Act 2 opens on the drawing room featured in Act I—although the piano has been removed and a writing desk has been put in its place. It is afternoon. Hedda, dressed to receive visitors, stands alone in the room by the glass door, loading a pistol.
Hedda very promptly gets her way: in the last act she ordered that her piano be moved and now, only a few hours later, it is. Hedda’s loading a pistol in her drawing room of all places speaks to how defiant she is of social conventions. It is also a dark foreshadowing of how she will soon arrange a man’s death from the comforts of this same drawing room.
Hedda sees Judge Brack approaching the Tesmans’ villa from the back, through the garden. She greets him, raises her pistol, takes aim, and playfully announces that she is going to shoot him. Judge Brack shouts at her, “No-no-no!” Nonetheless, Hedda fires (purposefully missing Brack). Brack cries out that Hedda must be quite mad, and insists that she stop fooling about. When he enters the drawing room, he eases the pistol out of Hedda’s hand and returns it to its case.
Hedda and Judge Brack quietly seek to dominate one another throughout the play, in what is a very serious game to them. Whereas Brack plays by the rules, however, Hedda is willing to behave in a way nobody else would, and her extraordinarily dark sense of humor is on display here. Ibsen already prepares us for her suicide by showing just how detached she seems from how things are “normally done.”
Hedda complains that she hasn’t had any visitors. Judge Brack asks if Tesman is in, but Hedda says no, he ran off to his aunts’ house. Brack wishes he had thought of that—then he could have come back to the Tesmans’ earlier and have had more time alone with the mistress of the house. Hedda says that it wouldn’t have done him any good to arrive earlier, because she’s been in her room all morning changing.
Brack wants to be around Hedda, especially when her husband is out, because he is sexually interested in her. Hedda seems to encourage Brack only to have the pleasure of controlling and toying with his admittedly lecherous heart.
Hedda and Judge Brack sit down for a comfortable gossip. The two say they have missed talking together. Hedda confides in Brack that her honeymoon was a bore, spent mostly in archives and libraries so that her husband could conduct his research, and she anticipates that her marriage, being with the same person “everlastingly,” will become unbearable. Tesman, as an academic, is not at all an amusing traveling companion.—he drones on sickeningly about history and medieval domestic crafts. Judge Brack mentions love, but Hedda tells him not to use “that glutinous word.”
Hedda’s candid intimacy with Brack is very similar to that which she shared with Lövborg many years ago. Indeed, she seems to cultivate such relationships with men so that she can exert influence, but also so that the men may provide her with a window into the male social world—which she envies because she is denied access to it. Finally, Hedda seems to relish the opportunity to vent some of her disgust with marriage and modern life. “Love” is only a clichéd word to Hedda, with no reality or feeling behind it.
Judge Brack wonders how it was that Tesman won Hedda’s hand in marriage in the first place. She implies that she had “had her day” and needed to settle down—but then she shudders and takes this back at once. Besides, she goes on, Jörgen Tesman is a worthy, solid man who might attain to the highest social distinction—and he isn’t “ridiculous” at least. Hedda also points out that Tesman was so pathetically eager to be allowed to support her, which is more than what her other gallant friends were prepared to do.
Why did Hedda marry Tesman? He indulges her demands, yes, and might become a powerful man in the future—but here Hedda also reveals a darker reason for her choice. She suggests that she had “had her day”—that is, that the best of her life was behind her, and it was time to “settle” and give in to society’s demand that she marry. In a sense, Hedda’s life is over before the play begins.
Judge Brack laughs and says that he respects the bonds of holy matrimony. Hedda banteringly says she never had high hopes of marrying him (Brack) anyway. For his part, Brack says, he demands no more than an intimate circle of acquaintances and trusted friends—and he suggests that he’s especially keen to befriend the lady of the house (Hedda). Triangular relationships (between husband, wife, and Brack himself) are highly convenient for all concerned, he says.
Brack here makes relatively explicit his sexual desire for Hedda. For such a conventional man, we might think it strange that Brack should seek out an extramarital affair—but then love affairs are very conventional ways of breaking with social conventions. The clichéd and tawdry nature of an affair probably makes them especially unappealing to Hedda.
Hedda concedes that she would have been glad of a third person on her honeymoon trip. Brack says that passengers on the train of marriage can always jump out and move around a little—that is, engage in extramarital affairs. Hedda declares, “I’ll never jump out.” Brack suggests that if Hedda is unwilling to jump out, someone can always climb into the train compartment—a trusted, sympathetic, interesting friend, for example. Hedda sighs: that would be a relief, she says.
Brack’s metaphor of the train gives him an opportunity to obliquely proposition Hedda, but she turns him down. Why? It’s implied that she finds an extramarital love affair to be at once intolerably scandalous and also lacking in beauty. There is also the suggestion that, far from being liberating, a love affair would only bind Hedda to Brack in secrecy.
Tesman enters, bearing many academic books under his arms and in his pockets. He is surprised to find Brack there already, as Berte didn’t mention anything about a guest. Tesman goes on to say that he has with him Ejlert Lövborg’s book, which he praises as soberly argued, unlike anything Lövborg has done before. Then Tesman excuses himself to change out of his sweaty clothes—but not before informing Hedda that Aunt Julle won’t be stopping by later. Hedda assumes this is because of the hat incident from earlier that day, but her husband says that it is because Aunt Rina is so very ill. “Oh, these everlasting aunts,” Hedda murmurs, almost inaudibly.
As threatened as Tesman is by Lövborg, he is nevertheless honest in his evaluation of Lövborg’s book. Tesman might be a mediocrity, but he is for the most part a decent and sincere man. Hedda cannot contain how oppressed she feels being surrounded by Tesman’s aunts all the time. Just like her marriage, the aunts are “everlasting,” Hedda fears. She clearly has no real concern for Rina’s health, and only finds her perpetual illness boring.
Tesman exits. Judge Brack asks Hedda about the hat incident, and Hedda reveals that she only pretended to think Aunt Julle’s hat was the maid’s. These things just suddenly come over me, Hedda explains, and I can’t resist them. Judge Brack thinks that this happens because Hedda is unhappy even though she has every reason to be happy—namely, she lives in her dream house. “Do you also believe that fairy story?” asks Hedda.
Hedda’s capricious acts of cruelty—these things that irresistibly come over her—emerge from her hatred for the littleness of her life and from her desire to be stimulated and powerful. Brack clearly misunderstands Hedda’s character: he thinks a house could satisfy her, when only a life of beauty and drama (basically, an impossible ideal) will do.
Hedda goes on to reveal that the villa she and Tesman now live in was never her dream house. One evening last summer, Tesman was escorting her home from a party, and he was floundering and dithering for lack of something to talk about. Hedda claims she felt sorry for him and on an impulse just happened to say she’d like to live in this villa, which belonged to Lady Falk at the time—even though she didn’t really care for the place at all. This conversation then precipitated the couple’s engagement, marriage, and honeymoon. Judge Brack finds the story “delicious.”
It would be a mistake to think of Hedda as cruel through and through. She seems capable of taking pity on and being charitable to others, or at least her story about giving Tesman something to talk about suggests as much. What is instead cruel (but also quite ironic) on Hedda’s part here is letting Tesman strain his finances to buy a grand house she doesn’t even really like.
Hedda complains of the smell of lavender and potpourri in her house, which she suspects Aunt Julle of having wafted in. Judge Brack thinks the smell is a relic of Lady Falk. In any case, the house has the odor of death, to Hedda’s mind.
The scent of lavender and potpourri—the odor of death—gives the Tesmans’ villa a funereal cast that foreshadows the many deaths to come in the play.
Hedda leans back and tells Brack that he can’t imagine how excruciatingly bored she will be here, with nothing inviting in her future—except, perhaps, the prospect of Tesman going into politics. Brack laughs—he doesn’t think Tesman would be any good at that. Hedda nonetheless wonders whether her husband could become the Prime Minister, but Brack says he’d have to be quite a rich man. Hedda laments her situation again.
Hedda’s only consolation in her unhappy marriage is that her husband might go into politics. This would give Hedda herself influence as the wife and manipulator of a socially important man, or at least would allow her to witness the “action” of politics. Alas, this seems like an unrealistic dream, given Tesman’s finances and lack of social skill.
Judge Brack then suggests that Hedda might have to take on a new responsibility soon enough (presumably motherhood)—a suggestion which angers Hedda. She says she’s good at only one thing in the world: boring herself to death.
Hedda fears that motherhood will be the end of her life: she will be totally bound to another’s wellbeing if she were to have a child. Being bored to death as a free woman is preferable, to her mind.
Tesman enters. He expects Lövborg to arrive any moment, but he is as willing to wait as long as possible. Tesman is also confident that his old friend and rival will not compete with him for the professorship. Hedda suggests that if Lövborg decides not to go to Judge Brack’s bachelor party later that night, she can always keep him company. Tesman doesn’t know if this arrangement is quite appropriate, but his wife assures him that Mrs. Elvsted will join her and her guest. Judge Brack thinks it might be in Lövborg’s best interests not to attend his wild drinking party anyway.
Tesman is willing to wait as long as possible for Lövborg because the suspense is killing him: will he get the professorship or not? (Note that Hedda hasn’t even thought about the professorship, even though it directly affects her life.) Tesman is rather naïve as regards what’s socially appropriate. He doesn’t want Lövborg alone with Hedda, yet he trusts the lecherous and untrustworthy Judge Brack.
Berte enters and announces that Lövborg has arrived. He enters at once: he is both lean and somewhat haggard, but dressed in an elegant new suit. He bows and seems embarrassed. Greetings and niceties are exchanged all around. Tesman says he hasn’t yet read Lövborg’s new book, but Lövborg tells him not to bother: the book was enormously praised precisely because there’s nothing much to it—it was written so that nobody could disagree with it. Lövborg explains that he’s trying to build up a position for himself and start over again.
Lövborg’s lean and haggard look reflects his years of alcoholism and how hard he’s been working to reestablish himself—and it also fits the idealized image of the “artist,” something Hedda finds appealing. That Lövborg can so readily dismiss his popular book gives us an indication of the man’s vision as a scholar (it’s implied that he’s talented as well, but Ibsen never confirms or denies this fact). Lövborg designed his old book to confirm people’s preexisting beliefs and so win him praise. His new book, however, will be more radical.
Lövborg pulls out a packet from his coat pocket: it is his new manuscript. He tells Tesman that he should read this when it comes out, because it’s a book the author has poured his true self into. This book deals with the future, both the social forces involved and the future course of civilization. Tesman is surprised: we don’t know anything about the future, he says. “No,” says Lövborg. “But there are one or two things to be said about it, all the same.”
Unlike Tesman’s plodding, conventional book, one that didn’t require any real spirit or creativity to write, Lövborg’s book is a work distinctly his own, something true to his inmost self. There is something heroic in this, regardless of whether or not the book is a success. Ibsen then portrays this heroism both sincerely and ironically as the plot unfolds. In a telling contrast between the two men, Tesman can’t imagine knowing anything about the future, but Lövborg is courageous enough to speculate.
Tesman observes that the handwriting isn’t Lövborg’s, and Lövborg explains he dictated the book (to Mrs. Elvsted, as we know). Tesman says he would never have thought to write such a book. Hedda quietly agrees with him.
Tesman’s observation about the handwriting stems from his insecurity: he might unconsciously be hoping Lövborg didn’t write the book at all.
Lövborg hopes to read a bit from his new manuscript to Tesman, but Tesman doesn’t know if he can manage that. Judge Brack explains: he’s hosting a bachelor party that night, more or less in honor of Tesman himself. Brack invites Lövborg along, but the former alcoholic declines, despite Brack and Tesman’s encouragement. Hedda says that Lövborg would rather stay where he is and take supper with her, anyway—and also, of course, with Mrs. Elvsted. Lövborg agrees, and Hedda summons Berte to make the necessary arrangements.
In the world of Hedda Gabler, wild drinking parties are an occasion for men to socialize uninhibitedly in a way that women can’t. For a man not to attend such a party is looked down upon by his fellow men, which is Lövborg’s situation here. Hedda protects his ego, though, by making it clear that she wants him to stay with her. Of course, she has ulterior motives: to reclaim her influence over Lövborg.
Tesman begins to question Lövborg about the series of lectures he plans on giving during the coming autumn. Lövborg asks Tesman not to hold it against him, recognizing that this must be rather an embarrassment for Tesman. But Lövborg also announces that he does not plan on competing with Tesman for the professorship—he only wants to outshine his rival in reputation. Tesman is relieved, and he reiterates to Hedda that Lövborg won’t stand in their way after all. Leave me out of it, says Hedda.
Tesman rather transparently begins probing Lövborg for his intention regarding the professorship. Unlike the bourgeois Tesman, however, Lövborg has no interest in pursuing an academic post for the sake of prestige—he only wants to produce world-shattering work. Hedda disassociates herself from her husband throughout the play, but most strongly in Lövborg’s presence.
Hedda invites the gentlemen to partake of some cold (alcoholic) punch. Brack and the excited Tesman accept, but Lövborg declines. Hedda says that she will entertain him in the meantime. Tesman and Brack go into an inner room to drink, smoke, and talk. Still in the drawing room, Hedda produces an album of photos from her honeymoon trip. She and Lövborg sit down and in a slightly loud voice Hedda talks about various pictures of the Alps and the like.
Hedda’s call for punch seems to be designed as a test for Lövborg—she wants to see whether he trusts himself to drink, which in turn will tell her what his weaknesses are. Hedda, always intent to avoid a scandal, pretends to innocently look at a photo album with Lövborg when she’s really preparing for an intimate conversation.
Softly and slowly, Lövborg murmurs Hedda’s name (including her maiden name, Gabler). Hedda hushes him, but he softly and slowly repeats the words. It becomes clear that the two knew each other well many years ago. Lövborg expresses his bitterness that Hedda has thrown herself away by marrying a man like Tesman. “None of that!” says Hedda.
It becomes clear at once that Lövborg has very strong feelings for Hedda. Just as Tesman referred to Mrs. Elvsted as Rysing, so too does Lövborg refer to Hedda familiarly, by her maiden name. Hedda hushes his “scandalous” words at once.
Tesman enters and Hedda pretends to be talking about the photos from her trip again. Tesman offers her some punch and cake and she accepts. He exits. Meanwhile, Judge Brack keeps an eye on Hedda and Lövborg from the inner room.
Judge Brack looks on from the other room in jealousy: he senses that Hedda and Lövborg are more to each other than they let on, and he wants to be the only “other” man in Hedda’s life. It may also be the case that he’s trying to get some “dirt” on Hedda so that he’ll have something to hold over her head and give him power over her.
Lövborg again asks, quietly as before, how Hedda could throw herself away on Tesman. Hedda responds that she will not be spoken to so familiarly. Though Hedda declines to answer Lövborg’s question of whether or not she loves Tesman, she insists that she’ll have no kind of unfaithfulness.
Hedda insists on distance with Lövborg: just as with Brack, she feels that only tawdriness and ugliness could come of an affair. Hedda is not interested in having power over someone only so that it can be squandered like that—she longs for something more unique and beautiful.
Tesman returns with a tray. “Why don’t you leave that to the maid?” asks Hedda. Because it’s fun to wait on you, answers her husband. He fills two glasses with punch—one for Hedda and one for Mrs. Elvsted, who will arrive soon. Hedda asks Tesman about a photograph of a village in the album, and in response he reminds her that they spent the night there (implying that that was where he and Hedda first had sex), but Hedda tactfully cuts him off, and Tesman returns to the inner room with Judge Brack.
Tesman seems to regard Lövborg not only as a professional but also as something of a sexual rival—hence he repeatedly comes over to keep an eye on him and Hedda. Ironically, Tesman only emasculates himself in this by doing the maid’s work for his wife. Tesman’s allusion to his sexual relations with Hedda seems designed to rather crudely mark his territory, so to speak. Once again, Hedda is repulsed by any mention of sex as associated with herself.
Lövborg, alone again with Hedda, has a single question for her: was there no love, not even a trace, in her past relationship to him? Hedda recalls only that the two were good companions. They reminisce about the candid conversations they used to have in General Gabler’s house, and about the wild confessions Lövborg used to make concerning his night of wild drunkenness, prompted by Hedda’s roundabout yet somehow confident questions. Wasn’t it love? Lövborg asks again. No, answers Hedda—is it really so hard to understand that a young girl should want to find out about a world that she isn’t supposed to know anything about?
Hedda refuses to say whether or not she loved Lövborg, perhaps because doing so would render her vulnerable, or because she is ashamed of what she perceives as a past weakness. It may also be the case, however, that Hedda did not love Lövborg at all, and that she only loved the view he gave her of the world enjoyed only by men in this patriarchal society. Hedda’s desire to find out about this world suggests that her huge, violent spirit longs for more scope to act.
Lövborg concludes that his relationship with Hedda was based on a common lust for life—so then, he asks, why didn’t it last? Hedda suggests that she broke it off because there was an imminent danger that their relationship would develop a sexual dimension, that their game would become a reality. Lövborg reminds her that she threatened to shoot him with her father’s pistols then—she didn’t do so only because she was afraid of a scandal. “You’re a coward,” Lövborg says, and Hedda agrees—although she also suggests that her worst cowardice, that evening, was not acting on her desire for Lövborg. She warns her companion not to assume anything from this, however.
Lövborg’s conclusion that Hedda lusts for life is a bit ironic, considering Hedda’s preoccupation with a beautiful death. When she cannot courageously commit to love Lövborg, Hedda threatens to destroy him instead, to avoid being forever reminded of her cowardice. In this important scene Hedda comes as close as she ever will to expressing love for another person—but she immediately cuts short anything that might result from this moment of vulnerability.
It has started to get dark. Berte opens the hall door and Thea Elvsted enters, greeted by Hedda and all the gentlemen. Thea confirms that Lövborg will not be going out on the drinking spree with the others, and then makes to sit beside Lövborg—but Hedda insists that she sit in the middle. Lövborg compliments Thea, refers to her as his good companion, and praises her infinite courage to act on his behalf. He says that Thea inspired him in his work.
Hedda’s insistence on sitting between Thea and Lövborg is Ibsen’s most explicit stage picture for the love triangle motif featured throughout the play. Just as Hedda physically sits between the couple, so too does she try to break Thea’s emotional influence on Lövborg and exert her own influence on him. Lövborg resists this by trying to make Hedda jealous.
Hedda offers Thea some cold punch, but she declines, as does Lövborg. Lövborg says he would not drink even if Hedda wanted him to. Hedda suggests, more seriously now, that he should drink, so that other people don’t get the idea that he isn’t really confident and sure of himself. Thea pleads with Hedda to stop pressuring Lövborg, but Hedda tells him nonetheless that Judge Brack looked at him contemptuously when he declined he punch and the invitation to the bachelor party—as though he didn’t dare to do either.
When Lövborg tells Hedda he would not drink even for her sake, she forms for the first time in the play a concrete goal: to prove her influence over Lövborg by getting him to drink. Her first efforts center on socially shaming Lövborg and by casting doubts on what is so important to him: his courage. Lövborg is too much his own man, however, to give into merely social pressure.
Lövborg is steadfast: he will not drink or go out partying. Hedda smiles approvingly. She reminds Thea of earlier that morning, when she (Thea) came to the Tesmans in a state of desperation and mortal terror for Lövborg’s sake—wasn’t that needless? Thea panics when this information is revealed, and Lövborg is shocked and crushed. So this, he says, is his companion’s confident belief in him.
Hedda succeeds in pressuring Lövborg to drink precisely by breaking her earlier promise to Thea—namely that she would not tell anyone about Thea’s reason for coming to town. Lövborg can withstand social pressure, but he cannot withstand someone he trusts losing confidence in him.
Thea begs to explain, but Lövborg picks up a glass of punch, hoarsely toasts her, downs the glass, and then, after toasting Hedda’s honesty, he downs another. That’s enough, Hedda says as he begins to refill his glass—he must remember that he’s going to the party. Lövborg asks Thea if she arranged to come to town with her husband. She doesn’t answer. Again Lövborg makes to refill his glass, and again Hedda firmly stops him. Lövborg at once feels like a fool. He promises to show Thea and the others that, however worthless he was in the past, he’s found his feet again.
Lövborg drinks, a sign that Hedda has reclaimed control over him and that he has lost control over himself. It especially wounds him that Thea didn’t tell her husband that she was coming to town—which means that Thea loves Lövborg, but still doesn’t have confidence in him, a bitter combination. Hedda practices her influence again by now actively controlling how much Lövborg consumes.
Tesman and Judge Brack enter—it’s time to go. Lövborg announces, despite Thea’s pleading, that he too is going to the drinking party, if only to read to Tesman from his manuscript. He also promises to pick Thea up from the Tesmans’ at ten o’clock that night. Let the partying begin, says Judge Brack. Hedda says she wishes she could come to the party as an invisible onlooker, so as to hear of the revelers’ liveliness uncensored. Brack and Tesman laugh.
Now that Lövborg has relapsed, he desperately wants to prove to himself that he has control over his drinking—hence his decision to go the party. Hedda’s desire to go to the party as an invisible onlooker is akin to her confidential relationships with men like Lövborg and Brack: she wants to see a world she’s otherwise locked out of.
The men exit. Thea, wandering about uneasily, wonders how the night will end. Hedda is confident that Lövborg will return at ten o’clock “with vine leaves in his hair,” confidently the master of himself, and a free man. Thea hopes she’s right—but what reason does she have to believe all this? Hedda says that she wants to feel like she controls a human destiny. Hedda says that she’s so poor and that Thea is so rich—then she grips Thea in her arms and says, “I think I’ll burn your hair off after all.”
It is important to note that Hedda doesn’t immediately or only desire Lövborg’s destruction: it seems here that she really does hope that he will master himself, which would be both courageous and beautiful of him. She only wants to control another person, and to see something beautiful happen. The image of Lövborg with vine leaves in his hair suggests Hedda’s first ideal for him—to be like a Greek god (particularly Dionysus, the god of both wine and tragedy) who is creative and liberated, but also master of himself. (It also becomes clear that she has held this image of Lövborg since their past relationship.) It’s only when this first “plot” fails that Hedda moves on to manipulate Lövborg’s destruction.
Thea cries out to be let go, frightened of Hedda. Berte enters and announces that everything is ready in the dining room. Hedda says that the two women are coming, but Thea insists on going home at once. Nonsense, says Hedda, again anticipating Lövborg’s vine-crowned return at ten o’clock. And almost by force she pulls Mrs. Elvsted toward the doorway.
Hedda shows her frightening side once again, threatening Thea and violently forcing her to stay. This may be because Hedda is now “riled up” by her new influence over Lövborg, but it’s also implied that she wants Thea to be present for Lövborg’s triumphant return, which would prove that it is Hedda’s influence, not Thea’s, that has finally won out in Lövborg’s soul.