Hedda Gabler - a Tragic Hero?

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What makes a play a tragedy? Generally defined, a Greek tragedy is “a drama of a serious and dignified character that typically describes the development of a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny, circumstance or society) and reaches a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion” (Merriam). The themes of the literary piece revolve around the main character and their actions, reactions, emotions and sufferings. This main figure is the tragic hero, who also acts as the play’s protagonist. Prompted by will and or ignorance, the tragic hero is confronted at the end of the play with an undeniable fate that results in a sorrowful ending. Although the tragic hero may display characteristics such as integrity, superiority, and a host of other noble qualities, this character seems destined for failure due to a mistake or error known as hamartia (Merriam). In Henrick Ibsen’s play, Hedda Gabler, the main character Hedda exemplifies the characteristics needed to be considered a tragic hero. In order to gain a better and more detailed understand of the qualities required for a tragic work, we should look to the discussion of tragedy found in Aristotle’s Poetics. He defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude; and effecting through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions” (Aristotle). Aristotle goes on to describe the tragic hero as a character that has the ability to induce our sympathy and terror, especially since he or she is not necessarily good or evil, but instead, the character is a mixture of both qualities. Through the course of the play, the tragic hero will experience suffering through a change in happiness to despair because of an error or mistaken act. The error itself is led by the hero’s hamartia and regarded by some scholars as his or her tragic flaw. The hamartia eventually causes a recognition known as anagnorisis and a reversal in action known as peripeteia. Aristotle believed that a tragedy should contain the following elements: a portrayal of the hero’s innate goodness and superiority; an error which leas to an eventual downfall; a realization in which the hero has realized his own destruction; and a change in events that exceeds the audience’s expectations (Aristotle). The Poetics lays out specific requirements that a tragedy must contain, and the play Hedda Gabler can certainly be interpreted so that it fits the description of a tragedy. At times the reader may feel sympathy towards Hedda. As a child she was raised in a life of comfort and luxury, but in her new status as Mrs. Tesman, she feels she has become trapped in an unattractive life as a middle-class wife. At other times, however, the reader may feel absolutely no compassion for Hedda because it is obvious that she is spoiled, and impossibly difficult to please because of her exceedingly high standards. She is disrespectful and rude to her husband, and basically all others around her. Quite early on, the reader can gain a sense of how problematic Hedda’s relationship truly is with Tesman. We discover that Hedda may be pregnant, but she avidly refuses to even consider the possibility. When Hedda declares that she has no taste for things that “make a claim on her freedom”, it is an implication that she not only wishes to be free from the burdens of motherhood, but also the constraints of her wifely duties. This revelation of her character may even suggest that her quest for freedom will end in tragedy. Hedda is also manipulative, controlling, and she constantly lies to those around her. She causes Lövborg to drink even though he is a recovering alcoholic that has been abstinent for years. Further, at the end of Act 3, Lövborg tells Hedda that he has lost his manuscript. He is so depressed that he says he no longer has the courage to face life, and will “only try and make an end of it all—the sooner the better” (Ibsen). Hedda actually has the...
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