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Symbolism in Hedda Gabler

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Autor:   •  January 4, 2011  •  Essay  •  1,624 Words (7 Pages)  •  1,377 Views

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The mid-nineteenth century realist playwright Alexandre Dumas wrote the following about his drama. "If...I can exercise some influence over society; if, instead of treating effects I can treat causes; if, for example, while I satirize and describe and dramatize adultery, I can find means to force people to discuss the problem, and the law-maker to revise the law, I shall have done more than my part as a poet, I shall have done my duty as a man....We need invent nothing; we have only to observe, remember, feel, coordinate, restore....As for basis, the real; as for facts, what is possible; for means, what is ingenious; that is all that can rightfully be asked of us." Along with the realist dramatists of his time, Dumas wrote his plays with a noble mission: to ignite social change and to raise social awareness of a problem or issue through realistic dramatization of his environment. Like Dumas, Henrik Ibsen concerned himself with problems of human behavior and morality in society. And like his predecessors, Ibsen used naturalistic writing to exhibit human beings as they really are and as they really behave in the culture of his time. But the reasons why Ibsen was more effective and successful at Dumas' objective that was Dumas himself was because he abandoned happy and acceptable resolutions to his plays, confronted human behavior with honesty and acute observation, often raising disturbing and embarrassing questions, and left out the didactic solutions to the problems in question in favor of offering no solution, leaving his questions open to thought and interpretation. Ibsen saw his wild success as a playwright well before he died, and it was in great part due to his rejection of realist proponents like the emphasis of mainly external detail and his uproar-causing and shocking resolutions to his plays. But in addition and I think more importantly, Ibsen's triumph was because of his reach ahead of his time and his inclusion of symbolist elements in his drama. While at the base a naturalist play, the symbols and images in Hedda Gabler bring immeasurable weight and power his naturalistic depiction of a woman constricted by her society and, whether because of this constriction or simply because of her inherent nature, intent on similarly sucking the life out of other individuals. Ibsen did not strive to write a symbolist play. Naturalist drama is much better suited for social change than is symbolist drama. But the blending of a naturalistic portrait of a woman's dilemma and symbolic language, images and characterization makes for a particularly powerful, provoking piece of theatre that packs a bigger visceral punch than either a purely realistic play or a purely symbolic one.

Like Dumas, Ibsen was strongly influenced by the French author of the well-made play, Eugиne Scribe. His best plays reflect the structured formulaic presentation of a conflict, complication and resolve, but he innovatively disguised and altered Scribe's structure and left out any resolve whatsoever in favor of deliberate ambiguity, leaving the audience open to their own unguided interpretations. This is perhaps one of the most elementary ways in which Ibsen dipped his pen into the symbolic ink jar. Instead of didactically coercing his audience to buy a completely subjective argument and wasting time proving why it's correct, he instead chose to present the problem as it is, and offering no solution, simply illustrated the consequences of the problem. And neither did he placate his viewers with a palatable morally acceptable ending to his plays, but ended them with a bang and left us clinging to the edge of our seats at the drop of the curtain. The "thesis plays" of Dumas didn't work because they instructed people how to think instead of leaving that to them.

Of course, complete and utter objectivity is nearly impossible. The French naturalist Emile Zola once defined art as "a corner of life seen though a temperament," most likely meaning that a playwright's personality shines though his work whether he likes it or not. In adopting symbolism, Ibsen consciously enhanced his descriptive ability and thus made his settings, characters and situations more rich, textured and multi-faceted and yet very identifiable. What he also brought to the table, whether consciously or not, was more subjectivity, as his choice of symbols in his plays says so much about Ibsen himself and his attitudes toward his work.

But just as much as purely realist drama is of little help to implement social change on its own, purely symbolic drama does less. Ibsen's gift was his ability to, within one carefully written play, use seemingly realistic speech with unrealistic symbolic language and description to unleash a powerful message. The Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, considered to be one of the two major symbolist dramatists (along with French poet/playwright Paul Claudel), wrote theoretical essays to be presented in conjuncture with his plays, supposed to offer elucidation to his work. If Maeterlinck felt that an auxiliary disclaimer was necessary for his drama to be understood, then in a sense, it has already failed. Maeterlinck's plays are by themselves unknowable because the intricacy of symbols eventually becomes convoluted and meaningless. An audience cannot be moved if its subject matter is undecipherable.

Above anything else, the emphasis of Ibsen's work is on psychological conflict. Any external action is present only as a response to internal anguish or as a stimulus for it. At the same time though, he goes to great lengths to describe the settings, characters' appearances, giving detail to the external and physical. As far as detail is concerned, that of his characters is the best. Symbols are a magnificent tool in description of psychological stitch work, and just as Ibsen has a knack for describing great interior room settings and visually creating specific bodily attributes, he likewise has a crafty and firm handle on symbolic description of human character and more generally, human nature. One of the most pressing and popular questions in psychology


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