44 pages 1 hour read

Henrik Ibsen

Hedda Gabler

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1890

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Summary and Study Guide


Hedda Gabler is an 1891 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It is widely considered one of the most accomplished plays of the 19th century. Ibsen was a prolific and highly acclaimed writer who penned over two dozen plays. Many of his most famous works focus on the challenging relationships between family members and the quiet tragedies of ordinary life. Hedda Gabler is one of the most complex, challenging, and sought-after roles in theater. Many notable actresses have portrayed her on stage and screen since the play was first published. Hedda Gabler tells the story of a woman in an unhappy marriage, her complex relationships with three different men, and her desire for control over her own life and over the destinies of others. Though the play was originally written in Norwegian, it has been translated into English many times.

This guide is based on the 2014 e-book edition of Kenneth McLeish’s 1995 translation, published by Nick Hern Books.

Content Warning: This play pivots around Hedda Gabler’s death by suicide and the ambiguous death by suicide or accidental death of Ejlert Løvborg. It also discusses alcohol addiction. 

Plot Summary

The play is set in the Falk villa, a large house in Norway. Hedda Tesman (née Gabler) is the daughter of a general. She and her husband, Jørgen Tesman, have just returned from a six-month honeymoon, during which they traveled extensively throughout Europe. Tesman’s aunt, Miss Juliane Tesman, and a maid, Berthe, visit the Falk house early in the morning. Hedda and Tesman are not awake yet. Both Berthe and Juliane are somewhat intimidated by Hedda, who can be unfriendly and implacable. Juliane lives with her sister, Rina, who is bedridden and dying. Juliane and Berthe hope that Tesman and Hedda will soon have children. Tesman enters and greets his aunt. He is hoping to get a professorship, which will be crucial if he wants to pay for the lifestyle Hedda is accustomed to. Hedda enters and greets everyone coolly. She feels out of place in Tesman’s family. Juliane implies that Hedda is pregnant, but Hedda shuts the conversation down swiftly. Juliane leaves, and Tesman asks his wife to refer to her as “Auntie” instead of “Miss Tesman.” Hedda refuses. The two of them find a calling card from Mrs. Elvsted. Hedda went to school with her, and she is an old flame of Tesman’s. 

Mrs. Elvsted arrives. She tells Hedda and Tesman that Ejlert Løvborg is in town. Ejlert is an old beau of Hedda’s. He is also an academic in the same field as Tesman, and he has recently published a book. Ejlert was a tutor for Mrs. Elvsted’s stepchildren. Hedda sends Tesman away to write to Ejlert and ask him to visit the Falk villa. While he is out of the room, she and Mrs. Elvsted speak more frankly about the affair Mrs. Elvsted is having with Ejlert. Ejlert stopped drinking because Mrs. Elvsted disapproved. Mrs. Elvsted leaves and Judge Brack, a friend of Hedda and Tesman’s, arrives. He informs Tesman that Ejlert may also want the professorship, casting doubt on Tesman and Hedda’s financial future. Hedda learns that she will not have a footman or a horse any time soon, contrary to her expectations. Bitter, she amuses herself by shooting her father’s pistols. 

As the second act starts, it is afternoon, and Brack has left and returned to the Falk villa. Hedda shoots at him from the window as he approaches, though she deliberately misses. Brack and Hedda were once lovers. They banter, and Brack expresses his desire to come and go in Hedda and Tesman’s home, implying that he would like to restart his sexual relationship with Hedda. Hedda reveals that she does not even like the Falk villa, even though her apparent love for it was one of the foundational moments of her relationship with Tesman. She only married him because she believed it was time for her to settle down, but she is bitterly unhappy. She does not want to become a mother, but she is indeed pregnant. 

Tesman returns from a visit to his aunts’ house, and Ejlert arrives. Ejlert tells Tesman that he does not want the professorship after all, but that he is planning to publish a groundbreaking new book. Hedda and Ejlert discuss their past relationship while Tesman and Brack talk in another room. They remember one evening where Hedda threatened to shoot Ejlert with one of her pistols. Mrs. Elvsted arrives and has an uncomfortable conversation with Hedda and Ejlert. Hedda pressures Ejlert to drink two glasses of punch. Tesman, Brack, and Ejlert leave for a party at Brack’s house. Ejlert promises to read Tesman his new manuscript, which he is carrying with him. He also promises to return at 10:00 pm to escort Mrs. Elvsted home. Hedda is jealous of Mrs. Elvsted, who has real passion in her love affair and the possibility of future happiness. Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted stay up late, but the men do not return. 

The third act starts early in the morning when a letter arrives for Tesman. Mrs. Elvsted has not slept and is worried about Ejlert. Tesman finally gets home. He explains that Ejlert got extremely drunk at the party and dropped his manuscript, which Tesman brought home and plans to return to Ejlert once he has sobered up. Tesman reads the letter that arrived for him and learns that Aunt Rina is about to die. He rushes to her house to say goodbye. Brack arrives and tells Hedda that after the party, Ejlert went to a brothel and got into a fight. He leaves and Ejlert arrives, looking disheveled. He asks Hedda if she knows what happened to his manuscript. She lies and says no. He despairs, and she gives him a pistol and tells him to shoot himself, since his future is ruined. He leaves, and Hedda immediately burns his manuscript. 

The fourth act begins: Aunt Rina has died. Tesman comes home, and Hedda tells him that she burned the manuscript to secure their future together and Tesman’s professorship. He is disturbed by her actions but heartened by this apparent proof that she loves him. Brack returns and tells everyone that Ejlert is dead. Devastated, Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted decide to try and rewrite his book based on his notes. Hedda is pleased that Ejlert had a beautiful death, but Brack clarifies that he died in a brothel of a gunshot wound to the genitals; the circumstances surrounding his death are ambiguous. Brack knows that the pistol in question was Hedda’s; he promises not to tell anyone in exchange for sexual favors. Hedda realizes that she has no power, no allies, and no prospect of future happiness. Unwilling to give Brack power over her, she takes her remaining pistol and shoots herself. The play ends as the other characters find her body. Brack is particularly shocked by her actions: He never expected her to do such a thing.