Act 3 opens on the Tesmans’ drawing room. It is early the next morning, and the fire in the stove has almost burnt itself out. Thea Elvsted is reclining in an armchair, anxiously waiting for Lövborg to return, as she has been sleeplessly all night. Hedda is sleeping quite well on the sofa.
The fire—symbolic of Hedda’s destructive capacity—almost burns itself out here, just as Hedda is closest to achieving a beautiful triumph over Lövborg’s soul. She sleeps confidently, in contrast to Thea’s sleepless anxiety.
Berte enters with a letter, which Thea thinks concerns Lövborg—but it does not. It is from Aunt Julle and is addressed to Dr. Tesman. Berte suggests that she knew Lövborg would get drunk and stay out all night. She offers to put more kindling on the fire, but Thea says that this isn’t necessary. Berte exits.
Berte seems to be a more objective judge of character in Lövborg’s case than Hedda, who has romanticized him, for Lövborg did indeed get drunk. The letter is a plot device Ibsen uses to announce Aunt Rina’s death and get Tesman out of the house.
Hedda is woken by the closing of the door. She asks Thea the time: it is past seven o’clock, and neither Tesman nor Lövborg has returned. Hedda suggests that, after getting drunk, Tesman went over to Aunt Julle’s to sleep it off—but the letter Berte brought in suggests otherwise. Well, says Hedda, then both Tesman and Lövborg must be at Judge Brack’s. There, she fantasizes, Ejlert Lövborg is even now reading from his manuscript.
Hedda seems very optimistic about Lövborg’s mastery over his drinking, which of course she thinks of as an extension of her own mastery over Lövborg. This optimism, however, is ungrounded, as both Thea and even Berte can tell. There’s also the sense, however, that Hedda does not believe what she’s saying, and is just playing a game even with her own hopes and desires.
Thea says that not even Hedda herself believes what she’s saying, and Hedda calls her “a little ninny”—“you look tired to death,” Hedda says. She at last succeeds in persuading Thea to go into her room and lie down on the bed for a little while, promising to alert her when Tesman returns. Thea exits.
Hedda has extorted information from Thea and challenged her control over Lövborg. Now she has no more use for her, so Hedda casually insults Thea and dismisses her to the bedroom.
Hedda draws the curtains, inspects herself in a mirror, and arranges her hair. She then rings for Berte to come. Berte enters, and Hedda instructs her to put more wood on the fire. Before she can do so, Berte hears someone arrive at the front door. Hedda tells her to attend to that instead, and Hedda puts more wood in the stove herself.
It is symbolically significant that Hedda herself puts wood in the stove: this is domestic work she seems to tolerate only because it takes her near to the destructive element of fire, which is, in a sense, an image of Hedda’s soul. The fire almost burned out overnight (when Lövborg was disappointing Hedda’s ideals by getting drunk) but now she brings it back to life, along with a new plot for Lövborg’s fate.
Tesman, tired and serious, creeps into the drawing room on tiptoe. Hedda greets him, and he is surprised that she is already up. Hedda asks her husband how his party went—she wouldn’t dream of worrying about the fact that he didn’t come home earlier—and he says that Lövborg read to him from his manuscript. It will be one of the most remarkable books ever written, Tesman announces. He also admits to his wife that an ugly jealousy came over him during the reading.
Hedda’s claim that she wouldn’t dream of worrying about Tesman suggests that she is truly indifferent to him. We see again that Hedda is not alone in her jealousy or desire for influence—all the characters are essentially jealous of each other and desire some kind of power. Hedda is only unique in the degree of her feelings, and in her willingness to flout society’s standards and act upon them.
All the same, Tesman goes on, Lövborg is beyond reform. Because he’s got more courage than the rest? asks Hedda. No, her husband responds: because he has no self-control. The party degenerated into something of a drunken orgy, he says, and Lövborg made a speech about the woman who had inspired him in his work. Tesman supposes he must have been talking about Mrs. Elvsted.
Hedda’s illusion about Lövborg’s capacity for self-mastery—or at least her illusion that his excesses are born of courage—is shattered at last. Lövborg is no Dionysus, but merely an alcoholic—something Hedda sees as boring and ugly. The woman Lövborg was inspired by is presumably Hedda.
Tesman then arrives at the saddest part of the story: while he and Brack and a few others were walking Lövborg home, Tesman fell back behind the others. While he was hurrying to catch up, he found Lövborg’s precious, irreplaceable manuscript in a gutter of all places. Tesman picked it up and has it with him now—but he’s ashamed on behalf of Lövborg, who dropped it without noticing. Tesman would have returned it then and there, but Lövborg was too drunk to be trusted with it. Tesman didn’t tell anyone about finding the manuscript, either, for fear of publicly shaming Lövborg.
Lövborg’s manuscript represents an attempt to control the whole world by means of understanding the future—but Lövborg, sadly, can’t even control himself. He is so vulnerable to his alcoholism that during this spree he loses the only thing that can justify his time on earth (in his mind, at least). We might wonder whether Tesman himself has fantasized about destroying his rival’s work after finding it in a gutter. But Tesman is, at last, decent on this point.
After the party broke up, Tesman lost contact with Lövborg and went with a few others to the home of one of the revelers for a cup of morning coffee—or night coffee, as the case may be. Now Tesman resolves to return Lövborg’s manuscript to him as soon as possible. Please don’t, asks Hedda—she wants to read it first. Tesman says he dare not do that, because this is Lövborg’s only copy, and it’s the kind of thing that can’t be rewritten, because its composition depended so much on inspiration.
It is unclear why Hedda wants Lövborg’s manuscript. Has she already considered destroying it? Or does she merely want to have in her control the last thing of value in Lövborg’s life? Tesman very dutifully says that he must return it at once—although it is strange that he doesn’t trust his wife enough even to leave the manuscript with her momentarily. He may have a better sense of Hedda’s true nature than he seemed to.
Casually, Hedda tells Tesman that there’s a letter for him from Aunt Julle. Tesman reads it: Aunt Rina, it says, is on the point of death. Tesman must rush over to see her, but Hedda says that she will not accompany him because she doesn’t “want to look at sickness and death.” Hedda advises her husband to rush nonetheless.
Ibsen uses Aunt Rina’s death as a plot device to get Tesman out of the house, leaving Hedda alone with the manuscript. Death, being so common and involuntary a thing as it is, of course repulses Hedda.
Berte enters and announces that Judge Brack is outside. Hedda orders her to admit him. Hedda the snatches Lövborg’s manuscript from the stool Tesman has laid it on. She promises to care for it, and puts it in the bookshelf. Tesman quietly allows this, and struggles to get his gloves on.
Overwhelmed by Aunt Rina’s death, Tesman at once neglects the manuscript—which Hedda takes full advantage of.
Judge Brack enters just as Tesman rushes off to see Aunt Rina. Hedda and Brack sit in the drawing room, and Brack reveals that a few of his guests, including the madly drunk Lövborg, went to one Mademoiselle Diana’s salon last night—that is, the brothel run by the red-haired Mademoiselle Diana. Lövborg was one of Diana’s “most ardent champions…in the days of his glory,” Brack says.
It is at once apt and ironic that Mademoiselle Diana is named after the Greek goddess Diana, who presides over hunting and chastity. After all, she runs a brothel, and Lövborg was anything but chaste in her company. In a sense, Mademoiselle Diana is Hedda’s shadowy double in the play—what Hedda would be were she not so aristocratic and afraid of scandal.
Things went badly at Mademoiselle Diana’s last night, however. Lövborg accused either the madam herself or one of the prostitutes in her employ of robbing him of his manuscript. He started a fight, which devolved into a large brawl, involving ladies and gentlemen both. When the police arrived, Lövborg went so far as to strike one of the officers over the head and tear his tunic. He had to go along to the police station, afterward, of course.
Lövborg, the visionary scholar, proves himself to be absolutely beyond reform when he succumbs to alcohol. The detail about gentlemen and ladies being involved in the fight lends an especially ugly, lurid touch. Fighting is the ugliest, most basic expression of power in the play, and it disgusts Hedda.
Hedda looks away, disappointed to hear that Lövborg, far from having the metaphorical vine leaves in his hair, behaved so squalidly the night before. Judge Brack concludes that he felt a duty to tell the Tesmans about Lövborg’s disgraceful conduct, lest Lövborg should seek social refuge in the Tesman household. Every decent home will be closed to that man once again, he says. Besides, Brack would not be able to socialize with the Tesmans were they to receive Lövborg, and that would be like being homeless for him: he wants to be the only cock in the yard, as it were.
Judge Brack must sense that Hedda has strong feelings for Lövborg—otherwise he would likely assume that she would close her door to him as a matter of course. Brack seems pleased with the prospect of Lövborg no longer being a guest at the Tesmans’ house, if only because that eliminates one of his rivals for intimacy with Hedda.
Brack goes a step further: he’s willing to fight using every means at his disposal to keep Lövborg out of the Tesmans’ house. Hedda, her smile fading, says that Brack is quite a formidable person, and she confesses to being grateful that he doesn’t “have any sort of hold” over her. Brack laughs: she might be right about that, he says. Who knows what he might be capable of? “You sound almost as though you mean to threaten me,” responds Hedda. Not at all, says Brack.
It is here that Brack makes most explicit his intention of being Hedda’s lover. Hedda senses this and reminds him that he has no control over her whatsoever. Were he to have some hold over her, however, we are left to assume that he might coerce her into sleeping with him. Brack is as consumed with a desire for control and power over others as Hedda, it would seem—but he is less intelligent, less successful, and less desperate.
Brack rises to leave through the garden, saying that he has no objection to going around through the back way. Hedda reminds him that she conducts target practice with her pistols in the back, but Brack retorts, laughing, that nobody would shoot their own tame rooster. Not when they’ve only got one, Hedda says, also laughing. They nod farewell and Brack exits.
Brack and Hedda speak in innuendo because what they say to one another would be scandalous otherwise. Brack suggests he’s willing to do devious things to sleep with Hedda, and Hedda jokes about murdering Brack. Neither of these seem to be idle threats.
Hedda goes to the bookshelf and is about to look at Lövborg’s manuscript when she hears an altercation in the hall. Despite Berte’s best efforts, a confused and excited Lövborg forces himself into the Tesmans’ drawing room. You’re late in calling for Thea, Hedda tells him. Hedda makes it clear to him that the scandal he has caused also threatens to affect Thea’s reputation. Hedda also lies and says that all her husband told her when he came in very late was that Judge Brack’s party had been very lively.
Lövborg comes back to the Tesmans’ villa, it would seem, to inform Thea of his disgrace and also to see Hedda one last time. Note that, though Lövborg is desperate here, he is not altogether hopeless. Hedda lies to Lövborg perhaps so that she can be entertained by and live vicariously through his confession, but more clearly to conceal the fact that she has his manuscript.
Thea Elvsted enters. Lövborg announces to her, “I’m finished.” He insists that Hedda stay in the room, and promises not to talk about the drunken debauchery of the night before. Lövborg then tells Thea that all is over between them, because he doesn’t intend to do any more work, and consequently he has no use for her any more. Thea despairs: what will she do with her life? Lövborg tells her to return to her husband, but Thea refuses to do so—she wants to be with Lövborg when his manuscript is published.
Lövborg is purposefully blunt and severe with Thea so that she can more easily let go of him. Without her work with Lövborg, Thea fears having no purpose in life (note that this is already Hedda’s condition). She is unhappy and bored with her husband, and only finds meaning through growing intellectually—and only Lövborg can support her in this. Society, after all, doesn’t value Thea, or any other woman, for that matter, as a lifelong learner.
Lövborg then turns to the subject of the manuscript, which was his and Thea’s brainchild together. It will never be published because, he lies, he tore it up, just like his life, and scattered the thousand pieces of it out into the fjord. No, no! shrieks Thea. Hedda involuntarily begins to call Lövborg out on his lie, but restrains herself from doing so. Thea says that for the rest of her life it will be for her as though Lövborg had killed a little child: her child and his own. With nothing but spiritual darkness before her, Thea exits. Lövborg can’t walk her home lest he bring social shame upon on her.
Lövborg’s lie about the manuscript is unfair to Thea, even though it’s meant to protect her—shouldn’t she know that the manuscript could possibly be recovered, or at the very least that Lövborg didn’t purposefully kill their “child?” That Hedda almost calls out Lövborg on his lie means that she has not totally decided what to do with the manuscript yet. But her ultimate silence suggests that it is at this point that she begins hatching the suicide plot for Lövborg.
Lövborg confesses to Hedda that he knows now that he cannot reform his life, but also that he can’t live as an alcoholic again for lack of courage and defiance. Hedda is bitter that so silly a fool as Thea has her hands in a man’s destiny. Lövborg goes on to confess—under the condition that Hedda not tell Thea, ever—that he did not tear up his manuscript. In truth, he lost this metaphorical child.
Lövborg, like Hedda, considers courage to be incompatible with a lack of self-control. Hedda—in part motivated by the jealousy of Thea, but also by Lövborg’s failure to master himself—is thinking of a way she can restore some “beauty” to this otherwise altogether squalid situation.
“What are you going to do?” asks Hedda. Lövborg says he’s just going to put an end to it all—that is, commit suicide. Hedda steps closer to him: “Couldn’t you let it happen…beautifully?” she asks. Crowned with vine leaves, Lövborg takes her to mean, “as you used to dream in the old days.” But Hedda says she doesn’t believe in those vine leaves anymore. She tells him to go and to never come back—but before he does, she has a memento for him: one of General Gabler’s pistols. She tells him to use it, beautifully. Lövborg thanks her and exits.
Hedda sees deliberate, “honorable” suicide as a way for Lövborg to reclaim control of his own life, although it’s important to note that, for Hedda, Lövborg’s death is not as beautiful as the Dionysian self-mastery she first fantasized about for him. (It’s also here that we learn that Hedda has been imagining Lövborg as a Dionysus-figure for years now.) Hedda increases the beauty of the suicide by giving Lövborg a pistol so important to both their lives. This is a logistical error, however, because it clearly connects her to the act.
Alone, Hedda retrieves Lövborg’s manuscript, looks at some of the pages, and then sits down with it by the stove. After a while she opens the stove door and begins feeding pages into the fire. “Now I’m burning your child, Thea,” she whispers to herself. “I’m burning…burning your child.”
Hedda’s destruction of Lövborg’s manuscript seems like an encapsulation of her complex motives and character. In part, she burns the manuscript so that the man has no reason to live, no reason to put off the beautiful suicide that she has orchestrated. But she also destroys it out of jealousy—she can’t stand the idea that Thea productively inspired Lövborg. Finally, she perhaps does it simply as a meaningless act of control—she feels she must do something, and this is the act that will have the largest effect on the lives of others, and most relieve her boredom and sense of malaise.