Assessing Henrik Ibsen's work By Anna Miller

Throughout literature and history, heroines have held a rare and beautiful light. The Bible tells the story of many heroines, from Jael of Israel who killed Sisera to Tabitha who demonstrated a servant’s heart. There are also the fairytales that tell of the familiar heroines such as Cinderella and Snow White who meekly accept the duties and mistreatment of their stepmothers. More recently acknowledged are the heroines such as Pocahontas and Mulan who are lauded by those who support women’s rights activists for their accomplishments within a patriarchal society. Each of these women had qualities that inspired others and they have earned their respect through great accomplishments. However, the heroines in Henrik Ibsen’s plays cannot be grouped with such a respected group of heroines. Ibsen’s leading ladies showed no character qualities that could be emulated, no actions that would bring them praise, and a self-centeredness that makes them repugnant to the reader. Two of these supposedly realistic women were Hedda Tesman of Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer of A Doll’s House. Hedda and Nora Exemplify Henrik Ibsen’s un-heroic heroine. Both women show their un-heroic nature through their marriages which are based on false ideas. Nora’s marriage to Torvald was based on her deceit. Nora deceives him or tries to deceive him several times throughout the play: she has taken out a loan when he has adamantly expressed that he does not approve of borrowing money;1 she forged her dead father’s signature to obtain the loan (65); in Act I, she hides the macaroons she is eating from Torvald and lies about it (44); and later in the act when Torvald asked, “Has anyone been here?” she tells him no, even though he watched Krogstad leave just before (68). Nearly everything Nora says to Helmer is a lie. Ibsen himself said of Nora, “She has committed a crime, and she is proud of it; because she did it for love of her husband and to save his life.” 2 Though her motives were good, she still broke the law and lied about it. However, Henrietta Francis Lord does not think that Nora is alone in her false views of her marriage; she said, “He [Ibsen] means to make a modern home go to pieces before our very eyes, form some necessity within itself. It must contain everything that can attract: simplicity, gladness, power of work, good tempter, gentle and strong regard, love of beauty, merry little children, friends, well-managed servants, good habits, good reputation, a position which has at length been won by praiseworthy endeavours, etc; but also a husband who has such an essentially false idea of happiness between man and woman, that it has practically undermined this delightful home, and it is ready to fall in, at any moment.” 3 Whether Nora was alone in basing her marriage on false ideals or not, her reaction to discovering the truth shows that she has deceived herself as well as Torvald. Hedda’s marriage is based on false ideals because she believed that she had no other choice but to marry Tesman. At twenty-nine years old, Hedda is close to being considered an old maid in her time period. Despite her beauty and good upbringing, none of her acquaintances have proposed to her. Judge Brack, a confirmed bachelor, never proposed despite having acted as her escort many times, 4 and Løvborg did not propose due to his reputation and past behavior, despite having developed an emotionally intimate relationship with Hedda. Harold Clurman said of her, “Hedda Gabler, aristocrat by birth and upbringing, married the bourgeois Tesman, the only

respectable man who asked her to.” 5 However, Hedda does not love Tesman; in fact, she seems to almost loathe him. She acts coldly toward him and his aunts. Croce Bennetto said, “Hedda Gabler despises and scorns her laborious, good-natured and mediocre husband, and those holy women, his old aunts.” 6 Despite the sacrifices that Tesman and his aunts have made to make Hedda more comfortable in her new home, she is aloof and discontent; she scorns everything about her new life, from Miss Tesman’s meddling as she sees it, to the servant that the aunts have given to her, to the very house which Tesman has purchased for her thinking that it was the home she always wanted. Hedda’s marriage was falsely based on her needs and wants rather than affection. Both women were also un-heroic in that they both had a close relationship with a man other than her husband. During Ibsen’s time, it was considered a scandal for a woman to have an intimate relationship with a man other than her husband, whether that relationship was physical or not. Nora had not had a serious talk with her husband in the eight years of their marriage (109), and as a result formed a close relationship with Dr. Rank simply because he enjoyed talking with her on a basic human level. She told him in Act II, “You’re my best and truest friend. I’m sure. That’s why I want to talk to you”(83). Though she flirted with Dr. Rank, their relationship was completely platonic on her end, but when Dr. Rank confessed his love for her, she distances herself from him both physically and emotionally (84). Nora gave Dr. Rank a false hope that she reciprocated his feeling—and in a sense she did—but when he plainly stated his feelings for her, she rejected him. Nora’s relationship with Dr. Rank went completely against all the rules of propriety of the day. Hedda went a step further in that she had two close relationships with men other than her husband: Judge Brack and Eilert Løvborg. The first of these relationships shown is with Judge Brack who is introduced as a close friend of the couple, but, as Lilia Melani pointed out, “Brack reveals another aspect of himself. Under the cover of family friend, he wants to have an affair with Hedda.” 7 Hedda refused to be unfaithful despite her blunt admission that she does not love her husband, but this did not stop her from brazenly flirting with him. She recognizes his double talk as Lilia Melani again points out, “Hedda's reference to his coming the ‘back way’ refers not only to his using the back entrance to the house but to his being sneaky and underhanded.” 8 Hedda did not discourage Judge Brack’s flirtations, but she did draw the line. Hedda also held an intimate and flirtatious relationship with Eilert Løvborg. He was first introduced he seemed timid and nervous, like he was afraid of overstepping his bounds, but once he was alone with Hedda, he spoke with her with too much familiarity. Lilia Melani described it thus, “Their conversation, conducted with Tesman in possible earshot, reveals an unsuspected intimacy. Lovborg insists on calling and referring to her as Hedda Gabler and addressing her with the familiar form of ‘you’; she squashes these expressions of closeness. At the same time that she rejects these expressions of closeness, she continues their former intimacy by discussing the past and her feelings. She acknowledges to yet another man that she does not love her husband while warning that she will not ‘hear of any sort of unfaithfulness!’ (p. 38).” 9 Their conversation revealed that they had shared an intimate relationship in the past in which Hedda had lived vicariously through Lovebørg’s retelling of his debaucheries. Hedda herself

admitted that it was highly inappropriate for a woman to listen to or talk about such activities. The two women each had differing views of her role in society, Hedda’s being un-heroic. Nora was content with her role as a wife and mother and showed no sign of discontentment with the way her husband treated her. Hugo von Hofmannsthal described Torvald’s treatment of Nora as, “His wife is a toy, a pretty and elegant doll, whom he takes to a party, lets dance the tarantella; then he collects the compliments and takes her away again, whether she likes it or not.” 10 Throughout the beginning acts of the play, Nora did not feel degraded by her husband’s treating her as a child or doll. In fact, Nora acted as though she liked doing “tricks” and prancing around to entertain Torvald. In Act I, Nora, just having learned the seriousness of her forgery from Krogstad and subsequently concerned about how Torvald will react when he finds out about it, said, “I’ll do anything to please you, Torvald. I’ll sing for you, dance for you—” (68). She encouraged her husband’s behavior toward her by her behavior toward him. It is not until her miracle did not happen that Nora showed any signs that she feels she had been mistreated by her husband. She is obviously content and happy with her role as a mother. This was seen as she romped around, playing with her children. When Torvald told her that the moral illnesses of a parent are passed to their children, she became genuinely concerned for the well-being of her children, to the point that she distanced herself from them to protect them from being contaminated by her moral shortcomings. She even implied to her maid Anne Marie, who had been her own nurse, that if, should something happen to her, she would want Anne Marie to take care of her children just as Anne Marie had taken care of her (73). Nora wanted to ensure that no ill would come to her children because of her own actions. Unlike Nora, Hedda did not love her husband, she only agreed to be his wife because there was no other choice left to her, and she resented the idea of being a mother. Hedda thought Tesman was boring and relayed to Judge Brack that for the entirety of their six month honeymoon, Tesman spent all his time either copying notes out of old manuscripts in libraries or talking about his field of expertise (250). His field disgusted Hedda. As she told Brack, “All this business about domestic crafts in the Middle Ages—! That really is just too revolting!”(251). Now that she had had to spend all of her time with Tesman, Hedda was quite adamant that she did not love him, moreover, she despised the idea that she was carrying his child. Harold Clurman also described her lack of acceptance of her role and duties when he said, “Hedda shuns everything painful and ugly; she cannot tolerate the sight of sickness or death. She is already pregnant when the play opens, but mention of it is abhorrent to her, not only because she does not love her milquetoast husband but because she cannot bear the responsibility of bearing and rearing a child.” 12 Bennetto Croce described Hedda’s view of her position as, “She cannot endure to hear even a whisper of domestic life, of sons or of any sort of duties.” 11 Throughout the first act of the play, Miss Tesman alluded to Hedda’s pregnancy, but Hedda would not acknowledge it and became frustrated and mildly violent whenever someone mentioned her fuller figure. In this sense, Hedda is opposite to most women who cherish the ideas of love, marriage, and children. The women were un-heroic in that they both reacted uncontrollably when they lost control of their situation. Nora danced the Tarantella wildly when she realized that there was no way of hiding the truth from Torvald any

more. She realized that because she could not keep Torvald from reading the letter much longer, she was quickly losing her control over the situation she had caused. The wildness of Nora’s tarantella was a vivid picture of her turmoil in this situation, and is her outward expression of her inward feelings. Toril Moi, said of the scene, in reference to Nora’s exchange with Krogstad about her plan to drown herself, “This masterful exchange conveys to the audience the picture that Nora has in her head while she dances the tarantella. It explains why Nora cannot help but answering ‘It does’ when Helmer says that she is dancing as if her life depended on it. Ibsen demonstrates once again the poser of the theatre to convey a person’s inner suffering.” 13 Unni Langås, said of Nora’s performance, “The actual performance is stages as a rehearsal before the ball, and Nora uses the situation in an attempt to control the course of events. Desperately afraid of seeing Helmer open the letter from Krogstad which will ruin his reputation, Nora is prepared to die. The tarantella is a dramatic climax and a last feast before catastrophe. In this scene, Nora uses her body as a sign for a crisis that cannot be verbally represented. The body is her ultimate language.” 14 Ibsen’s stage directions for this scene stated, “Nora dances more and more wildly. Helmer has stationed himself at the stove and repeatedly gives her directions; she seems not to hear them; her hair loosens and falls over her shoulders; she does not notice, but goes on dancing”(92). Nora’s desperation caused her to lose control over her own actions, and she, for a moment, no longer cared how she appeared to others. Nora’s despair and loss of control were clearly shown through her wild thrashing an flailing performance, and her begging Torvald to help her learn the dance can be seen as her cry for help in her general loss of control. Similar in nature to Nora’s chaotic dance, Hedda played the piano wildly when she realized that she did not have the control that she desired. When Hedda was told that Løvborg died because the gun misfired, not because he had killed himself as she had encouraged him to, and when she realized that her husband was helping Mrs. Elvsted rewrite the Løvborg’s book that she had destroyed, she went into the inner room and began playing “a wild dance melody on the piano” (303). Hedda had encouraged Løvborg to commit suicide, but not just kill himself; she wanted him to die “beautifully” (288), as she encouraged him in Act 3. Hedda. What do you intend to do? Løvborg. Nothing. Just put an end to it all. The sooner the better. Hedda (coming a step closer). Eilert Løvborg—listen to me, Couldn’t you arrange that—that it’s done beautifully? Løvborg. Beautifully? (Smiles.) With vine leaves in my hair, as you used to dream in the old days— (287-288) She then gave him one of the pistols that had belonged to her father, so that he could perform the act. Once he left, she took out the book that he and Mrs. Elvsted wrote and burned it page by page. John Northam explained her reason for burning the book saying, “She [Hedda] is jealous of this tangible result of the other woman’s inspiring influence over Lövborg, with whom she has failed. She also recalls the different sort of child, of a very different father, which she is burdened with. Then she turns to the hated ‘child,’ in a scene which brings together all the earlier references, verbal and visual, to fire, burning of hair, all the hints of violent, dangerous reaction to emotional frustration, hatred for her unborn child—here , in action, is Hedda’s open defiance of the world, and a symbol of her first incriminating

act.” 15 Harold Clurman said of Hedda’s failed attempt to inspire Løvborg as Mrs. Elvsted had by saying, “Balked in all her impulses, but forever the romantic, Hedda envisions Lövborg dying with ‘vine leaves in his hair,’ a mythological image of heroism. She fails even in this: Lövborg dies sordidly.” 16 The one person that she felt she had some influence over failed her. John Northam said of Hedda, “Our estimate of Hedda is becoming more precise; we see her as a woman of frustrated potentialities whose customary selfcontrol is apt to give way under pressure. She rejects the warm emotional life of the Tesmans, and so aggravates her frustration by her aloofness.” 17 Throughout the play, Hedda demonstrated that she becomes violent when things do not go the way she planned, and her wild, violent manner of playing the piano was symbolic of her last loss of control. Finally, both women were un-heroic in that they made major decisions that go against Biblical teaching. Nora forsook her responsibilities as a wife and mother to try to find her own purpose for her life. When her miracle did not happen, Nora told her husband, “Yes, but you were very right. I’m not up to the job [raising the children]. There’s another job I have to do first. I have to try to educate myself. You can’t help me with that. I’ve got to do it alone. And that’s why I’m leaving you now. . . . I have to stand completely alone, if I’m ever going to discover myself and the world out there. So I can’t go on living with you” (110). She decided to leave not even giving her marriage a chance once she was disillusioned. John Northam said, “She does not say much about how she expects to enjoy this new life, but Ibsen has already prepared us—from the point for point contrast with Mrs. Linde, we realize that Nora leaves the play as Mrs. Linde entered it—lonely, unhappy, with no one to love or live for, and much, much older;” 18 Nora’s leaving her husband went directly against Bible principles because according to Genesis 2:24, she was to cleave unto her husband for life. Hedda went against Biblical principles in that she took her own life. Clurman described her decision when he said, “A moral coward under the pressure of social inhibition, she becomes a corrupting and malefic force. She destroys the man she has not dared to love, and destroys herself to avoid the consequences of her cowardice. Hedda lacks the courage to slam the door on an unloved husband. If Nora may be said to have flapped her wings to escape the marital and social cage, Hedda is a Nora with clipped wings. She cannot assert herself in any positive way; she has only the desperate boldness to do away with herself.” 19 She twistedly associated suicide with courage. Hedda disregarded the Biblical principle of the sanctity of human life: she did not value the life of her unborn child, Løvborg’s life, or her own life. Proverbs 31:10 says, “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.” Women of good character are uncommon, especially in the writings of realists. Ibsen strove to portray life as it really was; he knew that people lie, are violent, immoral, and unloving by nature, but as a realist, he denied the existence of God. He understood that life is full of unrealized dreams and expectations. Ibsen portrayed the characters of Nora Helmer and Hedda Tesman in a realistic rather than a romantic light. As realistic people in the mind of a writer who did not believe in God, Nora Helmer and Hedda Tesman could never be truly heroic.

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