Comparison of 'Rebellious Maidens' withing Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Sophocles' Antigone
World Literature Assignment Jacqueline Tranvan
Word Count: 1, 580
The presentation of “rebellious maidens” in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Sophocles’ Antigone
In Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Sophocles’ Antigone, the main characters are “rebellious” and do what is not expected of them. Hedda and Antigone are rebellious in respective ways depending on what is accepted by society, the viewers’ ideals at the time, and the law that governed the people.
Considering the expectations that each woman has, Antigone and Hedda are “rebellious maidens”. The word “rebel” is usually used to describe someone who resists authority, whereas “maiden” is applied to a young unmarried woman, hinting that a “maiden” is innocent and pure. From the audiences’ view, in the play Antigone, Antigone is rebellious in a way for she goes against Creon’s order but is reasonable. For her action of burying her brother is justified. “You cannot mean … to bury him? Against the order?”… “I will bury my brother”(Antigone, Exodus 44 and 66). Though Antigone goes against the law, from the reader’s perspective, her actions are right because it is taught in her culture that when dead, the body needs a proper burial. Without a proper burial, the person cannot move on to the next world and is stuck on Earth as a ghost. It is crucial that her brother is given a proper burial.
In Hedda Gabler, Hedda acts rude and superior to those around her as her position as an aristocrat allows her to do so. From the audiences’ point of view, Hedda is a woman who is malicious but at the same time fascinating. When talking to Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda’s old rival and classmate, Hedda says, “I think I’ll burn your hair off after all!” (Hedda Gabler, Act 2, 271) This comment from Hedda seems cruel, yet it is tolerable for Hedda to do such a thing because her role as an aristocrat permits her to.
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In each society, a woman plays a particular role, depending on her position. During the ancient Greek civilization, Theban women did not have as many rights as men, who were more privileged. Women were very obedient, and followed the rules set by men. Antigone’s role in Thebes was a princess belonging to the royal house of Thebes. As a young woman, she must obey the laws set by the king, her uncle, Creon. When a crime is committed in Thebes, it is assumed automatically that the crime is carried out by a male, for the thought of an innocent woman committing a crime is unthinkable. Women living in the Victorian Era were similar to women in Thebes, in that they were both were considered inferior to men in their societies. In the nineteenth century, women were expected to obey their spouse. Devoting time to her children and the household was a woman’s main responsibility. The bodies of women were to be fully covered, according to Victorian morals, for a woman’s body is considered to be the property of her husband. Thus in the play Hedda Gabler, Hedda is expected to follow the anticipations of Victorian society.
Even though she is a woman, Antigone commits rebellious acts. Antigone’s first defiant doing is going against the “order” of Creon and giving her brother a proper burial. “Is he not my brother, and yours, whether you like it or not? I shall never desert him, never” (Antigone, Exodus 44-46). Antigone tells her sister Ismene that she will do what she believes is right, for she wishes not to leave her own flesh and blood out in the open to be eaten by dogs. Her act is not only accepted by the reader, but also by society. As Thebans believe in proper burials for the dead. Though her actions are understandable, she is viewed as rebelling since she broke the law. It is a surprise for everyone to find out that it is a woman, not any woman but a princess who defies the laws. On first finding out about the burial of Antigone’s brother, Polynices, Creon demands from the sentry to find “him,” the sinner, “And bring him here into my sight” (Antigone, Exodus 344). To everyone’s astonishment, it is not a “he” but a “she.” Creon punishes Antigone for her crime of burying her brother by imprisoning her in a cave as she awaits her punishment of being stoned. In the cave, Antigone decides to take her own life before being stoned.
Antigone’s second rebellious act is her suicide. Antigone’s suicide maybe an expected act for the audience but it is still rebellious. “We saw her hanging by the neck” (Antigone, Exodus 1220). Antigone hangs herself in the cave that she is imprisoned in before Creon can tell her that she will not be punished. Antigone’s act is one that shocks each person because she took matters into her own hands and took her own life rather than being stoned. By hanging herself, Antigone shows that she accepts her fate and does not deny death. Unlike most women in Thebes, Antigone did not care about what the laws were and did what she believed is to be right; she did not want the approval of men before taking action.
In Hedda Gabler, Hedda commits rebellious acts of her own that shock both the viewer and society at the time. Hedda is fond of guns and uses them often. Like her guns, Hedda’s acts are unacceptable. “ (raises the pistol and aims) And now, Judge, I’m going to shoot you!… (she fires)” (Hedda Gabler, 249). Hedda “plays” with her guns as Judge Brack enters the household through the garden. Dissimilar from other women, instead of welcoming the guests with some “tea and a hug”, Hedda shoots her gun at her guest. In addition, women’s bodies were viewed as pure in Victorian society; women were expected to only sleep with their husbands. Judge Brack, a friend of the family, suggests to Hedda a love “triangle” or an affair. At first, Hedda refuses because an affair seems risky, but later on Brack convinces her and she agrees to the “triangle.” “Frankly-I prefer the lady. But the man, too, of course, in his place. That kind of – let’s say, triangular arrangement – you can’t imagine how satisfying it can be all around” (Hedda Gabler, 252). By setting up an affair with Brack, Hedda disregards society’s expectations. The small hint of doubt that Hedda had is due to the fact that she is “much too afraid of scandal” (Hedda Gabler, 256). Though she is afraid of “scandals,” she still takes her chance and does what she wants, but it ultimately destroys her.
Hedda burns the manuscript belonging to Mrs. Elvsted and Hedda’s past lover and the academic rival of Hedda’s husband, Lovborg. This is a dreadful act for the manuscript is not Hedda’s and that it is a masterful piece of work by Lovborg. “(throwing some of the sheets into the fire and whispering to herself). Now I’m burning your child, Thea!… (Throwing another sheaf in the stove.) Your child and Eilert Lovborg’s. (Throwing in the rest.) Now I’m burning – I’m burning the child” (Hedda Gabler, 288). The child refers to in the text is Mrs. Elvsted and Lovborg’s manuscript for the reason that the manuscript is a piece of work created by them both with love and effort. Hedda burns the manuscript for the reason that she is jealous. She hates the fact that Lovborg and Mrs. Elvsted are in love, something that she does not have, so by destroying their “child”, Hedda is ruining their relationship.
Different from other women of her time, Hedda’s power comes from plotting and executing evil deeds. She doesn’t care for her household, and goes further to damage the households of other families. In a shocking move, Hedda encourages Lovborg to commit suicide by handing him one of her guns. “You should have used it then,” says Lovborg. Hedda responds, “Here! Use it now”(Hedda Gabler, 288). This is a rebellious act for a lady in the nineteenth century as she encourages death and suicide.
After Lovborg’s death, Judge Brack goes to see Hedda. As a twist to the play, Brack has power over Hedda for he threatened her to reveal the truth about her gun being in Lovborg’s dead hands. Unexpectedly, just when the reader thought that the climax of the play is over, Hedda shockingly shoots herself with her other gun to avoid scandals. “Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple! Can you imagine!” “But good God! People don’t do such things!” (Hedda Gabler, 304) Hedda shooting herself is an act of going against authority because she wishes not to be controlled by Brack. In addition, by taking her life, not only did she kill herself but she possible could have killed her unborn child, for there is ambiguity of her pregnancy. Conventionally, women were expected to take care of their children, but Hedda kills hers. It is illegal and not accepted by society to kill yourself and to kill another life, as Hedda executes both crimes. One of Hedda’s two guns is given to Lovborg to kill himself and for the guns to be a pair; it is as though the other gun must also be used to take away a life. All her acts are considered rebellious to the reader and to society because her actions are not accepted and agreed upon.
As a conclusion, Hedda and Antigone are “rebellious maidens” in their own sense. Each female is viewed as a rebel considering what is accepted by not only society but also the viewer and the law at the time.
- Sophocles. The Theban Plays, Antigone, Penguin Group, 1947.
- Ibsen, Henrik. Four Major Plays, Hedda Gabler, Signet Classics, 1965, Chicago.