Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children
Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children present two strongly defined female heroines whose actions not only adversely affect the other characters’ lives but also suggest a fundamental problem with their societies. Both playwrights establish the macroscopic view of society’s ills in the microscopic, individual characters of Hedda and Mother Courage. Both characters have an indomitable magnetism that, on the one hand, allows them to control others but, on the other, causes them to make desperate choices that reflect a repressive society.
Ibsen creates in Hedda Gabler a dominating, fiercely controlling female heroine who controls everyone in her circle, from her weak husband Tesman, to Lovborg, Mrs. Elvsted and even, to a lesser degree, Judge Brack, who reverses roles with Hedda by the end of the play. Hedda, as a chameleon figure, alternately shifts her manipulative tactics to maintain control, and each character cannot stay away from her influence. Only when Hedda has lost control of Lovborg, does she resort to an act of supreme self-control: suicide. Judge Brack believes he has won in his battle of wills with Hedda and believes he remains “the only cock in the yard…” at the play’s end. Nevertheless, her suicide reinforces her superiority because she has claimed the ultimate position of control in the play. Judge Brack cannot assert his lustful intentions through coercive blackmail, and she will not relinquish the power to any character or realization, whether it is Tesman’s loving yet remonstrative pleas or Judge Brack’s slyly conniving wiles. She defines her own role by her self-inflicted death at the end and thereby defies society.
If Hedda’s death represents a kind of free choice to leave society, it cannot fail to also symbolize yet another sacrifice Hedda must make for these roles. Though Ibsen depicts Hedda as a cold, unnatural creature who cannot love her husband, her child, or even her lover Lovborg, she nevertheless remains a victim in life and, by her suicide, in death. Society holds no place for Hedda other than as a wife or mother, and the implication remains throughout the play that Hedda, as an intelligent individual, has wasted her intelligence and abilities on her domestic role. Hedda channels her creative energy into a fruitless, harmful end, and the coldness of her character matches the idea that anyone opposing the social roles set forth for them must exist as an unnatural, unfeeling creature. If her life has given her a cage, then her death, which seems to free Hedda, in actuality only gives yet another destructive manifestation of her energies. Ibsen implies, by her death, that the only way Hedda finds freedom from an oppressive system lies in the internalization of her destructive actions, or her suicide.
Though Hedda, in view of this restrictive society, potentially evokes our...