A shot is heard within the inner room. Tesman runs in. Immediately, we hear
him yelling at Brack: "Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple! Think of
that!" Brack replies, as if speaking to himself: "But, good God Almighty
... people don't do such things!" (1)
Such is the last scene before curtain falls in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1890). The person who shoots herself is Hedda, the heroine of the play. According to Ibsen's description, Hedda is "a lady of 29. Her face and her figure are aristocratic and elegant in their proportions. Her complexion is of an even pallor" (179).
The suicide of a young beauty is not unique in modern drama. In Cao Yu's well-known play Richu [CHINESE TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Sunrise, 1936), we witness the suicide of a young Chinese beauty, Chen Bailu [CHINESE TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. She is even younger, aged twenty-three, with "jet-black hair" and "bright, attractive eyes." (2) Despite being the center of a distinguished social group and surrounded by admirers, Chen Bailu finds that life is becoming so boring that she would rather die than live. Unlike Hedda, she does not have access to a gun; instead, just before the end of the play, she takes enough sleeping pills to kill herself.
These two suicides can easily be written off as just two random events of modern dramatic creation if no further connections are established between them, despite the fact that Cao Yu knew Ibsen very well and openly spoke about Ibsen's influence on his own work. (3) Critics have shown enormous interest in the influence of Western writers--particularly Ibsen--on Cao Yu, but no comparative study has so far been made between Hedda Gabler and Sunrise. Yet, such a study reveals that the two plays have much in common. First and foremost, the motives behind the suicides are remarkably similar.
The title Ibsen chose for his play Hedda Gabler is significant. Hedda's married name is Mrs. (Norw.: fru) Hedda Tesman, which is the name the playwright uses in the list of characters for his play. The use of Hedda's maiden name (Gabler) for the title highlights not only Hedda's aristocratic family background (her father is a general) but also her close association with the upperclass standard of living, both materially and spiritually. It may also suggest the difficulties Hedda has in adjusting to the middle-class environment of the Tesmans--to become, in a real sense, Hedda Tesman. It is, as a matter of fact, not the material comfort with which she is discontent (Tesman's villa is reasonably elegant). She is contemptuous of Tesman and unable to relate to his bourgeois lifestyle, as Ibsen details: "Jorgen Tesman, his old aunts, and the elderly serving-maid Berta together form a whole and a unity. They have a common way of thinking; common memories, and a common attitude to life. For Hedda they appear as an inimical and alien power directed against her fundamental nature" (505). Hedda and Tesman are far too different to be united, and as such their relationship is cold. As Else Host points out, Hedda "has used him [Tesman] as her provider, and will have little to do with him as a human being." (4)
The play begins with Miss Tesman's early visit. The reunion of the old aunt and her orphan nephew is a warm and harmonious one. The entrance of Hedda, however, turns the atmosphere to uneasiness and discomfort. Hedda refuses to get involved in Tesman's excitement over getting his old slippers back and later deliberately mistakes Miss Tesman's hat for the maid's. The gap between Hedda and the Tesmans becomes obvious. By the time Miss Tesman leaves, Hedda is dearly agitated: "Hedda walks about the room, raises her arms and clenches her fists as though in a frenzy" (183). However, she quickly brings her emotions under control in keeping with her aristocratic upbringing. Her agitation turns into a distracted melancholy in the following sequence:
Tesman: (picking up the slippers from the floor) What are you looking at,