Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hedda Gabler: Short Summary

The play begins on the morning following the return of Hedda and George from their honeymoon, a six-month tour of Europe. We learn from a conversation between Tesman’s Aunt Julia and the maid, Bertha, that Hedda cut a formidable figure in local society. The daughter of a general, she was often seen out “galloping” on horseback, smartly dressed in a “long black riding outfit—with a feather in her hat.” Both Aunt Julia and the maid are somewhat amazed that such a beautiful and glamorous creature would wind up married to a quiet, scholarly soul like George.

When Tesman enters, we understand their puzzlement. A “youngish-looking man of thirty-three, medium sized, with an open, round, cheerful face,” Tesman proves to be a thoroughly bookish and naive young man. He returns from his honeymoon with a “suitcase stuffed full of notes” which he collected “rummaging through archives.” Having recently attained his doctoral degree, he is now at work on a book about “the domestic handicrafts of Brabant in the Middle Ages.” When Aunt Julia asks winkingly whether her nephew has any “expectations” following his wedding trip, he responds, “I have every expectation in the world of becoming a professor shortly.”
When Hedda enters, looking pale and wearing a loose-fitting gown, she seems utterly detached from her husband and her new life. After demanding that the curtains be drawn so as to block out the sunlight, she treats Tesman mockingly, and plays a cruel joke on Aunt Julia, pretending to believe the old lady’s new hat belongs to the maid. If George is oblivious to the meaning of Aunt Julia’s question about “expectations,” Hedda is positively hostile to the subject. When Tesman notes—without grasping the implication of his comment—that she has “filled out” on their trip, Hedda snaps, “Oh, do be quiet—!” And when George persists, Hedda declares “brusquely,” “I’m exactly as I was when I left.” Between the bookish Tesman, who is too naive even to imagine his wife’s pregnancy, and the frosty Hedda, who vehemently repudiates the idea, Ibsen creates a mordant picture of an emotionally sterile marriage deeply inhospitable to new life. Left alone for a moment on stage, Hedda “moves about the room, raising her arms and clenching her fists as if in a frenzy.” Clearly, like the young Ibsen, she feels imprisoned by her home and family.
The next arrival is an outsider, Thea Elvsted, an old school-mate of Hedda’s. She comes bearing news of the return to town of Eilert Loevborg, a man who has been living in the country, serving as tutor to Thea’s stepchildren. Loevborg, we learn, is a brilliant intellectual with a disreputable past. His weakness for drink and other sordid diversions has led to his social downfall, and his life at the Elvsteds’ has been a kind of penitential exile. While there he has reformed his habits, and has written a brilliant book about “the course of civilization in all its stages” which has been just published. To celebrate this event, Eilert has come back to the city, and Thea, worried that he might return to his old habits, has followed to keep an eye on him. She comes to the Tesman house knowing that George and Eilert were old friends, and hoping that Tesman will help her keep Eilert on the straight and narrow.
Hedda seems powerfully affected by the news of Eilert’s presence, and she instructs Tesman to write a letter immediately inviting Loevborg to visit. When she and Thea are left alone on stage, Hedda soon elicits from her old school-fellow a confession that Thea is in fact Loevborg’s lover, and that she has abandoned home and husband to follow him to the city. Hedda further learns that Thea has been Loevborg’s inspiration for the new book:
Mrs. Elvsted:    Whenever he wrote anything, we’d always work on it together.
Hedda:             Like two true companions.
Mrs. Elvsted:    Companions! You know, Hedda—that’s what he said too!
The more Hedda learns about the relationship between Thea and Loevborg, the more enthralled she becomes, and we soon perceive that her interest goes well beyond friendly concern. When Thea declares that between her and Eilert there is the “shadow” of a woman who “carried loaded weapons” and who threatened him with a pistol, Hedda declares “with cold constraint,” “That’s nonsense! Nobody behaves that way around here.” We will soon see, however, that one person in particular behaves precisely like that.
The final new arrival in the first act is Judge Brack, who comes to invite Tesman to a stag party he is giving that evening. He also informs George and Hedda that Loevborg is likely to be a rival candidate for the professorship on which Tesman has been counting. With George’s anticipated income in jeopardy the family will need to cut back on some of the extravagant spending they were planning—specifically, Hedda will need to forgo the riding horse she was expecting to acquire. The act ends with a disappointed Hedda declaring, “Well at least I have one thing left to amuse myself with. . . . My pistols, George.”
Act Two begins later that day, with Judge Brack’s return for a private conversation with Hedda. As he arrives, she is loading a revolver, and upon seeing him approach the house, she points the pistol in his general direction and fires. A shocked Brack demands to know why Hedda is “playing such games.” Her response is revealing: “Well, what in heaven’s name do you want me to do with myself?”
As Brack’s visit proceeds, we learn that he and Hedda have been fairly intimate friends for some time, and we begin to see that Brack has designs on Hedda that are far from honorable. He is interested, he says, in establishing a “triangular arrangement” with Hedda, meaning that he wants to take advantage of George’s gullibility to become his wife’s lover. Hedda rejects the idea, not because she is morally repelled by it, but because, as she suggests, she is frightened at the possibility of scandal.
Brack asserts that Hedda is unhappy because she has “never experienced anything that’s really stirred” her, and that perhaps some truly “solemn . . . new responsibility” is on the way—yet another allusion to Hedda’s impending motherhood. As in the first act, Hedda’s response to the merest suggestion of childbearing is vehement and agitated: “I have no talent for such things ... I won’t have responsibilities.... I often think I have talent for only one thing in life.... Boring myself to death.”
Tesman’s arrival, dressed for Brack’s party, puts an end to this intimate encounter. Tesman is expecting a visit from Loevborg in response to his earlier invitation, and within moments the rehabilitated and newly successful author arrives, bearing the manuscript of yet another book he has written, this one a set of bold speculations about the future. He informs Tesman that he will not be his rival for the professorship, and he then offers to spend the evening reading to George from his new work. Unfortunately for this plan, Tesman must attend the Judge’s party. Brack then invites Loevborg to join the soiree, but the author declines, presumably wishing to avoid the temptation to drink that goes with such an event. As Tesman and Brack withdraw for a glass of punch, Loevborg sits with Hedda, ostensibly to look at photographs from her honeymoon trip, but really to resume a relationship that had been cut short by his earlier fall from grace.
In that former relationship, Loevborg and Hedda would sit just as they are doing at present, pretending to look at magazines, but actually discussing Loevborg’s escapades at the establishment of Mademoiselle Diana, a local prostitute. Hedda asked Loevborg “devious” questions about his adventures, and he answered, apparently in explicit detail, thus satisfying her intense desire for “some glimpse of a world that . . . . she’s forbidden to know anything about.” In other words, Hedda experiences vicariously through Loevborg the delights of illicit sex. Eventually, we learn, an aroused Loevborg begged to consummate their relationship in the flesh, but Hedda refused, threatening him with her pistols. And when he now asks why she didn’t shoot him, she responds, “I’m much too afraid of scandal.”
Following these revelations, Thea Elvsted arrives to spend the evening with Hedda and Loevborg. Drawing an implicit comparison with the “devious” Hedda, Loevborg asserts that he and Thea “really are true companions. . . . We can talk things out together without any reservations.” Hedda is piqued by this affront, and decides to challenge Thea’s influence over Loevborg. She tempts him to drink the alcoholic punch that Tesman offers. When he stoutly refuses, Hedda turns to Thea and stages an embarrassing and destructive scene:
Hedda:        Firm as a rock....Didn’t I tell you that when you came here so distraught this morning—
Loevborg:    (surprised) Distraught? ... So deathly afraid? For my sake?...So that’s how completely you trusted me...(takes one of the glasses of punch....) Your health, Thea.
Thus, Hedda demonstrates her continuing control of Loevborg, convincing him further that he should attend Judge Brack’s party, there to read from his powerful new book. As the second act ends, Loevborg has promised to return to Hedda and Thea by ten o’clock. Hedda is elated at the idea of having regained her influence over her old admirer, and she seems once again to be living vicariously through his reckless spirit. She imagines his return to her later in the evening as a kind of Dionysiac triumph: “ten o’clock—Eilert Loevborg comes with vine leaves in his hair.”
The third act begins early the following morning with Hedda and Thea asleep on the living room furniture, still waiting for a Loevborg who has never returned. Thea awakes with a start, realizes her lover has not returned, and is distraught. Hedda convinces the exhausted Thea to go to sleep in her bedroom, and Thea exits. Then Tesman arrives and tells the story of Loevborg’s disastrous evening. After reading from the manuscript of his brilliant new book, and then becoming drunk at Brack’s party, Loevborg set out, apparently for home, with Tesman following to insure his safety. On route, the precious manuscript fell out of Loevborg’s pocket without its author’s noticing; Tesman picked it up, and has now brought it back to his own house for safekeeping. Before he has the opportunity to return it to Loevborg, however, Tesman receives word that his Aunt Rina—Julia’s ailing sister—is dying. He leaves to be with her, handing the manuscript to Hedda.
Judge Brack then arrives and gives Hedda further details of the evening’s orgy. Far from returning home after Brack’s party, the drunken Loevborg paid a visit to Mademoiselle Diana’s brothel, where he engaged in a brawl after accusing his hosts of robbing him. The police were summoned to the scene, Loevborg attacked one of the officers, and he was arrested. Now, says Brack, Loevborg’s disgrace means that he must be turned away from all the respectable houses in town, including, of course, Hedda’s. Thus does Brack profit from the downfall of a potential sexual rival.
Immediately after the Judge’s departure, Loevborg arrives, followed shortly by Thea. Loevborg announces that his squalid conduct has erased his faith in himself and prompted him to destroy his manuscript; further, he informs Thea that their relationship must also now come to an end. Devastated, Thea says, “for the rest of my life it will seem to me as if you’d killed a little child. . . . my child. . . .” Hearing all this, Hedda chooses nevertheless to withhold from Loevborg the fact that his manuscript is safe with her. Instead, she lets him believe that he has irretrievably lost it. When Thea leaves heartbroken, Loevborg confesses that in fact he did not destroy the manuscript, but lost it during his drunken spree, an act that burdens him with unbearable guilt. He feels his life is now utterly without hope, and he must commit suicide. Hedda urges him to do so “beautifully,” and to assist him she gives him one of her father’s pistols. When Loevborg leaves, presumably to kill himself with General Gabler’s gun, Hedda pulls his manuscript out of its hiding place and thrusts it into the fire, declaring, “Now I’m burning your child, Thea ... Your child and Eilert Loevborg’s.”
At the beginning of Act Four, George returns from his aunt’s deathwatch. He tells Hedda that he is anxious to restore the manuscript to Loevborg, and she reveals that she has burned it, convincing her husband that she did the deed out of a loving desire to undo his intellectual rival. She also chooses this moment to inform Tesman that she is pregnant, seeming to suggest that her destruction of the book is linked to her delicate condition. George is both horrified at his friend’s loss and delighted at this unexpected show of affection from his previously distant wife. Thea then arrives to report that she has heard news of Loevborg’s being hospitalized. This is confirmed moments later by Judge Brack, who adds the news that Loevborg has in fact shot himself. Hedda’s response surprises everyone: “At last, something truly done ... There’s beauty in all this ... Eilert Loevborg’s settled accounts with himself. He’s had the courage to do what—what had to be done.”
The guilty Tesman suggests that he could spend time with Thea reproducing the lost manuscript from the notes she has kept, thus creating a kind of final tribute to Loevborg. The two move off together, leaving Brack and Hedda alone. Hedda continues in her ecstatic mood, saying Loevborg’s act is a “liberation” for her, that she finds a kind of fulfillment in his “courage to live life after his own mind ... “ As with his tales of wild sexual escapades, Loevborg’s daring behavior continues to furnish Hedda with vicarious joy, in this case a sense of moral transcendence over the banality of her life that she lacks the courage to pursue herself.
Brack moves swiftly to undermine Hedda’s “beautiful illusion.” The truth about Loevborg is that after leaving Hedda’s that morning he returned to Mademoiselle Diana’s, where he demanded the return of his “lost child.” While he was there, yet another physical struggle occurred, in the course of which Loevborg was somehow shot with his own pistol, not in the head or in the heart—as Hedda imagines—but in his intestines. Thus the “beautiful” act that she commissioned him to commit turns out instead to be “ridiculous and vile.” What she imagined as a poetic sacrament of self-affirmation turns out to be nothing but a sordid death in a whorehouse—an event by which, because of her vicarious presence, she has herself been sullied.
Worse still for Hedda is the power Brack now has to blackmail her. He has recognized the pistol used by Loevborg as belonging to Hedda. If he informs the police of this fact, Hedda will be faced with what she dreads most in life: scandal. She will be summoned to court, placed on the very same witness stand as the prostitute Diana, forced to explain how Loevborg acquired her gun, and confronted with the choice between perjury and the revelation of her darkest secrets. Brack is now in the position to extort from Hedda what he had hinted at in the second act: her cooperation in the sexual triangle he longs for. Hedda, realizing that she is a helpless pawn in Brack’s sordid sexual designs, cries out, “I’m in your power. Tied to your will and desire. Not free. Not free . . . !” In the space of a few minutes Hedda has moved from her feeling of vicarious liberation by Loevborg’s “beautiful” suicide to the realization that she is imprisoned by the scheming Brack. This 180 degree change from one state of affairs to its opposite is called a “reversal,” an element of play structure that creates a particularly powerful sense of dramatic development.
For Hedda this condition of entrapment, of utter spiritual bondage, is intolerable. She rushes into an adjoining alcove, separated by a curtain from the main room, and begins to play a wild tune on the piano. Tesman admonishes her, reminding her that the presence of death, both Aunt Rina’s and Loevborg’s, must be observed with respectful silence. “From now on,” Hedda responds, “I’ll be quiet.” Moments later, we hear the sound of a pistol shot. Brack and Tesman pull back the curtain to reveal Hedda, dead from a bullet in her head. She has carried out the beautiful act botched by Loevborg. “But good God,” says Judge Brack in the famous curtain line, “people don’t do such things!”.

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