Symbolism Of General Gabler’s Guns In Hedda Gabler By Henrik Ibsen

Symbolism is prevalent within many of Henrik Ibsen’s plays, perhaps none more so than his 1891 production, Hedda Gabler. That play’s paramount symbol is arguably General Gabler’s guns, as a significant representation of the cold, malicious and controlling protagonist Hedda. By the end of the play she truly embodies the trope of a pistol, both mentally and physically, which is evident in Ibsen’s use of costuming. Hedda and Løvborg’s relationship has been moulded by the pistol, in the past and evidently in his death, which inevitably, is the causality of Hedda’s actions.

After his death, the great General Gabler passed down his powerful pistols to his daughter Hedda, providing her along with them the desire to have absolute control over others. Being raised by her military father, Hedda’s characteristics are similar to that of a soldier; she is harsh, arrogant and cold and imperious towards people of a lower rank. An evident example of this is her attitude towards Aunt Julle:

Hedda: (pointing) Look there! Berte has left her old bonnet lying about on a chair.

Tesman: (in concentration, drops the slippers on the floor). Why, Hedda…

Hedda: Just fancy, if any one should come in and see it!

Tesman: But Hedda, that’s Aunt Julle’s bonnet.

From this we can see that Hedda is not sympathetic towards weaker women. This scene is ironic because Miss Tesman was just discussing how proud she was of her nephew’s achievements, particularly in being able to marry the Hedda Gabler. However, once Hedda is introduced on stage, the audience receives an initial perception of her rude personality. She rejects the emotional, loving life of the Tesmans due to her military upbringing; instead of playing with dolls like other girls, she grew up shooting and riding horses, which evidently explains her obsession with violence and destruction. In her dreadfully boring life with Jorgen Tesman, the pistols are Hedda’s final material connection to her glamorous past, she ultimately sacrificed her aristocratic background for the security of a bourgeois marriage. They are the only thing that bring her enjoyment; “Oh, well, I’ve got one thing at least that I can pass the time with…My pistols.” The tragedy of Hedda’s situation is that, for all her faults, a culturally narrow middle-class family like the Tesmans is quite suffocating for such a dynamic personality. Ibsen develops this through the contrast in characterisation between the self-deluding, academic Jorgen Tesman and the brilliant, stimulating Løvborg. Holding the pistols allows Hedda to feel empowered and in control, this can be witnessed when she fires at Judge Brack as he comes to visit. The pistols symbolise the need of Hedda’s character for freedom and absolute control over both herself and other people, specifically Judge Brack and Løvborg. Although control is one of the main themes of the play, Hedda feels no need to maintain control over Tesman because his life is simply too boring. Guns are typically associated with masculinity and so Hedda shies away from traditional feminine practices. Most people see pistols as a vehicle for danger, but Hedda sees them as a toy, similar to how her lethal manipulations are solely planned for her own amusement.

The pistols play an important role in the relationship between Hedda and Løvborg, and also between her friendship with Brack. The pistol was once aimed at Løvborg, when they were lovers, and Hedda provides him with the same pistol once again, in order to kill himself “beautifully.” They reveal the extent of Hedda’s control over Løvborg and further portray her destructive nature.

Hedda: (nodding slowly). Do you recognize it? It was aimed at you once.

Løvborg: You should have used it then.

Hedda: Take it and do you use it now.

Løvborg: (puts the pistol in his breast pocket). Thanks!

Hedda: And beautifully, Ejlert Løvborg. Promise me that!

Hedda attempts to destroy Løvborg’s life as soon as she discovers that he is in town. His high social reputation, paired with his relationship with Thea thrives Hedda’s jealousy, and fuels her vicious plan to bring him down. By exposing Thea’s secret about why she came to see Løvborg, and by burning his manuscript, she is now able to be in control of his life. His career collapses, and his romantic relationship ends; he ultimately has nothing left to live for. Hedda’s recommendation to use the pistol is what pushes him over the edge and leads to his suicide. It is not surprising that the pistol is used overall as a symbol of control over life and death, as well as its demonstration of Hedda “want[ing] for once in [her] life to have the power to mould a human destiny.” After his death, Hedda questions whether he died beautifully, indicating that she perceives death as a performance, rather than the end of life. Løvborg shoots himself in the genitals which inevitably ruins Hedda’s perfect act and so, she is disgusted: “What is it, this – this curse – that everything I touch turns ridiculous and vile?” The controlling nature of Hedda’s personality is reflected in the pistol, as mentioned previously, she is mischievous and must be in control of people’s lives, for her own enjoyment. At the end of the play, when Hedda kills herself by shooting herself beautifully in the temple is not a cowardly action, but instead, a rebellion against society. As Brack says; “people don’t do such things.” Hedda cannot stand the fact that she is now under the control of Brack to avoid the scandal, rather than him being under the control of Hedda, a shift in power occurs and he is the only person to ever have power over her. Initially, when introduced in act one, by entering through the back door it allows us to view the morally questionable relationship that Brack is trying to establish; he is a “back-door man,” and Hedda knows it. This scene foreshadows her use of the pistols against herself, thanks to Brack’s entrapment of her with the threat of scandal. Ibsen’s characterisation of Brack is incredibly similar to Hedda, he is just as smart as she is, which explains the sharp banter between them. One of Hedda’s greatest abilities is to make others confess, and Brack is the only person throughout the play who is able to turn it back on her, as she ends up confessing to him.

Ibsen’s portrayal of Hedda as a human pistol is achieved by a variety of means, including his use of stage directions which initially illustrates that “her complexion is pale and opaque. Her steel-grey eyes express a cold, unruffled repose.” She is portrayed as the complete opposite to Thea, who is “a woman of fragile figure, with pretty, soft features. Her eyes are light blue, large, round, and somewhat prominent, with a startled, inquiring expression. Her hair is remarkably light, almost flaxen, and unusually abundant and wavy.” Thea is a beautiful, courageous woman who much like Løvborg ignites Hedda’s jealousy, as they rebel against societal expectations, as Thea says; “to hell with the rules.” Ibsen depicts Thea as a foil of Hedda; Thea is about creative construction while Hedda is about violent destruction. Hedda leaves the pistols inside of her writing desk, not for its purpose of creation, but instead for keeping her guns (destruction). Chekhov’s gun is an evident device utilised within the play; if there is a gun on the stage, it will eventually be used. This was foreshadowed within act one when the pistols were initially introduced (build upon this and add quote). Hedda spends a great amount of time with her guns which in the end, leads to her suicide, her rebellion against society. Løvborg also uses it against himself, after Hedda’s sinister orders. She herself is a loaded pistol, in waiting as long as she did to explode, the pistols emphasize this characterisation because Hedda is unable to restrict herself to the boring and deficient life of the Tesman’s, after her glamorous upbringing.

In conclusion, General Gabler’s guns are of a large significance within Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, as they are a major symbol throughout the play. They are an obvious representation of Hedda’s personality; cold, malicious and in control of people’s lives. Ibsen employs the use of stage directions, costuming, as well as foil to express this. On top of this, the pistols played an important part in the relationship between Hedda and Løvborg, as it ultimately leads to Løvborg’s suicide. While Hedda was always in power, Brack took control over her in the end, which lead to her final rebellion against society; her suicide.

16 December 2021
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