Act IV

Death dominates this act, from the beginning to the end. Death is suggested visually in the beginning with the dark living room, Hedda's black dress, Berta's black ribbons, and Miss Tesman's black dress. The first lines spoken explicitly refer to death.

Pages 60-64

Why is it ironic that Miss Tesman calls Hedda's home "the house of life" (p. 60)? Think of Hedda's actions in Act III and what news Hedda is expecting about Lovborg. Another ironic note sounds when Miss Tesman calls Aunt Rina's end "beautiful" (p. 60), and we remember Hedda's refusal to make a last visit because "I will not look upon sickness and death. I loathe all sorts of ugliness" (p. 51).   Certainly, Miss Tesman rejoices in Hedda's pregnancy. Hedda, on the other hand, turns away all references to it, including Miss Tesman's in this scene. Even when Hedda is manipulating Tesman to cover up her real reason for burning Lovborg's manuscript, she can't bring herself to say that she is pregnant. Tesman continues oblivious to his aunt's hints about Hedda's pregnancy.

Miss Tesman acknowledges her need to have a purpose, "it's such an absolute necessity for me to have some one to live for" (p. 61). Like Thea and Berta, she finds purpose in caring and sacrificing for others and looks forward to finding a needy occupant for Rina's room. Hedda finds Miss Tesman's need to serve incomprehensible, "Would you really take such a burden upon you again?" (p. 61). To her, it would be a "burden." Hedda herself has no purpose, and the only meaning in her life is the affirmation of values (beauty, heroism, courage, and freedom) she expects from Lovborg's suicide. Both Hedda and Miss Tesman find affirmation of life in death and an expression of the life force in death; Miss Tesman finds them in the peace, beauty, and release of her sister's death and in the new life Hedda carries; Hedda finds them in the prospect of Lovborg's suicide and her role in that suicide.

Is Tesman's worrying about Lovborg an expression of his fundamental decency? Or does he feel guilty at having taken the manuscript? Does he perhaps fear public exposure? Tesman's fundamental decency and love of his aunt move him to begin to suggest that she come to live with him and Hedda, "Yes, just fancy what a nice time we three might have had together, if--?" (p. 61). Hedda cuts him off, rejecting his idea "If--?" (p. 62). Tesman backs down and leaves the suggestion unspoken. Why doesn't he insist?

Another consideration in analyzing Tesman is his response to the news that Hedda has burned the manuscript. Initially he expresses "a violent movement of terror" (p. 62). But at the news she did it for him, he has "an outburst of mingled doubt and joy" (p. 63). Once he believes that she loves him, he laughs "in irrepressible glee" (p. 63). After some expression of happiness, he thinks of Lovborg, "Great God! it is terrible to think what will become of poor Eilert now" (p. 64). Does he make himself an accomplice in Hedda's crime by agreeing to secrecy? What else could he have done? What do his response and acquiescence show about Tesman morally and emotionally? Is he morally corrupt or merely weak? Or is he, as Weigand suggests, "every bit as honorable as the average run of commonplace people"? Is he indeed like most of us in his behavior, his morality, and his moral decisions--an ordinary man who is neither better nor worse than most of us?

Does his conversation with Hedda show his naivete and immaturity regarding male-female relations?

Throughout this scene, Hedda warns Tesman to be quiet so that Berta won't hear; she wants to avoid scandal and to maintain her privacy. Why does Hedda find it ridiculous that Tesman wants to tell Berta that Hedda loves him or that she is pregnant? This prospect makes her clench "her hands together in desperation" and cry out, "Oh, it is killing me,--it is killing me, all this!" (p. 63). What is so offensive to her in Tesman, his response, and her situation?

Pages 64-68

Hedda betrays her eagerness to hear about Lovborg's suicide; she seizes Thea's arm and asks if she thinks something has happened to him. At the same time, she repeatedly expresses her fear of scandal and her acceptance of society's rules: she responds to Thea's (very improperly) going to Lovborg's lodgings, "You could make up your mind to that" (p. 64); she whispers a warning not to reveal herself to Brack, "Thea--Thea--be careful!" (p. 65); also, she orders Tesman not to get involved.

Hedda's response to Lovborg's death confirms Brack's suspicions of Hedda's involvement with Lovborg. Though she is at first disappointed with his shooting himself in the breast, she still believes that his suicide is a beautiful death. Her statements make clear the significance for her of his dying "beautifully":

  • "At last a deed worth doing!" (p. 66).

  • "I say there is beauty in this" (p. 66).

  • "Eilert Lovborg has made up his account with life. He had the courage to do--the one right thing" (p. 66).

  • "It gives me a sense of freedom to know that a deed of deliberate courage is still possible in this world,--a deed of spontaneous beauty" (p. 67).

  • "I only know that Eilert Lovborg has had the courage to live his life after his own fashion. And then--the last great act, with its beauty! Ah! that he should have the will and the strength to turn away from the banquet of life--so early" (p. 68).
Lovborg's choosing to die affirms free will for Hedda; in other words, the free Lovborg shapes his own destiny and life. She sees in his suicide proof that freedom, beauty, and heroism do exist. Also, because Lovborg used her gun, does she feel that she participated in his choice to die? and so, symbolically, is she also free?

The reality of Lovborg's death turns out to be a far cry from her vision of a heroic death. Lovborg died ingloriously, in a brawl with a prostitute and of an undignified bullet to the bowels. She is revolted and looks at Brack "with an expression of loathing" (p. 68). An overwhelming sense of life as unheroic and absurd causes her to exclaim, "Oh, what curse is it that makes everything I touch turn ludicrous and mean?" (p. 68). Note: she is using "mean" in the sense of ignoble, base, inferior, having little value. Why do Hedda's ideals fail? Is it because of the nature of life, the nature of her society, the nature of the ideals themselves, her own character, or some combination of these factors?

With Lovborg's death, Mlle. Diana's role as a foil for Hedda continues. With the first reference to Diana in Act I, she is confused with Hedda as the woman who threatened Lovborg with a gun. She, like Hedda, carries a gun. Both have just returned to town. Hedda avidly listens to Lovborg's stories of orgies; Diana takes part in these orgies. Lovborg accuses Diana of killing his child; Hedda destroyed his child-manuscript. Lovborg is shot in Diana's boudoir with Hedda's gun, and Hedda is appalled at the possibility of having to testify in court with her. Both women sell themselves, though in different ways.

Thea, the other foil for Hedda, begins to resume her role as inspirer of men. She sees the possibility of recreating Lovborg's work. Tesman's willingness to dedicate himself to this task sounds like an effort to atone for the destruction of the manuscript, a noble gesture of self-sacrifice. But is it? Might he be trying to quiet his conscience? Is he motivated by self-interest in furthering his own career? Recreating Lovborg's book would make his career; he would be riding to success on Lovborg's creativity; as Tesman says, "And arranging other people's papers is just the work for me" (p. 69).

When Tesman and Thea move into the inner room to begin their work and their alliance, Hedda is displaced from the space that was identified with her, just as she is being displaced in Tesman's life by Thea and Lovborg's book. They reject the inner room as having insufficient light and take over Hedda's writing table, again appropriating her space. Hedda at this point moves the remaining gun into the inner room.

Thea has again found a purpose for her life. Ibsen called Thea "the type of conventional sentimental, hysterical petty bourgeoisie." Is Thea as soft and vulnerable as she appears? She does abandon her husband, her home, and her stepchildren regardless of consequences. She defies society in showing her attachment to the disreputable Lovborg. Now, having just learned of Lovborg's death, she starts to work on recreating the manuscript without a moment's hesitation. Her quickly attaching herself to Tesman upsets some readers, who feel she should mourn the man she loved longer. Does she love Lovborg, or does she love what Lovborg did for her in enlarging her life? Is she motivated by loyalty to and a romantic love for Lovborg, or is she seeking her own fulfillment and satisfaction? Is she determined to hang on to the purpose and sense of self Lovborg gave her? What do you think of Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's description of Thea?

Beneath that fragile blond exterior lies a manipulative, iron will and a definite agenda that will let nothing stand in its way, not even Hedda; this is shown brilliantly in her winning-over of Tesman in the end, driving the last nail into Hedda's coffin.
Will Thea fit in with the Tesmans--George, Aunt Julia, and Berta? Will the desires of the Tesman circle be fulfilled? Will Tesman work out his guilt over the manuscript's destruction, establish his reputation with Lovborg's book, and get his professorship? Will Thea find meaning and identity in inspiring a great work? Will Aunt Julia find Thea an acceptable replacement for Aunt Rina?

Pages 69-72

How does Brack gain control over Hedda through the guns and her fear of scandal? Why does Hedda refuse to lie about Lovborg's stealing the gun?

Tesman and Thea return to the living room, leaving the inner room for Hedda to reclaim. That space becomes the symbol of her isolation from the others.

  • She is excluded by Tesman and Thea; she clearly recognizes that Thea will displace her influence over Tesman. Is it significant that she twice runs her hand over Thea's hair--"gently ruffling her hair" (p. 69) and "Passes her hands softly through Mrs. Elvsted's hair" (p. 71)?
  • She rejects Brack's sexual affair and control over her life, "I am in your power none the less. Subject to your will and your demands. A slave, a slave then! (Rises impetuously.) No, I cannot endure the thought of that! Never!" (p. 71).

Hedda has indeed lost control of her life--caught in the bourgeois Tesman circle and values, trapped by her own pregnancy and impending motherhood, and enslaved by Brack. What is she feeling? Are her feelings expressed by the wild music she plays?

The ending is filled with dramatic irony. Why are the following statements ironic for the audience?

  • Tesman: "Oh, I daresay Judge Brack will be so kind as to look in now and then, even though I am out" (p. 72).

  • Brack: "Every blessed evening, with all the pleasure in life, Mrs. Tesman! We shall get on capitally together, we two!" (p. 72).

  • Brack: "Good God!--people don't do such things" (p. 72).

Brack has the last words of the play; do they show his limitations? Through Brack, is Ibsen making a comment about society and/or the values and limitations of Brack's class, Hedda's aristocratic set? Is it significant that Hedda dies isolated in the inner room surrounded by her inheritance--or heritage--from General Gabler? She dies playing the piano, shoots herself with the gun, and dies under the portrait, all of which she inherited from General Gabler

Hedda's Death

Ibsen wrote, "With Hedda, there is deep poetry at bottom. But her surroundings frighten her. Think of it, to make oneself ridiculous!" Her "deep poetry" is expressed in her yearning for beauty, for heroism; but her society, her class, her upbringing, and her circumstances do not offer an outlet for her deep poetry. Not even a male genius like Lovborg finds support from this society. Consequently, her poetry is repressed and takes the form of distorted idealizations, such as the vine leaves and Lovborg's beautiful suicide.

In death, has Hedda successfully expressed her ideals? Has she at last found an outlet for her poetry? Has she transcended (risen above) her personal weakness and the limits imposed by her society? Is her death a courageous act which affirms her free will? Does she find freedom through her death? Or is she avoiding responsibility for her actions and their consequences? Would courage be facing scandal and defying Brack? Is her death beautiful? or heroic? Or is it merely shocking or appalling? If you see her death as beautiful, does that mean you also have to accept her values?

At the end, who remains to carry on society or civilization? Is it significant that only Hedda and Lovborg were creative (she with her baby, he with his books)? Is Hedda's scorn for the Tesman circle/values justified? Does she scorn society? Does Ibsen scorn the society he portrays in this play? The bloody ending reminds the critic Stein Haugom Olsen of the ending of Hamlet. Because we read and discussed Hamlet in this class, you may find Olsen's statement about the  two plays interesting:

As in Hamlet, there is a bloody stage when the curtain falls. But in Hedda Gabler there is no Fortinbras, no principle to bring in a new order. Nor is there here an Horatio who, for love, would sacrifice his life for the dead hero. Not here an Horatio who shall tell a tale of woe.

Hedda Gabler and Tragedy

Olsen raises another issue, a controversial one. Is Hedda's death tragic and is the play a tragedy? Critical opinion is divided. Ibsen said of the ending, "Life is not tragic.--Life is ridiculous--And that cannot be borne." Do you think that this statement applies to the entire ending or just to Hedda's views at the end? To answer these questions, you must first define tragedy and the tragic experience and identify the tragic hero's characteristics.

We will not pursue in class the issue raised in the preceding paragraph, nor will I ask a question on the final based on it. However, you should be aware of this issue. If you would like to pursue this question and perhaps write a paper on it, background reading materials exist online. Just click on the following links.

Definition of tragedy.

The Tragic Vision

The seven interrelated elements traditionally regarded as elements of tragedy: (1) a catastrophic conclusion, (2) that will seem inevitable, and (3) that occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of the protagonist, (4) who suffers terribly, and (5) whose suffering often seems disproportionate to his or her culpability. Yet (6) the suffering is usually redemptive, bringing out the noblest of human capacities for learning, and (7) for accepting moral
Kinds of Tragedy.
Greek tragedy, medieval tragedy and the wheel of fortune, Elizabethan and Shakespearean tragedy, and the problem play or play of ideas.
Two Modern Views.
The critics Lou Salome and Caroline W. Mayerson offer opposite answers the questions, "Is Hedda Gabler's death tragic?" and "Is Hedda Gabler a tragedy?"


F, March 30, Online class
Ibsen, Online overview
Hedda Gabler, Act I
Caucus: To read and to send postings
**Supplemental Reading**
      The Problem Play
      The New Woman
      Hedda Gabler as Tragedy
M, April 2 Hedda Gabler, Act II
W, April 4 Hedda Gabler, Act III
F, April 6 Online class
Hedda Gabler, Act IV
The Other

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