Inner Voice (inner_v0ice) wrote in medeaphiles,
Inner Voice

How Medea and Hedda Gabler Combine Tradition and Unconventionality

Today I'm taking a break from spamming the community with my art stuff---instead I'm spamming it with my old essays. ^_~
I highly doubt that anyone in here is interested in stealing a high-schooler's Literature essays. But this is f-locked anyway so no Googlesearching will accidentally find it either. XD

An essay about Medea is, of course, going to involve me making statements based on how I personally see her character. If you agree or disagree with any of what I say about her, please feel free to tell me!
And if any Medea and/or Euripides experts see this amateur saying something completely off-the-wall, feel free to verbally smack me...^_^;;;

How Medea and Hedda Gabler Combine Tradition and Unconventionality

       Unconventional women, thoroughly defying all norms of feminine behavior—that is how the eponymous heroines of Euripides’ Medea and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler are often seen. But, in truth, the two women are far more obedient to convention than they seem, although in contrasting ways. Medea has the same dreams and desires as an ordinary Greek woman, although circumstances drive her to shocking actions; while Hedda is exactly the reverse. This combination of propriety and unconventionality could be said to contribute to both plays’ plot and message; however, it is debatable whether the playwrights did this intentionally, or whether they were simply products of their time and could not imagine women completely liberated from their traditional roles.

       Medea is a traditional Greek wife in many ways; and the spectacular collapse of her marriage with Jason can be seen as the exception rather than the rule. There is evidence throughout the play that she had a very traditional attitude towards family life, treasuring her children and respecting her husband and his authority over her. In the opening monologue, the Nurse describes the couple’s blissful life together: Medea had “come with Jason and her children to live here/ In Corinth; where, coming as an exile, she has earned/ The citizens’ welcome; while to Jason she is all/ Obedience—and in marriage that’s the saving thing,/ When a wife obediently accepts her husband’s will.” (Euripides 17) The fact that Medea had won the approval of the people of Corinth proves that she was not blatantly unconventional; that, in the years before Jason abandoned her for Creon’s daughter, she had acted in an acceptable manner for a wife and mother. To Jason she was “all obedience,” meaning that despite the strength of her fearsome magical powers, she accepted Jason as the master of the house and her own lord, maintaining the traditional Greek family structure. The idea of Medea’s willing subordination of herself to Jason is supported by her own grief-stricken cry, “Jason was my whole life…” (Euripides 24). Medea also believes in the traditional Greek idea that it is one of a wife’s most essential duties to bear her husband sons, and that a wife who did not do so was nearly worthless. She says, “… you have the wickedness/ To turn me out, to get yourself another wife,/ Even after I had borne you sons! If you had still/ Been childless I could have pardoned you for hankering/ After this new marriage.” (Euripides 31), meaning that even she, with her fanatical possessiveness of Jason, thought he would have had the right to take a new wife if she had failed in her duties by remaining childless. This shows how important children are to Medea’s worldview—it seems that she almost feels that a woman is incomplete without them.

       Hedda Gabler is the opposite of Medea, in that she—in thought—completely rejects all of woman’s traditional desires and roles, and yet presents, almost to the very end of the play, the façade of a proper 19th-century woman. She repeatedly expresses a strong distaste for love: “Uh—don’t use that sticky word!” (Ibsen 38) and motherhood: “I have no leaning towards such things, Mr. Brack.” (Ibsen 46); the conventional trappings of wifehood which Medea holds dear. However, she is trapped in her loveless marriage to Jorgen Tesman by a deep fear of scandal. The two things that Hedda fears most are being trapped in the role of an ordinary, dull, respectable woman, and the scandal of being caught behaving in any way unbecoming of such a woman. She adheres to the feminine convention of simply staying at home and waiting for callers, even though she finds it deathly boring. Even when breaking convention by talking about intimate or forbidden subjects with Ejlert Lovborg, she carefully keeps up the appearance of respectability by pretending that they are looking at a photo album. The fear of scandal that keeps her in her marriage with Tesman is expressed in her exclamation when she learns that Mrs. Elvsted has left her own husband: “Then you have left your home—for good and all? …And then—you did it so openly…But what do you think people will say about you, Thea?” (Ibsen 26) Even Hedda herself honestly admits her fear: “That shows you how frightened I am of scandal.” (Ibsen 57)

       In contrast, Medea seems to be very untraditional in that she is completely unafraid of scandal. While Hedda is conventional only for fear of social disapproval, Medea willingly took on the role of a traditional wife because she genuinely felt love for Jason and a desire to serve him. Given this attitude, it would seem that Medea should be the very image of a meek, submissive wife. However, the flipside of this entirely voluntary service is that when love turns to hate, there are no social constraints holding Medea into her role. As she is plotting to kill Creon and his daughter, a deed no respectable Greek woman would ever contemplate, she shows no concern for impropriety or scandal. Her greatest concern for herself is for her physical safety, which she assures by extracting a promise of sanctuary from King Aigeus before doing the deed. The closest thing Medea shows to fear of scandal is the traditionally masculine fear of humiliation before her enemies.

       The limited power that women had in the societies of both ancient Greece and 19th-century Europe plays an important role in the fates of Medea and Hedda. At the end of her play, Hedda is faced with two equally terrible choices. The first: to be trapped under the thumb of the scheming Mr. Brack. The second: to have her greatest fear come true and be exposed to scandal after Brack reveals her involvement in the death of Lovborg. Hedda is truly trapped. If she chooses the first, a man will have ultimate power over her, which would be essentially a nightmare for someone who chafes under masculine authority as much as Hedda does. If she chooses the other, she will be condemned by society in the way she so dreads. In the end, Hedda is defeated by society and takes the only possible way out: suicide.

       In contrast, Medea, at the end of her own play, triumphs over society. Instead of being trapped or defeated by the expectations and restrictions placed on women, she uses them against Jason and triumphs over him. According to Greek society, sons were the most important thing that a wife could give her husband. Medea takes this idea and uses it to take her revenge: by killing her sons, she deals Jason a far more grievous blow than she could have dealt using any other method. When plotting her horrific deed, she justifies it by saying, “This is the way to deal Jason the deepest wound.” (Euripides 42)

       The fact that Medea, a woman who does a deed that defies all convention, is still traditional in many ways was probably intentional to some degree on Euripides’ part. The implication that she was a loyal wife who had given Jason no reason to turn from her makes her a more sympathetic character to the audience, allowing them to become more emotionally involved in her story and leading them to experience katharsis, which is the playwright’s goal. However, the fact that Medea used her children (traditionally a woman’s greatest asset) against Jason was probably not a conscious choice on Euripides’ part. In the first place, it is dictated by the myth from which the play originated. And in the second, children really were the only source of power for women in Euripides’ time, so it would be inconceivable to Euripides that any woman would have another way to do serious harm to a man.

       Hedda’s mixture of traditionalism and unconventionality was undoubtedly intentional on Ibsen’s part. The playwright himself stated that he had to know his characters inside and out before he started writing. This means that his plays are more character-driven than plot-driven, and all the events that happen in them are the result of a natural progression due to the personalities of the characters. The events of Hedda Gabler are all driven by Hedda’s internal conflict between the desire for independence and the fear of social condemnation, so it is clear that Ibsen deliberately created her character to be a mix of traditional fears and unconventional desires.

       Medea and Hedda Gabler both combine traditional and untraditional aspects of womanhood, in contrasting ways. In the end, Hedda is trapped and defeated by the social constraints she wants so badly to defy, while Medea works within the social structure and uses it to her advantage, exploiting the means that it gives her in order to achieve her final triumph. Euripides made the mythical murderess Medea somewhat traditional because it would make her a sympathetic character in the eyes of his audience, while Ibsen created Hedda as a character torn between tradition and rebellion because he wanted to explore the effects of the tension that her dual nature created.

Euripides. Medea. Trans. Philip Vellacott. London: Penguin Books, 1963.
Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler. Trans. Alan S. Downer. Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1961

Well, that's all for now...
(I hope you liked it, assimbya! ^_^)
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