The play opens on a September morning in Norway, in the spacious, handsome drawing room where guests are received in the Tesmans’ villa. A portrait of General Gabler, a prominent military figure, hangs over a sofa. Miss Julianne Tesman, the old, benevolent aunt of the master of the house, enters, followed by Berte, the household maid, who is carrying a bunch of flowers.
September, as the beginning of autumn, is symbolic for decline and death— appropriate here, given Ibsen’s subject (which is not only a tragedy, but also begins here with the signs of nobility in decline). General Gabler’s aristocratic, warlike spirit presides over the action of the play, as every act opens in this same drawing room.
Miss Tesman observes in a quiet voice that her nephew Jörgen Tesman and his wife Hedda don’t seem to be awake yet. Berte says that the couple returned from their honeymoon very late the night before, and that Hedda insisted on having many things unpacked despite the hour. Miss Tesman responds that they’ll let the couple rest. She opens a glass door so that the master and mistress of the house will wake up to a breath of fresh air.
Hedda’s insistence on unpacking her things late at night is an expression of her power and caprice: she gives commands not in accordance with need, but rather on a whim. Tellingly, we start to get a sense of Hedda’s nature before she even appears in person, as the other characters’ conversation revolves around her.
Berte searches for a place to set down the flowers she’s carrying, but there’s hardly room for them. She at last places them on the front of the piano. Miss Tesman, in whose household Berte served formerly, turns to the subject of Berte’s new mistress, Hedda. Though it pained Miss Tesman to give up Berte, she had to do it so that her nephew Jörgen Tesman would have someone to look after his domestic needs. Berte, close to tears, is also pained that she had to leave. She misses Miss Tesman and Aunt Rina, Jörgen’s other aunt—an invalid. The maid also admits that she fears she will not be able to accommodate her new mistress’s grand ways—Hedda is “ever so particular.”
The women in the world of Hedda Gabler largely serve as caregivers, prioritizing the needs of men over their own needs. Miss Tesman, in particular, seems only fulfilled if she is taking care of someone else (particularly her nephew), and this is why she puts Berte into Tesman’s service. Berte’s difficulty in accommodating Hedda suggests just how different Hedda’s past life was from her present one. As is represented by the portrait of General Gabler, Hedda is used to an aristocratic lifestyle and getting everything she wanted. Just as Tesman struggles to finance such a lifestyle, so too does Berte struggle to tend to her mistress’s every whim.
Miss Tesman says that it is a matter of course that Hedda should be so particular: she is, after all, the great General Gabler’s daughter. Berte declares that she never dreamed of Hedda and Mr. Jörgen making a match—nor did Miss Tesman, for that matter. Miss Tesman reminds Berte that she must refer to Jörgen not as mister but as doctor, for while abroad on his honeymoon journey he was made one. Berte says that Hedda reminded her of the same thing the night before, and that she never thought Tesman would take to doctoring people. He’s not that sort of doctor, Miss Tesman responds. Soon enough, though, Berte might have to call Dr. Tesman “something even finer.”
Hedda is from a higher stratum of society than Tesman is, which is why their marriage seems improbable. Power and influence affect every facet of life in Hedda Gabler, so much so that it is important even to Miss Tesman to remind Berte to call Tesman by his new, prestigious title. Hedda’s preoccupation and even obsession with power are not unique in kind, only in degree—even the play’s characters that seem the kindliest are still concerned with prestige and influence.
Miss Tesman wishes that her brother could look up from the grave and see what’s become of his son Jörgen. Just then, she notices that Berte has taken all the loose covers off of the furniture. Miss Tesman asks why, and Berte explains that Hedda insisted. Miss Tesman asks if the couple intends to use the drawing room every day. That’s what it sounded like, Berte says.
Hedda clearly requires a vibrant, rich social life, and we will see that this is her usual way of killing time and exercising her intelligence. Having the covers removed from the furniture indicates her expectation of socializing often, an expectation later frustrated.
Jörgen Tesman enters, carrying an open empty suitcase and humming a tune, a cheerful expression on his face. He warmly greets his Aunt Julle (Miss Tesman), saying he hopes she got enough sleep the night before—she had greeted him and Hedda at the quay last night when they arrived. Tesman apologizes for having not been able to give his aunt a ride in their cab, but says Hedda had too many suitcases that had to come. Aunt Julle says it’s quite all right—Judge Brack took her home. Berte asks if she should go into Miss Hedda’s chambers and ask whether she wants anything. Better not, says Tesman—if she needs anything, she’ll ring. He then gives Berte his suitcase to put away in the loft. Berte exits.
Tesman’s beloved aunt has made many sacrifices on her nephew’s behalf, but Tesman can be obliviously neglectful of her, particularly when Hedda is involved. Miss Tesman meekly accepts this, as if acknowledging that catering to Hedda’s whims should be Tesman’s main concern. The sheer quantity of Hedda’s suitcases again suggests the lavish lifestyle she is intent on maintaining, even though Tesman’s finances cannot maintain it. The Tesmans’ power over Berte is a mundane instance of the kind of control Hedda later fantasizes about.
Tesman begins to tell Aunt Julle all about his and Hedda’s honeymoon. He took enough research notes to fill a whole suitcase, he says, after managing to dig up fantastic old things in old archives—he wasted no time. He proceeds to suggest that Aunt Julle remove her hat, and he assists her in undoing the ribbon. The hat is fancy and seems new to Tesman. His aunt explains that she bought it so that Hedda wouldn’t be ashamed of her if the two should happen to walk together in the street. Tesman pats his aunt’s cheek and sets her hat on a chair by the table.
The Tesmans’ honeymoon was clearly not very romantic, as Tesman is more interested in books, it would seem, than his wife’s company. This might be one of the reasons why the (seemingly) sexually cold Hedda married him, but she also craves excitement and a more idealized kind of romance—and spending time at the library does not fulfill these desires. Aunt Julle, in buying her new hat, reveals the extent to which she feels socially inferior to Hedda. Is Hedda awake and overhearing this conversation? Later events suggest that this is quite likely.
Tesman and Aunt Julle sit, Aunt Julle puts her parasol in a corner by the sofa, and the two resume their little chat. They express their mutual love, and when Tesman asks about his Aunt Rina’s health, he is saddened to learn that she has not improved at all. She is still very ill and bedridden, as she has been for many years. Aunt Julle says she doesn’t know what she would do without Aunt Rina, especially now that she doesn’t have Tesman himself to cope with any more. The nephew pats his aunt’s back consolingly.
Ibsen writes thoroughly “modern” plays—that is, the characters all have to deal with what is seen as the malaise of modern life: a combination of boredom, depression, and alienation. Most of the characters find purpose in this environment through pursuing petty ambitions and maintaining the status quo. Aunt Julle, for her part, finds a sense of purpose and staves off boredom by constantly caring for others, like Aunt Rina or Tesman himself. (This will be contrasted to individuals like Hedda and Lövborg, who truly feel aimless and alienated in modern society.) The result of all this is that the play investigates a kind of “existentialism”—how we can create purpose for ourselves, and then both believe in and pursue that purpose. On another level, caregiving is a role primarily occupied by women (like Aunt Julle) in the society of Hedda Gabler.
Aunt Julle suddenly switches to another, more cheerful tone. Tesman is a married man now, and he is married to the lovely Hedda Gabler, who always had so many admirers around her! Tesman hums and smirks a bit smugly. And then you were able to honeymoon for five or six months, Aunt Julle exclaims. Her nephew explains that it was also an academic trip, full of old records and books to plough through. Aunt Julle asks if Tesman has any other news to tell her—she is wondering whether Hedda is pregnant—but Tesman misunderstands her and says that he has the best prospect in the world of becoming a professor, one of these days.
Aunt Julle lives for others (though not altogether in a healthy or authentic way): this is why, instead of dwelling on her troubles, she turns the conversation again and again back to her nephew’s goings-on and prospects. In his inability to detect his aunt’s allusions to Hedda’s pregnancy, Tesman proves himself to be a bit inept socially, and single-mindedly focused on his work. He is portrayed as a kindly but also somewhat bumbling and self-absorbed figure—a poor match for the elegant, imposing, heartless Hedda.
Aunt Julle suppresses a smile and changes the subject: the trip must have been expensive, surely. Tesman explains that his big fellowship helped quite a bit, and that the genteel Hedda had to have that honeymoon trip despite the expenses. How do you like your new house? asks Aunt Julle. Very much, responds her nephew—though there are two empty rooms he doesn’t know what to do with. Aunt Julle implies that they’ll be useful when he and Hedda have children, but Tesman again misunderstands, and thinks that she’s suggesting the rooms can be used to store his growing collection of books.
Aunt Julle is necessarily worried about her nephew’s finances: after all, she is helping him pay off his mounting debts. It’s suggested that it is because Hedda is so “out of his league” that Tesman felt pressured to provide her with a lavish honeymoon and home. Tesman’s confusion of babies and books here foreshadows Ibsen’s treatment of Lövborg’s manuscript as his and Mrs. Elvsted’s child.
As far as the house is concerned, Tesman is most pleased for Hedda’s sake: even before they got engaged, she told him that she only wanted to live here, in what was formerly Lady Falk’s villa—so it was lucky it came up for sale. But it must be terribly expensive, Aunt Julle suggests. Tesman admits that it is expensive, despite the fact that Judge Brack got very favorable financial terms on the house for the Tesmans—or at least the Judge said as much when he wrote to Hedda.
We later learn that Hedda was bored during her honeymoon and doesn’t especially like her house, both of these facts suggesting that she pursues such things only to prove her power over Tesman. Judge Brack is very involved in the Tesmans’ affairs, and seems likewise interested in having an influence on other people’s lives. Even in this brief description, Tesman seems naïve about Brack’s intentions.
Aunt Julle tells her nephew not to worry: with Judge Brack’s help, she has taken out a mortgage on her and Aunt Rina’s annuity to give security for the Tesmans’ furniture and carpets. Tesman is grateful but shocked. Aunt Julle goes further and suggests she’d be only too happy to help the Tesmans further financially. “You’ll never stop sacrificing yourself for me!” exclaims Tesman, but with some guilt in his voice. Aunt Julle explains that helping him is her only joy in the world.
Aunt Julle finds self-sacrifice to be so meaningful for her that she goes so far as to sacrifice the money she needs to live on for Tesman’s sake. Not only is she coddling Tesman, but she’s also doing so to her own detriment, almost pathologically so. This suggests the extent to which a patriarchal society is structured so that women undervalue themselves and are taught to instead focus on what’s best for the men in their lives.
Moreover, says Aunt Julle, Tesman has proven himself worthy by overcoming all the people who stood in his way. Indeed, his most dangerous academic rival, Ejlert Lövborg, fell lower than all the others in his depravity. Tesman inquires about Lövborg, and his aunt tells him that Lövborg has published a new book recently—but it won’t compare, she goes on, to Tesman’s own forthcoming book about the domestic crafts of medieval Brabant! But the most wonderful thing of all, says Tesman, is that Hedda is his wife.
Aunt Julle seems to take great satisfaction in the fall of Tesman’s enemies. She has been forced (or forced herself), to live vicariously through her nephew. Tesman condescendingly asks about Lövborg here, but no doubt his insecurities are inflamed when he learns that his old rival is publishing again. The very topic of Tesman’s book suggests how small-minded and boring it probably is.
Just then, Hedda enters, dressed in a tasteful morning gown. After greeting Miss Tesman somewhat tartly, she complains that the maid has opened the verandah door, flooding the place with sunlight. Miss Tesman rises and moves to shut it, but Hedda tells her not to, and instead orders Tesman to draw the curtains. He does so. Hedda then asks Miss Tesman to take a seat, but Miss Tesman insists that she must be getting home.
The conversation between Tesman and his aunt gives us a brief but telling glimpse of the world that Hedda feels so bored and stifled by. Hedda finally enters in person, and immediately disrupts this world by ordering Tesman about. Bright light symbolically offends Hedda’s sensibility: she prefers to hide her true nature in obscurity.
Before she goes, Miss Tesman extracts from her skirt pocket a flat object wrapped in newspaper, a gift for Tesman. Tesman opens it to find his old slippers, embroidered long ago by Aunt Rina despite her illness. Tesman himself is delighted and waxes sentimental, while Hedda implies that the gift has no significance to her and is, in fact, somewhat shabby.
The gift of the slippers represents everything Hedda loathes: humble domesticity, women providing for men, and vulgar, sappy sentimentality. By saying the slippers have no interest for her, Hedda also implies that Tesman’s family has no interest for her.
Tesman persists in his sentimentality, but Hedda abruptly interrupts him to say that she cannot manage with Berte as the household’s maid. Tesman asks why not, and Hedda points and says that Berte has left her old hat lying on the chair. Tesman is appalled and drops his slippers to the floor: Hedda is pointing to his Aunt Julle’s new hat. Tesman manages to say as much, and Aunt Julle, wounded, explains that the hat is new. Hedda coolly apologizes.
The slippers also act as a plot device, giving Hedda a reason to change the subject and be purposefully nasty about Miss Tesman’s hat. Hedda’s cold snobbishness then further emphasizes just how socially superior she feels in relation to the family she’s married into. It also reveals her capricious cruelty, and how she manipulates others (we get the sense that she knew it was Aunt Julle’s hat, not Berte’s) for no good reason other than because she can.
Miss Tesman collects her parasol. In an attempt to smooth things over, Tesman asks his aunt to take a good look at Hedda before she goes. Yes, she’s always been lovely, Aunt Julle remarks. Tesman declares that Hedda has filled out beautifully on the trip—implying that she is pregnant. Hedda becomes irritable and interrupts her husband: “I’m exactly the same as when I left,” she says—but this isn’t true. Aunt Julle is delighted by this revelation, and she kisses Hedda’s head. Hedda frees herself and says, “Leave me be!” Miss Tesman promises to visit every day, and with that she exits. Her nephew sees her out.
Hedda represses her pregnancy throughout the play, perhaps because the idea of sacrificing herself to the “common” state of motherhood is dismal to her—and so is the idea that having a child will bind her closer to the plodding Tesman. It might also be the case that Hedda is disgusted to think of other people thinking about her in a sexual way of any kind. Aunt Julle probably looks forward to Hedda’s pregnancy because then she’ll have yet another person to care for.
Alone, Hedda walks about the room, raises her arms, and clenches her fists as though in a frenzy. Then she draws the curtains from the verandah door and looks out. Tesman returns and asks his wife what she’s looking at. The withered yellow leaves on the tree, Hedda responds.
When she doesn’t have to wear a social mask, Hedda reveals herself to be violently frustrated with the pettiness of bourgeois life. The yellow leaves are images of endless repetition, decline, and death.
Tesman remarks that his Aunt Julle was behaving rather affectedly, but Hedda says she wouldn’t know. She insists that it was socially inappropriate for Miss Tesman to fling her hat just anywhere in the drawing room, but assures her husband that in the future she’ll do more to win his aunt’s favor. This pleases him. Tesman also asks his wife to kiss Aunt Julle, but this Hedda refuses to do. You belong to the family, Tesman says. “I’m not at all sure,” Hedda snaps back.
Aunt Julle behaves affectedly in Hedda’s company because she feels socially inferior to her. Hedda’s critique of Aunt Julle’s behavior is mostly a power play on her part. Hedda is afraid that if she “stoops” to kissing Aunt Julle, she will indeed become a part of Tesman’s undistinguished family.
Tesman asks his wife if anything is the matter. Hedda replies that her old piano doesn’t go with the rest of the things in the room. Her husband promises to change it out as soon as he gets his first check, but Hedda says she doesn’t want to part with her piano. She suggests that it be moved to the back room, and that the couple get another piano for the drawing room. Tesman is rather put out by all of this.
That Hedda wants her piano moved to the back room—which Aunt Julle has just suggested will become a nursery—is something of a psychological defense: she wants to block the space a child would otherwise occupy in her life.
At this point that Hedda takes the bunch of flowers from the piano and finds a card that reads: “Will come again later today.” The card is from Mrs. Thea Elvsted. Hedda recalls that Mrs. Elvsted had hair that everyone made a fuss over once, and also that she was an old flame of Tesman’s. Tesman laughs: “Oh, it didn’t last long,” he says. Neither of the two has seen Mrs. Elvsted in years, because she now lives many miles away. Hedda thinks a moment and then suddenly asks if where Mrs. Elvsted lives is also where Ejlert Lövborg went after his fall from social grace. It must be, Tesman responds.
Hedda is rather jealous, it would seem, of Mrs. Elvsted—even if she doesn’t care much for Tesman herself. Hedda still remembers how men were attracted to Mrs. Elvsted’s beautiful hair, and it angers her to think of another woman rivaling her in sexual influence over men. This is all about the power of sexuality, of course, not any kind of real desire. Hedda seems sexually cold, but still enjoys manipulating others through her own sexuality. Notice the tightness of Ibsen’s plotting: he introduced the flowers Mrs. Elvsted left at the beginning of the act to prepare us for Mrs. Elvsted’s eventual entrance.
Berte appears at the hall door and announces that Mrs. Elvsted is back for the second time that morning. Hedda asks that she be brought in. Mrs. Elvsted enters in a tasteful dress that is not quite in the latest fashion. She is nervous and apparently trying to control herself. Greetings and niceties are exchanged all around. Then Mrs. Elvsted, after at last being persuaded by Hedda to sit on the sofa, gets to the point: Ejlert Lövborg is back in town and has been for about a week, alone. Mrs. Elvsted fears that he will succumb to bad influences in the big city, as he has so much money in his pocket right now.
Mrs. Elvsted lives out of town, and so she is not able to keep up with the fashions as closely as someone like Hedda—hence her outdated dress (a very fine detail on Ibsen’s part). Like Aunt Julle, Mrs. Elvsted has come to the Tesmans’ villa in order to care for a man in her life: the recovering alcoholic Lövborg. The big city represents society at its most “modern,” and these are the conditions that most suffocate nonconforming, sensitive individuals like Hedda and Lövborg.
“How can this possibly concern you,” Hedda asks. Mrs. Elvsted gives a scared look, then quickly says that Lövborg is her stepchildren’s tutor. Tesman awkwardly and with slight incoherence asks whether such a debauched man as Lövborg could be trusted as a tutor. Mrs. Elvsted responds that for the last two years the man’s conduct has been irreproachable. Why didn’t he stay where he was? asks Hedda. Mrs. Elvsted explains that after his book came out two weeks ago, he just couldn’t contain himself.
Hedda has extraordinary social intuitions: she senses at once that Mrs. Elvsted is interested in Lövborg because she is scandalously in love with him. That being said, Hedda doesn’t announce this intuition right away, because she wants Mrs. Elvsted to continue to confide in her and trust her. In this way, Hedda gains power over the seemingly hapless Mrs. Elvsted.
Tesman wonders whether Lövborg’s new book, which has sold very well and which caused an enormous stir, was something his rival had tucked away during this “good” period Mrs. Elvsted speaks of. Mrs. Elvsted explains that the book was actually written within the last year. “Well, that really is good news,” Tesman exclaims.
Tesman feels increasingly insecure about Lövborg’s new book and, out of anxiety, he asks questions about it quite irrelevant to Mrs. Elvsted’s reason for calling. He no doubt thinks it is bad news indeed that his old rival is publishing new material—especially because, as we come to see, Lövborg has a natural creativity that Tesman lacks.
Mrs. Elvsted proceeds to say that she’s succeeded in finding Lövborg’s address. Hedda gives her a searching glance and wonders aloud why Mrs. Elvsted’s husband wouldn’t come to town himself on this errand. With a nervous start, Mrs. Elvsted explains that her husband doesn’t have time, and that she has shopping to do. Hedda smiles.
Hedda asks about Mr. Elvsted to confirm her intuition that Mrs. Elvsted is here without her husband’s permission, and also just to play with Mrs. Elvsted, like a cat toying with a mouse.
Mrs. Elvsted at last begs Mr. Tesman, in the name of his old friendship with the man, to receive Lövborg if he comes to the Tesmans’ villa—as he’s sure to do—and to keep an eye on him. Tesman (who has been slipping up throughout and calling Mrs. Elvsted by her maiden name, Rysing) promises to do so. Hedda even suggests that Tesman write to Lövborg at once, a warm, friendly, long letter. Tesman agrees, picking up the packet with the slippers from the floor as he does so. But don’t say I asked you to invite him here! says Mrs. Elvsted. “No, of course not,” says Tesman, and he exits.
Mrs. Elvsted is so concerned about losing her good influence over Lövborg—and worried that he will fall back under the dangerous influence of alcohol—that she begs the Tesmans to help her control him. Hedda is interested in speaking to Mrs. Elvsted alone, and also in seeing Lövborg himself (her old flame, as we learn). Tesman’s use of Mrs. Elvsted’s maiden name implies too much familiarity for Hedda’s jealousy to tolerate.
Hedda goes over to Mrs. Elvsted with a smile, and in a low voice says that she’s killed two birds with one stone: she got Tesman out of the room, and now the women can speak together alone. Mrs. Elvsted doesn’t understand. Hedda forces her to sit in an armchair by the stove, while she herself sits on one of the stools. Anxiously Mrs. Elvsted looks at her watch and insists she must be going, but Hedda says she mustn’t be in too much of a hurry. Hedda begins to question her about her life at home.
Hedda wants to get Mrs. Elvsted alone so that she can interrogate her and extort information from her to use as leverage. Hedda seems to seek exploitative intimacy with people like this as a matter of course—instinctively, and as an aggressive social tactic. Notice that she forces Mrs. Elvsted to sit—Hedda is not above physically exerting power over people.
Mrs. Elvsted doesn’t want to talk about her life at home at all, so Hedda tries to make her feel more comfortable by reminding her that the two used to be schoolmates together. Mrs. Elvsted remembers: she was frightened of Hedda, who used to pull her hair, and once threatened to burn it off.
Mrs. Elvsted seems to see through Hedda’s tactics, but is still helpless to resist them—Hedda has always had a frightening kind of power over Elvsted. We also see that Hedda’s coldness, cruelty, and jealousy were present even years earlier. The image of Hedda burning something precious to Mrs. Elvsted foreshadows her later burning of Lövborg’s manuscript.
Hedda dismisses this, and insists that Mrs. Elvsted refer to her informally by her first name, as she claims was the girls’ practice at school. Mrs. Elvsted says that “Mrs. Tesman” is wrong on this point, but Hedda says she remembers it perfectly. With an assurance of renewing their friendship, Hedda moves her chair closer and kisses Mrs. Elvsted on the cheek. Mrs. Elvsted presses and pats Hedda’s hand: she says she’s not used to such kind treatment.
Hedda lies even in the face of the facts in order to insinuate herself into another person’s life. She can feign gentleness and imitate kindness in order to get the information she wants—and with information comes power. Mrs. Elvsted’s marriage must be a deeply unhappy one for Hedda to seem kinder than Mr. Elvsted.
Hedda is pleased, and she promises to call Mrs. Elvsted by her first name, which she misremembers as being “Thora.” “I’m called Thea,” says Mrs. Elvsted. Hedda smoothly transitions from this error, and asks why Thea is not accustomed to kind treatment, even at home. Thea responds that she doesn’t have a home, and has never had one. Hedda knew that something like this must be the case.
That Hedda doesn’t know (or pretends not to know) Mrs. Elvsted’s first name suggests the extent of her self-absorption, and seems like a similar act to her “confusion” about Aunt Julle’s hat. Mrs. Elvsted’s sense of homelessness is not unlike Hedda’s absolute dissatisfaction with her marriage and domestic life.
Hedda presses Thea Elvsted for more of her life story. It all comes out: Thea went so far away to serve as a governess for Mr. Elvsted, whose wife was an invalid. After the wife died, some five years ago, Thea became the mistress of the household and married Mr. Elvsted. At one point in the conversation Thea slips and calls Hedda Mrs. Tesman, and Hedda hits her lightly on the hand and corrects her.
It is again emphasized that in the world of Hedda Gabler women are forced into the role of caregiver, whether they be governesses or wives. Hedda keeps insisting on being called by her first name, because it is her developing intimacy with Thea that gives her power over her.
Casually Hedda asks Thea about the fact that Ejlert Lövborg has been living near her for about three years. Yes, says Thea. She also tells Hedda, in answer to a question, that she hardly knew the man before, back when he lived in town. But in the country he became a daily visitor at the Elvsteds’ house, reading to the children and the like, even when Mr. Elvsted was off traveling in his capacity as the district sheriff—a point Hedda is quick to draw out of Thea.
Hedda tries to seem casual about her interest in Lövborg, but we will soon see that she is very interested indeed. Hedda asks about Mr. Elvsted’s travels to get a sense of how much time Lövborg and Mrs. Elvsted have spent alone with one another—that is, how much opportunity they’ve had for an affair.
Hedda then asks what Thea’s husband is really like. After some evasive answers, Thea admits that she and Mr. Elvsted have nothing in common. He is egotistical, and only considers her to be useful, cheap property. He must be fond of Lövborg, though, says Hedda. “What gives you that idea?” asks Thea. Hedda reminds Thea that she told Mr. Tesman as much. Caught in something of an inconsistency in her story, Thea decides to confess everything: she never told her husband she was leaving because she couldn’t bear another terribly lonely minute there. She never plans on going back, despite the scandal it will cause.
Mr. Elvsted takes advantage of Thea as a woman and as his wife. He has all the control in their relationship, and doesn’t sacrifice anything of himself. Mrs. Elvsted might as well be his servant, for she is certainly not treated as his equal. Hedda at last wins the confession she has been hunting for: Mrs. Elvsted scandalously left her husband, without his permission, for the sake of another man. This confession fully places her under Hedda’s power, if Hedda should choose to abuse Thea’s trust.
Thea is depressed and exhausted by this point, but Hedda asks her how her “familiarity” with Ejlert Lövborg came about. Gradually, Thea says, “I got a sort of control over him.” As a result of this “control,” she says, Lövborg left off his old, debauched ways. Thea says that, for his part, Lövborg taught her to think and understand many things, and that he shared his work with her in what she remembers as a “beautiful, happy time.” “Like two good companions,” says Hedda. That’s just what Ejlert used to say! exclaims Mrs. Elvsted.
Thea herself has apparently replaced alcohol as the outside force influencing Lövborg’s soul. Hedda is no doubt jealous of just how much control Thea has over Lövborg, given that Hedda herself once wielded such power over him, long ago. Note that Hedda’s familiarity with the word “companions” suggests her own past relationship with Lövborg. Hedda must feel as though Mrs. Elvsted has replaced her in Lövborg’s heart.
Despite all this, Thea cannot be sure that Lövborg’s irreproachable conduct, and her happiness with him, will last: the shadow of another woman stands between the two. Hedda is keenly interested to know who this other woman might be—but Thea only knows that the woman threatened to shoot Ejlert with a pistol when they parted. She thinks it must be a red-haired singer here in town (later identified as Mademoiselle Diana).
Hedda—who is, in fact, the other woman who threatened to shoot Lövborg when they parted—is presumably pleased to learn that she is still a prominent if shadowy presence in Lövborg’s life. The reference to Diana (a woman who runs a brothel) foreshadows the debauchery and violence that will soon occur in her salon.
Hedda hears Tesman coming, and she and Thea agree to keep their discussion to themselves. Tesman enters with a letter for Lövborg, signed and sealed in his hand, which he asks Hedda to give to Berte. Hedda takes the letter, but just then Berte enters from the hall. Judge Brack is here, she announces. Hedda instructs Berte to ask him to step inside, and also to put the letter in the post box.
Hedda promises to keep her discussion with Thea a secret—but it is precisely this discussion that she brings up later to emotionally destabilize Lövborg. Hedda has no sense of loyalty or compassionate discretion—she remembers other people’s words only to use them as weapons later.
Judge Brack enters, bowing with his hat in hand. Tesman introduces him to Mrs. Elvsted (whom he again calls Miss Rysing, to his wife’s perturbation). Hedda says that it is charming to view Mr. Brack by daylight. Tesman begins to draw Brack’s attention to Hedda’s pregnancy by commenting on how “blossoming” she is, but Hedda interrupts him and tells her husband to thank Mr. Brack for all the trouble he’s taken on behalf of the couple. After some mutual leave-taking, Hedda sees Mrs. Elvsted out.
Tesman again exhibits too much familiarity with Mrs. Elvsted in calling her by her maiden name. Based on Hedda’s comment, we might infer that Mr. Brack visits the Tesmans mostly at night, which is vaguely suggestive of his devious, lecherous character. When Tesman boasts about Hedda’s pregnancy, Hedda responds by reminding him of his debts—an attempt to emasculate him.
Tesman and Judge Brack sit down, and the Judge says he has a little matter to talk about with the master of the house. He wishes, in short, that they’d arranged the household’s finances a little more modestly. Tesman protests that he couldn’t have, for Hedda’s sake. He asks Brack if there’s been any news about the professorship he’s counting on. The Judge hasn’t heard anything in any way definite.
Judge Brack knows, as Tesman does not, that Tesman’s appointment to the professorship is not a sure thing anymore. Brack’s comment on the household’s finances, then, is designed to prepare Tesman for this news, and also to suggest delicately that the Tesmans need to be more moderate from here on.
Brack does have some news for Tesman: his old friend Ejlert Lövborg is back in town—as Tesman has already learned from Mrs. Elvsted. Tesman thinks it’s delightful that Lövborg is sober and making good on his extraordinary talents. Brack and Tesman agree that everyone thought Lövborg had gone to the dogs—but Tesman wonders what will he live on now.
Tesman says that it’s wonderful that Lövborg is sober and working again—but his happiness is mostly social politeness. Tesman is really threatened by his rival’s improbable resurgence, as he seems to recognize that he lacks Lövborg’s creativity.
Hedda has come in from the hall during her husband’s last speech. Laughing a little scornfully, she says that Tesman is forever worrying about what people are going to find to live on. Judge Brack suggests that Lövborg has influential relations who, despite disowning him long ago, may reclaim him now that he’s published his highly-praised new book. Tesman says he’s grateful for this, and assures Hedda that he’s invited Lövborg over that very evening. Judge Brack reminds Tesman that last night on the quay he already promised to go to his, Brack’s, bachelor party. Tesman had forgotten.
Hedda takes pleasure in subtly belittling her husband in the company of others. She herself feels above such trifles as professorships and finances, which don’t fit her idealistic (yet terrifying) vision of beauty and drama. Ibsen introduces the bachelor party here so as to prepare us for the action of the play hinging on this very party.
Judge Brack then, with hesitation, reveals serious news: the appointment to the professorship which Tesman was counting on might well be contested—by none other than Ejlert Lövborg. Tesman is dismayed—the post was as good as promised to him—but Judge Brack assures him that he’ll still most probably get it, after a bit of competition. Hedda thinks all this will turn out to be “quite a sporting event,” and she says she awaits the results “with breathless expectation.” In the meantime, she has no intention of curbing her lavish spending.
Tesman is genuinely worried about the state of his finances, and Hedda seems to look forward to watching her husband wrestle with Lövborg for the professorship. She is detached from the important matters in Tesman’s life, and considers them entertainment for her, like a game. She is so selfish that she will keep spending no matter how much money Tesman actually has—she feels that she is above the necessities society imposes.
Judge Brack exits. Tesman confides in Hedda that it was “idiotically romantic” of him to get married and buy a house on expectations alone. This means that Hedda won’t be able to live a social life or to entertain people, as she and her husband had agreed upon. This prospect tires her. Tesman says that this will only temporarily be the case.
It would be hell on earth for Hedda were she to be deprived of the stimulation and opportunity afforded by a rich social life. The prospect of having no one to confide in or gain control over is one possible motive for her outrageous, desperate last act (the plot of the play to come).
It also becomes clear to Hedda that now she won’t be able to get either a manservant or a saddle-horse, as she had hoped. “No, God preserve us,” says Tesman, appalled. Well, says Hedda, at least I’ve got one thing to pass the time with. Tesman ecstatically asks what it is. General Gabler’s pistols, Hedda responds coldly, and exits. Tesman rushes to the doorway and, shouting, begs her not to “touch those dangerous contraptions!”
The manservant and horse Hedda wants have this in common: they are both things she could dominate and control (the horse in particular is associated with the aristocracy and warfare). General Gabler’s pistols will be important symbols within the play, representing Hedda’s aristocratic past, her desire for agency (something generally reserved only for men in her society), and her potential for destruction.