Ibsen’s overlooked heroine

I”m exaggerating a bit. It’s not really appropriate to describe Hedda Gabler‘s Thea Elvsted as a heroine, as she’s really a secondary character. Actually, pretty much everyone is secondary to Hedda herself, though she’s probably more correctly described as a protagonist or anti-hero(ine). But I find Ibsen’s treatment of Mrs. Elvsted to be interesting.

Like Hedda, she’s had limited opportunities, the fate of most women in the late 19th century, and has also found herself in a mismatched marriage, but her actions in the play follow a very different path. Unlike Hedda, who concurs with Lovborg’s description of her as “a coward,” Thea has done something quite brave and romantic. She’s left her husband to follow the man she loves.

Hedda, on the other hand,, seems to be in some ways a parody of Romanticism. She wants grand gestures and tragic lovers, but she is by turns petty, vengeful, and cruel. Obviously, we have some sympathy for her, since she’s trapped by social convention in a role she has no interest in, but she’s allowed herself to become a monster. It’s clear from the text that it’s not merely her status as a woman that has twisted Hedda. Her inclinations were there as a schoolchild, when she pulled Thea’s hair and threatened to burn it off. Even when her social standing is so much higher than Thea’s, the jealousy that erupts in Hedda is unrestrained, and Hedda burns the manuscript that Lovborg and Thea created.

Hedda only becomes tragic at the end of the play, when she’s trapped not only by societal norms, but by the effects of her own actions. She’s left herself open to blackmail by Brack, who turns from merely slimy into a sexual predator. Unwilling to either divulge the truth of what has transpired or to become his sexual plaything, she commits suicide.

Thea, on the other hand, has not only sacrificed her honor for love (which as Nora reminded us in A Doll’s House, women have been doing for centuries), but she found meaning in the work she did with Lovborg. He, in fact, credits her as an equal, saying that the book, which will come out under his name, of course, is “their child,” and it is her notes which will allow this masterwork to be reconstructed with Tesman. So Thea has become at least something of a scholar herself.

It is true that Lovborg calls Thea “stupid,” but he’s specifically talking about her awareness of relationship issues. In this, she’s like Tesman, who would probably be incapable of seeing Hedda and Lovborg or Hedda and Brack as a potentially involved outside their marriage. In fact, though Lovborg is not actually in love with Thea, her devotion and scholarship has kept him from relapsing into alcoholism for several years. Thea thus defies social convention and finds meaningful work.

Ibsen is kind enough to imply a happy ending, at least for Tesman and Thea. With Lovborg and Hedda both dead, the two of them will continue their scholarship, and presumably discover their mutual interests and attractions. If this happens, it would be the only reciprocal relationship in the entire play, since the original relationships are all unrequited: Tesman and Brack desire Hedda, but she doesn’t want either of them (despite being married to Tesman), Thea and Hedda desire Lovborg and though he relies on Thea and used to be attracted to Hedda, he’s really obsessed with the red-haired courtesan, Mademoiselle Diana.

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