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Taylor Lach

HONR 102 Whidden
Hedda Gabler Exemplifies Tocqueville’s Fears about Equality’s Oppression
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville recognizes the socially and intellectually
satisfying nature of aristocracy based on its unequal but interdependent nature. As democracies
arise, Tocqueville observes the kinds of oppression that emerge out of a collective obsession with
maintaining equality of conditions. Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler explores these problems and by
visually depicting the oppressive qualities of a society moving away from aristocracy’s rigid
class structure. For Ibsen, aristocracy allowed control over our lives and others, while equality
restricts that power.
A major critique that Tocqueville addresses in Democracy in America deals with the
obsession with equality over freedom, and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler provides an active example of a
society moving from an aristocracy toward one overly-concerned with equality. Tocqueville
doesn’t find this preference surprising, since equality of conditions provides “a multitude of little
enjoyments daily to each man,” while “the goods that freedom brings show themselves only in
the long term” (Tocqueville481). Because of the appeal of immediate satisfaction, democratic
people swarm to the idea of perfect equality and are blind to the freedom that they forfeit in the
process (Tocqueville481). Ibsen recognizes this phenomenon as his character, Hedda, marries
George Tesman below her aristocratic class in order to reap the immediate benefits of marriage
(Discussion 3/11). Hedda says, “it was part of our bargain that we’d live in society—that we’d
keep a great house,” but it is too late that she finally realizes she will not have the freedom and


“Tesman always goes around worrying about how people are going to make a living” (Ibsen244). barbarism. He tolerates this oppression because he prefers the comfort of isolation over competition. Even Hedda notices his desire to compare. Tocqueville observes the problem of individualism that emerges from an emphasis on equality while Ibsen’s characters exemplify this destructive process. Although Tocqueville saw this individualism in American democratic society.comforts of her old aristocratic life like a “butler” or a “riding horse” (Ibsen247). As her lifestyle moves from the aristocratic one she’s used to. but [he] will not tolerate aristocracy” (Tocqueville482). Hedda herself experiences the separation and oppression described by Tocqueville as societies become more equal. enslavement. equality of conditions was threatened when Judge Brack revealed a “competition for the post” of his professor appointment (Ibsen245). “Aristocracy had made of all citizens a long chain that went from the peasant up to the king. Tesman takes away his wife’s financial freedom and diminishes his own ambition out of fear for competition because of the preference for equality above all else. For George Tesman. 2 . As long as he remains equal to his fellow citizens and preserves his lifestyle. This problem of individualism is a reflective and selfish isolation of a citizen who knowingly abandons larger society to focus inward (Lecture 2/23). the society in Hedda Gabler is one that is moving away from aristocracy toward the same preference for equality. who’s vying for his professorship. The equality she descended into took those freedoms from her. he “will tolerate poverty. He then spends the rest of the scene bartering the ways he’ll accommodate his and Hedda’s habits in order to maintain economic stability and equality to Lovborg. This “unthinkable” and “impossible” matter Tesman finds “incredibly inconsiderate” because he’s a married man who has prospects and expectations within his individual lifestyle (Ibsen246).

Hedda is part of a chain when she is still General Gabler’s daughter. Ibsen’s characters in Hedda are examples of the mediocrity that arises from the misuse of these solutions. The only power that remains is that over her own life. She has forfeited control over herself and stumbled into “this tight little world…[And] that’s what makes life so miserable! So utterly ludicrous! Because that’s what it is” (Ibsen256). Tocqueville prescribes citizens with “the administration of small affairs…[to] interest them in the public good” which will make everyone recognize their needs for each other without the institution of aristocracy (Tocqueville487).” but this oppressively equal society limits her control (Ibsen272). But. …[taking] the sort of benevolent and tranquil interest in the lot of the people that the shepherd accords to his flock” (Tocqueville8). She cannot have the life she expected because of Tesman’s obsession with equality. and she cannot control others because of that equality’s oppression. Hedda wants to be like the nobles that Tocqueville describes as “placed at an immense distance from the people. but by marrying Tesman. “For once in my life. since Tocqueville was referring to a power found in aristocracies. but he also concedes that these freedoms are not always used to their fullest potential. she brakes her aristocratic link and gives up the possibility of “being wealthy enough or powerful enough to exert a great influence over the fates of those like them” (Tocqueville484). I want to have power over a human being.democracy breaks that chain and sets each link apart” (Tocqueville483). Hedda tells Thea. which she claims when she kills herself at the end of the play. Toqueville cites democratic freedoms that could prevent equality of conditions leading to this extreme level of oppression. Hedda must try subtly influencing the people around her because she has no real power. allow equal citizens to combat individualism and oppression by openly discussing their own views with others. along with freedom of press. Judge Brack’s “little bachelor party” seems to 3 . These associations.

rather than devoting time and intellect to profound literature and action (Discussion 2/25). Tesman perpetuates this fear because his specialty is on the “domestic handicrafts of Brabant in the Middle Ages. Thus. deliberate manuscripts (Ibsen258). Of course. This form of oppression is supported by Hedda’s necessity to marry due to her age. Hedda continues to support Tocqueville’s fears about the oppressiveness of extreme equality as characters lose control over their intellectual and social freedoms. Therefore. but the 4 .become a sort of impromptu association as the two authors.” which no one in the play seems to find very stimulating or profound (Ibsen228). it also unearths deep gender role issues that oppress women in ways that equality of conditions never has. Hedda’s “new responsibility” is often referenced in the play. Finally. Hedda also had to live vicariously through Eilert Lovborg in her youth. she claims. however. which he now recognizes was due to her “hunger for life” that she could not satiate because of her gender (Ibsen266). one must concede that Hedda’s inability to control others did not solely arise out of a lack of aristocracy and a newfound obsession with equality of conditions.what lines of development it’s likely to take” (Ibsen260). Lovborg and Tesman. Lovborg’s manuscript would have gained approval of Tocqueville. her opportunities were greatly limited as well. Tocqueville fears that these freedoms will be abused and become trivial as citizens write about anything and everything. My time was up” (Ibsen251). it addressed the “forces shaping civilization and the future [and] …. Because of her gender. the world of Hedda exemplifies Tocqueville’s fears for societies without rigid aristocracies. “I had really danced myself out. is eliminated upon the burning of the manuscript and the death of one of its authors. but the idea of pregnancy’s biological oppression absolutely disgusts Hedda (Ibsen256). Judge. The exception to Tocqueville’s fears. while Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler contains a portrayal of the social and intellectual oppression of equality described by Tocqueville in Democracy in America.

mediocrity of equality is by no means the only factor governing Ibsen’s muti-faceted tragicomedy. 5 .