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This lesson details the Henrik Ibsen play Hedda Gabler, and includes a summary, character description and analysis. After reading, take the quiz to see what you have learned.

The Original Mean Girl, Circa 19th Century

Everyone remembers the one girl from high school or college you didn’t want to cross. She was beautiful and maybe rich, and she used that to her advantage to manipulate everyone around her. Think of that girl when reading Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play, Hedda Gabler. This example of realism examines in detail domestic life gone awry.

Characters in Hedda Gabler

The play’s titular character is an entitled diva with a hint of mental instability who utilizes her beauty and wits to ensure her desires. Hedda is bored by her new life as a wife, and potentially a mother. She is the daughter of a general, and she likes to play with pistols. She also has expensive tastes. As the play progresses, it is obvious that Hedda will stop at nothing to get what she wants.Hedda is newly married to Jurgen Tesman, a weak willed academic who is below her socially, and attends to Hedda tirelessly.

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He wants to become a professor at the University, but faces competition in this, and with Hedda from Ejlert Lovborg.Ejlert is Hedda’s former paramour. He has spent the last couple of years writing a manuscript that is his masterpiece, tutoring, and recovering from alcoholism. He created the work with Thea Elvsted, the wife of the man whose children Ejlert tutored. She is also weak willed, and finds her value and meaning in men; first in the husband she married after being the governess to his children, and in Ejlert and his work. Thea knows Hedda from school, and remembers her as being a bully.Judge Brock is a family friend of Hedda’s, and is flirty and inappropriate with her.

Like all the men in the play, Brock is enchanted by Hedda’s beauty and wit, and wants to have a relationship with her.Aunt Julie is Jurgen’s aunt, and has given him large amounts of money to be able to afford the house that he thought Hedda wanted. Berte, the servant, is afraid that she will not be able to please the exacting Hedda. She has good reason to feel that way.

A portrait of Henrik Ibsen
A portrait of Henrik Ibsen

What’s My Name Again? A Summary of Hedda Gabler

Act One

When the play opens in the Tesmans’ living room, Hedda and Jurgen have just returned from an expensive six-month honeymoon.

Aunt Julie and Berte are waiting on them in the large house that Jurgen bought for Hedda with Aunt Julie’s help. Hedda is immediately rude to both Berte and Aunt Julie, castigating the former for opening the window, and insulting the latter’s special hat. Jurgen begins to hint that Hedda might be pregnant, and she dismisses all mention of it.After Aunt Julie leaves, Jurgen asks Hedda to be nicer to her, but Hedda is dismissive of Jurgen’s talk. Afterwards, Thea comes to call, talking about Ejlert, and his brilliant work. Thea is afraid that Eljert may begin drinking again, and is looking for him in secret.

After she leaves, Judge Brock comes to gossip with the Tesmans, and he also talks about Ejlert. Brock throws in the information that Ejlert and Jurgen may be competing for the same university position. This makes Jurgen nervous, and he tells Hedda that they may have to spend less money.

Act Two

Brock comes back to talk with Hedda in private and is somewhat flirty with her. Hedda flirts back with Brock, and says disparaging things about Jurgen, his finances, and their honeymoon. When Jurgen comes back into the room, Brock begins to talk about the bachelor’s party he is hosting that evening. Ejlert arrives, and is manipulated by Hedda into going to the party with Jurgen and Brock, despite his resolve not to drink.

We learn in this scene that Hedda and Ejlert once were involved, and that Ejlert is not over it.

Act Three

When the third act opens, Thea is waiting at Hedda’s, concerned about Ejlert. She goes to bed, and Jurgen arrives, telling Hedda that Ejlert has lost his manuscript, but that he, Jurgen, would return it to Ejlert. Before he can do so, Jurgen gets the news that his Aunt Rina is dying, and he goes immediately to see her.

Brock comes gossiping, telling Hedda that Ejlert not only got drunk, but was arrested the night before.Ejlert comes over and tells Thea that he destroyed the manuscript by throwing it into the fjord. This shocks Thea into leaving. After she leaves, Ejlert tells Hedda that he did not destroy the manuscript, but he did lose it.

All the while, Hedda has the manuscript locked in a desk. Hedda gives Ejlert one of her pistols so that he can commit suicide. After he is gone, Hedda burns the manuscript.

Act Four

In the fourth act, Aunt Rina has died, and Jurgen is back, as is Thea. Brock comes back as well to tell everyone that Ejlert has died. Thea and Jurgen try to piece together Thea’s notes on the manuscript to recreate it. While this is happening, Brock tells Hedda that there will be a scandalous inquiry into her involvement, since the gun went off in Ejlert’s pocket, and he did not die well.

Hedda storms into another room, and plays the piano. Several shots are heard, and the rest of the group find Hedda dead.

Title Page from original Hedda Gabler

Analysis: A Study of Mental Illness

Hedda Gabler examines a topic that had been taboo up until the point it was performed: the burgeoning science of mental illness. Hedda derived pleasure from the pain of Ejlert, and the manipulation of everyone around her, a clear sign of mental instability. Another theme explored in the play was Hedda’s control over the other characters, due to her beauty. Even with this, Hedda was never satisfied.

Lesson Summary

Hedda Gabler is one of Ibsen’s most acclaimed works, and has been performed hundreds of times. The story of the manipulative Hedda and the lives she changes is one that resonates around the world with each retelling.

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