Hedda Gabler Summary

‘Hedda Gabler’, by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, is a dramatic play about an unconventionally neurotic female protagonist and how her life is turned upside down by a series of manipulations and scheming.

The first act begins in the living room of the Tesmans’ new residence, where Aunt Julle and Berte are having a conversation. The Tesmans had just completed their long honeymoon and returned. Jürgen Tesman walks in, greets his aunt and compliments her hat. He talks about how he is working to satisfy the needs of a lady of aristocratic background such as Hedda. Aunt Julle says that she has mortgaged the house. Hedda walks in and immediately complains about how the maid has opened the windows. She insults Aunt Julle’s hat and the tension rises in the room, which Jürgen tries to pacify by talking about how Hedda has become more voluptuous. Hedda does not agree with him.

After Aunt Julle leaves, Jürgen pleads Hedda to be more reasonable. Mrs. Elvsted, an old friend, suddenly arrives and informs them that Eilert Lövborg, who tutored at her household, has had a lot of success with his newest publication. She fears that he might have a relapse with his drinking problems, so she plans to keep an eye on him. Jürgen tries to mask his envy. Hedda encourages him to write Eilert a letter to invite him over.

After Jürgen leaves, Hedda persuades Mrs. Elvsted to speak up. She is hesitant at first, but obliges. She reveals that she had been in an unfulfilling marriage for five years with the District Magistrate, who is much older than her. Eilert used to come over to tutor her children and in the process, he and Mrs. Elvsted became quite close. She says she aided him with his alcoholism and with his research, but she thinks he will fall back into his habits. She is also wary about him having feelings for another woman, whom he had talked about in the past.

After Mrs. Elvsted leaves, Judge Brack comes over and talks to Jürgen about his expenses and urges him to be a bit stricter about it, but Jürgen says it is vital that the expensive household be maintained. Hedda joins them and Brack talks about how much success Eilert’s book is receiving and how he might prove to be a threat to Jürgen’s goal of attaining professorship. Jürgen is alerted and after Brack leaves, he tries to tell Hedda that they will have to be a bit more frugal. Hedda says she will have to amuse herself with her pistols, which greatly scares Jürgen.

The second act begins with Hedda standing near the window of the living room and pretending to shoot Brack who was walking in the back garden. Brack takes away the pistols. Hedda says her honeymoon was quite monotonous and she only married Jürgen because she was tired of being alone. They both agree on the fact that even though Jürgen is an educated scholar, he is not very driven. Jürgen arrives and says that Aunt Hedda will not be present that night and he and Brack will go off to a party. Hedda expresses her frustration and says she is not happy. Brack points out that she lives in her dream house, but Hedda still does not budge. She tells Jürgen to enter the world of politics despite him being a scholar. When Brack says she will soon have children to accompany her, she says she is not too keen on the idea of anything hindering her independence.

Eilert arrives to the Tesman household and talks about his book and how he did not mean to impress everybody and only wanted to provide an overview of history, but teases his upcoming book, which would apparently contain a prediction of the future. He assures Jürgen that he is not eyeing the position of professor at the university. Jürgen is relieved and Heddais somewhat annoyed. Hedda offers punch to the men but Eilert refuses. As Brack and Jürgen leave, Hedda engages in conversation with Eilert, pretending to talk about pictures of mountains when Jürgen comes to the room again. Eilert says he does not like referring to Hedda as ‘Hedda Tesman’, rather than her maiden name ‘Hedda Gabler’. It is revealed that Hedda and Eilert had shared a special relationship, prior to his position as a tutor at the Elvsted household, which broke off when it got too intense and Hedda had threatened to shoot him.

Mrs. Elvsted joins the party and sits beside Hedda. Hedda mentions how Brack was amused at Eilert’s refusal to drink, and she tells Mrs. Elvsted that there was no reason for her to be so tensed. Eilert is curious as to what might have been the cause of her anxiety, and then he gets angry because of how she is convinced that Eilert would not be able to keep himself in control and start drinking away. He drinks some punch and asks whether the Tesmans had a bet that Mrs. Elvsted was only visiting town to make sure Eilert does not relapse. He gets up to go to the party and takes the manuscript of his new book to show Jürgenand promises to return to drop Mrs. Elvsted off home.

The third act commences in the living room, where Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted are laying down. Berte, the maid, enters the room carrying a letter for Jürgen. Mrs. Elvsted had not been able to sleep. As she goes to Hedda’s room to sleep, Jürgen returns. He informs that Eilert had read the manuscript of his new book to him. However, as the night had progressed, Eilert got too intoxicated and gave a speech about the woman about whom his book was written, and he had dropped his manuscript while being dropped off to his home. Jürgen had it in his hand. Jürgen says that he will return it to Eilert but Hedda hints at keeping it. She then tells him about the letter which bore the news of Aunt Rina’s sickness and that Jürgen was to visit her immediately.

As Jürgen leaves, Hedda hides the manuscript inside the desk. Brack comes and tells Hedda about what really happened at the party. Eilert had apparently pranced into the rooms of a Mademoiselle Diana and created a scene, crying about a ‘lost parcel’. When the police had arrived, he resisted arrest. Hedda then quietly whispers something about vine leaves and then immediately gathers herself. Brack insinuates that he does not want anyone interjecting in the bond he has formed with the Tesmans. As Brack leaves, Eilert arrives. Hedda tells him off for being so late and when Eilert asks whether she knows what happened at the party, she says she only knows that it was very joyous. Mrs. Elvsted appears and is very relieved but Eilert is troubled. He says he is of no use to her anymore as he has stopped writing and destroyed his manuscript. Mrs. Elvsted protests and says that this was the same as killing a child. She leaves and then Eilert tells Hedda the truth about how he lost the manuscript and how he no longer wants to live anymore. Hedda hands him one of her pistols and tells him to take his life beautifully. After he leaves, Hedda takes the manuscript out and burns it, saying that she is killing the child of Eilert and Mrs. Elvsted.

The atmosphere is morbid at the Tesman household as Aunt Julle says that Aunt Rina had passed away. Jürgen is worried because he had heard of Eilert’s words to Mrs. Elvsted. Hedda tells him that she had burned the manuscript and she only did it to protect his career. Jürgen becomes happy after hearing this news. Mrs. Elvsted suddenly appears; expressing her anxiety because of Eilert’s prolonged absence. Brack comes and tells them that Eilert was at the hospital, nearing his death. Hedda assumes that he had used the pistol to shoot himself and was glad to hear that Eilert had shot himself in his chest. She thought that the death was beautiful.

Mrs. Elvsted and Jürgen plan to reconstruct the book from old leftover notes that Eilert had left. Meanwhile, Brack reveals to Hedda that he had not actually shot himself, but he was accidentally hurt by the firing of the pistol and it had hit him in his stomach, not his chest. The whole scenario took place in Mademoiselle Diana’s room while Eilert was still looking for his lost manuscript. Mrs. Elvsted and Jürgen walk in, complaining about the bad lighting. As they continue their work, Brack tells Hedda that the source of the pistol might be investigated and Hedda might have to answer to the police and the court of law. She is scandalized at the thought. She walks over to Mrs. Elvsted and tells her that one day she would inspire Jürgen just like she did Eilert, and then she heads off to her room. Sounds of a piano playing are heard and then a pistol goes off. Everyone rushes in to discover that Hedda has taken her life.