HeddaGabler: The Protagonist and Antagonist
Theplay Hedda Gabler by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen revolvesaround the protagonist, Hedda Gabler, whom the play is named after.Hedda is a young beautiful newly married woman whose character is themain issue of the play. Ibsen creates a very unique character throughHedda by portraying her as a beautiful woman who uses her dad’sbeauty and status in society to influence and manipulate those closeto her. She also comes out as a mean, cruel and selfish person. Onthe other hand, she comes out as a strong-willed woman whounderstands her freedoms and is ready to challenge society on theassigned gender roles. Therefore, through her positive and negativetraits as portrayed in the play, she comes out as both theprotagonist and the antagonist.
Tohighlight argue for this claim, I will use several approaches. One ofthem is looking at how women characters are displayed in otherliterature texts. The character of Hedda will be juxtaposed with someof the main female characters in mainstream literature. This isinformed by the empirical observation from literature narrativeswhere the protagonist is depicted as someone who portrays a set ofadmirable morals, character and personality that the audience canidentify with and like. Shakespeare as a playwright perfected the artof creating good characters and personalities highlighted through theantagonists commonly portrayed as evil. In most of these literaturepieces, women are depicted to fight against men or to work alongsidemen who may not share the same personality. On the other hand, I willalso look at how female antagonists are depicted in literature andshow how they measure up to Hedda.
Thesecond approach will be to use the play to show how Hedda comes up asboth an antagonist and protagonist by highlight her conformity or nonconformity to expected standards of a woman. I will use examples andtext from the play to show Hedda as an antagonist. Her traits thatmake her an antagonist will be explored and the justification for herantagonist traits provided. On the other hand, I will use the sameapproach to show Hedda is a protagonist in the play. I will use textfrom the play as evidence to show that she is indeed a protagonist.Thirdly, I will combine these aspects of the character to show howthey combine or coexist to create a unique character that is not verycommon in literature works. One notable element to be explored willbe the relevance of her characters to the feminist and genderequality movement as indicated by relevant sources that address theplay and specifically the character of Hedda. My stand is that theauthor uses the character of Hedda to argue for women rights in aconcealed manner given that he is a confirmed feminist and hence thestrategy to portray her both as protagonist and antagonist.
Heddais a champion for women rights. She defies the Victorian society ofher time on the acceptable behavior and attitudes of women. She iskeen to proof to her husband and to herself that she will bearchildren only when she wants and not just because her husband andsociety expects her to. She is also adamant on playing with herfather’s guns despite her husband warning about the danger of guns.In fact as a female character, she does not display the meekness andtimidity associated with women of that era and of fellow femalecharacters. Instead she is tough, aggressive, cruel and fiery almostsimilar to a man. This is a very important aspect in the play giventhat Ibsen has strongly defended feminism in his works. In thecreation of character of Hedda he makes her fiery, tough and evenevil keen to challenge the dominance of men. Her effort to influencethe lives of others is an attempt to gain control of her life. Sherealizes that she does not have the resources to exert suchinfluence. Although she is unhappy in her marriage and she cravesliberty, she still hangs on but uses her position as a wife to Tesmanto exert her influence and dominance over those around her throughher manipulative behavior. Interestingly, her charming beauty isbound to soften her and highlight her feminize side. In fact,Gottschall et al (20o7) notes that beauty is associated with goodbehavior and in most cases protagonists. Uncouth behavior on theother hand is associated with antagonists.
Khalidet al (2013) has examined the play and specifically the character ofHedda as a feminist. The author observes that Ibsen’s portrayal orcreation of the character of Hedda, deviates from the common feministstereotype to portray her masculinity as an empowered woman. Theauthor uses Critical Discourse Analysis to prove that Hedda has nofeminist qualities. Interestingly, the author adapts a very harshview of feminism. He starts off in the introduction to “Thisso-called feminism is merely destroying and ruining many familylives. The family systems and family relations are falling a prey tofeminism. Women are destroying their marital relations by wearing thechains of feminism, depriving their children of motherly love andleaving behind their homes. This is leading to increased divorcerates in Europe” (Khalid et al, 177). To this author, feminism isnot something to be praised or admired. He perceives it as an evilthat has encroached on the western world where excess liberty amongwomen has destroyed them and society at large.
Heddadisplays liberty as a feminism tenet. Khlaid argues that Heddadisplays the modern conception of feminism where women live liberty.Her liberal ways are clear in the manner that she chooses to pursuean evil path to manipulate and destroy all those around her. Herability to even conceive and think of the divorce from her husband isalso a sign of a liberal woman as desired by feminism. However, inthis case, the qualities of a woman and most notably the motherlylove exhibited by women is clearly absent in many instances with thefinal blow being the eventual suicide which is very cruel to herunborn child. Mrs. Elvsted is used as to portray the model nature ofa woman through her softness and motherly love and thus highlightHedda lack of it. Khalid captures again his opposition to liberalwomen by saying that “The so-called feminism and the boundlessliberty it provides is merely a source of destruction for many womendepriving them of motherly love and injecting them with frustration,depression and annoyance” (p. 177). The lifestyle she chooses andthe cruel activities that she engages it to manipulate and destroythe people around her is a result to excessive freedom. To thisauthor, society and specifically Hedd’s husband should not havegiven the woman a free reign. Her ability even to evade her role inbearing children is very telling. To the author, the husband shouldhave taken control early enough and perhaps demanded children. Thisway, Hedda is portrayed as a victim of feminism. Feminism definersher gender role and expected demeanor such as portraying motherlylove and being soft. As such, she comes as a protagonist keen toprotect her identity and freedoms and on the other hand society comesout as being the antagonist enforcing unfair rule on the people.Moreover, she herself by fighting society to protect her libertypositions her as the antagonist.
Thereis a different take on the character of Hedda Gabler as created byIbsen. Iseni et al (2014) compare the portrayal of women by Ibsen incontrast sharply to that of Shakespeare. Although the two playwrightsmay have created their works in different times, the character offemales as presented in their works gave the protagonist andantagonist tags in more definite terms. Iseni notes that“Shakespeare’s women characters display great intelligence,vitality, and a strong sense of personal independence. Thesequalities have led some critics to consider Shakespeare a champion ofwomankind and an innovator who departed sharply from flat,stereotyped characterizations of women common to his contemporariesand earlier dramatists.” Such characters were in conformity tosociety expectations and were thus portrayed as protagonists. Incontrast, through Hedda, Ibsen presents females as people who aredenied their basic freedom of being a human being first before beingassigned a gender role. As such, he creates “bold, rebellious andrevolutionary women warriors with independent and intelligentpsychology and aspiration for the spiritual emancipation” (p. 31).Therefore by fighting society for their rights to be recognized asequal human beings, the character of Hedda comes out as theprotagonist who fights society and refuses to conform to society andat the same a heroine and protagonist who gives women a voice in amale dominated world. The author contrasts the character of LadyMcbeth in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth to that of Hedda and thedifferences are pretty obvious.
Heddais highly manipulative and a disguised enemy to the people closest toher. She relies on this trait to make people to do what she desireswithout even expressing her wishes in the faintest way. In oneinstance, the conversation between Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted is asbelow.
HEDDA:Well then, we must try to drift together again. Now listen. At schoolwe said to each other and we called each other by our Christiannames—
MRS.ELVSTED: No, I am sure you must be mistaken.
HEDDA:No, not at all! I can remember quite distinctly. So now we are goingto renew our old friendship. [Draws the footstool closer to MRS.ELVSTED] There now! [Kisses her cheek.] You must […] call me Hedda.(1.300-2)
Howthe audience perceives this varies. For one she uses her manipulativetechniques to get what she wants. This makes her a good negotiatorwho can get people do what she desires without openly showing it. Onthe other hand, this conversation makes Hedda appear as one who isnot ready and willing to take rejection. She seems eager to force herfriendship on Mrs Elvsted. In another instance, Hedda cannot relatewith people in their normal lives. She is keen to control their fateand thus engages in evil behavior to control the fate of the peoplearound her. After learning that Thea Evsted has managed to makeEljert Lovborg quit alcohol, she is jealous of the influence thatThea has on the man. Consequently, she devices a new plan to makeLovborg consume alcohol and in process she would have access to themanuscript which he had composed together with Mrs Elvsted. Her mainreason to get him drunk was to access the manuscript and burn it. Inthis case, desperation and hopelessness in a loveless marriage drivesher to manipulate people around her into destruction. She is notready to cope and deal with the success and happiness of other peoplewhile she herself is unhappy.
Mangang(2011) presents a relatively new approach to the character of Heddain order to examine her double roles as the antagonist andprotagonist. The author looks at Hedda’s character from apsychoanalysis point of view as presented by Sigmund Freund. Onecritic, Alfred Sinding-Larsen, denounced Ibsen saying “Ibsen’smodern drama is the drama of abnormality. His main characters havenothing human about them save the flesh in which they are clothed”(Mangang, 1). Similar expressions were also expressed in regard tothe weird character of Hedda. This was not until the Freudianpsychoanalytical theory, which was developed just ten years after theplay was authored by Ibsen. According to this theory, unfulfilleddesires are repressed and they can cause depression. Hedda keepsdesiring things she can never attain thus she is depressed. Finally,the repression gets to her and she commits suicide. It is clear thatsociety expects her to conform to being a woman which she cannot. Sherepresses her desires to be a truly liberal woman and even getspregnant. However, she cannot carry the pregnancy to term and shecommits suicide. It is therefore easy to see that Hedda was a victimto societal pressures. She was fighting an evil society that denied awoman her rights which makes a protagonist. Audiences can identifywith such a woman who fights for her rights in a feminist approach.The pressures from society push her into depression and eventualsuicide which makes her a victim of society. In the same length, asociety-based perception of the same character portrays her as avillain and antagonist. She is evil and reformist. Her actionscannot be attributed to her medical condition which was caused bysociety.
Inconclusion, the case of Hedda Gabler being both a protagonist andantagonist is clear. Her good looks, usually associated with goodbehavior and vice versa, shows that culture and developments at thetime of writing the play influenced Isben. The discussions has showedthat Hedda is a two faced character with bad and good side. Suchcontrast is not common in dram and hence the high response andcritique of the play from various scholars. I believe this weirdcharacter enabled Isben a platform to enable the audiences exploretaboo topic of feminism and female empowerment at his time.
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