The play Hedda Gabler is an intense piece of literature about the life of the protagonist Hedda. She is imprisoned by societal norms and dares not risk a fight with society by doing something eccentric such as marrying the disgraceful Mr. Lovborg. Instead she married George Tesman, who represents security and respectability. This life of orthodoxy without faith leads Hedda to monotony and emotional sterility. Finally, the play ends vividly with Hedda’s suicide liberating her from the life she so loathed.
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One of the extensive and perhaps most important stylistic features Ibsen uses is his ability to introduce secondary characters into the play. Although it is quite a challenge, these secondary characters enter the play for a concise time and then leave, never reemerging. Their utility in the play is to reveal some significant element of the main character Hedda in a way that is striking and appealing, By seeing Hedda dramatically portrayed through minor characters, Ibsen enables his audience to gain a far greater comprehension and we learn a lot more about the protagonist character and the Norwegian societal expectations.
In this essay I will be exploring some of these peripheral characters within the play and how they contribute to something greater in the story and understanding of Hedda and also the techniques Ibsen employs to make the audience understand Hedda as a character profoundly.
The play begins with Aunt Julie and Berta (the house-maid) entering George Tesman’s Villa. Berta says to Aunt Julie ‘Gracious…all the things the young mistress wanted unpacked’ after the brief conversation between Aunt Julie and Berta the audience gets a feel of what to expect from Hedda who has not yet appeared on stage. We shape a rough image of Hedda giving the impression that she is high class with reference to the amount of luggage which needed to be unpacked, but also from the tone in which the Aunt and Berta converse. Because of Hedda’s class great effort is put by everyone around Hedda to please her, just as Berta is anxious she will never meet Hedda’s expectations. With the play Ibsen intends to make the dialogue as realistic as possible, and by the use of naturalistic language and diction suited to the period and characters this is achieved perfectly. For example, Berta responds to Hedda in very simplistic language than Hedda would address Berta. Instead Hedda uses classy and courteous language which would be expected of her at that period of time.
We learn that the majority of people who come in contact with Hedda Gabler are intimidated by her; just as Berta who is persuaded she will be a ‘terrible ground’ in her way. Also Aunt Julie feels that this is predictable because at the end of the day, she is the General’s daughter and is habituated to a particular way of life. Because of Hedda’s emotional repression she invests much of life in material items, the amount of luggage Berta mentions displays her expensive habits but also reveals a fixation with the external rather than the internal.
The conversation between Aunt Julie and Hedda reveals significant information about Hedda’s character – we notice Hedda adopts an attitude of icy formality with her. She also adopts an attitude of apathy whenever George Tesman talks about his Aunts. Hedda rejects George’s attempts to bring her closer to the Tesman family. She refuses to call Aunt Julia by her first name avoiding any closeness this would signify and also threatens to dismiss Berta the faithful family house maid; trying to run away and reject everything her husband wishes for her to be close to.
Ibsen uses Aunt Julia as an opportunity to explore Hedda’s treatment towards others around her especially those close to her husband, which in turns shows the lack of love and respect she has for her husband and this shocks the audience. Hedda does not think twice on embarrassing Aunt Julie about the bonnet, when Aunt Julia claims that the hat is her own and not the maids, Hedda does not apologize for her insult (even though she agrees to later on invite Aunt Julie to somewhat make up for her insult) and this is simple boorishness Hedda takes on with those Tesman loves. Later, however, we discover that Hedda in fact manufactured the complete event knowing that the hat was Aunt Julie’s all along. This is a frequent theme in the play – Hedda’s ability to not just react in a given instant, but to ‘design’ and plan interaction with other characters in order to achieve a certain goal using her manipulative nature; which will be enforced further in Act III.
Ibsen ensures the entire action of the play takes place within the drawing room, through the setting the audience is able to understand Hedda carefully that as the play is restricted to the drawing room, she too is retrained by her acceptance of society’s values. Ibsen further uses setting by representing the drawing inner room as a description of Hedda. The room is elegant and of aristocratic refinement. When Aunt Julie is surprised at Hedda having had the chintz furniture covers removed we understand that she is from classes which take these luxuries for granted.
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Aunt Julie serving as a secondary character gives purpose to understanding that Hedda is an unnatural woman. Refusing to surrender her ‘freedom’, she regards childbearing as repugnant. The portrayal of Miss Julia and Berta unlike Hedda depict women who submit to their socially imposed feminine roles and assign themselves to the unselfish tasks of raising children. Aunt Julia has undertaken this duty by having raised Hedda’s husband to become a promising author and academician and also taking care of her invalid sister (Aunt Rina). This is an important device used by Ibsen in Hedda Gabler which is the character foil. By contrasting characters it helps to define their counterparts, providing a heightened sense of each character’s personality. Hedda’s principal foil: Aunt Julie. This woman is unselfish and at peace with her life, and is willing to sacrifice herself for others but with Hedda’s paralyzing fear of losing respectability stands in sharp disparity.
Hedda is rebellious to accepting that she is pregnant, by accepting this fact it is binding her to societal norms and expectations she longs to run away from. Aunt Julie at several instances hints that Hedda is pregnant and that the spare room George didn’t know what to use for will shortly be occupied – again hinting. Typically, one would expect new life to be welcomed with great joy however in this play it is most ironically associated to death and destruction. From the very start of the play Hedda dislikes the rich smell of flowers infusing her house; also, when light pours she order for the curtains to be drawn, flowers light etc are symbols of life which Hedda detests just as the baby she will have. The play echoes Hedda’s psychological state and the thought of new life is morbid to her and this is how the motif manifests itself in this story.
Aunt Julie acknowledges her need to have a purpose ‘It’s such an absolute necessity for me to have someone to live for’. Aunt Julie finds standard in caring and sacrificing for others and through the attitudes these peripheral characters hold we understand that Hedda finds Aunt Julie’s need to serve incomprehensible.
Overall, these predominantly female ‘side-line’ characters such as Berta but mostly Aunt Julie offer and present the reader with a deeper, truthful understanding of the complexity of the major character Hedda. They have a definitive appearance, giving the reader something to visualize clearly. The female voices and actions all help in the understanding of the male dominated culture that is offered. The nature of a women’s role in Norwegian society of the period is clearly established: they are servants, wives or women inspiring males in success; almost all in service of men. Ibsen makes a clear argument about the dangers of Victorian values and the damage they cause to the individual in this case Hedda. Hedda is miserable and dissatisfied which in result leads to her ends her eventual suicide. Ibsen also throws in ‘sardonic humor’, again with regard to societal traditions. Therefore, these peripheral characters seem more real rather than generic and appear only a few times. This makes the audience look forward to their occasional appearance. Ibsen is successful in granting even the smallest characters with the same qualities of humanity that the main characters obtain. Their purpose is to balance and highlight the main characters, which Ibsen’s peripheral characters do. These small details of work make the play, ultimately, powerful.
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