In Hedda Gabler, there is no character of importance pitted against Hedda as an effective counterpoise. Tesman the dull pedant, Loevborg, the debased Dionysus figure, and Brack, the suave diplomat all bring to light some aspect of Hedda that aids in her eventual self-destruction. The two minor women in the play act as correctives to Hedda’s unappealing selfish personality.The whole play pivots upon Hedda and every speech in the play is directed towards the main purpose, the revelation of Hedda’s character. As the center of the play is not a problem but a personality there is less emphasis on the story and its links of cause and effect. The play develops in an episodic manner.
Act 1 gives a full picture of the Tesman household and illuminates all the main problems. Act II introduces the rivals, Loevborg and Brack, and Hedda’s first attempt to play with destiny and thwart Mrs. Elvsted. Act III is given up to the story of the manuscript and ends with Hedda’s triumph. Act IV springs the trap and undoes the triumph, forcing Hedda to accept her own counsel and use the second pistol.
Returned from honeymoon, Tesman has just been awarded a doctorate and is now known as Dr. Tesman. He is stuffy and scholarly and does not understand the questions Aunt Julia asks about a baby. He had married on the strength of being awarded a professorship in the university. However, his appointment is in jeopardy because, as Judge Brack informs him, his rival Eilert Loevborg is also competing for the post. Hedda is very cold, formal and rude with Aunt Julia, but she behaves in a very warm and cordial manner with Mrs. Elvsted because she wants to extract information from her. She gets to know that Mrs. Elvsted has taken the bold and daring step of leaving her husband and has followed Loevborg to town. She is afraid that with the success of his new book and money in his pockets, Loevborg will again revert to his dissipated ways. Therefore, she asks Tesman to invite him to his house so that he will not fall in the wrong company.
In Act II, a series of encounters occur with men in Hedda’s life. Brack, an old friend, attempts to contract a “triangular friendship” with Hedda. It is through her interactions with him that the audience finds out that Hedda married in order to be secure, emotionally, financially, and socially. The audience also discovers that Hedda can be vicious as when she commented on the rude behavior of the maid for leaving her hat on a chair, knowing that it was Aunt Julia’s. In this scene, Hedda’s pistols come to the forefront as symbols of protection. She points them at Brack, foreshadowing his later attempt to seduce and extort her. Loevborg is also introduced in this act. He is now a reformed character and has left his days of dissipation behind him. He and Hedda had been close friends, but when the friendship threatened to develop into something more serious she broke it off, for she dreaded a scandal and was not ready for a sexual relationship. She sees Loevborg only in an idealized fashion and the newly reformed Loevborg does not conform to her romantic view of him. Therefore, she attempts to reclaim his former self by goading him to drink. When Hedda sees that Mrs. Elvsted’s influence over Loevborg is considerable, she sets out to destroy it. She also betrays the secret Mrs. Elvsted had confided in her in order to break the trust between Loevborg and her. This results in Loevborg’s defiant action of drinking and attending Brack’s bachelor party. Hedda feels that she has liberated Loevborg and that, like Dionysus, he will return with “vine-leaves in his hair”.
In Act III, Hedda’s destructiveness continues and her attempts to refashion Loevborg fail as his behavior is not noble but debased. Loevborg does not return that night to escort Mrs. Elvsted home. Tesman returns early next morning with the manuscript that Loevborg lost because he was drunk. He acknowledges that it is the most remarkable book that has ever been written and has every intention of returning it but Hedda prevents him from doing so and he goes rushing to his dying Aunt Rina’s bedside. Brack enters and gives her the sordid details of if Loevborg’s escapades the previous night. He had gone to Mademoiselle Diana’s soiree and accused her of robbing the manuscript. There was a scuffle and Loevborg was arrested.
Loevborg is driven to despair by the loss of his manuscript and tells Mrs. Elvsted to return to her husband for “Henceforward I shall do no work.” He lies to her about his manuscript and tells her that he tore it. Mrs. Elvsted accuses him of killing their “child.” When left alone, he confesses to Hedda that he has brought “the child” to a house of ill fame and lost it there. Hedda wants to attempt once more to influence Loevborg as Mrs. Elvsted has. Instead of returning his manuscript, she provides him with a pistol and tells him to “do it beautifully.” She wants his suicide to remain a romantic memory for her as well as be a vicarious means for her to feel like she has acted in a noble way. After he has left, Hedda burns the manuscript in a fit of jealousy because it has been the “child” of the supposedly reformed Loevborg and the trivial mouse- like Mrs. Elvsted.
In Act IV, a defiant Hedda informs Tesman that she has burnt the manuscript. Tesman, in consternation, tells her that it amounts to unlawful appropriation of lost property. Hedda manages to convince him that she has done the right thing by pretending that she could not bear the idea of his being upstaged by Loevborg. She also tells him that she is pregnant. Tesman is overjoyed by this unexpected display of Hedda’s love for him and agrees to remain silent. Loevborg’s death is then announced, much to Hedda’s delight and Mrs. Elvsted’s dismay. Tesman is also stunned by this news and is shocked by what Hedda has done. He bemoans the loss of the manuscript.
Mrs. Elvsted realizes that she has the notes with her and she and Tesman sit together to put the notes in some semblance of order. Hedda finds out from Brack that Loevborg’s death was neither an act of courage nor was it beautiful for he was shot in the bowels in Mademoiselle Diana’s boudoir. He also tells her that the pistol could be traced to her. Brack wants to enter into a liaison with Hedda now that he has power over her. He plays on her deep-seated fears of scandal and warns her that she might be implicated in Loevborg’s death. Hedda feels that everything she touches turns “ludicrous and mean.” Not wanting to submit to Brack and disgusted by Loevborg’s ignoble death, she shoots herself in the temple, at last summoning the courage to act as an agent of her life.
The ending of the play is shocking as it does not allow the other characters to respond to her death except to reveal their shock. One does not think that with her death Hedda has received her just deserts, or that she is a victim. However, from Brack’s final announcement that “One doesn’t do that kind of thing,” the audience can see that Hedda Gabler was a misunderstood character and an anomaly within a society that attempted to define what she could and could not do.