Hedda Gabler, Psychoanalysis and the Space of (The) Play


by Nigel Hand

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The established view of Hedda Gabler sees the play as a study of the frustration and despair engendered in the exceptional individual by a conventionalised society. In this paper I present a psychoanalytic re-interpretation of the play which in certain respects inverts this received reading. Insofar as it does so, however, my interpretation is intended not to cancel the received view but to play against it. The first section of the paper is predominantly Freudian in approach. The second section takes up certain Kleinian ideas which are broached in the first, and explores them more fully. The third section exploits some of Winnicott's key concepts, especially as they have been elaborated by Christopher Bollas. The paper seeks to enlarge our understanding of the nature of Hedda Gabler's alienation and despair through a fresh study of the dynamic structure of the play as a whole. I am also suggesting that Ibsen should be seen as a major precursor both of Freud and the object-relations tradition in psychoanalysis.



'Ibsen did not write or think as a Freudian,' writes Robin Young in the Preface to his study of the dramatist (1989, p.12). As a scholar of the Norwegian language and its literature Young writes with at least one kind of indisputable authority. Unsurprisingly he asserts that Ibsen can only be understood in the context of the Norwegian literary culture he grew up with - and in this respect Young's book makes interesting reading, especially in its provocative contention that Ibsen was in many respects an anti-Romantic. But if there is one truth which has emerged clearly from the age of theory it is that no text can be finally enclosed in a single defining and exclusive context, and of this truth Robin Young's book provides striking illustration, for in reality both his general approach to Ibsen's plays and his detailed interpretations of them would be unthinkable had Freud never written. Young consistently reads Ibsen's symbolism as pointing to early experiences which have left his major characters emotionally crippled: Young's Ibsen, like Freud, is an archaeologist of the psyche. It is in fact something of a regular feature of critical writing on Ibsen that where the critic feels impelled to distance himself from psychoanalysis (as several do), the Freudian infection will nevertheless be seen to have invaded his text in one surreptitious fashion or another. (Clurman, 1977, and Gray, 1977, are notable examples.)

Critical writing on a given author will frequently reproduce the field of forces which animate the author's work. In my view psychoanalysis features as the 'other' of Ibsen criticism because the conception, birth and development of psychoanalysis are in fact profoundly foreshadowed in Ibsen's major plays. In this paper I argue, indeed, that Ibsen writes and thinks not only as a Freudian, but that in Hedda Gabler in particular he is a major precursor of both Melanie Klein and D.W.Winnicott. Moreover among contemporary analytic writers one of the most interesting of the successors of Klein and Winnicott is Christopher Bollas. I shall suggest that the argument is strikingly confirmed, therefore, when we find that Bollas's work on the 'unthought known', the 'first human aesthetic' and the 'destiny drive' resonates uncannily with Ibsen's play (Bollas, 1978, 1987, and 1989) and in particular with the heroine's characteristic preoccupation with the 'beautiful'. As I attempt to substantiate these large claims I am also proposing a radical reorientation of the received understanding of Hedda Gabler, for in my view the play has been emptied of much of its originality through a reading which reduces it to a familiar critique of 'bourgeois society' - a reading, that is to say, which is itself shallow and conventionalised.


The established reading of Ibsen's play focusses very much on its central character, who is seen in some qualified sense at least, as an existential, or romantic, or tragic heroine. Hedda Gabler, it seems, presents us with a particular version of 'liberal tragedy', that form in which the claims of an alienated individual are uncompromisingly asserted against those of a conventional society (Williams, 1966 and 1971). At the age of twenty nine, and having 'danced herself out', the aristocratic Hedda Gabler has married Jørgen Tesman, an indefatigable scholar and pedant. If Tesman's world seemed to offer her some sort of security, in the event she feels that she is suffocating in its claustrophobically middle class atmosphere. The action of the play is presided over by the portrait of Hedda's father, General Gabler, which now hangs in the Tesmans' drawing room. This portrait of Hedda's dead father serves as the symbol of a moribund military-aristocratic world which no longer offers his daughter a home. Of her mother we hear no mention at all, and Hedda's only other remaining connection with the world she comes from is the pair of pistols which she has inherited from her father. Her disconcerting habit of firing off these pistols, from time to time, dramatises the profound dissonance between herself and her present world, and her frustration with the emptiness of her life. It seems she can conceive of no future for herself other than a life of excruciating boredom. During the opening scenes of the play various hints are thrown out to suggest that Hedda is pregnant, but the prospect of motherhood is so far from providing her with a reason for living that it seems to be anathema to her. Certainly the child would be born into an unpromising environment, for throughout the play we have the utmost difficulty in thinking of Hedda and Tesman as a parental couple. Tesman's naïve assumption that they have everything in common is matched by Hedda's inward belief that they have nothing. I shall suggest in my later discussion that the struggle to constitute the parental couple is one of the play's deep preoccupations.

If Hedda's character has been formed in a military-paternal setting, Tesman still lives in an atmosphere of motherly concern, brought up as he has been by a trio of adoring and self-sacrificing women - his two Aunts, Julle and Rina, and Berte, the maid. During the opening sequence of the action, with the Tesmans newly returned from a six month honeymoon trip in Europe, we are given an early indication of Hedda's hostility to the world in which she finds herself when, on an impulse, she speaks slightingly of a hat which she knows to be Aunt Julle's, but which she pretends to believe is 'the maid's'. That she knew the hat to be Aunt Julle's is revealed to us through a subsequent passage of dialogue between Hedda and Judge Brack. The latter is a friend of the family with whom she shares a habit of risqué conversation; he is as cold-bloodedly cynical as Tesman is naïve and good-natured, and his one purpose throughout the play is to engineer an affair with Hedda.

Meanwhile much greater scope for the central character to act upon her world opens up before her with the arrival on the scene of Thea Elvsted, a younger colleague of Hedda's during her schooldays. A good deal of our sense of the play's direction is produced by the interplay between these two female characters. It can hardly be said, however, that the initial comparison suggests that Hedda is the more independent or romantic of the two women. Hedda has married Tesman apparently for no better reason than that 'he insisted with might and main on being allowed to support me' (HG, p.300). Thea, on the other hand, has just walked out of her own marriage of convenience on account of what now seems to her a higher vocation, for she has become dedicated to the role of companion and support to Ejlert Løvborg, a gifted but unstable writer, who might at any moment, it seems, return to his former drunken habits, but for Thea's loyal ministrations.

Complications unfold when we learn that Hedda herself has had an earlier relationship with Løvborg, which broke up when she threatened to shoot him. It seems that she did so because, for her, Løvborg had in some undisclosed fashion begun to ask too much of the relationship. Since that time Løvborg's life has taken another turn, for under the tutelage of Thea Elvsted he has has written two books - the first, a general history of society, has been a succès d'estime; the second, a meditation on the future, exists only in manuscript but promises to make a considerable stir when it is published. Hedda's complex feelings about the relationship between Thea and Løvborg fuel the action of the play. To what extent her apparent belief that Løvborg should be liberated from the constraints of his relationship with Thea is a rationalisation of her jealousy it is not easy to discern, but at any rate she so works upon him that he goes to a bachelor party given by Brack and gets drunk once again. The consequence is that he loses the manuscript, which by this time has acquired an intense emotional value for all concerned - they have come to think of it, in fact, as a child. When the manuscript comes into Hedda's possession, via Tesman (who found it by the roadside), she burns it; and when the distraught Løvborg (who knows only that he has lost the 'child') returns to her house, she encourages his thoughts of suicide - and puts into his hands one of her father's pistols. Løvborg makes his way back to the rooms of 'Mademoiselle Diana', where he believes the manuscript was stolen from him, and in an unruly scene (reported to Hedda by Judge Brack) the pistol goes off and Løvborg is killed. Brack attempts to use these circumstances to play upon Hedda's fear of scandal and so to blackmail her into a liaison. But in the dénouement, while Thea and Tesman are beginning to try to reconstruct Løvborg's manuscript from the notes which Thea kept, Hedda shoots herself. It is left to the dismayed Brack to pronounce the final speech: 'One doesn't do that kind of thing.' (HG, p.364)


As I have indicated I think that Robin Young is correct when he argues that much of the published commentary on Ibsen's plays gives an over romantic view of his work. In the case of Hedda Gabler even John Northam (1973), perhaps the most reliable of Ibsen critics (in English at any rate) seems to me to give a hugely distorted account of the play. Like other commentators Northam is preoccupied with the character of the protagonist, her supposed revolt against 'middle class society', the authenticity or otherwise of her final action, and hence the validity of her claims to heroic status. Though these issues routinely provide the agenda for most discussion of the play, I shall argue that they are only very partially what Hedda Gabler is about. The protagonist of Ibsen's play is for all of us a deeply troubling dramatic creation - outside of Shakespeare and the Greeks, none more so perhaps. Northam attempts to escape from the challenging perplexity which Hedda Gabler arouses in our minds by producing a highly romanticised appraisal of her character and actions. When he attributes to Ibsen's heroine 'a residually creative sense of human potentiality' (p.182) Northam undoubtedly points to something which is at the heart of the play, but his belief that she also displays 'serene self-confidence' (p.168) is simply astonishing, for what is Hedda Gabler if not a deeply troubled soul?

In producing his idealized portrait of Ibsen's central character Northam is responding, albeit wrong-headedly, I believe, to the central dynamic of Ibsen's play. It seems to me that as we watch Hedda Gabler we feel that the cast of characters as a whole faces the responsibility of nurturing the germ of life doubly symbolised by Løvborg's book and Hedda's unborn child. As the play goes forward it evokes in us a profound concern and apprehension for the future of this 'child'. The play works upon us with such gravity and depth of feeling because from first to last we fear that the human group before us is mortally near to failure in the 'holding' and nurturance of its 'offspring'. Critical misreading of the play derives from the obscuring of this very troubling question of the fate of the 'child' - and the corresponding flight into an attempt to redeem Hedda Gabler so that, however desperately, she may be seen not as a destroyer but as the carrier of the life-principle in the play. These processes of repression and distortion are at work in Northam's paragraphs on the burning of the book. In describing this event Northam more or less veils from sight the eerily dreadful spectacle of the mother-to-be burning a 'child': 'Now I'm burning your child, Thea - you and your curly hair! Your child and Ejlert Løvborg's. Now I'm burning - now I'm burning your child.' (HG, p.345) The fearful ambiguity of that last sentence ('I am burning...') reveals that the annihilating hatred which is dramatised in this scene is directed as much against the self as against the object. To refer to this moment as a 'tremendous fulfilment', as Northam does (p.169), serves not only to obscure the horror of it, but to prevent us altogether from grasping the significance of the book-child theme within the play as a whole.


To ignore this theme is to turn aside, understandably perhaps, from some of the deepest unconscious fears, phantasies and anxieties which the play arouses: that if we surrender to some of our darkest impulses, for instance, we may destroy everything that is good in the world. It is also, at the same time, to miss the way in which the book-child theme shapes the structure of the play as a whole. Throughout Hedda Gabler there is a triangular patterning which has been given remarkably little attention, despite the fact that it is very prominently highlighted during the scenes between Hedda and Brack: