The analysis of Hedda Gabler proceeds page by page, rather than by topic, such as the symbolism of the guns or Hedda's character. I have tried to parallel the reading process, so that you can read the analysis and easily refer to the play or even read the analysis as you read the play, if you wish.

Recommendation: Read the act through, so that the characters and situation reveal themselves to you as Ibsen intended. Then re-read the act with the online analysis. Your view of the earlier acts may change after you finish the play, and you may have different answers to many of my questions. The online lessons are not intended to replace reading the assigned text.

Act I

Stage Directions

In reading Hedda Gabler, you must pay attention to more than just the characters' words, actions, and gestures. Ibsen gives detailed stage directions about the lighting, the props, the appearance of the characters, and the placement of the characters on the stage to achieve his effects, to develop character, and to further his ideas. This means that you must read the stage directions carefully.

The drawing room. The entire action takes place in this room, in the space of thirty-six hours. Just as the action is confined to this room, so Hedda Gabler is restrained by her acceptance of society's values, by the narrowness of her social circle, and by her limited interests. The room is like Hedda in its elegance and aristocratic refinement. It reflects Hedda's aristocratic lifestyle and social class, rather than those of the bourgeois Tesmans; note Miss Tesman's surprise at Hedda's having had the chintz furniture covers removed. Hedda comes from a class which takes luxury for granted; the Tesmans from a class which "saves" luxuries for special occasions.

Ibsen uses the smaller inner room and the larger drawing room to parallel the action and reflect Hedda's relationship to the other characters. General Gabler's portrait is hung in the inner room, and Hedda's piano is moved into it by Act II, so that this space is associated with Hedda from the beginning. Does the movement of people in and out of the inner room reflect the meaning of the action as well as contribute to the meaning?

Hedda several times goes to the door or drums her fingers on the glass; when and why does she do this?

Note:  The answers to questions like these may not be clear to you at a first reading; you may need to read the entire play to see the significance of some of them, to decide whether or how they reveal character and prepare for the final catastrophe.

The lighting
. Ibsen carefully describes the light coming into or being excluded from the room. Notice how the characters react to the light. What might a characters's reaction suggest about that person's character? Might there be a connection between the light and the action? For example, one of Miss Tesman's first actions upon entering the drawing room is to open the glass doors to let in the sunlight. Hedda has a different reaction to the light shortly after entering the room; she objects to the "flood of sunlight." Light is often used to represent life and aliveness. Do their reactions to the light suggest anything about their natures and their responses to life? As you read the play, consider the significance of Hedda's wanting the curtains drawn, so that the light will be "softer" but not excluded?

The props. Hedda's inheritance from General Gabler seems to consist of his portrait, his guns, and the piano; they are from her pre-Tesman life. All three acquire significant meanings as the play progresses.

  • General Gabler's portrait is a prominent feature in the set; in many, if not most productions of the play, it dominates the set. His social status and values are implicit in his uniform because generals in Norwegian society are members of the aristocracy. Is Hedda's relationship to her father a significant factor in the way Hedda regards herself and the way the other characters regard her? Does she want to continue to be General Gabler's daughter as well as George Tesman's wife? or does she want to be only General Gabler's daughter? Is either option possible? Must she be only a wife? and a soon-to-be mother?  Another question to consider is, why has Ibsen called this play Hedda Gabler rather than Hedda Tesman?

  • General Gabler's guns acquire increasing importance as the play goes on. They represent her aristocratic heritage; they serve as her playthings, as her defense, and as a release; also they suggest violence. Like Hedda, they have a cold exterior and a fiery interior. Hedda's use of the guns and the reaction of others to her guns are meaningful. In a Freudian reading, the guns are obvious phallic symbols.

  • The piano does not "fit" in the drawing room, just as Hedda and her artistocratic lifestyle/values doesn't "fit" into the Tesman family and its bourgeois lifestyle/values. George and Hedda make different assumptions about remedying the problem of the piano. George assumes they will trade it in for a new piano and is startled by Hedda's extravagant assumption they will keep it and buy a new one.
The room is filled with flowers, which Hedda finds stifling. By Act II, most of the flowers have been removed. What do the flowers represent, and why are they distasteful to Hedda?

The stove becomes significant later in the play. Notice Hedda's movements toward and away from the stove, whereby Ibsen visually suggests a connection between her and the stove. The connection begins when Hedda forces Thea to sit in a chair by the stove (p. 15), and after Thea leaves, she herself sits by the stove as Tesman and Brack discuss Lovborg (p. 21).

The characters' appearance. Hedda and Thea are opposites in appearance. Hedda has brown hair and grey eyes; Thea has "remarkably light" hair and large blue eyes. Ibsen uses hair to symbolize their natures. Hedda's hair is attractive but "not particularly abundant." In contrast, Thea's is "unusually abundant." Hair is often associated with creativity/fertility and with  potency (think of Samson and his hair). Does either of these possibilities have relevance to this play? Interestingly, the one physical detail we are given about Mademoiselle Diana, the "singing-woman" (a polite phrase for "prostitute"), is the color of her hair (p. 19).

The characters can be grouped by complexion. The bourgeois Thea, Miss Tesman, and George are all fair. The aristocratic Hedda, Brack, and Lovborg all have darker coloring. Thus, their coloring visually distinguishes the two groups, as do the values and social class they share.

Pages 1-7

The opening lines establish the relationship among the Tesmans, including the servant Berta, and prepare for Hedda's entrance. TheTesmans form a tightly knit group with bourgeois values (e.g., domestic pleasures and family ties). Just as Hedda physically enters the drawing room of the house the Tesmans bought, so the aristocratic Hedda Gabler is socially, financially, and emotionally entering the bourgeois Tesman family and world.

Miss Tesman and Berta have a close mistress-servant relationship. Miss Tesman discusses family matters with Berta, who is on "the verge of weeping" because of their separation after "all the blessed years I've been with you and Miss Rina" (p. 2). Self-sacrifice characterizes the Tesman women. Miss Tesman admits to Berta, "Heaven knows it was a wrench to me to part with you" (p. 2), a sacrifice she willingly makes for the beloved George. Berta worries about the welfare of the invalid Aunt Rina without Berta's help. What other evidences of their closeness do you see?

Miss Tesman and her nephew George have a close, loving relationship. The two aunts dote on him and are willing to make any sacrifice for him, and he accepts their sacrifices appreciatively. Initially George is taken aback when he learns that his aunts have taken a loan on their annuity, their only income, to enable him to buy the house. After his aunt assures him doing this was "nothing but a pleasure to us," George accepts in terms that indicate a long pattern of sacrifice by his aunts, "Oh, Auntie--will you never be tired of making sacrifices for me!" (p. 7).

In these opening pages, what kind of man does George seem to be? Think of his accepting his aunts' sacrifices. In what spirit does he accept them--selfishly as a right, appreciatively, lovingly? Is it significant that he was willing to let his elderly aunt get home on her own rather than displace Hedda's boxes in the carriage to give her a ride the previous night? (What does this inconsiderate action suggest about Hedda?) What does his missing Miss Tesman's hints about a possible pregnancy tell us about George? What is the effect of his joy over the slippers? You will notice he habitually uses two phrases, "eh?" and "fancy that." Does his verbal habit affect your assessment of him?

Miss Tesman seems a kind, self-sacrificing woman. How does the pleasure she takes in the fall of George's rivals, particularly Lovborg, fit this image (p. 7)? Does her self-sacrifice keep George gratefully dependent? Is there a darker or shadow aspect to the admittedly admirable family values of the Tesmans?

The exchange among the Tesman contingent also prepares for Hedda's appearance. Berta and Miss Tesman whisper not to disturb Hedda. The class difference appears immediately with Berta's fear that her new mistress will be "terribly grand in her ways" (p. 2). Both Miss Tesman and Berta are impressed with Hedda's superior social status and see George's winning her as a coup; neither woman imagined that she might marry George. Miss Tesman gives us a glimpse of Hedda's previous life, her riding with the General; is it significant that she refers to him as "the General" rather than as Hedda's father? Even in talking with George, Miss Tesman expresses her wonder at the marriage,

And that you should be the one to carry off Hedda Gabler--The beautiful Hedda Gabler! Only think of it--she, that was so beset with admirers! (p. 4)
Does her comment reflect her opinion of George or of Hedda's status? What does George's response to her indicate about his view of Hedda's marrying him? Is there irony in describing George as being masterful enough to carry off Hedda?

Is Hedda a person or an object/status symbol to them?  Is she, in any sense, a trophy wife for the Tesmans?

George has the virtues and the limitations of the bourgeoisie. In valuing the domestic, the bourgeoisie also value the ordinary and are, therefore, dull; they exclude the heroic, the poetic, the creative, the transcendent. George is the bourgeois scholar. His gift is "collecting and arranging" (p. 7), not creating; his topic--the domestic industries of Brabant during the Middle Ages--is dull, looks to the past, and is narrow.

Pages 7-11

Hedda resists being drawn into the Tesman family. Because Ibsen wanted this aspect of the play to be clear, he advised a director of the play how to present it:
Jorgen Tesman, his old aunts, and the elderly serving-maid Berte together form a whole and a unity. They have a common way of thinking; common memories, and a common attitude to life. For Hedda they appear as an inimical and alien power directed against her fundamental nature. For this reason there must be harmony between them [the Tesmans] in performance. (letter, 1891)
The Tesmans seem quite satisfied with one another; what, if anything, does Hedda seem to be satisfied with? Hedda expresses her resistance to the Tesmans with her first speech. To Miss Tesman's personal greeting and warm welcome into the family, "my dear Hedda!" and "a hearty welcome" (p. 7), Hedda holds out a hand, thereby preventing an embrace, and addresses her formally as "Miss Tesman" (p. 8). There is a subtext in her reference to Miss Tesman's kindness in calling early; she is pointing out that Miss Tesman is intruding with her impolitely early call. Her response contasts with Tesman's; he saw his aunt's calling early as an expression of love and concern. Miss Tesman gets Hedda's message and is embarrassed. Are there any other expressions of Hedda's rejection of the Tesmans? Is the incident of the hat relevant? Does the way she speaks to George indicate fondness or something else?

George's domesticity is shown in his joy at getting his worn-out slippers. His aunt's thinking to bring them shows how important even the smallest detail of his life is to her. Hedda has no interest at all in them. George talked about the slippers on their honeymoon. Does this reveal anything about him? Do you imagine talking about your spouse's old slippers on your honeymoon?

George is unaware that Hedda is filling out because she is pregnant, but his aunt immediately understands. Instead of leaving, as had been her intention after the humiliation of the hat, Miss Tesman stays long enough to kiss Hedda's hair and bless Hedda, "God bless and preserve Hedda Tesman--for George's sake" (p. 9). This is one of the few references to Hedda as Tesman; almost all the other references are to Hedda Gabler, including the title. Is this significant? What is Hedda's response to the kiss? How do you imagine she feels at Miss Tesman's promise to visit her every day?

What do Hedda's "raising her arms and clenching her hands as if in desperation" (p. 10) reveal about her? Is Hedda cold or even frigid, as many readers have asserted, or is she a passionate woman who controls her emotions and does not allow them to show? What in the exchange with the Tesmans provokes this response? Or you might prefer the question, what in her situation with the Tesmans provokes this response?

When Tesman returns from seeing his aunt out, Hedda is looking out the window. She sees the dying, withered leaves. She hesitates at naming the month, "Already in--in September" (p. 10). Hedda resents her pregnancy and the prospect of motherhood; is she counting the months, in dread? She rejects every reference George unknowingly makes to her physical appearance/pregnancy.

During the discussion of Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda says, "isn't it somewhere near there that he--that--Eilert Lovborg is living?" Does this phrasing prepare the audience for some connection between Lovborg and Hedda?

Pages 12-19

Thea is a character foil to Hedda. Both women are in unhappy marriages, and both married for economic reasons; however, Thea is inexpensive to maintain, and Hedda is expensive. Both had "comrade"-relationships of different kinds with Lovborg, and Thea had a brief romance with Tesman.

Hedda initially characterizes Thea as "The girl with the irritating hair, that she was always showing off" (p. 11). Does her childhood threat to burn off Thea's hair hint at the possibility of violence in Hedda?

Does it come as something of a surprise that Hedda receives Thea "warmly" (p. 12), particularly in view of Hedda's generally cold demeanor and her treatment of Aunt Julia? She refused George's request to address his Aunt Julia with the familiar pronoun "du" but uses that form with Thea. And she pretends they were friends in school although she doesn't remember Thea's name. What information does she want to get out of Thea by pretending to be friends?

What in Hedda's behavior and questions indicates her assumption that Thea and Lovborg were lovers? What in her attitude toward Thea is based on this assumption? Does this reaction indicate someone who lives life directly or vicariously (i.e., through other people)? Is Hedda quick at picking up sexual implications?

Hedda reacts with shock to Thea's leaving her husband, "But then--to take flight so openly" and "But what do you think people will say of you, Thea?" (p. 18). Hedda objects to openly violating society's laws, for she cares very much about society's judgments and acceptance. Hedda's desire for surface conventionality and fear of scandal are important motives and affect her behavior throughout the play. It is possible to see her conventionality earlier in this act, when she says of Miss Tesman's placing her hat on a chair, "No one does that sort of thing" (p. 10).

A hint of Hedda's moral and emotional bankruptcy occurs with Hedda's "involuntary smile of scorn" at Thea's having reformed or saved Lovborg (p. 18). She has no interest in reclaiming Lovborg from alcoholism to a productive life. Nor does she value Thea's transformation as a result of her relationship with Lovborg, who "has made a real human being of me--taught me to think, and to understand so many things" (p. 18).

Why does Hedda ask George to invite Lovborg and send him out of the room to write the letter? Why does she encourage him to write "a good long" letter? Isn't Hedda being manipulative, that is, trying to get her way covertly, rather than directly? (Remember her manipulative pretense of friendship with Thea.)

Pages 20-24

Brack appears as a family friend. Once Thea leaves, Hedda openly expresses her contempt for her husband and separates herself from him and his interests. What differences between Tesman and Hedda are indicated by her saying, "Tesman is for ever worrying about how people are to make their living" (p. 21)? (Why does she call him "Tesman" rather than his first name?) Tesman married on the expectation of being appointed to a professorship and receiving a large income, so Brack's news that the appointment may be delayed is a serious setback. How does George's reaction differ from Hedda's at Brack's news that Lovborg may be a rival for the professorship?

Lovborg is a character foil to Tesman. Both are attracted to Hedda, both have had a connection with Thea, and their professional specialties are the same. There are significanat differences between them, however. Lovborg is creative, expansive, and willing to take risks, as the subject of his book indicates, "the march of civilization--in broad outline" (p. 13). Contrast it with the subject of George's projected book.

Is the marriage of Tesman and Hedda a love match or a marriage of convenience? or is there some other basis for their marriage? Consider the reference to their "compact" or agreement about their entertaining, the footman, and the saddle-horse (p. 23).

How does Hedda react to the prospect of a reduced lifestyle? Why does she refer to the guns as "General Gabler's pistols" rather than my pistols or my father's pistols? Is it relevant to my question that Ibsen said that Hedda "is to be understood as her father's daughter rather than her husband's wife"? As you read the play, note the ways that Ibsen makes this fact clear to us. Does the rest of the play support John Northam's assertion, "She is what she is because she is her father's daughter"?  Ibsen's comment raises another question; is it significant that Hedda is identified in terms of her relationship with men, her father and her husband?

(A large number of Ibsen's notes for Hedda Gabler and a draft version of the play survive. Some of his notes refer to dialogue, ideas, and actions that were cut from the final version of the play; others are relevant to the final version and clarify it. I quote these notes when a comment illuminates an element in the play.)

Guns have a destructive purpose, particularly for the military. Why does Hedda turn to the guns? What does George's response to her announcement about the guns reveal about him? What adjectives describe Tesman, for instance, heroic, brilliant, creative, dull, naive, childlike, masterful, weak, comic, evil, threatening, unscrupulous, wimpy?

Ibsen Syllabus

Act I
Ibsen, Online overview
Hedda Gabler, Act I
      The Problem Play
      The New Woman
      Hedda Gabler as Tragedy
Act II
Hedda Gabler, Act II
Hedda Gabler, Act III
Act IV
Hedda Gabler, Act IV
The Other

Core Studies 6 Page || Melani Home Page