Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, though belonging to the works of literary Realism, is not devoid of symbols. Many things in the play have a symbolic meaning, like pistols, the manuscript, Jörgen’s slippers, Hedda’s and Thea’s hair, etc. Pistols are one of the most obvious symbols. They are definitely the phallic symbols, the symbols of masculinity and everything related to men. Weapons, and especially firearms, are always associated with men; they belong to the men’s world and are alien to the women’s world of love, tenderness, and family values. Pistols belong to Hedda, so they symbolize Hedda’s masculinity. Still, pistols become the cause of Hedda’s downfall, thus symbolizing Hedda’s defeat and the triumph of masculinity over a woman who wanted to be a man.
On the face of it, pistols seem to be the material twins of Hedda, symbolizing Hedda’s masculinity. There is even some similarity in their appearance. Hedda has “steel grey” eyes that remind of the cold metal of weapons; “her complexion is of an even pallor” again reminding lifelessness of the metal (Ibsen, act 1, p.175, line 26). Even Hedda’s way of behaving bears some resemblance to the cold indifference of a potentially dangerous weapon that kills with cruelty and tranquility. Her eyes have a “cold, clear and dispassionate” expression (1.175.26-27). She seems to be heartless when talking to Aunt Julia with absolutely no care about Miss Tesman’s feelings and trying to take control over everybody around her. She believes that Miss Tesman’s hat belongs to the servant though Aunt Julia just bought it, and shows absolutely no interest to things that are dear to Jörgen, like his old slippers (1.176-177). Hedda’s desire to have power is obvious from the very first steps: she orders about opening or closing the door, the curtains, firing or leaving the servant. As the story goes, she demonstrates little care about anyone except her and commands the other’s lives and deaths with a heavy hand, ordering Lovborg to shoot himself (3.246.16) and burning down his manuscript (3.246.24-27). With this power over life and death, cruelty, coldness and heartlessness, Hedda is as dangerous as the firearms, being a human embodiment of pistols and a female trying to become a male.
Still, a closer look at Hedda reveals that she did not manage to become a “man” spiritually, despite the complete abandonment of feminine values. The image of a man traditionally comprises the values of courage, resolution, and vigor. Yet, this is exactly what Hedda lacks. She possesses the opposite qualities of cowardice, dread of a scandal, and inclination to achieve her goals by the intrigues rather than by action. “Yes, Hedda, at bottom you’re a coward”, says Lovborg to Hedda concerning her inability to carry out the threat and shoot him down, and Hedda replies: “An awful coward” (2.219.26-27).
In this relation, Hedda fails to adopt “masculine” way of behavior, and thus loses resemblance to the absolutely “masculine” pistols, that are alien to all emotions. She completely depends on the public opinion, and the driving motif for her actions – or inactions – is a dread “of a scandal” (2.219.25). Because of this “dread”, she could not follow Lovberg whom she apparently loved, neither could she shoot him down. Because of this “dread”, she finally shoots herself. Thea, who does not have any “masculinity” at all and is absolutely “feminine”, has much more of courage: she leaves her family and follows Lovberg despite the blame.
In the pursuit of her goals, Hedda prefers to act indirectly resorting to intrigues rather than acting and speaking openly, and this is again mostly characteristic of women’s way of achieving their goals and hardly has something in common with “masculinity”. When Thea comes to her with the news about Lovborg, Hedda carefully finds out all truth about him and Thea (1.186-190). In relations with Lovborg, she guides his behavior by exercising purely woman’s power over him. First she makes him go to Brack’s party saying that Brack thought that Lovborg simply dared not go with them (2.223.1-3), then she orders him to kill himself and do it “beautifully” (3.246.16). Thus, Hedda does not do anything by herself, she prefers someone else to do the dirty work. This is not the “masculine” way. Thus, having rejected “feminine” values and chosen to be more “masculine” then the men themselves, Hedda fails to adopt a truly “masculine” way of life.
She plays both with pistols and with men and masculinity rather than becomes “masculine” herself. She tells to her husband that she needs pistols “to pass the time with” (1.197.32), and later shoots in the air for amusement despite the danger to hit Judge Brack (2.199.13). With the same easiness, she plays with the men in her life. She marries a man whom she does not love but can control; she flirts with Brack without any intention to commit adultery; she orders Lovborg to drink or not to drink according to the changes in her mood. This breaks her connection with pistols as symbols of masculinity and makes it superficial and artificial. The pistols belong to her but they do not serve her. They begin to serve the men, and finally betray her.
Thus, Hedda is defeated by masculinity, and her devotion to “masculine” values does not help her; it rather makes the tragedy inevitable. Pistols as symbols of masculinity and men as the embodiments of masculinity spin out of her control. First, Lovborg does not play the role she prepared for him and does not “do it beautifully” – he is found shot in the bowels (4.259). Then, the pistols do not play the role their mistress prepared for them – they do not serve to kill Lovborg and, instead, serve to bring the danger of a scandal to Hedda. The pistols now serve Judge Brack, in fact. He recognized the pistol found in Lovborg’s breast-pocket as Hedda’s and uses it to blackmail Hedda (4.261.19-28).
Masculine values also do no good to Hedda. Being a daughter of a military, she inherited the idea of honor, and when the honor is lost, she chooses the last resort – a suicide. This was a commonly recognized measure to restore the honor in military circles. Hedda shoots herself in the temple (4.264). Thus, pistols kill her both literary and figuratively. They become the psychological cause of her downfall and death, because they are the blackmail leverage in Brack’s hands. Hedda’s last talk with Brack is focused on pistols alone: she tries to find out how much Brack have understood about her role in Lovborg’s death, and reveals that he knows enough to make her life unbearable and provoke a scandal that she is so afraid of (4.262). Thus, the pistols threaten her now. They also become the direct cause of her death as being used for suicide.
Therefore, the pistols have the double symbolical meaning: they symbolize both Hedda’s masculinity and Hedda’s downfall. In fact, this is Hedda’s masculinity that kills her. She rejects the values of an ordinary woman, but the circumstances do not allow her to practice masculinity and go unpunished. The world does not admit a woman with man’s ambitions. In addition, this woman is still a woman – she didn’t become a true man spiritually, and she ceased to be a true woman having rejected the “feminine” values. She plays with the pistols and with the men, and she is defeated by the pistols and the men. Masculinity does not allow any attempts from women’s side to conquer men’s world.