The excessive consumption of alcohol in the world of Hedda Gabler is a privilege enjoyed only by men, and so alcohol itself comes to symbolize, among other things, the social freedom accessible to men but not to women in a patriarchal society. Tesman and Judge Brack can escape from polite social conventions once in a while—during the Judge’s bachelor party, for example—but Hedda, Mrs. Elvsted, and the other women in the play must always be on their best behavior—otherwise they risk a scandal.
While ordinary men, drink as part of a social ritual—to give themselves license to behave uninhibitedly or obscenely—the extraordinary Lövborg drinks to dissolve his ego and to render himself susceptible to creative inspiration. Drunkenness, it is implied, is an almost religious experience for him, full of free-spiritedness and courage. Given this, we need not wonder why Lövborg drinks to dangerous, outrageous excess. It is in this sense, moreover, that alcohol occupies a similar place in his life as Hedda does: both alcohol and Hedda inspire Lövborg, but not so much to creation as to destruction. Mrs. Elvsted, in contrast, inspires Lövborg in his work—and she also helps him control the influence alcohol has on his life.
It is worth noting here that Hedda does not will Lövborg to destruction consistently throughout the play—only after Lövborg fails so disgracefully to control himself while under the influence of alcohol. In fact, Hedda’s first plot for Lövborg centers on her vision of him with vine leaves in his hair—an allusion to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and tragic insight. Hedda (or at least her better part) wants Lövborg to go to Judge Bracks’ bachelor party so that he can prove that he has become wholly master of himself. In Hedda’s vision, the vine leaves symbolize this almost divine self-mastery. In the end, however, Lövborg only proves that he is no Dionysus, only an alcoholic, and so Hedda’s vision of his courage and beauty must be modified: if Lövborg cannot live beautifully, she hopes that he can at least die beautifully.