The Protagonists In Hedda Gabler And The Three Sisters

The plays Hedda Gabler and Three Sisters written by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov respectively depict the pressure exerted on women by their society. All four women, the three sisters and Hedda, are in a sense trapped in a closed society and forced to remain there by social conventions; nonetheless Hedda and the three sisters are non-conformists who contest the world in which they must live. A number of parallels and contrasts related to their resistance can be made among them. Moreover, Hedda and the three sisters are all young women bored with their lives and yearning to return to the freedom of life they experienced before the deaths of their fathers. These female protagonists are being manipulated by the society in which they live and each of them emerges out of this manipulation in ways that reflect their struggle to maintain power over others.

The most obvious similarity between Hedda and the three sisters is correlation between them. All are daughters of general and are from an aristocratic family. The earlier lifestyle of Hedda is characterized by her freedom to go out and do what she likes like riding horses, shooting pistols. For the three sisters the earlier lifestyle is equated with the glittering life in Moscow.

There are several major differences between Hedda and the Three Sisters. The most obvious of them is that Hedda is one character while the Three Sisters are three characters each with their own emotion, personality and character traits. Masha is Prozorov sister closer in temperament to Hedda. Disappointed and dissatisfied with her life Masha like Hedda is an angry character. Masha's situation too is quite similar to Hedda. As a young girl she marries Kulygin, whom she considers to be intelligent with a promising future before him. She quickly becomes disillusioned with marriage as she realizes that her husband is imbecile and allows herself to be propositioned into an affair with Vershinin. Vershinin's function is very similar to Judge Brack's in Hedda Gabler although there is no physical relationship between Brack and Hedda unlike Masha and Vershinin. The difference between them is that Hedda sees Brack as a threat at the end while Masha sees Vershinin as a happy alternative to her disappointing marriage with Kulygin and a source of freedom for which she thrives for.

Hedda: “[looks up at him]. And so I am in your power, Mr. Brack. From now on I am at your mercy (262.) Vershinin: “Write to me, darling. Don't forget me. Now let me go, I must go-. You take her, Olga, I really-have to go. I'm late (234.)

Irina is most sweet tempered of the three sisters and has the most suitors, just as Hedda apparently had before her surprise marriage to Jorgen. Irina feels compelled to marry the Baron for reasons similar to those of Hedda; she is bored, need security and wants to live in a good society. Like Hedda, Irina has no love for her intended husband but hopes that the marriage will be a success and will have a happy life together. Another aspect of Hedda's reflection in Irina is her role in the duel between Solyony and Tuzenbakh. The physical duel is in a way similar to the duel of power between Hedda and Lovborg, in which Hedda makes Lovborg to commit suicide and supplies the weapon. Both duels end in a lost chance for the protagonists. The discrepancy between the characters reaction to the destruction of their plans gives the reader added insight into the motivations and temperament of the characters. Hedda appears to be manipulative, unnatural, selfish and cruel while Irina appears to be innocent and subdued.

The older sister, Olga, represents Hedda's hopelessness, regrets and despair. Olga has realized that she will grow old in the stagnant society of the small town, and although she enjoyed her job as a teacher once, finds it hard to manage the pressure that her job exerts on her. Olga: “The meeting's only just ended. I'm absolutely worn out. Our headmistress is ill and I have to take her place. My head, my head, my poor, poor head, how it aches” (206.) Olga confesses that she would be content to be married in a sterile relationship with no mutual love. Still she imparts the message that life itself is most important and one must strive for happiness and peace, regardless of disappointed hopes.

The re-conceptualization of the Three Sisters as a broken Hedda is further reinforced by their reactions to the central symbol of their unhappiness. The family house represents a source of oppression for both the Three Sisters and Hedda. The struggle to maintain power as the mistress of the house however plays a different role in the lives of the Protagonists. In the beginning of the play both plays, the house mistress is clearly defined. Hedda, as a new bride, presides over her new house. She is able to poke fun at Aunt Julle and move furniture around to her pleasure. As the play progresses, Hedda seems to lose control over her home. Eventually she feels displaced by the collaboration of Thea and Jorgen and in the final scene appears separated from the house. Similarly Irina, Masha and Olga are the mistress of the Prozorov house until their brother's marriage to Natasha. Their control is evident in Act I when they preside over the festivities of Irina's name-day, are able to insult the fashion of their guest and invite anyone as they wish. However, as the play progresses, they lose control of the house, are ordered around by Natasha and gradually displaced from the house by Natasha. Natasha: “We must get this straight once and for all, Olga. Your place is at school, mine is the home. You teach. I run the house” (210.)

The fire scene in Act III also serves as a common element. In Hedda Gabler, the scene in which Hedda burns the manuscript is more subtle than the fire scene in Three Sisters. The functional difference of the fire scene can be glimpsed in the different roles the female protagonists assume; the three sisters are passive observers while Hedda is the active cause for the fire. Following this fire scene, Hedda becomes responsible for the death of Lovborg, as well as her own hopeless situation. Olga, Masha and Irina continue to exist in spite of fire, whereas Hedda is consumed, just like the manuscript.

Hedda is constantly involved in a power struggle with some other character, tries to manipulate everyone with whim she comes in contact. The dominance of Lovborg challenges Hedda more than that of any other character, and yet, when she thinks she has triumphed by forcing his suicide. At the end of the play she realizes that the only thing that she has control over is her own life, shown by her suicide at the end of the play. Similarly, at the beginning of their play, the three sisters were the strongest people in the household. Unlike Hedda, Olga, Masha and Irina do not try to dominate others. Instead, the three sisters are themselves being dominated, pushed out their bedrooms. At the end of the play, the three lose the house but come to the understanding that they must control their own lives.

The three sisters are better able to cope up with the vicissitudes of life than Hedda. Feeling trapped, with no hope of accomplishing their goals, the three sisters formulate new aspirations. They agree that they must live; the most important thing. Their final triangular monologue stresses these convictions and at the end of the play they exit as one cohesive unit, still striving for the elusive happiness and fulfillment they are certain must be due to them. On the other hand, when Hedda's goals fail, when her hope is gone, she is unable to rejuvenate herself or find renewed hope and so she commits suicide. Hedda's suicide, which removes her from the physical world, serves the same function of the setting of Act IV of Three Sisters, which denotes the isolation of from the oppression of the house.

In the end the three sisters are able to feed off each others strengths and weakness and can see the world from simultaneous perspective. Hedda Gabler, however, is trapped in her one sided perspective. She is unable to reconcile the failure of her power struggle in her life, because her life is completely consumed and characterized by the struggle for power during the time frame of the play.

Works Cited

  1. Chekhov, Anton. “Three Sisters”. Anton Chekhov Five Plays. Trans. By Ronald Hingley. New York: Oxford UP, 1980. 169-237.
  2. Ibsen, Henrik. “Hedda Gabler”. Henrik Ibsen Four Major Plays. Trans. By James McFarlane, and Jens Arup. New York: Oxford UP, 1981. 165-264.
  3. Lytal, Ben.“SparkNote on Hedda Gabler”. 24 May 2009. .

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