English World Literature Paper1: Hedda Gabler & The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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IB English

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 ...

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