Act 4 opens on the Tesmans’ drawing room. It is evening. Hedda, dressed in black, is walking aimlessly about the darkened room. She goes into the inner room, plays a few chords on the piano, and then reemerges. Berte quickly enters and exits, and her eyes show signs of weeping. After a while Aunt Julle enters also, dressed in mourning. Hedda goes out to meet her.
The characters’ black clothing gives this final act a mournful, tragic atmosphere. Remember, also, that Hedda can’t stand the “tawdriness” of death. She wanders from dark room to dark room, a stage picture for the state of her restless, purposeless soul.
Aunt Julle announces that her sister Rina has at last passed away. Hedda already knows this, as Tesman sent her a note. Miss Tesman felt obliged to deliver the tidings of death in person nonetheless. She must soon return home and attend to her sister’s corpse and prepare it for the grave. Hedda asks if there’s anything she can do, but Aunt Julle says that such work is not fit for Hedda Gabler’s hands or thoughts.
Hedda only asks if there’s “anything she can do” because of social requirement—she wants nothing to do with Tesman’s everlasting aunts. It is ironic that Miss Tesman says the work of death is not fit for Hedda, given that Hedda has just sent a man off to die and will kill herself shortly.
Tesman enters. He is distraught after Aunt Rina’s death, and somewhat scatterbrained, he says—he doesn’t know how else to take such a loss. Be glad of what has come to pass, Aunt Julle advises him. Hedda supposes that Aunt Julle will be lonely now that her sister has died, but Aunt Julle responds that she will provide boarding and care to some poor invalid or other. Won’t that be a burden? Hedda wonders. Aunt Julle says it is not a burden at all but the very reason for her life. She also looks forward to caring for the Tesmans’ child. Aunt Julle exits.
Both Hedda and Thea, after Lövborg’s death, are left in spiritual darkness. This is because, in very different ways, Lövborg’s presence helped these women give meaning to their lives. Aunt Julle is the most purposeful woman in the play, if only because she so relentlessly sacrifices herself to help others. The play as a whole is sympathetically critical of Aunt Julle’s way of giving meaning to her life—she is not her own person, wholly, but she seems satisfied with the meaning she has created for herself.
Tesman confides to Hedda that he’s upset not only about Aunt Rina’s death but also about Lövborg, to whom he has yet to return the manuscript. Tesman also mentions having met Thea Elvsted while out—did you tell her about the manuscript, Hedda asks quickly. Tesman says that he did not. At this point, Hedda reveals to her husband that she cast the manuscript into the fire.
If Tesman had mentioned the manuscript to Thea, it would be impossible to conceal the fact that Hedda destroyed it, and a scandal centering on Hedda would erupt. Hedda is honest with her husband because she can easily manipulate him into covering up the facts.
Tesman is outraged. He yells at Hedda, and says that she’s committed a felony, as Judge Brack could inform her (don’t tell Brack anything, Hedda advises)—how could she, Hedda Tesman, do something so utterly wicked? With an almost imperceptible smile, Hedda tells her husband that she put the manuscript in the fire for his sake, because he was so envious of Lövborg’s work, and because she didn’t want her husband to be outshone.
Tesman’s indignation is understandable: his wife has committed a crime and has destroyed something of objective value. Hedda knows the most effective way of manipulating Tesman, however: she relents in her coldness towards him and professes to have burnt the manuscript because of a love she does not really feel.
Upon learning this, Tesman is torn between doubt and happiness—he never knew his wife loved him like that. Hedda then goes a step further, and suggests of her own volition (for the first time in the play) that she is in fact pregnant by Tesman. Tesman laughs with excessive joy. Be quiet, says Hedda, or the maid will hear. Tesman says that he’ll tell Berte himself. Hedda clenches her hands and murmurs almost inaudibly, “Oh, it’ll kill me.” Tesman asks what will kill her. “This farce… Jörgen,” she responds. Tesman decides at last not to tell Berte just yet, but is pleased that Hedda has started calling him by his first name.
To win Tesman’s silence about the fate of the manuscript, Hedda substantiates his bourgeois hopes for domestic bliss and fatherhood. This must cost Hedda a great deal, spiritually—so much so that Hedda feels like she’ll be killed by it all. What is ugliest to Hedda is the fact that she’s condescended to play a role she despises—that of the loyal, subservient wife. This is the thing that’s farcical, but Tesman, of course, misunderstands her.
Tesman becomes uneasy and thoughtful again when he remembers Lövborg’s manuscript. Just then Thea Elvsted enters. She speaks in agitation: she fears that Lövborg may have met with an accident, given all the incredible rumors about him going around. Some people even say he is in the hospital. Hedda expresses surprise that Thea, as a married woman, could bring herself to go about town inquiring after a man other than her husband. Hedda also advises Tesman not to get mixed up in this business about Lövborg.
Hedda is surprised that Thea should act so courageously, despite all scandal, as to inquire after a man she’s not married to. Thea, after all, is courageous in a way that Hedda could never be. Hedda tells Tesman to keep out of the Lövborg business—perhaps because she fears he’ll implicate her in the man’s death, or in his manuscript’s destruction.
Judge Brack enters. He announces that Ejlert Lövborg has in fact been taken to the hospital, and he is not expected to live. Thea cries out and says that she must see him alive, but Brack tells her that no one is allowed to see him. Tesman wonders whether Lövborg could have killed himself, and Hedda says that she’s certain he did (this makes Brack suspicious). Hedda even “guesses” that Lövborg shot himself. Right again, says Brack—and Lövborg did so at three or four o’clock that very afternoon.
Judge Brack, like Lövborg before him, lies to Thea rather patronizingly, so as not to offend her feminine sensibility. Hedda is so excited to think that Lövborg pulled off his beautiful suicide that she risks exposing her complicity. It is because Hedda “guesses” that Lövborg shot himself that Brack is able to deduce that the pistol Lövborg died by was given, not stolen.
Tesman asks where Lövborg shot himself, and Judge Brack responds uncertainly, “at his lodgings.” Thea says that this isn’t possible, because she was there herself at about half past six. “Somewhere else then,” says Brack. He also reveals that Lövborg shot himself in the breast. Hedda is surprised: “Not in the temple?” she asks. “In the breast,” Judge Brack repeats. “The breast is good, too,” says Hedda, almost inaudibly. In response to a question from Tesman, Brack says that he learned of all this from the police.
Brack evades answering where Lövborg died because he is again protecting Thea from the ugly truth. Hedda is disappointed that Lövborg did not shoot himself in the temple, because doing so would have indicated absolute deliberation on his part, and, in Hedda’s eyes, unconditional courage.
Hedda, for one, feels triumphant. To everyone’s shock and alarm, she praises Lövborg for the courage and beauty of his deed: he did what had to be done. Tesman and Thea think that he must have been desperate and mad to do such a thing, but Hedda is certain he wasn’t. He must have been, Thea insists, just like he was when he tore up his manuscript.
This moment in the play most clearly reveals how radically different Hedda’s values are from those of the people around her. She thinks that a suicide can be beautiful, so long as it is a pure expression of one’s own personality and will, while everyone else is scandalized by it, and considers it an act of temporary insanity.
The mention of the manuscript agitates Tesman’s sense of guilt. He drifts about the stage, upset that his old friend should not leave behind him the one work that “would have made his name immortal.” Thea wonders whether the manuscript could be put together again—she has all the notes he used when dictating it. On the spot, Tesman commits himself to the task of reconstructing the manuscript, even at the expense of his own work—and Thea agrees to be his companion in the task. The two exit to the inner room, there to eagerly examine the notes.
Tesman’s conscience is not entirely free from defect—after all, he hides the fact that his own wife destroyed Lövborg’s work—but he, unlike Hedda, does feel guilty and compelled to act on that guilt. Thea immediately redesigns her life around the purpose of reconstructing Lövborg’s manuscripts, just as she redesigned her life in helping Lövborg to compose it in the first place.
Hedda sits in an armchair and after a while Judge Brack joins her. Hedda confides in him that Lövborg’s death has relieved and liberated her, because it shows “that an act of spontaneous courage is yet possible in this world.” Judge Brack suspects that Lövborg meant more to Hedda than she’s willing to admit, but she refuses to answer such a question. Hedda is pleased that Lövborg had the courage to live his life on his own terms, and to so beautifully take his early leave of life.
Hedda is remarkably open with Judge Brack in sharing her wildly strange feelings about Lövborg’s death. We might wonder whether, if only subconsciously, she is even now resolving to follow in Lövborg’s footsteps. Either way, we now clearly see just how desperate Hedda has been feeling, and how stifled by what she sees as the commonness and ugliness of modern life. Brack is no doubt jealous that this dead man should have meant so much to Hedda, but is also pleased to be Hedda’s sole confidant now.
Judge Brack feels compelled to disabuse Hedda of a beautiful illusion: Lövborg shot himself accidentally. Moreover, the Judge told a few lies to protect Thea’s feelings: first, Lövborg is already dead. Moreover, Lövborg shot himself not at his lodgings, but rather at Mademoiselle Diana’s salon, while attempting to recover “a child that had been lost.” Brack assumed this to mean his manuscript, but then learned that Lövborg himself tore it up, so he takes it to mean his pocketbook or the like. Finally, Lövborg was found with the discharged pistol in his pocket—it had gone off accidentally, and the bullet struck him in the abdomen, not the breast.
Hedda is mistaken about the so-called beauty of Lövborg’s death, and so her idealized vision of him is once again shattered. Brack’s news reveals that Lövborg had not pledged himself firmly to death, as Hedda supposed—indeed, Lövborg was still trying to recover his manuscript, the one thing that would have made it possible for him to keep on living. The squalid circumstances of Lövborg’s death are especially disgusting to Hedda in their petty, commonplace ugliness.
Hedda is disgusted: “Everything I touch seems destined to turn into something…farcical,” she says. Brack has one final piece of news: he says that the pistol Lövborg died by must have been stolen.
Hedda now sees that she has led Lövborg from farcical disgrace to farcical death. She has gained control over him, but has been unable to use that control to inspire something beautiful and worthy (as Thea, her rival, did). Hedda thus loses hope of finding beauty in the world—or at least loses hope of creating or causing something beautiful (which is the only kind of beauty she cares about, seemingly).
Tesman and Thea come back into the drawing room. Tesman asks his wife if he can work at her desk, where the light is better. Hedda permits it, but says she must clear some things away first. She takes an object, covered with sheet music, and carries the whole pile to the left of the inner room (this object is presumably Hedda’s remaining pistol). Tesman and Thea then sit and resume their work.
It is ironic that Hedda keeps her pistol at the desk, for the desk is usually a place of composition and creation. Hedda, however, can only be the author of destruction, whether for herself or for others. That she moves the pistol here suggests that she is already making arrangements for her suicide. She wants, as ever, to be discreet, even in her most desperate actions.
Hedda and Judge Brack whisperingly resume their conversation about the pistol that Lövborg died by. Brack knows the pistol to be one of Hedda’s, which means that when the case goes to court Hedda must testify that Lövborg either stole the pistol or that she gave it to him. Either case entails a deep, ugly scandal for Hedda herself—the one thing she is afraid of. Furthermore, the great Hedda Gabler will have to share the witness box with Mademoiselle Diana.
Brack reveals that he finally has information with which he can blackmail Hedda: he knows she is complicit in Lövborg’s murder. This may not be criminal, but it is certainly disgraceful. Especially vulgar is the fact that Hedda would have to stand on the same level as the other woman who held so prominent a place in Lövborg’s sexual life.
No one will know who owns the pistol, Judge Brack goes on to say, if he himself holds his tongue. Hedda understands at once that this places her in the Judge’s power, subject to his will and demands. Brack promises not to abuse the position, but Hedda cannot endure it. With a half taunting look, Brack says: “One generally acquiesces to what is inevitable.” Hedda returns the look: he may be right.
Brack thinks it is inevitable for Hedda to at last acquiesce and grant him the sexual access he so strongly desires—in exchange for his silence. Hedda agrees that she must acquiesce to the inevitable, but “what is inevitable” means, for her, only death. Brack’s conventional, lustful mind misses this altogether.
Hedda rises, and remarks that Thea is now sitting here with Tesman working just as she used to sit with Ejlert Lövborg. Thea says she just hopes she can similarly inspire Hedda’s husband. It will come in time, Hedda says, and Tesman says that he is beginning to feel the same thing. Hedda asks if she can anything do to help, but Tesman says that she should just enjoy Judge Brack’s company.
It is perhaps darkly amusing to Hedda that her husband and Thea have so seamlessly reconstructed the relationship Thea once forged with Lövborg. Hedda envisions them developing romantic feelings for one another soon, and Thea once again succeeding where Hedda failed—all the more reason for Hedda to leave this world.
Hedda says that she must go lie down on the sofa in the inner room. She exits behind the curtains, and after a short pause she is heard playing a wild dance tune on the piano. Tesman asks that she stop, out of respect for Aunt Rina and Ejlert Lövborg’s deaths. Hedda puts her head out between the curtains, says she is thinking of Aunt Julle and the rest of them too, and promises to be silent in the future. She draws the curtains together again.
Hedda’s wild music-making is socially inappropriate, as Tesman makes clear—but it is her last act of defiance against the littleness and bourgeois tameness of her world, and also perhaps the wild, meaningless final cry of a great soul that has found no outlet for its passions. Hedda ironically promises to be silent in the future, meaning, of course, the endless silence of death. In this poignant scene Hedda is essentially spitting in the world’s face and playing herself out.
Back at the desk, Tesman tells Thea that it’s probably not good for Hedda to see the two of them working together. He says that Thea will have to move into Aunt Julle’s lodgings, where he can come up in the evenings to work instead. Form the inner room, Hedda lets he husband know that she can hear what he’s saying. She also asks how she’s supposed to survive her evenings alone here.
Tesman is already putting into place conditions that will make it all too easy for intimacy to develop between him and Mrs. Elvsted. Hedda makes it clear that she knows exactly what he’s up to—but she finds his plotting boring and conventional. She seems to ask about her evenings alone knowing that the answer will be bleak, and give momentum to her death.
Tesman responds that Judge Brack will visit Hedda, and Brack confirms that he’ll visit every single night—the two of them will have a fine time. Hedda supposes that Judge Brack would like that, to be the only cock in the yard.
Hedda’s vision of the future certainly does seem hateful and bleak here: Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted will fall in love over their work, and Brack will blackmail Hedda into an affair during their long hours alone together.
A shot is then heard from the inner room. Everyone jumps to their feet—Hedda is playing with those pistols again, says Tesman. He pulls the curtain aside and runs in, followed by Thea. They find Hedda dead. Confusion and shouting ensue, and an alarmed Berte comes in from the right. Tesman cries that his wife has shot herself in the temple. Judge Brack, half prostrate in his armchair, is shocked: “People don’t do such things,” he exclaims.
On the shallowest level of interpretation, Hedda kills herself because it is the most radically unconventional and even mad response to her situation. But more importantly, she shoots herself in the temple so that she can have the beautiful death that Lövborg fell short of. Hedda has taken absolute control over her life—by taking her leave of it. Judge Brack’s final words are then especially important in showing just how misunderstood and alone Hedda felt in her world of mundanity, cliché, and ugliness—to those around her, her suicide is not wrong, tragic, or beautiful, but only unconventional. Hedda’s desire for drama and beauty was always contrasted with the farcical nature of her reality, and this ultimately leads Ibsen to ask: is Hedda’s death a beautiful tragedy? Or else something farcical, sad, and meaningless? This ambiguity makes Hedda a thoroughly modern heroine, and makes the play’s ending especially poignant and thought-provoking.