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Hedda’s Invisible Dancing Body in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler: A Sign that Refuses to be Decoded
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Hedda’s Invisible Dancing Body in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler: A Sign that Refuses to be Decoded
Henrik Ibsen , Hedda Gabler , invisibility , dancing body , femininity , femme fatale , suicide
  • Upon seeing the dead body of Hedda in Hedda Gabler (1890) by Henrik Ibsen, Judge Brack cannot understand her suicide, and shouts, “[P]eople don’t do such things!” (4.264). Hedda is an incomprehensible character for many readers, audiences and critics as much as for Brack. Joan Templeton indicates that “Hedda exhibits to the end the abrasive irony that has made her so odious or enigmatic to her commentators.” (231) Her acts are illogical, and violate morals and law. However, one needs to extrapolate her desire and ulterior object behind the violent acts. On this account, Hedda, who tries to prove her authenticity by influencing others’ destinies, is hard and difficult to understand despite her independent will. Previous studies on Hedda Gabler tend to interpret her death as a desire to deviate from her circumstances and social norms due to her discord with her time, and as defeatism or escapism. Regarding the terms of her desire, my study attempts to decode the significance of Hedda’s body. From my perspective, her suicide does not simply mean the resistance against conventional society, but achieves the effect of overwhelming the other characters with a sense of their defeat. Additionally, her playing a dance tune on piano is a sort of triumphant ritual before the suicide.

    This study investigates the effects of a dance tune that Hedda performs and of her suicide after playing it, focusing more on that of her playing a dance tune, although the two events--playing a dance tune and her suicide--are inseparable. Jung-Myung Huh compares Nora in A Doll’s House (1879) and Hedda in his study. Huh highly appreciates Nora’s activeness and courage in the scene of tarantella and those of going out of her house, whereas he criticizes Hedda as more intricately trapped and entangled than Nora and holds that she ultimately “kills herself out of despair and boredom” (193), although both women are the victims of conventional society. Despite the acceptable analysis on her being more trapped in and entangled with the conventional reality than Nora, his understanding of Hedda seems doubtful. Huh alleges that she takes revenge for her frustrated life by burning Lövborg’s manuscript and describes her death as poisoning others’ lives, including hers, by her absolute disregard for her personal relations. His view seems to indict her as a femme fatale. The expression femme fatale implies patriarchal conventions. In fact a woman who is called a femme fatale plays a subversive role in a work, which is her significance; she nevertheless still stays in subordination to patriarchy because the limitating role is to destroy. Also if Hedda were a femme fatale, her death should be read as a failure, like a pre-modern female suicide. Hedda destroys her own body to reject a patriarchal norm, which is also the reason of her not coming out of her house, as the society is filled with patriarchal norms, and she knows that she cannot escape from them as long as she exists in the patriarchal society. Gail Finney reads Hedda’s gestures as hysteria—another negative way to illustrate femininity since it degrades the female agent to the pathological status of a medical case (Moi 238)--when she clashes with her unfeminine inclination and the feminine path that she has to take after marriage, such as “drawing the curtains, seeking fresh air, walking nervously around the room, raising her arms, clenching her fists, drumming her fingers, physically abusing Thea Elvsted” (100). And Finney insists that Hedda’s hysteria is released through music, but she is “still too much the victim of traditional thinking to move from hysteria to feminism” (100). Apart from the problem of the negative way of describing femininity in her assertion, a question is raised by Finney’s analysis of the music that releases hysteria, for she does not consider why Hedda plays a dance tune, a lapse that seems to stem from presenting Hedda’s femininity as hysteria. Relating to hysteria as well, Mary Kay Norseng focuses on Hedda’s death and defines her pain as mild hysteria (10); by this term is meant that Hedda conceals the symptoms, and her femme fatale-like behavior is more expressed than the symptoms. Norseng asserts that Hedda’s suicide occurred through “frustration of her perceived needs” (18), though her death has been misunderstood by critics for a long time due to a myth that suicide is a selfish act. Norseng’s interesting analysis, however, casts into doubt that Hedda’s destructive behavior is due to a “psychache” (i.e., psychological pain) and that the result is unveiled as passivity like “frustration” and that her femininity is negatively depicted. On the other hand, Hai-Young Lee mainly discusses Hedda’s death, and considers it an “escape from the stifling situation” (93) and as an expression of “Dionysian spirit,” reading symbolism on “vine leaves.” Lee also enunciates that what Hedda plays on the piano is Dionysian music for her own death (93) and that “Hedda’s suicide can be read as the strong, uncompromising personality searching for sublime values which she can find only in the final act of defiance” (93). Her analysis is on music, not on dance; a different view, therefore, will be taken in this study, namely, that her suicide is not “to search for value” but to deactivate value judgment.

    To date, despite several studies on Hedda Gabler, none have highlighted the significance of Hedda’s invisible dancing body and visible dead body. Although Hedda plays a dance tune on the piano behind the curtains, I consider it as an invisible dance, because she seems to play it for an irresistible impulse to dance. In accordance with this view, this study aims to illuminate Hedda’s invisible dancing body and visible dead body, chasing her desire in her reality from which the more essential reason of Hedda’s tragedy is sought. It begins with Nora’s tarantella scene to compare her visible dancing body with Hedda’s invisible dancing body. It will then go on to analyze Hedda’s femme fatale-like behavior to decode her desire. And the last part centers on the invisibility and visibility of Hedda’s body.

    The analysis of Nora’s visibility in the tarantella scene should precede that of Hedda’s invisibility. Toril Moi declares that Nora’s dance is her “bodily cogito performance” to “demonstrate her humanity” (236) from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s standpoint that “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (239). Even though the notion of the human body as the best picture of the human soul is highly significant, Nora’s body does not deliver ultimate free will but simply her fervent emotion and limited freedom. This is because Nora still allows the projection of patriarchal significance onto her body and prolongs her “dollness” state after wavering between reason and hysteria.

    Nora endeavors to play the role of the ideal mother and wife. However, the signature that she forged in the past to save Helmer is in danger of exposure, and she dances the tarantella:

    This scene depicts Nora’s emotional climax, because she abandons all the exertion to keep her home, argues with Helmer about authenticity, and goes out of the house after the scene. Nora’s tarantella in this state embodies emotional release, in the sense that “Physical movement is one way of resisting rigidity” (Adair 61). Nevertheless, her tarantella is limited to returning her status to “dollness” for the reasons that follow.

    Folk dances like the tarantella consist of dance moves fixed by customs and hardly accept any individual perspective. After the Renaissance, theatrical dancing and social dancing were codified by moral laws and social conventions. Her dance, therefore, brings her back to the status quo ante, and the conventional society rejects her free will, although Nora conveys her agitation and disillusion. Her dance is interrupted, which bespeaks that her dance restores the passive femininity that the convention permits. Also, her tarantella is from hysteria rather than a motion longing for freedom. Hysteria is bodily disorder resulting from emotional problems, and Nora cannot dance to the piano accompaniment of Helmer and Rank since she dances too fast and wild, and cannot even hear their playing. Her husband describes her dance as “sheer madness” (59). Furthermore, despite Nora genuinely dancing the tarantella of her own free will, her tarantella is not free from the dance tune that the male characters play. The beginning and the end of her dance depend on Helmer, which manifests that she is not ultimately free from patriarchal conventions. Such dependence binds again her resistance and free will to the rigidity and the passivity of female subjugation, however vehement Nora’s tarantella and emotion are.

    Visibility is the fundamental limit in Nora’s tarantella. Before and after the dance, Nora asks Helmer to devote himself exclusively to her and not to read any letter, and he discerns her anxiety. Her dance, thus, has the intention to offer the attractive spectacles so as to divert his attention and to postpone the moment of revelation of her forgery. Nora’s wild and fast tarantella reinforces her as object and inferior before male characters’ gaze. In this aspect of visibility, Nora does not entirely seize the opportunity to realize authenticity regarding her body. Her dance provides a counterpoint to Hedda’s dance tune; as a result, the two female characters form a stark contrast.

    Unlike Nora, Hedda hardly speaks of what she thinks and wants, so the observers--readers and audiences--must deduce them. As no external events, such as revolutions or wars, occur in the play, it is pivotal to scrutinize all the causal relationships among the dramatis personae in order to understand her desire.

    The author instructs on the stage organization in the beginning of Act I as follows:

    The stage setting represents Hedda’s everyday life. The stage instructs that the reception room is handsome and tasteful, which leads one to think that it belongs to a bourgeois individual. The dense furniture, however, fills the room without leaving blank space. Also, there are so many flowers in the room that Hedda says, “[w]e can do with a bit of fresh air. All these blessed flowers” (1.176). The description and dialogue point to a cramped and stifling place. While home is usually shown as a refuge against the external factors for the bourgeois male, this place does not provide her a refuge. Other characters come in and go out of this place, but Hedda stays here moving around. Meanwhile, she undergoes intense and negative transformation from boredom to aggression in the room. In this room, she meets and talks to Tesman, Juliane, Thea, Lövborg, Brack, and Berte.

    Hedda is described as an aristocratic and elegant lady with pale complexion and cold, steel grey, dispassionate eyes (1. 175). Even her attitude toward people also appears to be cold and dispassionate. Whenever Tesman and Juliane try to draw her to the territory of the “Tesman family,” she diverts their attention from the topic or reacts with cynicism and aversion to their intentions. Her dispassion is a means of blocking herself from communicating with others. She not only remains in the suffocating house filled with furniture and flowers but also blocks herself from the outside. She wants to draw the curtains when the sunlight enters in the morning, saying “The place is flooded with sunlight” (1. 176), and she looks outside hidden behind the curtains. Even though she says that her life is boring, she does not escape from the boring life. She does not expect anything anywhere, which carries her disillusion about life.

    She does not know what to do, or why she should feel happiness or satisfaction: she did not marry Tesman for love, she detests to hear pregnancy mentioned and feels nothing about the house as it was obtained due to her words spoken on impulse. Her only amusement is the pistol that her father, General Gabler left, and she enjoys aiming it at others and seeing them surprised. All the characters around her urge her to obey the norms that she dislikes, and she cannot attain anything.

    She inherited her disposition and values from her father. She appears “rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife” (qtd. in Finney 100). After her father’s death, she married Tesman so as to fulfill her material needs, yet she cannot accept the social role as a wife and mother. As her mother is hardly mentioned in the play, Hedda must have grown up motherless and is unaware of how to be a wife and mother; but her manly features are suppressed and controlled by the patriarchal society. Her husband is much “girlier” than she is, “since while she was brought up by a general, he was raised by two maiden aunts” (Finney 100). Apart from her genetic and environmental features, her aristocratic temperament cannot but have lost its power in the bourgeois society (Lee Yong-Kwan 204-5). Her life, however, lies before the General’s eyes, and she cannot opt out of her father’s influence. Hedda Gabler’s maladjustment to Tesman is expressed with the piano that she brought from her father’s house. It is placed in the reception room in Act I, but it is then removed from the room after she says, “It doesn’t go with the rest of the things” (1.180). She identifies herself as the old piano.

    Hedda’s desire is to know something and what to do with it, in other words, to demonstrate authenticity through her ability. She recalls that as a young girl she wanted to find out about a world that she was not supposed to know, and Lövborg remembers her as a powerful girl who forced him to reveal everything through the roundabout questions. When she wants to know some information from Lövborg and Thea, she tries every possible means. After she obtains the information that she wants, she enjoys influencing people with it. Her desire to influence them and to reaffirm her ability is shown in the scene where she is with Thea and Lövborg. When Thea sits next to Lövborg, Hedda wants to be in the middle of them (2.221) and controls tensions between Thea and Lövborg (2.221-24). More directly, her desire appears in her statement, “For once in my life I want to feel that I control a human destiny” (2.226). Thus, her burning of Lövborg’s manuscript is encouraged by her dangerous desire to know what she can do. Before burning it, she makes sure that Lövborg and Thea’s destiny depends on his manuscript and that rewriting it is impossible. Her relationship with Lövborg is different from that of the past, for she is Tesman’s wife. Her influential power will become powerless if the manuscript is published and they leave for somewhere after getting married. She wants to change their destinies by destroying the manuscript before they escape from her influence.

    Is Hedda a social misfit or an individual who lacks femininity? What she seeks through the femme fatale-like behavior is her own authenticity, as the inconvertibleness to a “useful” woman.

    Thea, a foil for Hedda, is useful in patriarchal society. Thea seems like the very ideal woman of the society. She has warm and maternal features, unlike Hedda. She married an old man as his second wife because she is domestically useful in taking care of his children and needed a home to live in. She also takes care of Lövborg and makes him stop his intemperate life and start writing. She regards Lövborg’s manuscript as their baby. In short, she is full of maternal instincts and possibilities of reproduction. The other foil, Juliane has social convention and institution in her mind. She assumes the role of mother to Jörgen Tesman, pursuing secular success and bourgeois goodness. And she obliges Hedda to become one of “Tesman family” and mother. Hedda, nonetheless, places her meaning and importance within life not as a mother to contribute toward reproducing the Tesman family or as a “Mrs. Tesman” to contribute toward furthering her husband’s career, but in herself as “Hedda Gabler.” Compared to Thea and Juliane, Hedda is a “useless” woman. However, that “uselessness” inversely discloses the authenticity that she cannot be converted into any functions. Her aspiration for this authenticity is conferred on her from her father, General Gabler. Even though he followed the patriarchal society, he laid more emphasis on invisible honor and its power than on secular values and did not forget them, as he was a soldier. Hedda Gabler, as his daughter, discerns more crucial values than what she is obliged to do.

    Hedda’s misdeeds arise from her disillusion that she cannot live with her own authenticity. She cannot tolerate that her influence does not reach others or that she becomes subordinate to others’ influence, especially when the latter is so lethal that she decides to destroy herself. Lövborg’s suicide and Thea’s grief are enough for her to reaffirm her ability. The fact, however, that Thea has kept Lövborg’s notes and that Tesman is co-working with Thea in order to restore the manuscript mean that Hedda’s influential power over Tesman is partly destroyed. What is more, the restoration opposes her will. Also, Tesman and Thea are about to be spatially free from Hedda’s influence, since they move to Juliane’s for the restoration. Furthermore, it turns out that Lövborg’s death is not by suicide but by accidental discharge, which means that Hedda’s desire driven into him was not fulfilled. Meanwhile, Brack learns about the pistol and demands an extramarital affair with the evidence of Lövborg’s death for the second time. Although Hedda could ignore his first suggestion of an affair with him when he took advantage of her boredom of life, she is unable to ignore him this time. “The controller controlled and trapped” (Reinert 217) cannot endure being subordinate to Brack’s power. On top of that, her mind betrays her as she has partly internalized the social repression, and cannot deny public opinion, fearing scandal (Garton 122). Ultimately, Hedda kills herself not because of a sense of crisis or guilt, but because of her subordination in the face of the facts.

    What Hedda wants is to become independent and authentic. She cannot be content with performing the sexual roles that she dislikes, living as Tesman’s possession, or staying subordinate to others. What Hedda wants is to influence the world by acting as a subjective agent like Tesman, Lövborg, and Brack. However that is unacceptable in her society, which spurs her to commit destructive acts. Her will is presented in her femme fatale-like behavior against morals and laws, destroying the manuscript and Lövborg’s life. Moi explains that Hedda wants to behave “like a producer and director trying desperately to stage a sublime idealist tragedy” (316). Theodor W. Adorno remarks on Hedda’s destructive behavior as “The uprising of beauty against bourgeois good” (94), which is the counterargument to the claims of the early nineteenth-century philosophy. Johann Fichte argues that marriage is a natural and moral association, and Georg Friedrich Hegel describes it as an immediate free moral act (Fraisse 50-51). Under the circumstances, civil society taught that women’s morality had to be manifested at home in the family, in the city, and in the society and that such femininity was good. Sexual roles, marriage, and the family were assumed to be “natural” and giving birth became a public business. The hegemony of the middle class spread over the working class, and even over the gentry and the higher aristocracy (Hall 86). Thus what Adorno means by “bourgeois good” is connected with the women’s morality repressed by civil society, and Hedda’s destructive and femme fatale-like behavior--the uprising beauty--is to subvert the hegemony. “Anti-morality, in rejecting what is immoral in morality, repression, inherits morality’s deepest concern: that with all limitations all violence too should be abolished” (Adorno 95).

    All the situations around Hedda force her to become a patriarchal sexual object. The biggest difficulty in decoding Hedda stems from her hidden refusal of objectification as an obedient sign in patriarchy. Though there are various ways to refuse it and to gain her authenticity, Hedda adopts the destructive way. Her evil way, however, is necessary to deny and destroy both the present symbolization and the possible symbolization. The reason why she seems like a femme fatale comes from the fact that she destroys both Lövborg’s manuscript and Lövborg himself, which leads to an opportunity to deprive her of her subjectivity. When she realizes that Brack is attempting to sexually objectify her and to make her subordinate to him, she destroys her body. She plays a dance tune on the piano before doing so (4.263). Even though she does not dance, her playing the dance tune must be read as an impulse to dance. And it is a sign for her to be free from the reality that materializes her as a sign of sexual objectification and subordination.

    The conflicts in all the relations reveal Hedda’s inauthenticity and status as an object, which prompt her to play the dance melody. She cannot keep ignoring and sneering at what she has been urged toward by her society so far, and she is in the danger of losing her status as an independent subject: she married Tesman so as to obtain material stability, yet she is forced to function as a wife and mother. She burns the manuscript to reaffirm her influential power, but she loses the power by Tesman and Thea’s team-up. Lövborg’s death turns out to be a shooting accident, unlike Hedda’s original wish, which consigns her to a subordinate circumstance to Brack. “Mother and mistress are the roles left to her” (Garton 122), while she struggles against the roles as wife and mother. Hedda’s body, which has lost independence and authenticity, disappears from the audience’s sight when all the conflicts most strongly bind her body. Nevertheless, her existence audibly remains on the stage because she plays the tune.

    It appears that body images have constantly been generated under historical and social circumstances, according with and against the circumstances. Numerous possibilities lie suppressed and latent within the body, and dance variously disperses the possibilities when the subject attempts to be liberated from conventional limitations. In short, dance is “sociopolitical practice.” Nonetheless, as Elizabeth Dempster claims, dance connects with the female body, and the dancing body goes with “a female, feminized, and sexualized body” in a cultural context. If Hedda’s dancing body materialized on the stage, she would be objectified anew, contrary to her will, owing to the fact that the dancing body would have been conjoined with “a female, feminized, and sexualized body.” “Seeing” does not only ascertain “existing,” but also associates with a series of logical processes of “seeing-perceiving-judging.” And “judging” includes an objectifying and subordinating process through categorizing. Hedda’s invisible dance arouses and disperses the possibilities. Furthermore, it deactivates the objectifying and subordinating process through its invisibility.

    Instead of emergence of Hedda’s dancing body, the outpouring of an audible dance tune implies that her body is a sign but she disperses herself from her conventional body to unlimited freedom by the dance. Her dance must be heard instead of seen, because the moment or the process to be free exclusively belongs to her. She refuses to be an object of the gazes of all, even those of audiences, at this dancing moment; which suggests that Hedda’s dance is to manifest the possibility of freedom as well as to long for freedom. Nonetheless, her audible dance does not convey delight in isolation. Although she certainly longs for ultimate freedom, her freedom would be limited as long as she resides in her society and her existence is noticed by audiences and readers. What is more, her isolation is not durable as she is just behind the curtains--two pieces of cloth. Her dance has two ambivalent features: conventional as a sign to be perceived, and free. And she stays in wondrous being while dancing: following and subverting the logical rules. The invisibility in the dance-tune scene indicates that Hedda Gabler’s isolated and invisible body is the last right for her freedom, authenticity and resistance to prevent her body from being a sign to be perceived, objectified, and subordinated.

    After playing the dance tune on the piano, she commits suicide by shooting herself in the inner room. Her suicide is self-destruction for her refusal of social values, which are attached to the body. Both the invisible dance and her suicide remove the body:

    Templeton distinguishes Hedda’s death from the traditional death of female characters and argues that her death is an active and determined rejection of social reality, not an escape nor an abandonment. She is not happy with her identity as a woman and with the conventions attached to her body, bodily changes like pregnancy or even admiration for her beauty, for her fundamental anger and frustration are in her body. Thus destroying the body is a fail-proof means of refusal, though it is shocking. Interestingly, Hedda does not completely abandon becoming a visual sign, even if she refuses to be an objectified and subordinated sign, for her dead body signifies absolute freedom. The visual sign emerges after the self-destruction deactivates the logical process between perception and value judgment due to the invisible dancing scene. On this account, all the people on stage become overpowered by her death, like Tesman doing nothing but screaming, “Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple!” and Brack fallen into paralyzing chaos and inability to judge anything, saying, “[P]eople don’t do such things!” (4.264).

    Hedda’s method is to block the perpetuation of dominant ideologies without searching for alternatives and compromises. Her death is illogical—looking “impulsive, irrational, and capricious, rather than arrived at step by step,” as Evert Springchorn says (qtd. in Norseng 10)—as well as her other deeds, because logical understanding also contains the objectifying and subordinating process, similar to the judging process. The difficulty in decoding Hedda, unlike Nora, is because reason and logic do not get involved in the coding and decoding process. If we feel madness in her audible dance and death, it is the moment for us to encounter with the madness secretly hidden in the society that Hedda’s body belongs to.

    This study investigated the significance of Hedda’s invisibility and the consequent significance of her suicide, compared with Nora’s visibility in the tarantella scene. Reading canonical texts targets finding subversive elements. Feminist revisionists have attempted to do so about the presence of Nora’s dancing body, whereas they have overlooked the significance of the absence of Hedda’s dancing body. From my standpoint, Hedda chooses the invisibility of her dancing body, thereby producing the subversive value.

    Hedda expresses her desire in acts of destruction: she destroys Lövborg’s manuscript and his life in order to reaffirm her ability to influence others, or in other words, her authenticity. Her dangerous desire incurs a stronger subordination and objectification than before. When conflicts become acute, Hedda disappears from the stage and plays a wild dance tune on the piano, which is her invisible dance. The reason for hiding Hedda’s dancing body is the patriarchal gaze that connects dance with the feminized and sexualized body, even though her dance is a social and political resistance to patriarchal norms. Also since the gaze is the start of a logical process of “seeing-perceiving-judging,” Hedda’s invisible dancing body aims at both resisting the patriarchal power and deactivating the logical process. In the end, she destroys her own life to be eternally free from patriarchal power.

    The conflicts that Hedda undergoes are summarized as the clashes between her unfeminine inclination and the feminine path. And the feminine path is the sexual role of a person who bears a female body. In short, all the conflicts proceed from the problem of the body. Hedda deeply abominates her femininity: unwillingness to be a wife and mother, the pistol that her father left as her sole joy, and the repulsion at being sexualized. Against her will, sexual roles are continuously thematized. Patriarchal power seems to attempt to bring private matters over to the public realm. Hedda’s tragedy does not arise from her death. Her tragedy is caused by the power that kills her because suicide is the only way to be free from it. For Hedda, destroying her body, which begins all the conflicts in patriarchy, is an unavoidable choice, given her desire not to be dragged in by patriarchal power. In consequence, her dance is the triumphant ritual to obtain release from a reality that ignores her authenticity and forces sexual roles on her as a woman, and her suicide is the completion of her resistance.

    Although Ibsen is called as the father of modern drama and his works are canonical, I find unfading innovativeness and excellence in his dramaturgy at Hedda’s invisible dance in comparison to Nora’s visible dance in A Doll’s House. A person’s value does not lie in purposefulness. It obtains absoluteness and authenticity itself. So does femininity. It is not meaningful because of the purposefulness of civil morality. Femininity has to precede moral criteria, and no woman can be qualified by her productivity, labor force, or other sexual or civil values. There stands the female body at the center of qualification. And the dramaturgy responds to it. The most authentic moment of Hedda--the moment of the invisible dance--is disengaged from the logical process of seeing and purposefulness by disappearing from the audience. This dramaturgy still achieves contemporary relevance in regard to the close connection between seeing and the logical process, and the assumptions about “natural” sexual roles, marriage, and giving birth. Hedda’s death does not appear to enlighten the audience on morality, but to manifest that there is a woman who wants to uphold her freedom and authenticity beyond moral, conventional, and sexual restrictions.

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