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Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler

Trapped in a marriage to a man she does not love, Hedda Tesman feels there is no escape from her miserable life. Although her husband has given her everything—a beautiful house, a 6-month honeymoon, and his complete devotion—Hedda finds herself acutely unhappy. Hedda Gabler (1890) by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) follows the characters of Hedda, her husband, her former lover, and his current partner as Hedda navigates the stifling social setting of Victorian-era Norway.

Content warning: suicide

Hedda Gabler, Content warning, StudySmarter

Hedda Gabler Summary

The play is broken into four acts, each set in the house of the newlyweds, Hedda and George Tesman. Hedda Tesman is the beautiful but manipulative daughter of the respected General Gabler. She has recently married George Tesman, a scholar who is preoccupied with his research even on their six-month honeymoon. Hedda does not love George and did not want to marry him, but she felt pressured to settle down. She is bored in her married life and terrified she might be pregnant.

Hedda Gabler was originally written in Norwegian. Spellings and direct translations differ.

In the opening scene, the Tesmans have just returned from their honeymoon. Aunt Julia, who raised George, visits and congratulates the new couple. She desperately wants George and Hedda to have a baby and is overjoyed when Hedda comes in wearing a loose-fitting gown. Hedda, however, is blatantly rude to Aunt Julia.

After Aunt Julia leaves, Hedda and George are visited by Thea Elvsted. Mrs. Elvsted is a former schoolmate of Hedda's and was briefly involved in a relationship with George. Mrs. Elvsted is now in an unhappy marriage and has left home to follow Eilert Lövborg. Eilert is George's academic rival; he was once an alcoholic and social degenerate but has sobered up and become a successful author with Mrs. Elvsted's help.

Hedda Gabler, Typewriter, StudySmarter

Fig. 1: Eilert has overcome alcoholism and has become a famous author.

Judge Brack also visits the Tesmans. He tells them Eilert may be competing for the same position George was anticipating at the university. George is upset because the Tesmans finances are dwindling, and he knows Hedda expects a life of luxury. Later, Hedda and Brack talk privately. She confesses she feels nothing for her husband, and the two agree to have an intimate companionship (or, as Brack calls it in Act II, a "triangular friendship").

When Eilert visits, it is clear he and Hedda are former lovers. Hedda is jealous of Eilert's current relationship with Mrs. Elvsted and does everything in her power to cause a divide between them. Hedda offers Eilert a drink and slyly convinces him to go to Brack's party with George, knowing there will be more drinking. The men leave Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted home alone. Mrs. Elvsted stays up all hours of the morning, worrying about Eilert falling back into alcoholism.

Hedda Gabler, Friends cheers with alcohol, StudySmarter

Fig. 2: Mrs. Elvsted is worried Eilert will fall back into alcoholism after drinking at the party.

Mrs. Elvsted finally falls asleep at Hedda's encouragement, leaving Hedda alone with her thoughts. George returns from the party, carrying the only manuscript of Eilert's prized second book. Eilert inadvertently lost it while he was drunk at the party. George intends to give it back to Eilert, but Hedda tells him not to be so rash. George leaves the manuscript with Hedda and rushes off when he learns his Aunt Rina is dying.

When Eilert returns to the Tesmans house after the party, he tells Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted that he destroyed the manuscript. Although she still has it, Hedda does not correct him. Mrs. Elvsted is distraught, telling Eilert he killed their child since the two collaborated together on it. When Mrs. Elvsted leaves, Eilert confesses to Hedda that he has actually lost his manuscript and wants to die. Instead of comforting him or revealing the manuscript, Hedda hands Eilert one of her father's pistols and tells Eilert to die beautifully. Once he leaves with the gun, she burns the manuscript, delighting in the idea that she is murdering Eilert and Mrs. Elvsted's child.

Hedda Gabler, Pistol and bullets on table, StudySmarter

Fig. 3: Hedda hands Eilert a pistol and pushes him to kill himself.

In the next act, all the characters are dressed in black for mourning. However, they are mourning Aunt Rina's death, not Eilert's. Mrs. Elvsted enters worriedly, announcing Eilert is in the hospital. Brack arrives and tells them Eilert is, in fact, dead, having shot himself in the chest at a brothel.

While George and Mrs. Elvsted attempt to reconstruct Eilert's book using his notes, Brack pulls Hedda aside. He tells her Eilert died a vile, painful death, and Brack knows the pistol belonged to General Gabler. Brack warns Hedda she will likely be caught in a scandal over Eilert's death. Not wanting anyone to have power over her, Hedda goes into another room and shoots herself in the head.

Hedda Gabler Characters

Below are the main characters in the play.

Hedda (Gabler) Tesman

George's new wife, Hedda never wanted to marry or have children, but she feels as though she has to. She doesn't love George but feels he can offer her security. She is jealous, manipulative, and cold. Hedda encourages Eilert to kill himself because she wants to have some control over another person's fate.

In the title, Hedda is referred to by her maiden name to show she has a deeper tie to her father (General Gabler) than she does her husband.

George Tesman

Hedda's well-meaning but oblivious husband, George (or Jürgen) Tesman is a devout researcher. He spent the majority of their honeymoon working, hoping to get a position at the university. He is infatuated with his wife and wants to provide her with the life of luxury she is accustomed to.

Eilert Lövborg

George's academic rival and Hedda's old flame, Eilert (or Ejlert) Lövborg's main focus is completing his second book. After recovering from alcoholism, Eilert completely restructured his life with the help of Thea Elvsted.

Thea Elvsted

An unhappily married woman, Thea Elvsted is incredibly close with Eilert Lövborg. She helped him turn his life around and is worried he will slip back into alcoholism on his own. The two are writing a book together, and Mrs. Elvsted is devastated to learn he has destroyed it. She was bullied by Hedda when they were schoolmates.

Judge Brack

The Tesman's family friend, Judge Brack is in love with Hedda. While he keeps George informed of the university's changes, he enjoys power over others and would like Hedda for himself. Brack is the one who tells Hedda he knows Eilert used her gun, threatening Hedda with a scandal and leading her to suicide.

Juliana Tesman (Aunt Julia)

George's doting aunt, Juliana (or Juliane) Tesman cannot wait for George and Hedda to have a child. She practically raised George and seems to care more about their potential baby than her sister's death.

Aunt Rina

George's Aunt Rina never appears on stage. George rushes to her side while she is dying, giving Hedda the opportunity to destroy Eilert and Mrs. Elvsted's manuscript.

Hedda Gabler Setting

Ibsen situates Hedda Gabler in "Tesman's villa, in the west end of Christiania" when he specifies the dramatis personae of the play. Christiania, now called Oslo, is the capital of Norway. The Tesmans live in a nice house in the more affluent part of town. Believing it to be Hedda's dream house, George spent a small fortune on it. They now have little money for other things. The time period is not directly specified, but it is thought to be sometime in the late 19th century.

Dramatis personae: the list of characters at the beginning of a play

The 19th-century setting is incredibly important in Hedda Gabler. The Victorian social conventions of her time leave Hedda feeling trapped, stifled, and isolated. She does not want to marry but knows she is expected to. She is terrified of becoming a mother, but that is all anyone expects of her as a wife. And instead of being her own person with agency, Hedda's identity is entirely interwoven with her husband. Even when possible love interests like Brack or Eilert talk to her, it is always with the understanding that she belongs to George.

Hedda Gabler, Victorian Era woman and letter, StudySmarter

Fig. 4: Hedda Gabler is set firmly in the strict conventions of the Victorian era.

It is also important to note that the entire play takes place in the Tesmans drawing room. Like Hedda's life, the play is confined to her husband's house and the spheres which he controls. Hedda is trapped at home, unable to accompany her husband to Brack's party or travel alone as Mrs. Elvsted does because it would be improper. Like the setting of the play, Hedda's life is dictated entirely by society's strict conventions and stifling expectations.

Hedda Gabler Analysis

Hedda's character can be incredibly difficult to like. She is needlessly mean to Aunt Julia, uses George's money while emotionally cheating on him with two other men, pressures an alcoholic to start drinking again, convinces that same man to commit suicide while he's drunk, and burns the only copy of his prized manuscript. By her own admission, Hedda's actions are caused by her lack of excitement. In Act II, she complains about her incessant boredom not once but three times: "Oh, my dear Mr. Brack how mortally bored I have been," "you cannot imagine how horribly I shall bore myself here," and "Because I am bored, I tell you!"

Hedda's boredom is more than just a lack of entertainment, though. She lacks any passion or feeling for her life. As a woman in Victorian Norway, Hedda is unable to walk the streets alone, go to parties, or even meet with friends without a chaperone. Every move she makes is dictated by her well-meaning but oblivious husband. Her role as a wife has completely overridden any identity she built of her own.

What terrifies Hedda, even more, is the thought of becoming a mother and losing herself completely. While her identity has already been absorbed into her husband's, up until she becomes pregnant, her body is her own. However, being forced to carry George's child will mean even her physical body is overtaken. Her beauty, youth, and vitality may never be returned after her child is born.

The play's title is, importantly, Hedda Gabler instead of Hedda Tesman. This is to highlight how Hedda still identifies with her father and her old life, even as George Tesman's new wife. Hedda doesn't understand George's struggle to provide for them and secure a steady job, as she never had to worry about that as a child. She lived a completely different life under her aristocratic father, and her demise is intricately tied to her inability to fit into her husband's middle-class world.

Hedda Gabler Quotes

Below are some of the most important quotes from Hedda Gabler, examining themes such as female oppression in a male-dominated world and the desire for control.

Do think it quite incomprehensible that a young girl—when it can be done—without any one knowing...should be glad to have a peep, now and then, into a world...which she is forbidden to know anything about?" (Act II)

When discussing their previous relationship, Eilert asks Hedda why she associated with him despite his bad reputation and alcoholism. Hedda replies it gave her a look into a completely foreign world. These brief moments, where Hedda reveals how stifled and limited she feels in her life, help readers understand why she feels the need to control others. Society has kept entire "worlds" from her, leading her to feel ignorant, excluded, and even inferior.

I want for once in my life to have power to mould a human destiny." (Act II)

Hedda says this line when Mrs. Elvsted asks her why she convinced Eilert to drink and go to the party, knowing he will likely relapse. Hedda's reply reveals how little control she has in her own life. In a world where a man dictates every action in a woman's life, Hedda wants the roles to reverse so she can briefly experience what it's like to be a man with the agency and power to determine fate.

Hedda Gabler - Key Takeaways

  • Hedda Gabler was written by Henrik Ibsen in 1890.
  • The setting is Victorian-era Norway, where women are controlled by their husbands and have no free will.
  • Hedda Tesman is an aristocratic woman who marries a middle-class man against her will and struggles to fit into his world.
  • The play's title, Hedda Gabler, importantly uses Hedda's maiden name instead of her married one. This shows how she will never be able to fit into the traditional role of married life.
  • The major quotes speak to the play's themes, such as female oppression in a male-dominated world and the desire for control.

Hedda Gabler, Crisis banner, StudySmarter

Frequently Asked Questions about Hedda Gabler

Hedda is 29.

Hedda Gabler was written in 1890.

It is strongly implied that Hedda is pregnant, although never officially confirmed.

Hedda Gabler is about a woman who is selfish and manipulative because she feels trapped and stifled in her middle-class marriage. 

It is set in the capital of Norway (then Christiania, now Oslo) in the late 19th century. Hedda feels trapped by Victorian social conventions of the time and spends the entire play in her and George's house. 

Final Hedda Gabler Quiz

Question

Who wrote Hedda Gabler? 

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Answer

Henrik Ibsen

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Question

When was Hedda Gabler published? 

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Answer

1890

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Question

Where is Hedda Gabler set? 

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Answer

Victorian Norway in Christiania (now Oslo)

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Question

True or false: the main character's name is Hedda Gabler? 

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Answer

False.

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Question

Why does Hedda marry Tesman? 

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Answer

She feels forced to by her society

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Question

What career does George Tesman want? 

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Answer

Work at the university

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Question

How did Hedda know Mrs. Elvsted? 

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Answer

They went to school together, Hedda was a bully

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Question

What condition did Eilert struggle with? 

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Answer

Alcoholism

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Question

What dangerous things does Hedda convince Eilert to do? 

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Answer

Get drunk.

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Question

How does George come in possession of the manuscript?

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Answer

Eilert loses it while drunk

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What does Eilert tell Mrs. Elvsted happened to the manuscript? 

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Answer

He destroyed it. 

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What does Hedda do to the manuscript? 

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Answer

Burns it.

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Question

How does Brack know Hedda was involved in Eilert's death? 

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Answer

The pistol belonged to her father.

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Why does Hedda find her life boring? 

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Answer

She is stifled by society's expectations of her and feels trapped as Tesman's wife.

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Question

What happens to Hedda at the end of the novel? 

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Answer

She kills herself

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