This paper was written for Professor Victoria Lantz’s Modern Drama class at Sam Houston State University on September 23, 2013.

Battle of the Sexes: A Look at Gender Relations in Hedda Gabler and Pygmalion

In both Hedda Gabbler and Pygmalion, gender roles as well as the relations between the two sexes are discussed. The evident tensions between males and females at the time of each play are brought to light – tensions that range from sexual and emotional to financial and social. In order to fully understand the text, these tensions must be identified and discussed. The “battle” between the sexes is a long-standing theme of many works of literature, art, and theatre. It is only fitting that this theme is utilized in Hedda Gabler and Pygmalion.

From the beginning of the play, the main characters in Hedda Gabler are captured in a constant power struggle. This fight is not always easily readable on the surface, however. For instance, Hedda’s insistence that her husband, George, should advance in his career pleases him and causes him to believe that she loves him. Beneath the surface lies the truth of the matter: she only desires his success because it means that she will acquire his wealth. As a former general’s daughter, Hedda is accustomed to life in the upper-middle-class, and George’s lower-middle-class life does not suit her. As a woman, Hedda knows that she cannot provide for herself and so she must attain a husband in order to retain any wealth. She only marries Tesman because she felt that her time was running out and he was “a thoroughly acceptable choice.” (Ibsen 220) He struggles to provide adequately for her, saying that he “simply couldn’t have her live like a grocer’s wife.” (Ibsen 215) This statement goes far beyond the fact that his husbandly duties require him to take care of her. Hedda is not only a wife, but also an upper-middle-class woman who is used to her former lifestyle. Nothing but the best will do for her. This is displayed when Hedda talks to George about the piano, saying “I’m just looking at my old piano. It doesn’t really fit in with all these other things.” George suggests that they trade it in for a new one in order to appease her, but Hedda refuses his offer. Instead, she tells him that they will “put it there, in the inner room, and get another here in its place. When there’s a chance, I mean.” (Ibsen 208) George is cast down, but accepts her demands. This reaction is seen throughout the play, signaling his obvious lack of power in their marriage. Hedda is clearly the head of the household, though George is the breadwinner. Again, he displays his submission to her when she complains of being unable to have a butler, a horse, and various other things that she desired. She dreams of the beautiful ideal – a romanticized and unattainable view of life – much like Emma does in Madame Bovary. And, as Ibsen believed, “The single-minded desire to achieve an ideal life wreaks destruction.” (Gainor 198) Her disillusionment leads to her inevitable downfall.

This battle is also evident in the couple’s different views of their current situation. “While Tesman thinks he has provided an ideal house, his wife from the bottom of her heart despises it and the life it offers. Gradually we learn that Hedda married Tesman and encouraged his purchase of the house only out of boredom and because she felt that her time and options were running out. But now she finds herself trapped in her marriage, and in the house.” (Gainor 197) Tesman is happy with what he has and Hedda is the complete opposite – she has different expectations. As showcased in her ridiculous outburst regarding sunlight coming into the room and the smell of too many flowers, Hedda is never satisfied, and will never be such as she requires something that is completely unrealistic and unattainable. Hedda lives in a dream world, while George accepts his reality and remains content within it. In order to “deal” with her situation, Hedda manipulates the people around her “as if they she were the director of a play.” (Gainor 198) Boredom, she says, is her reason for such actions. Shooting at Judge Brack is an action that comes out of Hedda’s boredom. When he criticizes her for her rashness, she says, “Well, what in heaven’s name do you want me to do with myself?” (Ibsen 218) George, on the other hand, loses himself in his work in order to deal with reality. He even says, “One should never go off and lose oneself in dreams, uh?” To this, Hedda replies, “Do you do that?” This shows her complete denial of her disillusionment with reality. George responds, “No use denying it. It was living in dreams to go and get married and set up house on nothing but expectations.” (Ibsen 217) Again, this is where the couple’s problem lies – in expectations. While Hedda is lost in a fantasy world of what marriage should be, George is firmly grounded in reality. He understands that Hedda’s dream is unattainable and does what he can to please her, even though he will forever come up short. He does all things “for Hedda’s sake,” while she does everything for herself, even if those motivations are hidden under lies and manipulation.

Pygmalion brings to light several gender strains – ones having to do with independence, money, marriage, and behavior. First of all, as Henry Higgins often explains to anyone who will listen, a lady must speak English correctly in order to go anywhere in life. Ironically, he is not held to that same standard. While Eliza has to repeatedly prove herself (which explains her constant reminder of “I’m a good girl, I am!”), Higgins is never asked to. He may be reprimanded for his lack of manners, but he certainly is never demoted in class or treatment because of them. Eliza notices this double standard right off the bat. When Mrs. Pearce tells her, “You mustn’t speak to the gentleman like that”, Eliza says, “Well, why won’t he speak sensible to me?” (Shaw 419) Higgins is often seen cursing and being rude to those around him. Mrs. Pearce even warns him to watch his tongue and his behavior in front of Eliza. He remains in denial about himself, but still agrees to her demands. It is important to note that this double standard (for men and women such as Higgins and Eliza) is evident throughout the entire play.

Men also hold true to the value of marriage – a woman is nothing, and can do nothing significant, without a man. A female’s accomplishments are all tied to the male relationships in her life. Even some women, such as Clara and her mother at the beginning of the play, seem trapped beneath this societal idea. After Freddy returns without a taxi during a rainstorm, Clara complains, “And what about us? Are we to stay here all night in this draught, with next to nothing on. You selfish pig.” (Shaw 409) These women rely on Freddy, the man, to do things for them. Why couldn’t Clara and her mother be out in the rain, looking for a taxi as well? It all has to do with gender. A true lady doesn’t get soaked in a rainstorm. A gentleman goes to get her a taxi. Men must take care of women.

Henry Higgins also holds this idea – that women are nothing without men – in high esteem. He speaks of Eliza in Act 2, saying that “the girl doesn’t belong to anybody – is no use to anybody but me.” (Shaw 422) This labels Eliza as an object – his experiment – more than an actual human being. In fact, Higgins actually buys Eliza from her father. These events signal a societal standard about gender. A woman must belong to some man somewhere, or else she is pretty much worthless. This is why Higgins takes on the challenge of making her into a lady; she cannot do it on her own and will remain worthless without a man’s help. This also applies to the end of the play when Eliza speaks with Higgins. He continues to take credit for her accomplishments, saying, “You won my bet! You! Presumptuous insect! I won it! What did you throw those slippers at me for?” (Shaw 445) As Eliza and Higgins continue to fight, he resorts to calling her a “creature” again, as he did in the beginning of the play. When she does things Higgins does not like, he reacts in this manner. Eliza knows his views of her, and even says, “I’m nothing to you – not so much as them slippers.” (Shaw 446) It should be noted that Eliza Doolittle is alone in the beginning of the play as a flower girl, and, with the help of two men, becomes successful. Thus, her decision to retain her independence shocks Henry Higgins. He is unable to accept the fact that Eliza does not have to apply the same societal standards to herself as other women have before her. Higgins loses his mind when Eliza leaves independently – making the choice on her own. When she returns to speak with him, he angrily says, “Let her speak for herself. You will jolly soon see whether she has an idea that I haven’t put into her head or a word that I haven’t put into her mouth. I tell you I have created this thing out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden; and now she pretends to play the fine lady with me.” (Shaw 454) Eliza’s lesson can be summed up in one simple quote: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” (Shaw 455). This turns Higgins’s argument on its head, suggesting that Higgins is not a gentleman, but a common man, while Eliza has been a lady all her life. She also tells him that instead of a man making something out of her, “Perhaps [she] could make something out of him.” (Shaw 460) This reversal of traditional gender roles and loss of power frustrates Higgins to no end.

Hence, both plays discuss gender as a social construct built in different ways by each sex. While men tend to assume they hold the power over women at all times, Hedda Gabler depicts women as having the true power. Pygmalion does the same, but in a different way. Hedda never breaks through into independence; she simply masks her true self. Eliza does not use manipulation – she is honest with Higgins and herself. Once she is able to do things on her own, she relinquishes her title of “experiment” and becomes an independent woman, despite Higgins’s protests. In conclusion, the difference between the two women is that Eliza grows out of her dependency and Hedda does not.

Works Cited

  • Ibsen, Henrik. “Hedda Gabler.” 2009. The Norton Anthology of Drama. By J. Ellen. Gainor,

Stanton B. Garner, and Martin Puchner. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2009. 195-

  1. Print.
  • Shaw, George Bernard. “Pygmalion.” 2009. The Norton Anthology of Drama. By J. Ellen.

Gainor, Stanton B. Garner, and Martin Puchner. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton &,

  1. 408-70. Print.

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