While the familiar Ibsenian patterns remain intact in Hedda Gabler, the conflict is no longer rooted in ideology. Though she loved the glamorous and dissolute Eilert Løvborg, fear of scandal and of her own repressed sexuality prevented Hedda Gabler from giving her love free rein. As a last resort, she has married George Tesman, a humdrum, middle-class historian, whom she does not love. While George is astonished that he has had the good fortune to marry the daughter of the late General Gabler, Hedda is despondent to find herself trapped in the hopelessly bourgeois Tesman family. George and Hedda both have returned from their long wedding trip with expectations: George fully expects to be appointed to a professorship, and Hedda, much to her dismay, is expecting Tesman’s child. George has assumed that the appointment will automatically be his, because Eilert Løvborg, his only serious rival, has long suffered from acute alcoholism. He soon learns, however, that Eilert has stopped drinking and has published a very successful book. He is not aware, however, that Eilert is still deeply in love with Hedda.
Eilert has recently completed another book, which promises to be his masterpiece. When Thea Elvsted, the wife of Eilert’s former employer, beseeches Tesman to keep an eye on Eilert because she fears that he may start drinking again, Hedda is intrigued. Without difficulty, she gets Thea to admit that, though she has managed to reform Eilert, she has never been able to win his love because he is still haunted by the shadow of another woman. Thea is unaware that Hedda is that woman, and Hedda is extremely gratified to learn that she may still exercise great power over Eilert. She puts this power to the test when she successfully tempts him to take a drink and then to accompany George to a party. Hedda wants to shape Eilert’s destiny by freeing him from fear of alcoholism. Though she assures Thea that he will return “with vine leaves in his hair,” by which she means that his debauchery will have been translated into Dionysian creativity, she is also aware that he may instead succumb to his weakness. Either way, she will have gained control over him.
Unable to control himself, Eilert becomes so drunk at the party that he loses the manuscript of his new book. Tesman, who finds it, entrusts it to Hedda for safekeeping. When the distraught Eilert enters near the end of act 3, he tells Hedda and Thea that he has destroyed the manuscript. Thea, who regards this book as her and Eilert’s “spiritual child,” is crushed. After Thea’s departure, Eilert confesses to Hedda that he dared not tell her that he had simply lost “their child,” and he intimates that he intends to “end it all” as soon as possible. Firmly believing that his sense of honor will not allow him to live with his failure to master his weakness, Hedda gives him one of her father’s dueling pistols and tells him to “do it beautifully.” After he leaves, she gleefully burns Eilert’s and Thea’s “child.”
Though the first account of Eilert’s death suggests that he has fulfilled Hedda’s expectations, the audience subsequently learns that he has not committed suicide at all. In fact, he has been fatally shot by accident in a brothel, where he was raving about “a lost child.” Hedda’s failure to shape his destiny brings her face-to-face with her own failure to achieve selfhood. The final degradation occurs when Judge Brack, who recognized the gun that killed Eilert as one of General Gabler’s pistols, intimates that the price of his silence is Hedda’s agreement to become his mistress. This final loss of freedom seems to motivate her to shape her own destiny. While Thea and George are patiently working at the task of reconstructing Eilert’s lost book from notes that Thea has kept, Hedda goes into the adjacent room and shoots herself in the temple.
When aristocratic Hedda Gabler, daughter of the late General Gabler, consents to marry Doctor George Tessman, everyone in Hedda’s social set is surprised and a little shocked. Although George is a rising young scholar and will soon be a professor at the university, he is not considered to be the ideal mate for Hedda. He is dull and prosaic, absorbed almost exclusively in his books and manuscripts, whereas Hedda is the beautiful, spoiled darling of her father and all the young men who flock around her. Hedda is now twenty-nine, however, and George is the only one of her admirers to offer her marriage and a villa that once belonged to the widow of a cabinet minister.
The villa is somewhat beyond George’s means, but it is what Hedda wants, and with the prospect of a professorship and with his Aunt Juliana’s help, he manages to secure it. He arranges a long wedding tour that lasts nearly six months, because Hedda wishes that also. On their honeymoon, George spends much of his time searching libraries for material in his special field, the history of civilization. Hedda is bored, and by the time she returns to the villa she hates George. It begins to look as if George may not get the professorship, which would mean that Hedda would have to forego her footman and saddlehorse and some of the other luxuries she craves. George’s rival for the post is Eilert Lovberg, a brilliant but erratic genius who has written a book in George’s own field that critics have acclaimed as a masterpiece. Hedda, completely bored and disgusted with her situation, finds her only excitement in practicing with a brace of pistols that belonged to her father, the general’s only legacy to her.
George discovers that Eilert has written a second book that is even more brilliant and important than the first, a book written with the help and inspiration of a Mrs. Elvsted, whose devotion to the erratic genius has reformed him. Lovberg brings the manuscript of this book with him one evening to the Tessman villa. Hedda proceeds to make the most of this situation, for Thea Elvsted, whom she despised when she was her schoolmate, is also her husband’s former sweetheart. The fact that this mousy creature is the inspiration for Eilert Lovberg’s success and rehabilitation is more than Hedda can bear. Eilert was once in love with Hedda, and he urged her to throw in her lot with his; at the time, she was tempted to do so, but she refused because his future was so uncertain. Now, Hedda feels regret mingled with anger that another woman possesses what she lacked the courage to hold for herself.
Hedda’s impulse is to destroy Lovberg, and circumstances play into her hands. When Lovberg calls at the Tessman villa with his manuscript, George is on the point of leaving with a friend, Judge Brack, for a bachelor party. They invite Lovberg to accompany them, but though he would have preferred to remain at the villa with Mrs. Elvsted and Hedda, Hedda, determined to destroy his handiwork, sends him off to the party. All night, Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted await the revelers’ return.
George is the first to come back, and he tells the ladies what has happened. The party they went to involved heavy drinking, and on the way home Lovberg lost his manuscript. George recovered it and brought it to the villa. In despair over the supposed loss of his manuscript, Lovberg spent the remainder of the night at Mademoiselle Diana’s establishment. By the time he returns to the villa, George has gone. Lovberg tells Mrs. Elvsted that he has destroyed his manuscript, but to Hedda he confesses that he lost it and that, as a consequence, he intends to take his own life. Without telling him that the manuscript is at that moment in the villa, Hedda urges him to do the deed beautifully, and she presses into his hand a memento of their relationship, one of General Gabler’s pistols with which she once threatened Lovberg.
After his departure, Hedda coldly and deliberately thrusts the manuscript into the fire. When George returns and hears from Hedda’s own lips what has happened to Lovberg’s manuscript, he is unspeakably shocked; half believing that she burned it for his sake, however, he is also flattered. He resolves to keep silent and to devote his life to reconstructing the book from Mrs. Elvsted’s notes.
Hedda might be safe but for the manner in which Lovberg meets his death. He returns to Mademoiselle Diana’s establishment, where he becomes embroiled in a brawl in which he is accidentally killed. Judge Brack, a sophisticated man of the world who is as ruthless in his way as Hedda is in hers, becomes suspicious. He has long admired Hedda’s cold, dispassionate beauty and wants her as his mistress. The peculiar circumstances of Lovberg’s death give the judge his opportunity, when he learns that the pistol with which Lovberg met his death was one of a pair belonging to Hedda. The judge threatens Hedda with an investigation. Hedda cannot face a public scandal, but she refuses to give in to the judge’s proposal. While her husband and Mrs. Elvsted are beginning the long task of reconstructing the dead Lovberg’s manuscript, Hedda calmly goes to her boudoir and with the remaining pistol she dies beautifully—as she had urged Lovberg to do—by putting a bullet through her head.