Is it because so few people, at least in the Northeast, ride horses? Or do students picture monarchs controlling their kingdoms as coachmen control their teams? Or are “reins” and “reigns” both so uncommon in daily usage that all readers actually retain about either of them is “weird spelling!”?
I know there’s reading involved, because I never get “rain” for “rein” or “reign.” But it’s inattentive reading, certainly, or I would see the correct spelling choice more often. The fact is, Queen Elizabeth reins and the rider pulls back on the reigns almost every time.
Arguably my student meant that society is a kind of ruler, customs and mores reigning over us humble creatures, governing our impulses, taxing our happiness, punishing our deviations from the acceptable norm. If he had meant that, though, I’d think, he’d have written about society’s “reign,” not “reigns.”
But if he had meant “reins,” surely he wouldn’t have tried to build a fence out of them. I’m told that some animals will treat a single wire or cord strung between fence posts as if it were an impenetrable barrier, but I don’t think Hedda Gabler—high-spirited Hedda, willful Hedda—was one such creature.
And I’m not a rider but I’d guess that conventional reins are much too short to fence anybody in, string them as you will.
Nevertheless, by means of a bad vocabulary/spelling choice and a mixed metaphor, there she sits, trapped in a kind of cat’s-cradle suspended between the domineering fingers of society. You can’t really blame her for blowing her brains out.