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Hedda Gabler, Psychoanalysis And The Space Of (The) Play Essay, Research Paper


by Nigel Hand

The established view of Hedda Gabler sees the play as a study of the frustration and despair

engendered in the exceptional individual by a conventionalised society. In this paper I present a

psychoanalytic re-interpretation of the play which in certain respects inverts this received reading.

Insofar as it does so, however, my interpretation is intended not to cancel the received view but to

play against it. The first section of the paper is predominantly Freudian in approach. The second

section takes up certain Kleinian ideas which are broached in the first, and explores them more

fully. The third section exploits some of Winnicott’s key concepts, especially as they have been

elaborated by Christopher Bollas. The paper seeks to enlarge our understanding of the nature of

Hedda Gabler’s alienation and despair through a fresh study of the dynamic structure of the play as

a whole. I am also suggesting that Ibsen should be seen as a major precursor both of Freud and the

object-relations tradition in psychoanalysis.



‘Ibsen did not write or think as a Freudian,’ writes Robin Young in the Preface to his study of the dramatist

(1989, p.12). As a scholar of the Norwegian language and its literature Young writes with at least one kind

of indisputable authority. Unsurprisingly he asserts that Ibsen can only be understood in the context of the

Norwegian literary culture he grew up with – and in this respect Young’s book makes interesting reading,

especially in its provocative contention that Ibsen was in many respects an anti-Romantic. But if there is

one truth which has emerged clearly from the age of theory it is that no text can be finally enclosed in a

single defining and exclusive context, and of this truth Robin Young’s book provides striking illustration, for

in reality both his general approach to Ibsen’s plays and his detailed interpretations of them would be

unthinkable had Freud never written. Young consistently reads Ibsen’s symbolism as pointing to early

experiences which have left his major characters emotionally crippled: Young’s Ibsen, like Freud, is an

archaeologist of the psyche. It is in fact something of a regular feature of critical writing on Ibsen that where

the critic feels impelled to distance himself from psychoanalysis (as several do), the Freudian infection will

nevertheless be seen to have invaded his text in one surreptitious fashion or another. (Clurman, 1977, and

Gray, 1977, are notable examples.)

Critical writing on a given author will frequently reproduce the field of forces which animate the author’s

work. In my view psychoanalysis features as the ‘other’ of Ibsen criticism because the conception, birth and

development of psychoanalysis are in fact profoundly foreshadowed in Ibsen’s major plays. In this paper I

argue, indeed, that Ibsen writes and thinks not only as a Freudian, but that in Hedda Gabler in particular he

is a major precursor of both Melanie Klein and D.W.Winnicott. Moreover among contemporary analytic

writers one of the most interesting of the successors of Klein and Winnicott is Christopher Bollas. I shall

suggest that the argument is strikingly confirmed, therefore, when we find that Bollas’s work on the

‘unthought known’, the ‘first human aesthetic’ and the ‘destiny drive’ resonates uncannily with Ibsen’s play

(Bollas, 1978, 1987, and 1989) and in particular with the heroine’s characteristic preoccupation with the

‘beautiful’. As I attempt to substantiate these large claims I am also proposing a radical reorientation of the

received understanding of Hedda Gabler, for in my view the play has been emptied of much of its

originality through a reading which reduces it to a familiar critique of ‘bourgeois society’ – a reading, that is

to say, which is itself shallow and conventionalised.


The established reading of Ibsen’s play focusses very much on its central character, who is seen in some

qualified sense at least, as an existential, or romantic, or tragic heroine. Hedda Gabler, it seems, presents

us with a particular version of ‘liberal tragedy’, that form in which the claims of an alienated individual are

uncompromisingly asserted against those of a conventional society (Williams, 1966 and 1971). At the age

of twenty nine, and having ‘danced herself out’, the aristocratic Hedda Gabler has married J?rgen Tesman,

an indefatigable scholar and pedant. If Tesman’s world seemed to offer her some sort of security, in the

event she feels that she is suffocating in its claustrophobically middle class atmosphere. The action of the

play is presided over by the portrait of Hedda’s father, General Gabler, which now hangs in the Tesmans’

drawing room. This portrait of Hedda’s dead father serves as the symbol of a moribund military-aristocratic

world which no longer offers his daughter a home. Of her mother we hear no mention at all, and Hedda’s

only other remaining connection with the world she comes from is the pair of pistols which she has inherited

from her father. Her disconcerting habit of firing off these pistols, from time to time, dramatises the profound

dissonance between herself and her present world, and her frustration with the emptiness of her life. It

seems she can conceive of no future for herself other than a life of excruciating boredom. During the

opening scenes of the play various hints are thrown out to suggest that Hedda is pregnant, but the prospect

of motherhood is so far from providing her with a reason for living that it seems to be anathema to her.

Certainly the child would be born into an unpromising environment, for throughout the play we have the

utmost difficulty in thinking of Hedda and Tesman as a parental couple. Tesman’s na?ve assumption that they

have everything in common is matched by Hedda’s inward belief that they have nothing. I shall suggest in

my later discussion that the struggle to constitute the parental couple is one of the play’s deep


If Hedda’s character has been formed in a military-paternal setting, Tesman still lives in an atmosphere of

motherly concern, brought up as he has been by a trio of adoring and self-sacrificing women – his two

Aunts, Julle and Rina, and Berte, the maid. During the opening sequence of the action, with the Tesmans

newly returned from a six month honeymoon trip in Europe, we are given an early indication of Hedda’s

hostility to the world in which she finds herself when, on an impulse, she speaks slightingly of a hat which

she knows to be Aunt Julle’s, but which she pretends to believe is ‘the maid’s’. That she knew the hat to be

Aunt Julle’s is revealed to us through a subsequent passage of dialogue between Hedda and Judge Brack.

The latter is a friend of the family with whom she shares a habit of risqu? conversation; he is as

cold-bloodedly cynical as Tesman is na?ve and good-natured, and his one purpose throughout the play is to

engineer an affair with Hedda.

Meanwhile much greater scope for the central character to act upon her world opens up before her with the

arrival on the scene of Thea Elvsted, a younger colleague of Hedda’s during her schooldays. A good deal of

our sense of the play’s direction is produced by the interplay between these two female characters. It can

hardly be said, however, that the initial comparison suggests that Hedda is the more independent or

romantic of the two women. Hedda has married Tesman apparently for no better reason than that ‘he

insisted with might and main on being allowed to support me’ (HG, p.300). Thea, on the other hand, has

just walked out of her own marriage of convenience on account of what now seems to her a higher

vocation, for she has become dedicated to the role of companion and support to Ejlert L?vborg, a gifted

but unstable writer, who might at any moment, it seems, return to his former drunken habits, but for Thea’s

loyal ministrations.

Complications unfold when we learn that Hedda herself has had an earlier relationship with L?vborg, which

broke up when she threatened to shoot him. It seems that she did so because, for her, L?vborg had in

some undisclosed fashion begun to ask too much of the relationship. Since that time L?vborg’s life has

taken another turn, for under the tutelage of Thea Elvsted he has has written two books – the first, a general

history of society, has been a succ?s d’estime; the second, a meditation on the future, exists only in

manuscript but promises to make a considerable stir when it is published. Hedda’s complex feelings about

the relationship between Thea and L?vborg fuel the action of the play. To what extent her apparent belief

that L?vborg should be liberated from the constraints of his relationship with Thea is a rationalisation of her

jealousy it is not easy to discern, but at any rate she so works upon him that he goes to a bachelor party

given by Brack and gets drunk once again. The consequence is that he loses the manuscript, which by this

time has acquired an intense emotional value for all concerned – they have come to think of it, in fact, as a

child. When the manuscript comes into Hedda’s possession, via Tesman (who found it by the roadside), she

burns it; and when the distraught L?vborg (who knows only that he has lost the ‘child’) returns to her house,

she encourages his thoughts of suicide – and puts into his hands one of her father’s pistols. L?vborg makes

his way back to the rooms of ‘Mademoiselle Diana’, where he believes the manuscript was stolen from him,

and in an unruly scene (reported to Hedda by Judge Brack) the pistol goes off and L?vborg is killed. Brack

attempts to use these circumstances to play upon Hedda’s fear of scandal and so to blackmail her into a

liaison. But in the d?nouement, while Thea and Tesman are beginning to try to reconstruct L?vborg’s

manuscript from the notes which Thea kept, Hedda shoots herself. It is left to the dismayed Brack to

pronounce the final speech: ‘One doesn’t do that kind of thing.’ (HG, p.364)


As I have indicated I think that Robin Young is correct when he argues that much of the published

commentary on Ibsen’s plays gives an over romantic view of his work. In the case of Hedda Gabler even

John Northam (1973), perhaps the most reliable of Ibsen critics (in English at any rate) seems to me to give

a hugely distorted account of the play. Like other commentators Northam is preoccupied with the character

of the protagonist, her supposed revolt against ‘middle class society’, the authenticity or otherwise of her

final action, and hence the validity of her claims to heroic status. Though these issues routinely provide the

agenda for most discussion of the play, I shall argue that they are only very partially what Hedda Gabler is

about. The protagonist of Ibsen’s play is for all of us a deeply troubling dramatic creation – outside of

Shakespeare and the Greeks, none more so perhaps. Northam attempts to escape from the challenging

perplexity which Hedda Gabler arouses in our minds by producing a highly romanticised appraisal of her

character and actions. When he attributes to Ibsen’s heroine ‘a residually creative sense of human

potentiality’ (p.182) Northam undoubtedly points to something which is at the heart of the play, but his

belief that she also displays ’serene self-confidence’ (p.168) is simply astonishing, for what is Hedda Gabler

if not a deeply troubled soul?

In producing his idealized portrait of Ibsen’s central character Northam is responding, albeit

wrong-headedly, I believe, to the central dynamic of Ibsen’s play. It seems to me that as we watch Hedda

Gabler we feel that the cast of characters as a whole faces the responsibility of nurturing the germ of life

doubly symbolised by L?vborg’s book and Hedda’s unborn child. As the play goes forward it evokes in us

a profound concern and apprehension for the future of this ‘child’. The play works upon us with such gravity

and depth of feeling because from first to last we fear that the human group before us is mortally near to

failure in the ‘holding’ and nurturance of its ‘offspring’. Critical misreading of the play derives from the

obscuring of this very troubling question of the fate of the ‘child’ – and the corresponding flight into an

attempt to redeem Hedda Gabler so that, however desperately, she may be seen not as a destroyer but as

the carrier of the life-principle in the play. These processes of repression and distortion are at work in

Northam’s paragraphs on the burning of the book. In describing this event Northam more or less veils from

sight the eerily dreadful spectacle of the mother-to-be burning a ‘child’: ‘Now I’m burning your child, Thea -

you and your curly hair! Your child and Ejlert L?vborg’s. Now I’m burning – now I’m burning your child.’

(HG, p.345) The fearful ambiguity of that last sentence (’I am burning…’) reveals that the annihilating hatred

which is dramatised in this scene is directed as much against the self as against the object. To refer to this

moment as a ‘tremendous fulfilment’, as Northam does (p.169), serves not only to obscure the horror of it,

but to prevent us altogether from grasping the significance of the book-child theme within the play as a



To ignore this theme is to turn aside, understandably perhaps, from some of the deepest unconscious fears,

phantasies and anxieties which the play arouses: that if we surrender to some of our darkest impulses, for

instance, we may destroy everything that is good in the world. It is also, at the same time, to miss the way in

which the book-child theme shapes the structure of the play as a whole. Throughout Hedda Gabler there is

a triangular patterning which has been given remarkably little attention, despite the fact that it is very

prominently highlighted during the scenes between Hedda and Brack:

BRACK. All I want is to have a pleasant intimate circle of friends where I can be useful, in one

way or another, and can come and go freely – like a trusted friend.

HEDDA. Of the husband, you mean?

BRACK. [Leaning forward] To be quite frank, preferably of the wife. But of the husband, too,

in the second place, of course. I assure you that sort of – shall I call it

triangular relationship? – is actually a very pleasant thing for everybody concerned.

(HG, p.300-1)

I shall suggest that in the course of the play this triangular patterning continually forms and re-forms itself -

as if in some shifting magnetic field – in three distinct but essentially related figurations. The book-child

theme is embedded in the more overt drama of sexual liaisons and rivalries, for example, in that the various

couplings suggest a range of possibilities as to the parentage of the ‘child’. And because the play generates

so many different ’subject positions’, in this and other ways, we come to feel that it is being staged in some

figurative space in which the potentialities of human nature are being very profoundly explored.


If, as I shall go on to show, the book-child motif is truly the figure in the carpet, it is the play of adult sexual

relationships which provides as it were the setting for the more subliminal modulations of the theme. All of

the major characters are most obviously defined of course by the parts they play in the kind of triangular

situations which are of such absorbing interest to Hedda and Brack. The two female characters (three if we

include the non-appearing Mademoiselle Diana) are combined with the three males (four if we include Thea

Elvsted’s husband) to produce almost every possible coupling. Thea is married to Elvsted, but devoted to

their children’s tutor, L?vborg; at the close she will form a relationship with Tesman to resurrect the ‘child’

she created with L?vborg. Hedda is married but not commited to Tesman. Earlier in her life she feared to

commit herself to her affair with L?vborg, and now she toys dangerously with Judge Brack. Thea Elvsted is

jocularly refered to as an old flame of Tesman’s. Now respectably married, however, this complacent

husband has no thought that he might have rivals – though in fact L?vborg is jealous of him and Brack is

determined to outflank them both. Finally, the two women are also involved in a complex pattern of rivalry.

Hedda is jealous of Thea’s relationship with L?vborg and of the latter’s connection with Mlle Diana, while

Thea is jealous of the ‘other’ woman of L?vborg’s imagination – who may again be Mlle Diana but is most

probably Hedda herself.

The ways in which sexuality figures in human life are further dramatised in the play through such varying

manifestations as the off-stage world of Mlle Diana, which shadows the bourgeois respectabilities, on the

one hand, to Aunt Julie’s domestic rejoicing in Hedda’s pregnancy, on the other. In fact it is only the

relationship between Hedda and Brack – a sterile and destructive sparring between egotisms – which has no

reference at all to the theme of the ‘child’. From Hedda’s marriage to Tesman, to the relationship formed

during the closing scene by Tesman and Mrs Elvsted (with a view to their resurrecting L?vborg’s

book-child) each liaison is shaped by this second ‘triangular’ theme – that is to say, the parental couple with

their embryonic offspring. At the level of social themes Ibsen’s supposed preoccupation with individual

fulfilment is inseparable in this play from the equally powerful theme of responsibility. If it is obvious that

Hedda Gabler reworks the plot and themes of A Doll’s House one of the major differences is that, unlike

the earlier play, Hedda Gabler does not sidestep the question of the children, or child. On the contrary, so

intensely is the theme of the child-book imbricated in the sexual relationships that the play does not allow us

to think of freedom, fulfilment and responsibility as separable concepts. Conventional readings and some of

Ibsen’s polemical utterances notwithstanding, this play, as a whole, is so far from proposing an isolated

individualism as an ideal that it presents the theme of human potentiality in terms of the creative/destructive

couple and moreover makes the fate of the child-book within that setting an essential measure of the

relationship itself. So central is this motif that, in my view, the struggle within the play to constitute a realm

within which the child-book might survive is the play.



In her chapter on ‘Art and the depressive position’ in Dream, Phantasy and Art Hannah Segal refers to

the familiar notion that the ‘work of art is often felt by the artist as a symbolic baby’ (1991, p.95). In

Kleinian terms symbol-making is linked, of course, with the idea of ‘reparation’. While the rage and

frustrations of infancy are vented, in imagination, against the frustrating object (the breast/mother), the

‘depressive position’ is reached when the infant becomes able to deal with ambivalent feelings of love and

hate towards the frustrating object, to experience guilt and depression about his/her own destructiveness,

and to wish to ‘restore’ the maternal object which has been ‘destroyed’. For Hannah Segal this line of

thought leads to an important Kleinian paradox, namely that ‘the artist’s work is new and yet arises from an

urge to recreate or restore’. Insofar as creative work is a restoration of lost objects in the internal world it

generates a sense of re-discovery; but insofar as the process is necessarily symbolic, the subject ‘has the

freedom of its use – it is something created anew’. Hannah Segal goes on to capture this Kleinian paradox in

a sentence which resonates extraordinarily, I believe, with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Of the dual process of

restoration/creation she writes: ‘It is a restoring in one’s internal world of a parental couple creating a new

baby.’ (p.95)

In my view this is a beautifully succinct statement of the dynamic which engages us so deeply in Hedda

Gabler. The reason why we are so actively engaged in Ibsen’s play is that we are drawn into a realm of

potentiality – by the means which I have outlined. The world of the play is not given – it is not there in the list

of dramatis personae, in an account of the plot, or even in the action on the stage insofar as this might be the

object of a spectator’s attention. The work which Ibsen has given us is there only as we participate in the

play of effects whereby the existence of a realm in which the ‘baby’ might have a life is always in question:

throughout the play this realm is always being created – and destroyed.

The play concerns itself with the making and unmaking of the human world. The sense of some fundamental

breakdown within the community of the play is dramatised in the strange duality of the book-child theme. In

‘Living Creatively’ Winnicott writes:

… it has to be remembered that a baby may be conceived uncreatively – that is

without being conceived of, without having been arrived at as an idea in the

mind. On the other hand, a baby may start up just at the right moment when it is

wanted by both parties. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee

studies the fate of a baby that is conceived of, but without taking flesh. What a

remarkable study in both play and film! (1970, p.48)

Albee’s play has striking affinities with Hedda Gabler. The unborn child of the Tesmans’ marriage has been

conceived but not conceived of, while the book-child of Thea and L?vborg (like George and Martha’s

imaginary son in the later play) has been conceived of, but is not a fleshly child. Like Albee’s play, Hedda

Gabler uses the intriguingly subtle theme of the imaginary child to explore what it means to live creatively,

and more particularly, what it means when one is unable to find the clue to doing so. For Ibsen, as for

Winnicott, there is no more fundamental theme. In Hedda Gabler Ibsen’s most memorable character

wages a life and death struggle to overcome her sense of futility, to escape from her despair at being unable

to live creatively. For Hedda is no more able to create a living conception of her own life than she is to

conceive of a life for the child she has conceived with Tesman.

In ‘Living Creatively’ Winnicott summarises much of his thinking on this subject when he says that

‘Creativity… is the retention throughout life of something that belongs properly to the infant experience: the

ability to create the world.’ He goes on to say that, ‘for the baby this is not difficult, because if the mother is

able to adapt to the baby’s needs, the baby has no initial appreciation of the fact that the world was there

before he or she was conceived or conceived of.’ (p.40) In a later paragraph he outlines the process

whereby creativity is retained as the ‘reality principle’ makes itself felt:

The infant becomes ready to find a world of objects and ideas, and, at the same pace of

growth of this aspect of the baby, the mother is presenting the world to the baby. In this way,

by her degree of adaptation at the beginning, the mother enables the baby to experience

omnipotence, to actually find what he creates, to create and link up with what is actual. The

nett result is that each baby starts up with a new creation of the world. (p.49)

When ‘what we create’ and ‘what we find’ are ‘linked up’ we are of course in the realm of the transitional

object, that ‘third area’ or ‘potential space’ in which play and symbol-making begin, and continue throughout

life (Winnicott, 1971). In the world of Hedda Gabler it is as if there has been some tear in the fabric of

things whereby she is denied access to this realm of experience. For her the actual is no more than the

actual. At a loss to find the gesture which would effect the transformation she yearns for, Hedda will seek to

animate her existence through manipulation of the lives others.


What are the obstacles to the creative realisation of the powerful energies embodied in the heroine of

Hedda Gabler and those around her? How is it that the birth and survival of the child-book, bound up as

they are with the gestation of the play itself, are attended by so much anxiety and apprehension? An initial

part of the answer to this question concerns the way in which Freud’s ‘primal scene’ figures in the play -

haunts it indeed, from beginning to end. The opening exchange of the play, between Tesman’s Aunt Julle,

and his servant Berte, notify us that the young couple, J?rgen Tesman and Hedda Gabler, having returned

the previous evening from a six month honeymoon trip, are still in bed, though it seems to be quite late in the

morning. These events, especially as they are spoken of by these two good-hearted and motherly women,

are natural enough in themselves, but everything which subsequently happens in the play serves to make the

nature of the sexual relationship between the off-stage couple (which is of course variously constituted) a

source of great perplexity for the ’spectator’ both on and off the stage, this of course being the essence of

the primal scene experience. Here then we have the third variation of the triangular figure which structures

the pl

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