Hedda, the beautiful daughter of General Gabler, has recently married Jörgen Tesman, an academic who is facing financial hardships in attempting to satisfy his wife’s grand and aristocratic ways. The two have just returned from their long honeymoon when the play begins—a journey during which Jörgen toiled away in archives and libraries, mostly. However, he did find time to impregnate Hedda, who is ashamed for this fact to be aired publicly. Hedda also finds her new life with Tesman monotonous and excruciatingly boring.
The morning after the couple’s arrival back in town—the action of the play takes place in September—they are visited by Jörgen’s childhood caretaker, Miss Juliane Tesman, or Aunt Julle, who dotes on her nephew. In the Tesmans’ spacious, handsome drawing room, the two discuss, among other things, Jörgen’s confidence that he will soon be appointed as a university professor: a prestigious, financially stable post. Aunt Julle also mentions that Jörgen’s other aunt, Rina, is still very ill, and that Jörgen’s old friend and rival, Ejlert Lövborg, is back in town. Several years earlier, Lövborg had gone on a spree of drunken debaucheries and fell from social grace—now, however, Lövborg has published a new book to enormous praise.
At this point, Hedda comes into the drawing room. She says that she cannot manage with Berte, the household maid, whom Hedda accuses of having strewn her old hat on a chair. Jörgen is appalled: the hat is his aunt’s, not Berte’s, and it is new. Miss Tesman is offended and prepares to leave. Before she does so, however, Jörgen smooths things over by hinting that Hedda is pregnant—to Hedda’s perturbation and Aunt Julle’s great satisfaction.
Soon after Aunt Julle’s departure, another guest arrives, Mrs. Thea Elvsted, an old schoolmate of Hedda’s and an old flame of Tesman’s. She has come seeking Ejlert Lövborg, whom she fears will relapse now that he’s back in the big city and surrounded by temptations. Hedda asks her husband to write a warm, friendly letter to Lövborg to invite him over so that they can keep an eye on him. Meanwhile, Hedda interrogates Thea and learns that she has scandalously come to town without her husband’s permission, and that she has served as Lövborg’s helpmate and muse.
Another guest then pays a visit to the Tesmans, Judge Brack, who has helped Mr. Tesman arrange his finances. Brack reminds Mr. Tesman that he promised to attend his bachelor party, to be held later that night. Brack also has some 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, as this development threatens to worsen his already strained financial situation. After Brack’s exit, Jörgen tells his wife that, to save money, she will have to curtail her social life. Hedda says ominously that at least she has one thing to pass the time with: her father’s pistols.
Later that afternoon, while Tesman is away at his aunts’ house, Judge Brack pays another visit to Hedda. She playfully fires a loaded pistol at him as he walks up from the garden, shocking him. The two at last sit in the drawing room, and Hedda tells Brack about the hat incident—she says that she knew all along that the hat she mocked belonged to Aunt Julle and not to Berte. Hedda also confides in Brack how monotonously miserable her married life is. Brack, for his part, insinuates that he would like to be more than a trusted friend in the Tesman household. Hedda implies, however, that she would never engage in an extramarital affair.
Tesman arrives back at the villa, and Lövborg appears soon afterward. Lövborg reveals that, in addition to his newly published book, he has written a manuscript about the future course of civilization. He’s poured his true self into this manuscript, and he considers it to be like his own child. Lövborg also announces that he will not compete with Tesman for the professorship, to Tesman’s great relief. Judge Brack invites Lӧvborg to his bachelor party, but Lӧvborg declines. He also declines to drink the alcoholic punch he’s offered.
While Tesman and Judge Brack drink, smoke, and talk in the inner room, Lӧvborg sits with Hedda in the drawing room and the two pretend to interest themselves in a photo album. Really, they whisperingly reminisce: we learn that the two of them had a very intimate relationship during their adolescence, one Hedda violently broke off after it threatened to develop a sexual dimension. Hedda threatened to shoot Lӧvborg at the time, but at last didn’t—Lӧvborg accuses Hedda of fearing scandal and being a coward. Hedda agrees with him.
Mrs. Elvsted enters and comes to sit in the drawing room with Hedda and Lövborg. Lövborg praises Thea’s beauty and courage, and this inflames Hedda’s jealousy. Hedda tempts Lӧvborg to drink, saying that the other men will think less of him if he doesn’t, but Lӧvborg is firm in his principles. Hedda then reveals that Mrs. Elvsted came to the Tesmans’ earlier that morning in a state of desperation, fearful that Lӧvborg would relapse. That Mrs. Elvsted demonstrably has so little confidence in her companion wounds Lövborg to his soul: he consequently delivers a grave toast, and then drinks two glasses of alcoholic punch. When Tesman and Judge Brack make ready to leave for the bachelor party, Lӧvborg announces, despite Thea’s quiet pleas, that he’s going to join them. He promises to return at ten o’clock that night.
Mrs. Elvsted passes a sleepless night at the Tesmans’ villa, while Hedda sleeps quite well. At ten, neither Tesman nor Ejlert Lӧvborg has returned from the party. Mrs. Elvsted is panicked, but Hedda advises her to go into her bedroom and rest. Meanwhile, Tesman returns home. Hedda catches him tiptoeing in and asks how his night went. Tesman confesses to being jealous of Lӧvborg’s manuscript. He also has a sad story to tell: Lӧvborg got debauchedly drunk, and while he was being walked home, he lost his precious, irreplaceable manuscript. Tesman, who had fallen behind the other men, found it in the gutter. Tesman says he must return it to Lӧvborg at once, but before he can he receives a letter informing him that his Aunt Rina is dying. Tesman hurries to her at once, leaving Lӧvborg’s manuscript in Hedda’s care.
Just as Tesman leaves, Judge Brack enters. He also has some news for Hedda: after the party broke up and the revelers went their separate ways, Lӧvborg went to the salon of one Mademoiselle Diana, who is the madam, or procuress, of a brothel. What’s more, Lӧvborg accused Mademoiselle Diana or one of her prostitutes of robbing him. He started a fight over the matter, and when the police arrived he even struck an officer and tore his tunic. Lӧvborg then had to go to the police station—disgracing himself again. The Judge advises Hedda to close her doors to Lӧvborg from there on out. He exits.
Soon after, Hedda hears an altercation in the hall. Despite Berte’s best efforts, Lӧvborg enters in a state of confusion and excitement. Mrs. Elvsted enters, also, from Hedda’s bedroom. Lӧvborg lies and says that he tore up his manuscript and scattered its thousand pieces into the fjord. Mrs. Elvsted cries out that this act seems to her as though Lӧvborg had killed a little child. She exits.
Alone with Hedda, Lӧvborg says that his life is hopeless, and he confesses that he could not bring himself to tell Mrs. Elvsted the truth about the manuscript—namely, that he lost it. He also reveals his intention to kill himself. Hedda, far from protesting, just asks that he do so beautifully. She tells him to leave and never come back—but before he goes she gives him a memento, one of her father’s pistols, to be used in carrying out his “beautiful” suicide. Lӧvborg exits. Once he leaves, Hedda takes his manuscript out from her bookshelf and feeds it into the fire of her stove.
That evening, Aunt Julle comes to the Tesmans’ villa to inform Hedda of Aunt Rina’s death. Tesman comes in soon after, broken up about not only the death of his beloved aunt but also about Lӧvborg’s disgrace. He says that he must return his manuscript to him. Once Aunt Julle leaves, however, Hedda confesses that she destroyed the manuscript. To assuage her husband’s outrage, she insists she did it out of love for him, so that he wouldn’t be outshone by a better mind. Tesman is torn between doubt and happiness to learn this news.
Mrs. Elvsted enters. She’s heard that Lӧvborg has had some kind of accident. Judge Brack enters soon after and confirms that Lӧvborg is in the hospital, fatally shot in the breast. To everyone’s shock and alarm, Hedda praises the courage and beauty of his suicide. Tesman, moreover, is wracked by guilt: Lövborg’s manuscript, which would have made its author’s name immortal, is now lost to the world forever. Mrs. Elvsted says that that’s not entirely the case, because she is in possession of the notes that Lövborg used to dictate the manuscript to her. On the spot, Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted decide to team up and reconstruct Lövborg’s work.
Meanwhile, Judge Brack informs Hedda that Lӧvborg’s death seems not to have been an intentional suicide: he was shot at Mademoiselle Diana’s salon, while raving about his manuscript. He was also not shot in the breast, as Brack had previously reported, but rather in the abdomen. Hedda is disgusted to consider the fact that seemingly everything she touches becomes petty and farcical. Brack then reveals that Hedda will be implicated in a scandal when it comes out that Lӧvborg shot himself with her pistol. Brack says that no one need know that the pistol was Hedda’s, however—so long as he holds his tongue.
Hedda understands at once that she is in the lecherous Judge Brack’s power, a prospect she cannot endure. Nor can she endure the prospect of her husband being away with Mrs. Elvsted working on the manuscript all the time, leaving her with only Brack for company. Hedda retires to the inner room, plays a wild tune on the piano, and then shoots herself in the temple with her remaining pistol. All in the house are horrified: “People don’t do such things,” exclaims Judge Brack.