Naturalism in Hedda Gabler

I have chosen to start this essay with a quote from Robin Young: “Nothing in a Ibsen play is as it seems.” What could make an assignment more interesting than to discover Ibsen’s puzzle-like dramaturgical approach? Ibsen is one of the fathers of Naturalistic Theatre and therefore not only did he follow the methods of theatrical naturalism, but he created some of them himself (more on that still to come). Analysing Naturalism in Hedda Gabler I shall discuss to what extent the 1890 play was mirrored by the Norwegian Victorian society and which specific topic Ibsen was tackling.

naturalism in hedda gabler, statue of a woman. xian, chinaI shall also evaluate Hedda Gabler’s construction through structure, language, character, setting and stage direction. The playwright studied these theatrical elements methodically in order to make the perfect illusion of reality on stage possible. Ibsen only  had to observe or at least remember (since he wrote the play while in exile) society in question, think about the things that cause people to do what they do and be what they are and finally write them down, letting the characters be and follow the course of their actions in their own environment.

To be looked at in more detail, Ibsen and most naturalists were heavily criticized for the theme choices of their novels/plays. As Simon Williams describes:

The most persistent complaint was that Ibsen’s plays did not elevate, but focused primarily on degrading aspects of human conduct,

meaning that they could only appeal to morbid audiences. The reason why the general public had problems digesting Naturalistic content will be accounted for as the essay develops.

Yet, regardless of the heavy critics “Ibsen was an optimist” – quoting Phyllis Hartnoll. For all the problems he portrayed he tried to find solutions; Hedda Gabler especially cannot be described as a well-made play with a happy ending that leaves no room for discussion. Nevertheless, Ibsen was indeed an optimist but above all he was a realist because he knew the world he lived in.


The most important aspects of Naturalism are to be a mirror of society, offer a precise analysis of Man and provide the perfect theatrical illusion. Late nineteenth century was marked by the Industrial Revolution, which led to the new possibility of class shifting. Plus, it was also marked by experimental science. All those factors together with the deep analysis of character equal the recipe for Naturalistic literature.

Being the mirror of society means having to provoke it with unpleasant topics, thoughts that society of that time would not dare to make public, thoughts that would bring them to self-analysis. Naturalist Émile Zola asserts: “Naturalism corresponds to our social needs”. Therefore Naturalists chose themes that needed to be discussed and no longer avoided because of hypocrisy, prudery, shame, egoism or social blindness. The new wave caused many scandals due to themes as in G.B. Shaw’s Mrs. Warren Profession (prostitution), Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (woman’s independence), Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (adultery) or Strindberg’s The Father (paternity doubt), to name a few. These topics were not supposed to feel real only to the audience, but the playwright himself was supposed to “possess some experience of the life he was trying to create”, quoting Ibsen from J.L. Styan’s book on Naturalism. Strindberg’s tip to any new writer was that they should write what they knew about. Thus, Naturalism is as near to reality as anyone would hope for – or not.


Realism must finally be evaluated, not by the style of a play or a performance, but by the image of truth its audience perceives.

Styan’s quote above brings me to unpeel the Naturalistic onion and examine what is inside the layers. Just like when creating a play the writer should understand the environment and the psychological depth of a character, the way the audience understands a play is of major importance too. Therefore a pure Naturalist text played by exaggerated, melodramatic, sentimental actors would not be in position of convincing anyone of illusion of every day life. The tools Naturalist writers disposed of to create the perfect real world illusion I shall attempt to evaluate now.


Hedda Gabbler consists of four acts and in the course of them Ibsen’s audience cannot ignore how the world that they are watching onstage develops, how the characters progress. The first act is all about introduction of the characters, of the world they live in and what is actually at stake. A deeper look into Hedda as a character will soon provide a better explanation for this.

“The play is constructed like a first-rate thriller”, states Janet Suzman. Just the fact of Ibsen taking his time in the first act to allow Hedda to enter for the first time when Auntie and Tesman are talking about her, already causes excitement. Information is given bit by bit and it resembles a puzzle. Because of its structure, Hedda Gabler grasps the audience’s interest until the end because if alert to the tiny signals Ibsen gives, they will discover that the issues presented to them are similar to their own issues or to the issues of someone they know in one way or another.


The language of the Naturalistic theatre should be simple, flexible and realistic, including the pre-text and subtext, which are less obvious for those who are no experts in theatre semiotics. In addition, language must express each character’s individuality when it comes to personality and also origins. Hedda’s choice of words, for instance, shows that she is educated, comes from a bourgeois family and is not afraid of consequences for the things she says. She is Hedda Gabler and she can say anything she wants, even if her objective is to hurt someone indirectly by misspelling Thea’s name or mistaking by purpose Auntie’s ugly hat with the maid’s.


Janet Suzman summarizes: “Hedda can not be defined.” Ibsen’s character exploration is so complex that Hedda does not really know what she wants, when all she knows is what she does not want (submissive role of a child bearing sweet wife). Hedda is at war with herself. She must fight a daily battle to control her anger not to shoot everything and everybody she dislikes simply because she is afraid of scandal. Hedda is an erupting volcano that must hold back the lava to avoid gossip. Nevertheless, she does spit volcanic ashes shamelessly once in a while.

Hedda’s psychological battle with “little” Thea is the result of two opposite characters in opposite surroundings. Thea is actually what Hedda should be in order to be happy in Tesman’s household even though Hedda would never conform to the ideal image of the obedient, fruitful and beautiful wife. Among many other things, Hedda is cold at the same time that she is a hot erupting volcano. She is explosive, but she needs personal distance. The excerpt of Janet Garton’s text explains further:

The lid is kept on tight, but just below the surface is boiling rage and frustration and occasionally the pressure erupts in a snarling insult or a sardonic laugh … There is a demonic aspect of Hedda Gabler.

Being the daughter of a general and possessing an inspiring natural beauty and elegance, Hedda naturally thinks the whole world should bow before her. As Maurice Larkin evaluates, “heredity is transmitted from parents to child by … body, brain and those peculiarities of personality that emanate from them.” But when the world does not offer people like Hedda what they really need in order to be happy, morbid thoughts surface automatically. I argue that Ibsen was never interested in models of behaviour when developing Hedda’s character, therefore because she is at odds with her environment and especially lonely and misunderstood, why not let her kill herself impulsively as the only solution possible for someone who finds sudden and young death glamorous anyway? Through this daring way Hedda would finally reach her glory, make history and be herself. Reading a biography on Naturalist writer August Strindberg, a letter from one of his wives, Siri, to her mother translates in very few words accidentally what Hedda Gabler is as a character:

I am not made for a peaceful home and the scent of roses … Peace is not for me.


The setting and the props in Hedda Gabler tell a story per se. Like a true naturalist Ibsen “worked out his scenarios very carefully” according to James McFarlane. There was always a reason for the closed or opened curtains, for the fresh flowers, for the furniture placing and later for the lack of some of them; Hedda disliked it all. Even the choice of the house has history when Tesman thinks originally that he had bought Hedda the house of her dreams when this was nothing more than a nice looking house for her, far away from being a dream.

The scenario is detailed about the dark colours of the décor, the veranda one can see through the window, the nuances of light from the hanging lamp and the thickness of the rugs covering the floor. Ibsen must have seen a similar room to be able to give such details – so I argue.

Where props are concerned, nothing is more important than Lovborg’s manuscript in the play. It provokes in Tesman jealousy for academic success, in Hedda it provokes jealously for her not being his inspiration, in Thea it causes hope of starting a new life with Lovborg for having inspired him twice with two books, and for being the cause for Lovborg’s suicide, after Hedda burns the manuscript (Lovborg and Thea’s child).

Stage Direction

Ibsen is a master of non-verbal elements in his stage directions like silences (“after a short pause” – of reflection), movement (“moves irritably”  – in desperation), gestures (“clenching her fists” – in anger) and precise acting directions (“gives her a searching glance” – in doubt). The subtext in Hedda Gabler is brilliant in a way that even without the proper words for a moment of the scene its content comes through. The examples from the stage directions are too vast to use for the purpose of reading evidence in this essay, so quoting Errol Durbach, as an example for my given point might suffice:

The tissue of non-verbal interconnections has sometimes unduly distracted our attention from the language of the play itself.


Janet Suzman’s interpretation of Hedda Gabler’s theme is “despised domesticality… and despised motherhood” while Ibsen says that “a woman cannot be herself in contemporary society” – his society back then, I must add. Combining both excerpts I recognize a theme around feminism plus a search for Hedda’s spirit, for her état d’âme. Breaking down the theme into pregnancy, bourgeois feminism and human spirit I might be able to facilitate the understanding of Hedda Gabler.


The fact that even in today’s society women are still supposed to become mothers some time in their lives in order to avoid harsh criticism makes me reflect about Hedda. How could a woman in still developing Norway not have children as her utmost objective in life? It must have been unthinkable. The thing with Hedda is that she is not any woman conformed to her environment. She had neither the wish nor “the aptitude for such a thing”, quoting Gail Finney, where “thing” means pregnancy, child’s life devotion and unconditional happiness for having to give up her own dreams in order to become a mother and fit into society’s ideal. It is no wonder that she gets icy-cold when the topic of her so awaited and supposed pregnancy surfaces.

I mentioned it before and I repeat it here: I believe Hedda does not know what she wants, but she knows what she does not want. I mention it again because the fact that she is carrying Tesman’s baby when thinking about Lovborg is at least bizarre, since it was she who finished their love relationship at gunpoint. So, if it is unclear whether she wants Lovborg or not, it is at least clear that she does not want to be a mother.

Bourgeois Feminism

Ibsen is considered as one of the most pro-feminist movement writers of all times even though he disclaimed the honour many times. Considering Hedda’s personality, heredity and her past as a mean beauty queen (wanting to burn Thea’s hair, snubbing men), it is natural that she is hardly interested in what happens with other women, but is only interested in what happens to her. Michelene Wandor justifies:

Bourgeois feminism simply seeks a larger share of social power for a small number of women – the women at the top syndrome … It has no interest in any idea of solidarity or sisterhood.

Hedda’s masculine side for rejecting the idea of being happy with motherhood was in fact an affront against male dominance. How could a man plant on her something that she did not desire in the first place, not to mention having to endure a family, maids, friends and house that this same man directly and indirectly imposed on her? Hedda’s marriage took place only for some promised money that never came and this makes her like any woman around 1890s for submitting herself to marriage just for money and social status.

Hedda wants to control all situations: the house, the sexual flirtations (yet with physical distance), Thea’s future and Lovborg’s career. Hedda wants to be a strong leader as a man can be but she still wants to keep her femme fatale appeal, above other women, what is typical of bourgeois feminism. Hedda needs to be like her father, but still be a woman. It is at least noteworthy that nobody throughout the play ever mentions Hedda’s mother – as if she had died young or as if she had abandoned Hedda for not wanting to be a mother.

Human Spirit

Hedda Gabler’s inner struggle is all about who she is inside (a fiery masculine personality), who she does not want to be (a mother) and who she must be for society (supportive wife). Some women may even complain to their husbands that this or that is not right from time to time, but not even this Hedda is able to do because she does not feel intimate enough with her husband whom she calls by his family name. She could never leave Tesman the same way Nora (A Doll’s House) did. Janet Suzman completes the thought: “She’s too proud to walk the streets.”

Some of Hedda’s impulsive actions are just reactions of things people do to her, when they do not even realize that they are hurting her. Hedda thinks Lovborg could never forget her and suddenly he finds himself a new muse, Thea. Hedda is hurt, so she burns their love child – the manuscript. Hedda thinks Tesman is the next big thing in his career and that he will provide her with all the pomp and ceremony that she deserves, but then Tesman does not get the promised job. Hedda is angry, so she lets it out on his beloved Auntie and on the maid. Hedda is not in control of herself, less now as a married woman as from the time she was the general’s daughter. She is also not in control of her own body for the unwished pregnancy. Hedda is hopeless, so she kills herself without even leaving a good-bye note because she does not need to explain or apologize for her actions, like she never did. Liberation for Hedda could only mean death.


Ibsen commented through Hedda Gabler on the Norwegian Victorian society especially what women situation is concerned; the way a woman feels and cannot express it because of many faux pas rules in society, because of the close grip on the individual and the manipulation of public opinion. So, a male dominant society reacted by criticizing the play heavily and trying as hard as they could to put a stop in progress. Why should they start considering property rights, job equality, education and even sexual freedom for women when that could mean that they would gain unprecedented rivals? As Bjorn Hemmer evaluates:

Society is which prevents humanity from emerging and developing.

I wondered whether those people willing to hold back human progress through women’s development were brawlers or men without any finesse or education whatsoever, but when even a renowned historian like Taine stated that obedience (and everything else related to this word) was a must in any family, it was when the real picture of Ibsen’s time invaded my mind. Quoting Taine:

What forms the family but the sentiment of obedience by which wife and children act under the direction of a father and husband? … If the sentiment of obedience has its root in the instinct of subordination and the idea of duty you will find … security and happiness in the household, a solid basis of domestic life.

Reflecting on Hedda and on all other women burning inside to be allowed to be themselves, how could they ever achieve this in such a hypocritical e society? Men could indulge in sex for pleasure, for example, while women should only have some for reproduction only. Ibsen then introduces the beautiful Hedda Gabler who could have sex with any man she wants but decides not to simply because she does not seem to enjoy it. Hedda’s options alone infuriated the audiences, independently from her actions. Michelene Wandor explains:

Sexuality could not be represented in any way… But theatre has always found ways around censorship.

In fact, Naturalists were the first writers to represent their own societies with such accuracy, focusing mostly on their flaws as Man. Not only sciences represented change in the new world, but simply the fact that classes were shifting due to the Industrial Revolution was huge, although “Scandinavia had to wait until the 1890s to be significantly affected by the massive industrialization”, according to Maurice Larkin. This means that they took longer to adapt to the new world and kept on living under old Victorian rules longer than other countries. Ibsen knew to mirror his world through Hedda’s world: family (Tesman’s family), marriage (Hedda and Tesman), professional ambitions (manuscript publication), financial struggles (how to pay for new house’s mortgage) love triangles (Tesman, Hedda, Lovborg or Lovborg, Hedda, Thea), hypocrisy (Brack), jealousy (Tesman stealing Lovborg’s manuscript) and society’s influence on an individual (Hedda’s fear of scandal), to name a few.

Unlike Nora (A doll’s house), Hedda is still too much the victim of Traditional thinking.

The quote above by Chris Megson shows that although Hedda was impulsive and sold a strong image of herself, she was afraid of her society. She could not bear the thought of having to be on her own, even though she despised the people around her. In addition, if Hedda was so afraid of society, it was because she knew her faults although she never apologized for them.

One never stands totally without some share of responsibility or guilt in society to which one belongs.

An excerpt from Ibsen and the realistic problem drama above, actually an Ibsen’s quote, closes the main body of this essay as an example of my given point: Hedda was no saint, but she was also no demon.


Hedda Gabler, a Naturalistic product of the environment and of intellectual change, protests the way things were in Norwegian Victorian Society and looks forward to at least suggesting to the audience that everyone should have the right to think out of the box, to make personal choices that would not be heavily criticized just for being different. A woman should have the right to have as many lovers as she wants if she can live with her conscience, should have the right for property, should have the right for choosing not to become a mother, should be respected among men for her intellectual skills other than just for having a pretty figure or a motherly image and finally a woman should have the right for being complex and not just a single toned person.

In this play, I assume that all these points were the views of Ibsen where he did not hide behind the writer’s image, someone who not always has the same opinions as the main characters, just like Zola claimed to be with his Thérèse Raquin. Ibsen made in Hedda Gabler a psychological study of a woman who was not content with her role in society. If society did not understand the writer’s aim at “chronicling of their own vices and lies” mirrored on the stage, as noted by Bjorn Hemmer, then they should be forced to it, because the message in Hedda Gabler was aimed at people who needed to understand and reflect upon it leaving aside the rotten Victorian morality.

Luciana B. Veit

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