When I wrote about Fences and The Glass Menagerie last spring, one of the topics I discussed was the role of the artist in these plays. It is not something that I have ever explored formally in my own work, but I come back to it over and over again in the classroom. Identifying the artist figure can be fruitful ground for students. There are often artist figures in most works of literature, so it is a concept that they can return to in other classes and find in other works of literature. Also, thinking about what it means to be an artist and what philosophies of art the author espouses often leads students to a broader discussion of the goals of the author or what the overall purpose of the text is.
I often plan lessons or assignments around the idea of the artist, but it can also be a toolbox concept that can be used if the planned lesson isn’t going well or if it goes much faster than anticipated. I have identified some basic questions that I ask my students to get them started thinking about the artist figure. They can be explicitly asked to students or can be used to guide your questions about a specific text. The questions are as follows:
- Who are the artist figures in this text?
- What are their modes of creation, and what do they create throughout the text?
- What seem to be their main philosophies of art?
- Is there tension between the different ideas of art in the text?
- Does the author seem to have different ideas about art than the characters? If so, is there an overall philosophy of art in the text or are the competing interests left in conflict with each other?
Students also sometimes need help grasping the potential definitions of the artist. In some texts artists are really explicit in that there are characters who are painters, writers, or actors. However, I like to define the term as broadly as possible to include figures who are creative in whatever forms. For example, when my students and I read William Wells Brown’s The Escape; or, A Leap to Freedom, we discussed how many of the characters performed different identities over the course of the play. The slave Cato acts as an assistant to his master, who is a doctor. Then, later in the play he escapes slavery by putting on his master’s clothes and running away while he and his master are in the north. Cato isn’t an artist exactly, but he plays with identity to create different versions of himself, and this play helps him to see the avenue for fleeing slavery. I like this broad definition because it gives students a lens for interpreting. This expansiveness might not work for a particular text, so it is helpful to consider how you want to define the artist with your students and how that definition works in correspondence with the text that is being examined by the class.
One of the plays for which this broad definition of the artist works is Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. There is a central figure, the titular Hedda Gabler, who is not an artist exactly but is hellbent on creation—even if she is mostly creating drama. Hedda has married her husband, who is a bit of a dope, out of boredom, but she finds that marriage has not alleviated this problem. Rather she is more stuck than ever and spends most of her time creating problems for other people.
Students might not want to think of creating problems as an artistic expression. She is just a drama queen! However, framing her in this way solves a central issue with this text. When I first taught this text, I realized how much we rely on character motivation to understand texts and to understand the forward movement of the plot. But when your character is just making waves to make waves, how do you talk about her? Hedda has very little motivation to do what she does in the text. She creates chaos, but it can be hard to understand why she creates such a mess. She is a little bit jealous and a little bit vengeful, but mostly she is just bored and uses other people’s lives as her own form of entertainment.
Thinking of her as an artist figure helps students figure her out. Hedda has pent up energy and aggression that she has no outlet for. Instead of drawing or painting, she is creating by making a drama in front of her eyes. She is mean to her aunt-in-law for no reason, she manipulates her husband, she shamelessly flirts with several men, she single-handedly ruins someone’s sobriety, and she even pushes another character into killing himself. Because of her lies and manipulation, serious consequences befall all the other characters, and she eventually succumbs to her own desire to create momentum, even if it is destructive momentum, when she kills herself at the end of the play. I’m not suggesting that Hedda destroying herself and everyone else’s lives is something to be celebrated as an artistic endeavor. But I am saying that it is her creative outlet, and if students think of her as someone who needs to create they can make better sense out of the confusion she causes.
As is clear from my description of Hedda, her focus is destruction. One of her main tools for causing havoc is two pistols that belonged to her father. Students might be interested in tracing the moments that the guns are mentioned in the play. They are mentioned more than once in the beginning of the play and are used by both the writer, Lovborg, and Hedda to kill themselves at the end of the play. They are symbols of the power Hedda does not have but seeks. She is hemmed in by a patriarchal culture that provides her no room to assert herself. She cannot escape the structures of her society. Her lack of movement and mobility leads directly to her downfall. Yet, if she is going to go down, she will go down guns blazing, literally. The guns represent patriarchal society and also the ability to cause death. While Hedda does not “win” by killing herself, she does circumvent the roles that are being fostered upon her. In the beginning of the play, Hedda and her husband, George Tesman, have just returned from their honeymoon. Several times the other characters make reference to Hedda possibly being pregnant. They want her to represent life and birth, but they are fundamentally misreading Hedda. Her power is not the power of birth but the power of death.
Hedda’s destructive power is so potent that she even kills other people’s artistic creations. The plot in the latter half of the play revolves around a book that Lovborg, who is also Hedda’s former lover, and Mrs. Elvsted have written. Mrs. Elvsted helped Lovborg get sober and fell in love with him in the process. She seeks help from Hedda and Tesman when Lovborg comes to the city and Elvsted fears that he will fall into drinking again. Instead, Hedda pushes Lovborg to drink, and over the course of a long, drunken night he loses the only copy of the manuscript of the groundbreaking book. Hedda gets her hands on the manuscript and decides to destroy it by burning it in the fire. What is interesting here is not only that Hedda burns the book, but that she burns it in part because Elvsted has described it as her child. Mrs. Elvsted says to Lovborg (who she thinks has thrown away the book because he is too embarrassed to admit that he lost it), “For the rest of my life, it will be just like you’d killed a little child.” Hearing this is one of Hedda’s main reasons for destroying the manuscript. Hedda’s motto is destroy, destroy, destroy. And she seems determined to not only not birth her own children but to also destroy other people’s (metaphorical) ones. She creates destruction, and she destroys other people’s creations.
All of this might make Hedda sound terrible, but she is such a fascinating figure that I find students are more intrigued by her than turned off by her. They will often need a lens, though, to help them draw conclusions about her. She is resistant to interpretation because it is hard to define a central reason for her actions. The center does not hold, but thinking of her in terms of a creator, even if she is a creator of chaos, is a good first step to getting a grasp on the play.