabler returns to the grandeur house that he just bought for her, despite the fact it is a little above their middle class means. Throughout the first act of the play, we meet or hear of all the characters: Tesman’s aunt, Julia; Judge Brack; Eilert Lovborg; and Thea Elvsted. Each character represents a dilemma that prevents Hedda from breaking free from the middle class society traditions. Tesman—his poor soul—just wants to please Hedda, even though the only thing that will bring her true joy is the freedom to break away from the traditions that confine her to the definition of a woman: wife, mother, and household manager. Aunt Julia, being older and thus, old-fashioned, hints repeatedly throughout the play at the upcoming possibility of Hedda becoming pregnant (which, we learn by the end, she actually is) and starting the family every woman in society should want. Judge Brack, through his flirtations with Hedda, reinforces the idea that women were sometimes seen more as objects than human beings. Furthermore, when Brack blackmails Hedda at the end of the play and has her under his control, this chafes Hedda and her desire to be free from her feminine ideal-based prison. Lovborg, whom Hedda previously knew years ago when he was heavily embedded in his drunken revelry phase, symbolizes the double standard that provided men with the liberty to venture outside the home and women the sentence to stay cocooned within the four walls. Lastly, Thea, with her light hair and bright spirit contrasting starkly against Hedda’s dark hair and sour personality, makes Hedda feel not as feminine as she should be. Furthermore, Hedda’s father—General Gabler—taught her how to shoot pistols and ride horseback at an early age, and these activities were generally not taught to little girls. General Gabler raising his daughter to do more “masculine” tasks contributes to Hedda’s desire to stand up from underneath the feminine prototype popular in the middle class, but society does not look at the inside desires of the heart. Instead, they look at the outside appearance and judge from there. Hedda never stood a chance at gaining her freedom. Thus, at the end, after Brack has her under his thumb and she sees that her life with Tesman and the other characters will never parallel the yearnings of her heart, she takes one of her pistols and shoots herself—her first and last act of freedom.
I wrote the ensuing poem in an attempt to get inside Hedda’s mind and portray the agony and frustration of not having decisions from the time she was born. After having read “Hedda Gabler,” I have learned to appreciate my freedom to do and be what I want and to be grateful that I do not have a dark cloud of middle-class gender roles hanging over my head.

I was the black ewe.

Growing up, my dolls
played with spiders
in the dust-coated corner

as I stood outside in the green grass
with my straight-backed father,
learning how to shoot his pistol.

I was the substitute son.

Being a girl, my childhood
never evolved into dresses
and sunshine and rainbows,

but instead it bent into the
will of a stubborn father who
never voiced his disappointment.

I was the displeased woman.

Entering society, my hopes
of being free and my dreams
of doing what I wanted

were dashed underneath
the weight of society’s
limited expectations.

Society said I had to settle down—
marry and have a family.

Society said I had to lay down
my father’s pistols.

But my heart said I had to pick them up
and shoot down every person and obstacle
who stood in the way of my freedom.

But I have never been free.
Not since I entered the world
as a girl and not a boy.

Not since my father took
his cold, hard pistol and
placed it in my left hand.

Not since I pulled that trigger
and shot my own hopes and dreams
in the heart.

Those dreams would only live on
in my bleeding heart—
where no one would see.

Where no one would hear.

Where no one would care
that my dreams—my heart,
my soul, my mind—
were dead.

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