HEDDA GABLER PSYCHOANALYSIS AND THE SPACE OF THE P

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HEDDA GABLER PSYCHOANALYSIS AND THE SPACE OF THE P

LAY1HEDDA GABLER, PSYCHOANALYSIS AND THE SPACE OF (THE) PLAY
by Nigel Hand
The established view of Hedda Gabler sees the play as a study of the frustration and despair
engendered in the exceptional individual by a conventionalised society. In this paper I present a
psychoanalytic re-interpretation of the play which in certain respects inverts this received reading.

Insofar as it does so, however, my interpretation is intended not to cancel the received view but to
play against it. The first section of the paper is predominantly Freudian in approach. The second
section takes up certain Kleinian ideas which are broached in the first, and explores them more
fully. The third section exploits some of Winnicott’s key concepts, especially as they have been
elaborated by Christopher Bollas. The paper seeks to enlarge our understanding of the nature of
Hedda Gabler’s alienation and despair through a fresh study of the dynamic structure of the play as
a whole. I am also suggesting that Ibsen should be seen as a major precursor both of Freud and the
object-relations tradition in psychoanalysis.

SECTION I – THE FIGURE IN THE CARPET
INTRODUCTION – IBSEN AND PSYCHOANALYSIS
‘Ibsen did not write or think as a Freudian,’ writes Robin Young in the Preface to his study of the dramatist
(1989, p.12). As a scholar of the Norwegian language and its literature Young writes with at least one kind
of indisputable authority. Unsurprisingly he asserts that Ibsen can only be understood in the context of the
Norwegian literary culture he grew up with – and in this respect Young’s book makes interesting reading,
especially in its provocative contention that Ibsen was in many respects an anti-Romantic. But if there is
one truth which has emerged clearly from the age of theory it is that no text can be finally enclosed in a
single defining and exclusive context, and of this truth Robin Young’s book provides striking illustration, for
in reality both his general approach to Ibsen’s plays and his detailed interpretations of them would be
unthinkable had Freud never written. Young consistently reads Ibsen’s symbolism as pointing to early
experiences which have left his major characters emotionally crippled: Young’s Ibsen, like Freud, is an
archaeologist of the psyche. It is in fact something of a regular feature of critical writing on Ibsen that where
the critic feels impelled to distance himself from psychoanalysis (as several do), the Freudian infection will
nevertheless be seen to have invaded his text in one surreptitious fashion or another. (Clurman, 1977, and
Gray, 1977, are notable examples.)
Critical writing on a given author will frequently reproduce the field of forces which animate the author’s
work. In my view psychoanalysis features as the ‘other’ of Ibsen criticism because the conception, birth and
development of psychoanalysis are in fact profoundly foreshadowed in Ibsen’s major plays. In this paper I
argue, indeed, that Ibsen writes and thinks not only as a Freudian, but that in Hedda Gabler in particular he
is a major precursor of both Melanie Klein and D.W.Winnicott. Moreover among contemporary analytic
writers one of the most interesting of the successors of Klein and Winnicott is Christopher Bollas. I shall
suggest that the argument is strikingly confirmed, therefore, when we find that Bollas’s work on the
‘unthought known’, the ‘first human aesthetic’ and the ‘destiny drive’ resonates uncannily with Ibsen’s play
(Bollas, 1978, 1987, and 1989) and in particular with the heroine’s characteristic preoccupation with the
‘beautiful’. As I attempt to substantiate these large claims I am also proposing a radical reorientation of the
received understanding of Hedda Gabler, for in my view the play has been emptied of much of its
originality through a reading which reduces it to a familiar critique of ‘bourgeois society’ – a reading, that is
to say, which is itself shallow and conventionalised.

PLOT AND THEMES OF THE PLAY
The established reading of Ibsen’s play focusses very much on its central character, who is seen in some
qualified sense at least, as an existential, or romantic, or tragic heroine. Hedda Gabler, it seems, presents
us with a particular version of ‘liberal tragedy’, that form in which the claims of an alienated