by Catherine Partin
Two of Ibsen’s best-known plays, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, have as their heroines frustrated bourgeois housewives whose lives are confined to the home and who prove themselves capable of more than is allowed them by societal constraints. Nora and Hedda seem at first to inhabit separate worlds: one is a supportive wife and devoted mother; the other is a reluctant newlywed and dreads the responsibility of child-rearing; but both seek excitement and fulfillment outside the home and beyond the limited scope of their domestic duties. Despite their apparent differences, both share a common quest for self-actualization through a rejection of social values and conventions, including a longing for excitement outside the domestic sphere and the idealization of a male character each of them attempts to influence and through whom they attempt to live vicariously.
Nora and Hedda both challenge the roles they are expected to fill within a patriarchal society, especially in marriage. Nora takes on the traditionally masculine task of working to bring a material income into the home, but her focus remains concentrated on providing for her family. In contrast, while Hedda is virtually confined to the Falk Villa, her interest lies in the outside world, beyond the domestic sphere; unlike Nora, Hedda’s longing for independence is not masked by concern for a husband or children. Patricia Spacks notes in The World of Hedda Gabler that Hedda “rejects the basic functions of women – marriage, motherhood; she rejects the real world of responsibility” (158). Meanwhile, Nora is willing to devote herself to her role as wife and mother for the sake of the idealistic loyalty that she misguidedly ascribes to Helmer. “I was completely certain – that you would come forward and take all the blame…it was to prevent that that I was ready to kill myself” (Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” 230). While Hedda’s death is an act of rebellion against those to whom she is expected to submit, Nora’s contemplation of suicide is motivated by her notion that such an act would be a heroic feat of selflessness, a noble sacrifice to save her family from living in disgrace. Nevertheless, despite Nora’s willingness to devote herself to her role as Helmer’s wife, she discovers a sense of satisfaction in violating the accepted conventions that discourage women from entering the world of work and business. “[I]t was really tremendous fun sitting there working and earning money. It was almost like being a man” (Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” 162). In reality, the closest Nora and Hedda can get to experiencing the kind of freedom regularly afforded to men is through the idealistic hopes they pin on the male characters of Helmer and Lovborg.
Both women maintain high ideals of love, sacrifice, and beauty that they initially cannot realize independently, each relying instead upon a powerful male figure to defy social conventions for them, thus fulfilling a romantic fantasy. Arthur Ganz argues in Miracle and Vine Leaves: An Ibsen Play Rewrought, “Both women are prepared to throw away their lives to preserve the vision of the miraculous, the beautiful, that lifted their selves and their existences beyond the mundane… Each idealizes a man through whom she intends to achieve ‘the unattainable’ and whom she sees only as an instrument for the realization of herself” (11). Although Nora ultimately does not commit suicide, her absolute faith in Helmer as the heroic figure she imagines him to be leads her to readily accept the idea of giving herself up in order to preserve her husband’s honour. Nora abandons her thoughts of suicide as soon as she realizes that the cause for which she had been willing to die existed only in her mind as an unspoken desire. Bereft of her own idealistic vision of Helmer as a loyal husband worth giving her life for, Nora finds herself liberated from the psychological shackles that had kept her captive in her role as a dutiful wife and mother. She is then free to pursue her own personal and economic freedom. The threat of poverty and public humiliation are of less importance to Nora than the self-actualization she can attain only by rejecting the role assigned to her by society. For Nora, suicide would be the ultimate act of submission to the rules that value a man’s honour, not to mention a policy of strict obedience to men’s impartial systems of judgment, over a woman’s moral obligations, no matter how noble her intentions. Unlike Hedda, whose suicide is a form of protest, Nora ultimately rebels not by seeking escape in death but by flouting social conventions in choosing to claim her life as her own. Hedda, however, turns to suicide when Lovborg’s death fails to fulfill her vision of what she considers the beauty of free will. She is so bound by the laws of society that she can see no possibility of liberation in attempting to defy them.
The obstacle facing both women in their struggles toward self-realization is the institution of marriage, portrayed in these plays as a sort of contract; women marry not for love, but for purely practical and economic reasons. “I’d danced myself out. That was all. My time was up…and he was so determined…so sure he’d be able to support me…Why should I turn him down?” (Ibsen, “Hedda Gabler” 41). The husbands in both plays appear to dote on their wives, but neither relationship is emotionally or intellectually satisfying to Nora or Hedda. Nonetheless, both women are willing to endure their unfulfilling marriages as long as certain conditions are met: in Nora’s case, her relationship with Helmer is kept intact only by her continued illusion that he is as willing to risk his life for her as she is for him; Hedda, driven by her “obsessive concern with the perception of society,” remains committed to playing the role of a loyal and devoted wife despite her own acknowledgment to Brack that she considers her marriage to Tesman a disappointment and a failure (Ganz 15). Unlike Thea, however, Hedda does not see the possibility of deserting a dull marriage in favor of a passionate romance as an avenue to liberation. To Hedda, Thea represents the bleak future of the woman who tries to live outside the constraints of society: she chases after Lovborg but fails to exercise any real control over him, and while she has freed herself from an unsatisfying marriage, she continues to depend heavily on a man for personal and emotional fulfillment but without the benefit of the legal bond that would at least ensure her financial security. Despite her unfeminine affinity for pistols and her aversion to motherhood, Hedda appears in other respects a model wife: her relationship with Lovborg has never ventured beyond their illicit conversations into physical intimacy, and she refuses to engage in an adulterous affair with Judge Brack.
However, Hedda’s reluctance to pursue a relationship with either man signifies not any sense of loyalty to Tesman, but rather a refusal to allow any man to exert power over her either materially or psychologically. Her frustration stems in part from her repressed sexuality, involving fear of, desire for, and curiosity about a man’s world that a young girl “‘isn’t supposed to know anything about’” (Ganz 15). Both Nora and Hedda are excluded from the freedoms exercised by the male characters in Ibsen’s plays, particularly economic and sexual. As a result, their relationships suffer: Nora’s financial dependence on Helmer, although socially sanctioned, is a symptom of the distrust that leads to the dissolution of their marriage; Hedda’s unwillingness to accept a submissive sexual role compels her to resent Tesman and to reject both Lovborg and Brack. Although they share similar desires for power and independence, sexuality plays a different role for each woman in her attempt to assert herself. Ganz writes, “[Hedda’s] sexual allure has almost nothing to do with her manipulation of Lovborg…Nora is, after all, prepared to use her charms to get money, but Hedda tries to use her will and intelligence to ‘control a human destiny’” (16). Hedda’s aversion to sexuality is underscored by her preoccupation with the idea of will and intellectual influence as the most powerful means of control, as she observes the dynamic between Lovborg and her envious husband , Thea and her positive influence on Lovborg. In contrast, Nora recognizes her feminine charms as a source of power and uses them to her advantage, first flirting with Dr. Rank and then using dance to distract her husband. She also realizes that her appeal will fade with time and age, and is prepared to use her secret as a kind of insurance against the inevitable waning of her beauty, which constitutes her only power over Helmer: “What I mean, of course, is when Torvald isn’t as fond of me as he is now – when my dancing and dressing up and reciting don’t amuse him any longer. It might be a good thing, then, to have something up my sleeve…” (Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” 161). Whereas Nora’s sexuality is her primary means of getting what she wants, Hedda resists men’s advances and prefers to exert her influence verbally, through her conversations with Lovborg and Tesman. Although their means are different, their ends are the same.
The trait that ultimately unites these characters is the idealistic vision each harbours of the man to whom she links her secret desires and private aspirations. The tragedy of A Doll’s House is that Nora has spent eight years operating under the false and naïve expectation that Helmer would one day be revealed as the noble and worthy husband she longs for, risking her own reputation in the hope that he would readily do the same for her sake. Hedda similarly envisions a grand gesture by Lovborg that would demonstrate her influence over his actions and validate her belief in the power of one’s will to overcome socially-imposed limitations. She manipulates Lovborg as a way of experiencing a vicarious sense of liberation from the social conventions by which she is bound:
“The vine leaves that she wishes to see in his hair are the symbol of beauty achieved by defiance of society; his dissipated life in the past, the dissipation she urges him toward in the present, represent to her the possibility of escaping rather than submitting to narrow social limits. It is entirely for her own sake that she manipulates him: not merely for the joy of controlling a destiny, but for the immediate joy of knowing that she has, with perfect safety, with no apparent responsibility, caused a violation of conventional restrictions” (Spacks 158).
Lovborg has already earned a reputation for having led a depraved and self-indulgent past, but is easily redeemed and welcomed back into society’s good graces, but as a woman, Hedda cannot overtly rebel against social conventions without devastating consequences. To Hedda, Lovborg’s suicide as she imagines it represents the fulfillment of her own desire for autonomy and the triumph of the will over worldly constraints: “All I know is that Ejlert Lovborg had the courage to choose the kind of life he wanted to lead. And now this, this triumph, this beautiful deed. He had the strength, the will, to tear himself away from the banquet of life…so early” (Ibsen, “Hedda Gabler” 100). Lovborg’s death is admirable to Hedda because it suggests a kind of freedom from social pressures and obligations she herself could not expect to find in her own life. Neither could Nora be considered able or expected to take on the full responsibility of her economic or legal decisions; her forgery must reflect badly on Helmer because she is at his mercy financially. Both Nora and Hedda find themselves unable to act directly as individuals in the world, at least within the limits of their roles as women, but rely upon men as their representatives. As Ganz notes, “The ‘miracle’ that Torvald is to perform and the crown of vine leaves that Lovborg is to wear are to have similar effects on the women who contemplate them. For each of them this act – carried out on her behalf or under her influence – is to justify a life of restraint, conventionality, sacrifice, secret repression” (18). However, neither heroine is granted this vicarious satisfaction of their desires. Nora admits, “[W]hen the miracle didn’t happen…I saw that you weren’t the man I’d always thought you” (Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” 229). Her disappointment over Helmer’s unwillingness to risk violating social conventions and Hedda’s disillusionment concerning the circumstances surrounding Lovborg’s death precipitate their decisions to move beyond idealizing or manipulating men to achieve their ends, and to take control of their own lives for the first time.
Over the course of both plays, Nora and Hedda’s motivations gradually shift from the desire to control another person’s destiny to their own need for self-realization, propelling them both to their final acts of defiance and liberation. Nora’s desertion of her post as wife and mother is a necessary sacrifice in asserting her autonomy, and Hedda’s suicide is a powerful statement of protest demonstrating willful control over her own destiny. Both are a declaration of independence and a last courageous gesture of rebellion.