By Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Type of Work, Publication, and First Performance
Hedda Gabler is a stage play that focuses in depth on the last day-and-a-half in the life of the title character. Ibsen published the play in Copenhagen, Denmark, on December 16, 1890. It debuted on the stage on January 31, 1891, at the Königliches Residenz Theater in Munich, Germany.
Ibsen wrote the play in Dano-Norwegian, a mixture of the Danish language and Norwegian dialects. Dano-Norwegian evolved from Danish while Norway was a province of Denmark. Although Norway gained its independence in 1814, Norwegians continued to speak and write in Dano-Norwegian, also known as Riksmål. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth
century, Norway began developing a new Norwegian language, Landsmål (the language of the land or country), free of Danish influence. Meanwhile, Riksmål developed further and eventually became known as Bokmål, the language of books. Today both varieties of Norwegian are written and spoken in Norway.
Stage directions describing the burning of a lamp indicate that the play is set before the invention of the electric light bulb. Most likely, the action takes place in the 1860s. The place is the home of George Tesman and his new wife, Hedda Gabler Tesman. The author describes the home as a villa once owned by a government minister, Secretary Falk. The scenes take place over one-and-a-half days in the elegant villa. On one of the walls hangs a portrait of Hedda’s late father, General Gabler.
George (Jørgen) Tesman: Cheerful and well-meaning thirty-three-year-old academic with a stout frame and a round, bearded face. He has a scholarship to research the history of civilization and expects to receive a government appointment to maintain his home—a villa that once belonged to a government minister—and to sustain his new wife, Hedda,
in the elegant lifestyle she expects as the daughter of the late esteemed aristocrat and military officer, General Gabler. George was reared by two aunts and their servant, Berta. He tries hard to please his picky, unpredictable wife.
Ibsen remains objective and neutral throughout the play, never using the dialogue to present his views or to exhibit pity or scorn for Hedda or any other character. Instead, Ibsen simply presents the story as it unfolds.
Juliana, a pleasant lady of sixty-five, throws open a glass door to admit fresh air. Berta places the bouquet on a piano. She had been in the service of Juliana and her sister, Rina, in their home when George lived with them. Now, Juliana has assigned her to attend George and his new wife in a different home, and Berta worries that her work might not suit the young lady. As the daughter of the late General Gabler, Hedda had been used to elegant living and refinements beyond the ken of Berta.
Because George has recently become a university doctor—a distinction conferred on him while he was on his wedding trip—Berta is now to call him Dr. Tesman instead of Master George, Juliana tells Berta..
George enters the drawing room with an empty portmanteau and greets his aunt warmly. While on his honeymoon, he had conducted research and filled the suitcase with notes and copies of documents. Berta takes the portmanteau to the attic while George compliments Juliana—whom he calls Aunt Julia—on the new bonnet he helps her remove. She bought it, she says, so that “Hedda needn’t be ashamed of me if we happened to go out together.”
While waiting for Hedda to come in, George and his aunt discuss the health of Rina, who is bedridden and is expected to remain that way but is not in imminent danger of death. They also discuss his marriage to the beautiful Hedda and their wedding vacation, during which George did considerable research and used his “traveling scholarship” to pay expenses. Juliana asks whether he has any “expectations,” meaning a child.
“I have every expectation of being a professor one of these days,” he says.
When Juliana asks how he likes the house, he expresses delight in it but does not know what to do with two empty rooms near Hedda’s bedroom. Laughing, his aunt says they will come into use in due time, again hinting at the children he and Hedda will have. But George answers, “You mean as my library increases—eh?”
The villa will be expensive to maintain, but George says Judge Brack told Hedda in a letter that he had obtained favorable terms for her and George. Juliana says she has posted security from an annuity for the carpets and furniture—an arrangement of which George was unaware. When George expresses concern that she and Rina need the annuity to live on, Juliana assures him there is nothing to worry about. Besides, she says, George will soon have a salary to rely on after receiving an expected government appointment. What is more, she says, the people who “wanted to bar the way for you” have all suffered downfalls. “Your most dangerous rival,” she says, has taken the worst fall. She is referring to Eilert Løvborg, a talented researcher and writer who succumbed to alcoholism. He has recently published a book, but Juliana predicts that it will be nothing compared to the one George plans to publish. When she asks him its subject, he tells her that it will focus on “the domestic industries of Brabant during the Middle Ages.”
After Hedda enters and exchanges pleasantries with Juliana, she complains about the open glass door admitting so much sunlight. When Juliana goes to close it, Hedda tells her simply to draw the curtains to soften the light.
When she ends her visit, Juliana gives George a gift—the old slippers he used to wear, embroidered by his Aunt Rina. George remarks on what a prize they are, but Hedda is more interested in the bonnet Juliana had earlier placed on a chair. Pretending that it is Berta’s, she says they must get rid of the servant for being so careless as to allow such an ancient bonnet to lie about.
When Juliana claims the bonnet as her own, Hedda feigns an apology, saying she really had not gotten a good look at it. As Juliana leaves, George tells her to take a good look at Hedda, saying “Have you noticed what splendid condition she is in? How she has filled out on the journey?”
Hedda curtly asserts that she has not changed at all. Juliana kisses her good-bye and promises to visit her every day. While George sees Juliana out, Hedda clenches and shakes her fists “as if in desperation,” the stage directions say.
After George returns to the parlor, Hedda looks at the flowers on the piano. An attached card says they are from Mrs. Thea Elvsted, who will call upon the Tesmans later in the day. Hedda remembers the woman from school as “the girl with the irritating hair, that she was always showing off. An old flame of yours I’ve been told.”
George says, “Oh, that didn’t last long; and it was before I met you, Hedda.”
After Mrs. Elvsted arrives in a state of nervous agitation, she tells Hedda that Eilert Løvborg has returned to town and faces “many temptations on all sides.” Løvborg had been the tutor to her step-children after she married Sheriff Elvsted, she says. Although Løvborg's conduct has been exemplary for two years after swearing off alcohol, she worries that he will succumb to his old habits, especially now that he has a considerable amount of money he made from a published book that became a great sensation. George observes that he must have written it before he descended into alcoholism, but Mrs. Elvsted says he wrote it within the last year, when he was tutoring the children.
“Isn’t that good news, Hedda,” George says—perhaps not without some envy.
Thea says she has discovered Løvborg’s address and asks the Tesmans to keep an eye on him and treat him kindly if he comes to call. Hedda suggests that George write to him at that moment to invite him to their home. Thea gives him a slip of paper with the address.
While George writes the letter, Hedda and Thea talk about their school days. When Hedda pretends that they had been friends, Mrs. Elvsted reminds Hedda that she once threatened to burn the hair off her head. Hedda makes excuses, then gradually manages to draw information out of Mrs. Elvsted—in particular, that she is not happy with her home and her husband.
Thea had first served as governess to Sheriff Elvsted and his invalid wife. After she died, Thea married him. That was five years ago. Eilert Løvborg, who lived in the neighborhood, visited the house regularly to teach the children when the sheriff was out on his job and struck up a cordial relationship with Thea. Thea confides to Hedda her loathing of her husband: "Everything about him is repellent to me! We have not a thought in common. We have no
single point of sympathy—he and I."
Then she tells all. She has packed her bags and does not plan to return home. Instead, she plans to live in town near Løvborg. Over time, she says, she helped him get over his bad habits. In turn, he “made a real human being of me—taught me to think, to understand so many things.” Then she began helping him in his work, and they got along beautifully—except “a woman’s shadow stands between Eilert Løvborg and me . . . someone he has never been able wholly to forget.” The someone is of course Hedda. When Løvborg and the woman separated, Thea says, the woman threatened to shoot him. Thea thinks the woman is a Mademoiselle Diana, who also lives in town and is a temptation to Løvborg.
When George brings in the finished letter, Berta announces that Judge Brack has come calling. Hedda gives Berta the letter to mail. After Mrs. Elvsted leaves, Hedda and George exchange pleasantries with Brack. When George mentions that Løvborg is expected at their house that evening, Brack reminds George that he has already agreed to attend a bachelor party the judge is giving. The judge then delivers unsettling news: Løvborg has applied for the same government position that George is seeking. George had thought he was a shoo-in for the job, which he has been counting on as a source of income to maintain his villa and the lifestyle Hedda had been accustomed to as the daughter of General Gabler. After Brack leaves, George frets about the situation, saying, “There is no denying—it was adventurous to go and marry and set up house upon mere expectations.”
Irked, Hedda complains that without the government job he will be unable to fulfill the promises he made to her before their marriage: that she could entertain guests in high style and have a butler and a saddle-horse.
When Judge Brack returns later to pick up George for the party, he comes in the back way through the garden. Hedda takes one of two pistols from a case—heirlooms from her father—and fires playfully into the air, frightening the judge. When he enters through the glass door, he takes the gun from her, saying, “Now we won’t play at that game any more to-day.”
“Then what in heaven’s name would you have me do with myself?” Hedda says.
When the judge asks where George is, Hedda tells him that he went off to visit his aunts shortly after lunch.
“He didn’t expect you so early,” she says.
Brack doesn’t mind waiting, for he will have Hedda all to himself until George arrives. Brack enjoys her conversation and delights in flirting with her even though she is a married. For her turn, Hedda likes to confide in the judge. On this day, she tells him that boredom has dogged her since marrying George. On her wedding trip, she says, “What I found most intolerable of all . . . was being everlastingly in the company of—one and the same person.” When the judge tells her that the person is the one she loves, Hedda says, “Faugh—don’t use that sickening word [love].”
By and by, George arrives with books—including Eilert’s, which he praises—and informs them that his Aunt Rina has taken a turn for the worse.
Løvborg then arrives and greets everyone cordially. After receiving compliments about his book, he dismisses it as insignificant compared to the one he is now completing. Withdrawing the handwritten manuscript from a coat pocket, he says, “This is the real book—the book I have put my true self into.” The first part focuses on “the civilizing forces of the future,” he says, and the second on “the probable line of development.”
Løvborg offers to read from it, but George says he is about to leave with the judge for the party. Brack then invites Eilert to the party, but he declines the invitation (apparently to shun the temptation of drink). Hedda suggests that he have supper with her and another guest who is coming, Mrs. Elvsted. He accepts the invitation, then tells George heartening news: He has withdrawn as a candidate for the government job George seeks. Tesman is jubilant. He and Hedda will be able to live the life they had planned on.
Judge Brack and George go to another room to drink punch, smoke, and talk while Hedda shows Løvborg album pictures from her wedding trip. Løvborg calls her Hedda Gabler as he recalls their own days together and asks her how she could have thrown herself away on George. She admits she does not love him but says she “won’t hear of any sort of unfaithfulness.” However, of her past relationship with Løvborg, she says, there was something beautiful and daring in its “secret intimacy.”
When Thea Elvsted arrives, Løvborg compliments her and calls her a comrade. Hedda, obviously jealous, offers her and Løvborg punch, but both refuse it. Hedda then taunts Løvborg, saying he fears alcohol and that it was the reason he did not accept an invitation to Brack’s party. When that ploy fails, she tells Mrs. Elvsted that Løvborg's firm resolve demonstrates there was no need for her to come to Hedda that morning to express her concern that Løvborg might succumb to temptation. This betrayal of a confidence not only upsets Thea but also angers Løvborg, disappointed that his “comrade” lacked faith in him. He takes up a glass of punch, saying, “To your health, Thea.” Then he drinks it and pours himself another. Thea’s only interest in him, he says spitefully, is to get him to help her husband “in his office.”
A moment later, however, he calms down and makes up with Thea, again calling her a comrade. Thea is jubilant, saying, “Oh, heaven be praised.” However, to her dismay, Løvborg decides to go to the judge’s party.
There, he gets thoroughly drunk. While Løvborg reads portions of his manuscript, George realizes it is a masterpiece certain to receive widespread attention as one of the great books of the age. When the party breaks up, it is early in the morning. George and several others take Løvborg home, for he is in no condition to go alone. On the way, George drops back from the others for a moment. When he hurries to catch up, he finds Løvborg’s manuscript on the ground. Apparently, he dropped it or it fell out of his pocket. George retrieves it but does return it to Eilert because, in his condition, he could lose it again. There are no copies of it.
When George arrives home, he tells Hedda of his find and says he will return it later to Løvborg. Hedda gives him a letter from his Aunt Juliana that arrived while he was out. It informs him that his Aunt Rina is on her deathbed. Before leaving to see her, he entrusts the manuscript to Hedda.
After George leaves, Judge Brack arrives. He tells Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted, who stayed the night at the Tesman’s, that Løvborg ended up after the party at the rooms of Mademoiselle Diana, who was giving a soiree for her friends and admirers. Brack says she is a “mighty huntress of men” whose services Løvborg at one time frequently used. During his visit, Løvborg noticed that his manuscript was missing and accused Mademoiselle Diana or one of the other ladies of stealing it. A fight ensued in which both male and female guests took part. When police arrived, Løvborg assaulted an officer and was taken to the station.
In the future, Brack says, “Every respectable house will be closed against Eilert Løvborg.” Hedda should be among those who anathematize him, Brack says. (Brack envies Løvborg for the attention he had received from Hedda in the past.) After Brack leaves by the garden, Hedda goes to a writing table and takes out the manuscript. The only other person who knows it is in her possession is George. When she is about to begin examining it, she hears a disturbance at the front door. It is Løvborg pushing his way past Berta. Hedda hurriedly locks the manuscript in a drawer.
Løvborg is looking for Mrs. Elvsted. When he inquires whether George told her anything when he arrived home, Hedda says George told her only that Løvborg had a rousing time at the party. Mrs. Elvsted enters. Relieved to see Løvborg, she says, “At last.” Løvborg says, “Yes, at last. And too late! . . . It is all over with me.” He and Thea must part, he says, and she must live her life as if she had never met him. But what about the book she helped him complete—“their child”? He says he has destroyed it—torn it into a thousand pieces, along with his life. Thea says he has killed their child. With nothing more left for her, Thea leaves.
When Løvborg says he plans to end his life, Hedda says he must end it beautifully. She withdraws a pistol from the case and gives it to him, the same pistol with which she had once threatened him. After he leaves, Hedda removes the manuscript and burns it in the fireplace, saying, “Now I am burning your child, Thea—Burning it, curly-locks!”
Later, Aunt Juliana arrives dressed in black. She is in mourning for her sister, who has died. When George comes in shortly thereafter, his aunt tells him that life must go on and now she will now find another occupant for the vacant room—perhaps an invalid who needs care—for “It is an absolute necessity for me to have some one to live for.” After she leaves, George tells Hedda that he is upset not only about the death of Rina but also about the trouble with Løvborg.
“But of course you told him that we had [the manuscript]?”
Hedda informs him that she burned it. George, shocked, asks how she could do such a terrible thing.
“I could not bear the idea that any one should throw you into the shade.”
George is overjoyed at hearing such a surprising statement from Hedda—in effect, an expression of love for him. He has no idea that she is lying.
Mrs. Elvsted returns to inform the Tesmans that she heard rumors at her boardinghouse that Løvborg was in the hospital. Deeply concerned, she made inquiries at the building where he lodges and discovered that he had not been seen there since the afternoon of the previous day. Brack comes in just then and reports that Løvborg lies dying in the hospital. Apparently, in the afternoon between 3 and 4, he shot himself in the heart, Brack says.
Hedda says, “There is beauty in this . . . . Eilert Løvborg himself has made up his account with life. He has had the courage to do—the one right thing.”
Mrs. Elvsted says he must have been delirious—just as he probably was when he destroyed his manuscript.
Thea then hits upon an idea: She and George could piece the book together from Løvborg’s notes. She has kept a copy of them with her. Tesman enthusiastically approves of the idea, and he and Thea go into another room to discuss the project.
Meanwhile, Brack and Hedda discuss Løvborg. She tells the judge, “Eilert Løvborg has had the courage to live his life after his own fashion. And then—the last great act, with its beauty! Ah! that he should have the will and the strength to turn away from the banquet of life—so early."
Brack then discloses a disturbing fact. He had changed the account of Løvborg’s death to spare Mrs. Elvsted its sordid details. In truth, he died by accident in Mademoiselle Diana’s boudoir. He had gone there to demand the return of his “lost child.” While there, the pistol in his pocket discharged and lodged in his bowels. A moment later, Hedda withdraws an object from the desk and covers it with sheet music. Brack, meanwhile, says he recognized Løvborg’s pistol as one of the two Hedda had shot the day before into the air. Løvborg must have stolen it, he says. It is now in the possession of the police. But Judge Brack says they will not discover the owner unless he tells them who it is.
Hedda says, "And supposing the pistol was not stolen, and the owner is discovered? What then?"
“Well, Hedda, then comes the scandal.”
She and Mademoiselle Diana would have to appear in court. Hedda's reputation would be in jeopardy.
"Well, fortunately, there is no danger, so long as I say nothing," Brack says, implying that if Hedda yields to him he will keep the incriminating secret.
Hedda then goes to another room and shoots herself in the temple.
Free Will vs Environmental Influence
From the very beginning—even before her marriage to George Tesman—Hedda's failure to act on her primal longings springs in large part from her upbringing in a rigidly conventional, male-dominated society, one that emphasizes propriety and conformacy in women and hinders the free and independent spirit inside of them. But if society stifles her spirit, it does not paralyze it. She yet retains free will. She could be different. She could take risks. Her counterpart and foil, Thea Elvsted, did so, acting decisively to escape her environment. But Hedda keeps her will in check. To the end, she is her father's child, Hedda Gabler, and never risks becoming anyone else.
As the daughter of the late and esteemed General Gabler, Hedda requires a husband with social standing, an elegant home, money, servants, and other amenities stamping her as a refined and respectable aristocrat. However, stirring within her is a desire to live with democratic derring-do—to think and act independently, to take risks. But she largely
represses this desire, preferring to maintain the appearances of propriety and stability instead. Thus, she rejects the intriguing but irreputable Løvborg for the humdrum but reputable Tesman. She lets it be known that she will not tolerate even insignificant offenses to her standards of propriety, such as Juliana Tesman’s new bonnet. “Just fancy, if any one should come and see it,” Hedda
When she arrives at the Tesman home after her wedding trip, Hedda begins exercising control over others. First, she orders Berta to remove chintz covers from the furniture in the drawing room. Berta then learns from Juliana Tesman that Hedda had earlier directed that the drawing become the newlyweds' "everyday sitting room." The audience and readers
next discover that it was Hedda who arranged for the six-month wedding trip. George tells his aunt, "Hedda had to have this trip, Auntie! She really had to. Nothing else would have done." Also, she had obtained financing for the Tesman home through Judge Brack.
Selfishness vs Selflessness
Hedda takes but does not give. She thinks only of herself. What she cannot have or control she rejects or destroys. Judge Brack also acts out of selfish motives. His assistance in securing financing for the Tesman home is a way to ingratiate himself with Hedda. Later, his report to Hedda of Løvborg's behavior at Mademoiselle Diana's is an attempt to
discredit Løvborg so that he, Brack, can eliminate the competition for Hedda. Finally, his veiled threat to implicate Hedda in Løvborg's death is an attempt to gain control over her.
Løvborg and Thea regard the manuscript of his next book—one destined for greatness, according to George—as their “child.” Hedda enviously compares it with George’s child growing in her womb, which she does not care about and does not want. Fiercely jealous, she destroys the manuscript and provides Løvborg the means to kill himself, the same pistol she fired to scare Judge Brack.
The tragedy of Hedda Gabler is that she lacks the courage to act on her human instinct. Instead, she follows the dictums of a conformist society preoccupied with the appearances of propriety and respectability. In so doing, she paralyzes her ability to act with meaning and resolve except when injuring others. Her suicide is a cowardly reaction to
the prospect of scandal, not a glorious declaration of independence.
autumn leaves: Hedda and her marriage. After only six months, she is utterly bored with her life with George. Whatever hopes and expectations she had for it are already dying. Here is the dialogue, which occurs after Juliana leaves:
TESMAN. [Picks up the slippers from the floor.] What are you looking at, Hedda?George's research notes: The unfinished state of his scholarly endeavors. George is a collector of information but seems to lack the creative fire to interpret and present it. As his aunt tells him in a statement meant as a compliment, "Yes, collecting and arranging—no one can beat you at that." The notes in the portmanteau he brings home from his wedding trip end up in the attic.
George's Slippers: His simple, easygoing personality.
piano: (1) Hedda's finickiness and preoccupation with appearances; (2) her old life as General Gabler's daughter. Here is the dialogue supporting these interpretations:
TESMAN. Is there anything the matter with you, Hedda? Eh?pistols: Hedda Gabler herself and the explosive emotions building inside her. Ibsen hints that she is a weapon in his description of her: "Her steel-grey eyes express a cold, unruffled repose." In other words, she is like the guns in the case: steel, grey, cold, unruffled—until the trigger is pulled.
Thea Elvsted's hair: (1) The growth and creativity she fosters in Løvborg; (2) a source of power, like Samson's hair in the Bible. In his stage directions, Ibsen describes her hair as "remarkably light, almost flaxen, and unusually abundant and wavy" and Hedda's as "an agreeable brown, but not particularly abundant." As a school girl, Hedda envied Thea for her hair and threatened to burn it. After receiving flowers and a calling card from Thea, Hedda identifies her to George as "the girl with the irritating hair, that she was always
vine leaves: Vine leaves were an ancient symbol associated with the Greek god Dionysus (Roman name: Bacchus), god of wine and revelry and a revitalizing force in nature. He was often depicted as wearing an ivy wreath. Women called maenads, or Bacchantes, followed him to participate in his wild, orgiastic rites. Later he became associated with Greek drama as its patron. Hedda uses the term vines leaves to refer to the dissolute, reckless, boozing side of Løvborg that she coaxed to the surface.
The climax occurs when Hedda burns Eilert’s manuscript. This vindictive act destroys the “child” that Eilert fathered with the help of Thea Elvsted and precipitates developments that lead to the tragic ending.
Judge Brack's description of Mademoiselle Diana as a "mighty huntress of men" is an allusion to the goddess of the hunt in Greek and Roman mythology. The Greeks called this goddess Artemis, and the Romans called her Diana. This important goddess had many duties, including presiding over and protecting wild animals and all of nature in the company of nymphs. Løvborg, of course, was wild and licentious in his drinking days and frequently visited the mademoiselle's brothel to seek the arms of Mademoiselle Diana herself or one of her "nymphs." Ironically, most of the mythological tales about this goddess describe her as a chaste deity, although her nymphs were said to have had many love affairs. Brack's reference to Mademoiselle Diana as a nineteenth-century nature goddess helps Ibsen add significant brushstrokes to his portrait of Løvborg as wild and unpredictable.
In keeping with his realistic plots and dialogue, Ibsen's stage sets attempt to capture the atmosphere of the everyday life of his characters. On the Ibsen stage, actors did not embellish their lines with broad flourishes of a hand or other exaggerated body movements. They become ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. The proscenium arch
was important, however. This arch, from the sides of which a curtain opens and closes, acts in an Ibsen drama as a frame for the realistic portrait painted by Ibsen, a portrait that moves. The proscenium arch became a doorway or window through which the audience—peeping through the arch—could eavesdrop on people in quiet turmoil. The arch helped Ibsen create the illusion of
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Who is the most admirable character in the play? Who is the least admirable? Explain your answers.