When Henrik Ibsen finished writing Hedda Gabler in November of 1890, he sent the play to Count Maurycy (Maurice) Prozor, to have it translated into French prior to publication.
In December, 1890 Ibsen sent a letter to Count Prozor in which he wrote,
The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda, as a personality, is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than as her husband's wife. It was not my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.
Hedda is the daughter of a General, now deceased, and prior to marrying George Tesman, an academic interested in historical studies, she enjoyed a privileged, aristocratic life, and moved freely in society.
At the beginning of Hedda Gabler, Hedda and George have returned from an extended wedding trip.
Now Hedda Tesman, and pregnant with George's child, in her own mind she's still Hedda Gabler, moving freely in the upper levels of society, and still in love with Eilert Løvborg, a former suitor who "made good" by publishing a book while Hedda has been away on her six-month honeymoon with George. One of the reasons Hedda married George was that she thought he would be famous, but Eilert has already passed him by.
Hedda and George have moved into a comfortable home, a former cabinet minster's villa—"spacious, handsome, and tastefully furnished," according to Ibsen's stage directions—but certainly smaller and less opulent than where she lived prior to her marriage.
Hedda's circle of friends has diminished considerably, and so has her self-identity. Once she was Hedda Gabler, daughter of the General, and a woman of the world. Now she's Mrs. Tesman, wife of a university researcher, living in the western side of Christiana (now Oslo). Quite simply, Hedda's world is changing. It's getting smaller, and it's closing in around her.
Ibsen describes Hedda on her first entrance into the play, and he presents her as retaining characteristics of her previous life as Hedda Gabler:
HEDDA enters from the left through the inner room. Her face and figure show refinement and distinction. Her complexion is pale and opaque. Her steel-grey eyes express a cold, unruffled repose.
Hedda makes small talk with George's aunt (Miss Tesman) and a local friend, Berta, and she gives some insight into the changes that have been happening in her life:
MISS TESMAN: Good morning, my dear Hedda! Good morning, and a hearty welcome!
HEDDA: Good morning, dear Miss Tesman! So early a call! That is kind of you.
MISS TESMAN: Well—has the bride slept well in her new home?
HEDDA: Oh yes, thanks. Passably.
GEORGE TESMAN. [Laughing.] Passably! Come, that's good, Hedda! You were sleeping like a stone when I got up.
HEDDA.: Fortunately. Of course one has always to accustom one's self to new surroundings, Miss Tesman—little by little.
Midway through the play, Hedda declares to Mr. Brack, "How mortally bored I’ve been."
Hedda tries to expand her world by manipulating and controlling the lives of the people around her, and by living vicariously through them. She steals a valuable document from George's dying aunt, goads Eilert into drinking again, burns the manuscript of of his second book, and urges him to commit suicide.
When Hedda is confronted by Mrs. Elvsted about her treatment of Eilert, Hedda replies, "For once in my life, I want to control a human destiny." Hedda can't even control her own life.
Ultimately, Hedda Gabler decides that she can't continue to live in the world of Hedda Tesman and commits suicide to release herself from her stifling, oppressive existence.
Ibsen emphasizes the use of Gabler's maiden name for several reasons in the play Hedda Gabler.
The play revolves around the idea of identity and womanhood. Hedda, for one, never truly connects with her new husband. She is bored and dissatisfied with married life, and the title of the play is indicative of the fact that, while she is married, her life remains disconnected from her husband's: she doesn't see herself as a "Tesman".
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Ibsen's intent (as stated in an interview in 1890) was that Hedda was meant to be regarded as an individual with her own personality instead of "her father's daughter or her husband's wife". It was customary at the time—and, indeed, throughout much of human history—for women to simply be associated with the men in their lives and disregarded otherwise with respect to their person and individuality. Ibsen was trying to turn against this trend.
In many ways, Hedda is “Hedda Tesman” in name only and never really accepts this identity; Ibsen titles the play “Hedda Gabler” instead to reflect this and to call attention to not only how she sees herself but also who she was when Lovborg knew her; his reminders of who she was needle her profoundly. Hedda is hugely conflicted about marrying Tesman; his bourgeois, suburban aspirations and manners make her almost physically ill. She’s not prepared, though, when Lovborg re-enters her life; she’s deeply conflicted about him too. Ibsen’s title reflects the fact that the central conflict lies in the destructive forces swirling in Hedda herself, forces that have been inside her all her life, long before she was married. The play is not about a married woman, the play is in many ways about a woman isolated and alone: simply Hedda Gabler.
Ibsen’s use of the title “Hedda Gabler” is significant in that it says a great deal about how the protagonist sees herself, her class identity, and her relationship with Tesman. Hedda is the daughter of General Gabler who is an aristocrat. She has married down in class to the bourgeois George Tesman. She still thinks of herself primarily as an aristocrat and the daughter of the General rather than as a member of the bourgeois class, and assumes that she will continue to have rights to a life of luxury and deference from the lower classes as a matter of her birthright, rather than accepting her own situation as Tesman’s wife, which she finds stifling and uncomfortable.