English World Literature Paper1: Hedda Gabler & The Unbearable Lightness of Being
5 January 2009
The Social Role of Women Demonstrated in Literature
Literature mirrors society. On some level, the value system of the era during which the author lived, has influenced his or her own work. Accordingly, as society changes, the commonly accepted social role of women changes. However, Hedda Gabler, a protagonist in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Tereza and Sabina in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being all illustrate the distinct social role, position and characteristics of women based on authors’ outlooks as opposed to their time periods.
Henrik Ibsen, a major nineteenth century Norwegian playwright, portrays a woman who refused to accept the customary role of a housewife in his play Hedda Gabler. Hedda is a daughter of general– an aristocrat. Unlike other women during that era, she shows a strong affinity for pistols which represent masculinity and power. All she desires is to have complete control and command over herself as well as others; she chose to marry Tesman, whose social position was lower than hers both in order to maintain a control over her destiny and to attain a house she once admired. She even keeps her maiden name, Gabler, instead of changing it to Tesman. In addition, she is complacent about her beauty and youth and she uses these attributes as her tools to command and manipulate others. She embodies aesthetic values of life. Even her husband, Tesman seemed to appreciate her beauty more than her personality. In discord with her physical appearance, she is described as the most ugly and grotesque figure in the play. Underneath her gorgeous appearance, her true nature seems to be depraved– it lacks a sense of morality; the act of concluding one’s own life fascinates her since she believed that it provides a sense of release and freedom and that one can remain beautiful for eternity: “I don’t want to look at sickness and death. I must be free of everything that’s ugly” (Ibsen 235). In addition, she is too attached to her possessions; she could not bear the fact that Mrs. Elvsted has more control over Lövborg who used to be her lover. Although she had not loved him, she wants Lövborg to obey her orders. For her, what she would finally attain is more significant than what she took on the way; she was not reluctant to reveal Mrs. Elvsted's secret in order to prove that she still holds the power over Lövborg: “For once in my life, I want to feel that I control a human destiny” (226). She is not only dogmatic and belligerent but also guileful and glib; she is resolute in carrying out her plan no matter what method she employs. At last, when her secret was exposed to Mr. Brack, she preferred to end her life rather than be subject to him; thus she shot herself in the temple to fulfill her will: “Subject to your will and your demands. No longer free! [She gets up violently.] No! That’s a thought that I’ll never endure! Never” (263). Throughout the play, Henrik Ibsen demonstrated an eccentric woman who was eager to rule her world but could not overcome the calamity she encountered.
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On the other hand, Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being introduces a paradigm of a woman, Tereza, who is an iron hand in a velvet glove, compared to Hedda Gabler, sturdy in appearance but fragile in spirit. Tereza prefers spiritual, platonic love to earthly love. Unlike Hedda who intentionally utilizes her body to achieve her goal, Tereza believes that all bodies are identical, hence worthless. She even disdains her youth and beauty: “Youth and beauty were overrated and worthless” (Kundera 46). She fell in love with Tomas because his voice had a power to summon forth “her timorous soul from its hiding place in her bowels” (55) which distinguishes her from other dull bodies. However, whereas Tereza is “heavy,” Tomas is “light”; he has had a myriad of “erotic friendships” with other women, even after he fell in love with Tereza. Their careers signify this contrast; Tereza is a political photographer who emphasizes individual characteristics while Tomas is a doctor who is fascinated with human body itself. But Tereza who once abandoned her nation for love is brave enough to sacrifice and adjust her own lifestyle for love again. She is willing to embrace Tomas’ lifestyle in order to retain her love. She was aware that she is too “heavy” for Tomas and “had become a burden to him: she took things too seriously, turning everything into a tragedy, and failed to grasp the lightness and amusing insignificance of physical love” (143). Therefore, Tereza tries to synthesize their love by eliminating her weakness and selecting or following his tendency to be “light.” By doing so, she was able to extricate her love from difficulties. Although Hedda seemed to be robust, the destruction of her ideology tore her apart. While Tereza was able to embrace her lover, Hedda was too obstinate to her goal to ever consider others. Tereza is more mentally vigorous than Hedda; even though she sometimes vacillated between two opposite value systems, she did not wince but coped up all hardships.
In Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Sabina, another female protagonist, exemplifies the innovative social role of women demonstrated in the novel. Sabina is the lightest of all characters; she has no restraint in terms of seizing pleasure and freedom. She is an artist with free spirit and she agrees with what Tomas said: “happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other” (12). Accordingly, Sabina appreciates the value of betrayal; it simply means “breaking ranks and going off into the unknown” (91) and that is the most magnificent thing to her. Hence when Franz was faithful to his wife Marie-Claude, Sabina allured him to betray his wife. However, later she also leaves Franz because he desired his relationship with Sabina over his wife: “Once her love had been publicized, it would gain weight, become a burden” (115). Sabina seems to be capricious, unruly and erratic. Nevertheless, what is shown on the surface differs from what Kundera wants to express; Sabina is actually afraid to be too involved with one particular person or matter: “Sabina's distaste for all extremism. Extremes mean borders beyond which life ends, and a passion for extremism, in art and in politics, is a veiled longing for death” (94). She fears the consequences of deep involvement; hence she always quits before she has to evade her responsibilities. That is why she states, “A man who gives it up of his own free will is a monster” (113) to eschew internal relationships. However, she also felt relieved after she broke up with Franz since “she had longed to come to the end of the dangerous road of betrayals” (116). Deep inside her mind, she is afraid to be involved in one matter. She is emotionally unaccustomed to deep relationships with others. Later she regrets her cowardice of not taking action to achieve her love as Tereza did: “Gradually, timorously, their vocabularies would have come together, like bashful lovers, and the music of one would have begun to intersect with the music of the other” (124). As with Hedda and Tereza, Sabina has another hidden side of herself that is not shown on the surface.
Each female protagonist described in Hedda Gabler and The Unbearable Lightness of Being has unique characteristics and personalities which demonstrate the ways in which the authors respectively rejected the sense of values based on their era. Both Hedda and Tereza are aggressive with their relationships with others to achieve their goals. On the other hand, Sabina is scared to deeply interfere with others. A personal priority of values may differ from one individual to another, but it decides which role is more appealing than others in order for each role not to be underestimated based on bias.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999.
Ibsen, Henrik. "Hedda Gabler." Four Major Plays. Trans. Jens Arup. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 165-264.