Mr. Brack is approaching the Tesman’s home—but from the back. The audience quickly discovers that he is paying a somewhat surreptitious visit to Hedda—who, for her part, is still practicing with her father’s pistols. The purpose of Brack’s visit is somewhat (though not quite altogether) ambiguous, as he and Hedda engage in much flirtatious dialogue after Hedda complains that she is lonesome and bored. She also complains about her marriage to Tesman, allowing that she only married the academic because he was willing to support her—and because none of her “other gallant friends” (presumably including Brack) were prepared to do so at the time.
Tesman arrives home with numerous academic publications, including Lövborg’s book. (Readers who may be unfamiliar with the mechanics of book production should be aware that, as late as the mid-19th century, people purchased books from booksellers in unbound form; that is, without covers. Book purchasers were expected to take the unbound sheets to be bound at their own expense. The binder would also cut the folded sheets when binding the book; hence, Tesman’s line, “It’ll be a joy to cut the pages” of Lövborg’s work.) While Tesman busies himself with his new books, Hedda talks further about her marriage, telling Brack that she married Tesman out of impulsiveness and convenience, and not for love. She also rejects Brack’s suggestion that she will ever bear Tesman any children.
At length, Ejlert Lövborg arrives at the Tesman home. Lövborg modestly dismisses his new book as a mere prelude to a real work in which he will invest much of himself—and, perhaps not so modestly, announces that he will not compete with Tesman for the university appointment, but will “outshine” Tesman instead in earning a high reputation for himself. (Tesman, for his part, is merely relieved that the university job will now presumably be his.) While Tesman and Brack take refreshments in the back room, Hedda and Lövborg talk about her marriage to Tesman. Lövborg cannot imagine why Hedda has settled for this unambitious and dull academic. He asks her if she, perhaps, never felt any love for him, either. Hedda evades answering this question directly, instead stating that she enjoyed the private companionship she and Lövborg once shared, unbeknownst to anyone. Lövborg belives the two shared a “common lust for life.”
Mrs. Elvsted arrives, and Hedda attempts to maneuver her into sharing a drink with Lövborg. Both are resistant. Hedda persists, however, suggesting that neither of them are displaying very much confidence, that they are overly concerned with what others would think of them were they to be seen drinking together. She also tells Lövborg about Mrs. Elvsted’s visit earlier in the day, “in such a state of desperation.” This development has an agitating effect upon both parties: Lövborg grows upset that anyone would consider him less than free to do what he pleases, and also upset that Mrs. Elvsted could have been “in mortal terror” on his account; and Mrs. Elvsted grows upset that Hedda is manipulating the situation so. At length, however, Hedda manages to persude Lövborg not only to drink but also to change his mind and attend Brack’s bachelor party that evening. He promises to return to the house afterward to escort Mrs. Elvsted home. Tesman lets Hedda know that he will not return home as early as Lövborg; Hedda greets this announcement with utter indifference. As the men leave, Hedda reflects to Mrs. Elvsted on her motivations for behaving as she did, “For once in my life I want to feel that I control a human destiny.”
An additional level of conflict complicates the plot in Act Two, as we learn that Hedda and Brack are—presumably—having a relationship with each other: if not an outright physically adulterous affair, than certainly an emotionally intimate one, far more than the “comfortable little gossip” that Brack portrays (p. 201). We learn that he and she have known each other for some time, and that Brack has “gone around here [i.e., to the house] day after day longing for [her] to come back again” (p. 201); and the two of them make many disparaging comments about Tesman, implying a lovers’ alliance between them—indeed, when Tesman returns home, Brack remarks, “The triangle is completed” (p. 204), very likely a reference to a love triangle. We may or may not be inclined to take Hedda’s comment to Lövborg against any “kind of unfaithfulness” (p. 217) at face value. But whatever the exact nature of “this sort of triangular relationship” (p. 203), it would seem that Brack is unaware of Hedda’s relationship with Lövborg.
Tesman reveals more of his short-sighted and oblivious character. When Tesman attempts to compliment Lövborg on his new book, Lövborg dismisses it, saying that he now aspires to write his real work, a work about the future that he will “put some of [him]self into.” Tesman can hardly conceive of such a project: “With the future! But ye gods, we don’t know anything about that!... It just wouldn’t enter my head to write about anything like that!” (p. 212). Tesman is equally blind to the veritable insult that Lövborg delivers when he announces that he will not, after all, compete with Tesman for the academic position, but will instead “outshine” him “in reputation” (p. 214). Tesman is content to have the university position, thus unwittingly showing himself to be a man of no real ambition or imagination. For a man whose verbal tic is the phrase “Think of that!,” Tesman seems to do very little thinking, indeed. When he does, as we have seen, it is thinking about the past, from domestic life in the Middle Ages to the slippers of his own past. Tesman is stuck in his past, and is therefore unable either to think about the future or fully see his own present.
The fact that Hedda is conducting (to whatever degree) improper relationships with both Lövborg and Brack behind Tesman’s back highlights both the manipulative and impulsive aspects of her character. We hear of how she manipulated Tesman, when, unlike her “other gallant friends” (p. 203), he proved willing to support her, and to be the means for her to occupy this house (even though she also admits she really did not care for the villa to begin with, p. 207). “I used Tesman as an escort” at parties, she tells Brack (p. 206); but she has really “used” Tesman in more ways than that. Love on any level was not a factor in the match. She seems to regards it merely as—to borrow the phrase she uses to refer strictly to the marriage itself—a “stopping-place on the line” (p. 203) in her journey through life. We also learn, from Hedda’s confidences to Brack, that she only “pretended [she] thought it [i.e., Aunt Julle’s] hat was the maid’s” (p. 206)—an impulsive prank that even Hedda cannot fully explain, but that audiences may be able to see as part of her pattern of manipulative behavior. Hedda does not feel as though she fits into the Tesman family, but this is most likely in large part because, as her prank shows, she does not want to, she does not choose to, belong to it. The prank about the hat, the apparently random choice of Lady Falk’s villa, her musings that Tesman could “go in for politics” even though “he’s no good,” simply to reliever her tedium (p. 208); these and other incidents show that Hedda is, as she tells Brack, impulsive. As Brack laments to her, impulsiveness often has unforeseen consequences (p. 207). We will see some of these consequences before the drama concludes.
Hedda also shows her manipulative streak when she initially attempts to dissuade Lövborg from attending Brack’s “bachelor party” that evening—“I’m sure that Mr. Lövborg would far sooner stay where he is and take a bit of supper with me… And then with Mrs. Elvsted” (p. 213). Apparently, Hedda not only wants to resume her affair with Lövborg, but she also wants to hold him accountable for his relationship with Mrs. Elvsted. Equally, however, we see Hedda’s manipulative nature when she changes her mind and subsequently, after the conversation they share with Mrs. Elvsted, maneuvers Lövborg into agreeing to attend the party after all—she accuses Lövborg of not having dared to attend the party, of being overly concerned with what others may think of him (see p. 223). Here we see yet another “sort of triangular relationship” at work, a relationship Hedda is intent upon controlling, maneuvering the parties involved. It seems that private relationships are the only area of her life in which Hedda can exercise any control; as she tells Lövborg, part of the appeal of her past relationship with him was “this secret intimacy, this companionship that no one even dreamed of” (p. 218). Hedda is exercising autonomy in the only way that she knows. By her own admission, she lacks courage; manipulating others, therefore, is how she attempts to make her existence endurable: “Oh courage… yes! If only one had that… Then life might be livable, in spite of everything” (p. 221). And, of course, she sums up her complicated motivations quite succinctly to Mrs. Elvsted as the act draws to a close: “For once in my life I want to feel that I control a human destiny” (p. 226). Audiences and readers may not react well to this character, but it is not at all clear that Ibsen intends Hedda to be a sympathetic protagonist. She is clearly, however, a realistic one. We have probably all known people (men as well as women) like Hedda Gabler: people who have made bad choices in their lives and are then not content to live with those choices’ consequences (as Hedda alludes to in her conversation with Brack: “As one makes one’s bed one must lie on it… I almost said,” p. 207). Therefore feeling (rightly or wrongly) stripped or deprived of their own autonomy, they retaliate by attempting to do the same to others. Hedda’s question to Lövborg is delivered “laughingly,” the stage directions tell us, but we cannot help but hear its serious undertones: “And so I’ve got no power over you at all? Is that it?” (p. 222). Indeed, Hedda wishes to—and it appears she does, since Lövborg relents of his original plan to avoid Brack’s party. With just some subtle misdirection and manipulation of the truth by Hedda to goad him, he rashly drinks three drinks in the parlor in this act and rather defiantly (or foolhardily, it seems) commits to Brack’s party. Hedda, of course, no doubt suspects that Lövborg will enjoy the “lively” revels (the word she uses to characterize them throughout Act Two) too much, thus endangering his newly renovated reputation. Perhaps she wishes this end result for Tesman’s sake, and perhaps, even more likely for her own; but the most plausible explanation seems to lie in taking her words to Mrs. Elvsted at face value. Hedda simply wants to be in control. The desperate person in this part of the play is not Mrs. Elvsted, but Hedda Gabler.
Hedda Gabler: Act 2