SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
Note: Page numbers refer to the edition of Hedda Gabler published in Four Major Plays, Oxford University Press, 1998.
The curtain rises on the fashionable home of newlyweds Jörgen Tesman—a recently minted academic doctor who is the leading candidate for a prestigious university position—and Hedda, his wife, the well-known daughter of General Gabler. The couple is not visible as the play begins; they returned very late the night before from their honeymoon. Instead, the first characters we meet are Tesman’s aunt, Juliane, and her maid, Berte, who will be leaving Aunt Juliane to enter the Tesmans’ employ. Berte expresses some apprehension at leaving Juliane and Juliane’s infirm sister Rina; Berte anticipates that Hedda will be a difficult woman for whom to work, for “she’s ever so particular.” Juliane attempts to reassure the maid, reminding her that she will have to call her new master “doctor,” and hinting that she expects Tesman will have to be called “something even finer pretty soon”—an indication that Juliane expects the bride and groom to produce children quickly.
When we meet Dr. Tesman, however, we sense that this expectation will go unfulfilled. He is a bookish man whose main recollection of the nearly six-month honeymoon seems to be his time spent digging around in archives, and who thanks “Aunt Julle” for helping him procure this house because the two spare rooms will prove useful for his collection of books. While still fond of Tesman, Juliane is clearly somewhat disappointed with him—or at least in his apparent lack of interest in having children. She is also clearly disapproving of Hedda; for example, she bought a fancy new hat “so Hedda won’t be ashamed of me, if we should happen to walk together in the street.” Tesman rejects this idea as ridiculous—but when we meet Hedda, it is clear that she, too, is dissatisfied with the family into which she has married, and very probably with her husband himself. For example, before Juliane leaves, she presents Tesman with his old house slippers, which she has had in safekeeping for him. While Tesman appears delighted to have his slippers back, Hedda reacts with what could be interpreted as disdain: “You mentioned them frequently on the trip, I remember.” Hedda also manages to insult Juliane by objecting to the older woman’s hat. After Juliane leaves, Tesman asks if Hedda couldn’t make her feel more welcome by greeting her with a kiss. Hedda refuses, insinuating that she does not feel as though she truly belongs to the Tesman family.
Hedda discovers a bouquet of flowers sent by Mrs. Elvsted (neé Rysing), one of her former schoolmates and one of Tesman’s former “flames.” Mrs. Elvsted arrives to pay a visit to the newly married couple, but she is clearly distraught. She tells the Tesmans that Ejlert Lövborg—a former academic rival of Tesman who, we learned earlier from Aunt Julle, fell into disrepute—has returned to town. He had been tutoring Mrs. Elvsted’s stepchildren (she has no children of her own). This piece of news that causes Tesman some concern; apparently, Tesman had some reason to worry that Lövborg could not be trusted with children. Mrs. Elvsted assures Tesman, however, that, for the last two years, Lövborg has lived beyond reproach. Nonetheless, Mrs. Elvsted is worried that, living “in the big city” with an influx of cash from the recent publication and successful sale of his book, Lövborg will find himself in trouble. Tesman is surprised to hear that Lövborg has written and published a new book, but promises Mrs. Elvsted that he will keep a protective eye out for Lövborg. Hedda expresses surprise that Mr. Elvsted sent his wife on this errand on his friend’s behalf, rather than doing so himself; Mrs. Elvsted replies that she was coming the Tesmans’ way to do some shopping anyway.
Hedda suggests that Tesman write to Lövborg, inviting him to the house. When Tesman leaves the women to go draft his letter, Hedda presses Mrs. Elvsted for details of her domestic life. Mrs. Elvsted is reluctant to confide in Hedda; after all, she had been intimidated and even physically bullied by Hedda during their school days. But Hedda eventually persuades Mrs. Elvsted to talk, promising that the two shall be friends “like we were in the old days.” Mrs. Elvsted tells Hedda that she married Mr. Elvsted five years previously; before that, she had entered the Elvsted household as governess, while Mr. Elvsted cared for his invalid first wife. She reveals that Lövborg has been visiting the Elvsted home on a regular basis for the past three years; and that her husband travels a great deal for his work. She also admits that her husband may not be the most attentive and affectionate of spouses: “We don’t share a thing, he and I.” Hedda even maneuvers Mrs. Elvsted into all but admitting that her request of Tesman to look after Lövborg was her idea, and not Mr. Elvsted’s, when she says that Mr. Elvsted truly cares for no one but himself. In fact, Mr. Elvsted does not know his wife has left him. She departed while he was away on a business trip, and tells Hedda that she does not intend to return. She wants to live with Lövborg, she says, if she must live at all. Mrs. Elvsted says that she and Lövborg are close companions and confidantes, that she has redeemed the better parts of his personality and that he has taught her many new things about life. For all this, though, Mrs. Elvsted says “the shadow of a woman… stands between us.” Hedda is extremely interested in this point; she learns that Lövborg has not told Mrs. Elvsted who this woman from his past is, but that the mystery woman has threatened to shoot Lövborg whenever they next meet.
Tesman returns, having finished his letter to Lövborg. Berte takes the letter, and also announces the arrival of Mr. Brack, the lawyer who helped Aunt Julle obtain favorable terms for furnishing the Tesmans’ home. Brack repeats Mrs. Elvsted’s news, that Ejlert Lövborg has returned to town; when Tesman tells him that he has invited Lövborg to the house that evening, Brack reminds Tesman that Tesman has already promised to attend Brack’s bachelor party. (Note: The phrase seems to indicate a party for men only, not necessarily a “bachelor party” in modern parlance.) He also brings the disturbing news that Tesman’s expected appointment to a faculty position may not materialize, for Lövborg is also, thanks to his new book, a serious candidate for the job. Although Tesman is understandably agitated by this news, facing as he is a large amount of debt from the honeymoon and the need to support a new wife, Hedda remains remarkably, almost eerily, calm. She remains so after Brack leaves, while Tesman talks at length about how sorry he is that the grand social life and high standard of living he envisioned may not come to be. Hedda remarks resignedly that she has at least one thing to occupy her time—her father’s pistols. She leaves the room, apparently to fetch them, with Tesman rushing after her in alarm, as the curtain falls.
The first act of Hedda Gabler establishes many of the interpersonal conflicts that will dominate the rest of the drama: conflicts between Juliane and her nephew, as well as his new bride; between Tesman and his as-yet-unseen rival in academia, Lövborg; between Hedda and her husband (although the latter seems blissfully unaware of said conflict); and between Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted.
“Aunt Julle” seems torn in her view of Tesman. On the one hand, her references (both subtle and not-so-subtle) to the “prospects” of Tesman fathering children (p. 172) indicate a desire to see him grow up; on the other hand, this interest may be more self-motivated (i.e., she desires the affection and attention of younger relatives) when we consider her multiple references to the grown, married man as her dead brother’s “little boy” (p. 169): e.g., “Ah… sainted Joachim’s little boy!” (p. 171). She still treats Tesman in some childish ways; for example, making such a presentation of his house slippers to him. Juliane’s desire to see the family line continue may be especially understandable when we consider that her sister Rina, with whom she has lived for so many years, is near death: “She just lies there as she has done all these years. But God grant that I may keep her a little while yet! I don’t know what I’d do without her…” (p. 171). Juliane’s comment to Tesman, “I’m sure you’ll always have a soft spot in your heart for your old aunts” (p. 171), may be just as much a fervent wish as it is a supposed statement of fact. Juliane may well be feeling threatened or displaced by Hedda—although her feelings would prove ironic since Tesman exhibits no real interest in his wife beyond a smug, self-satisfied realization that “there are one or two of my good friends who wouldn’t mind being in my shoes” (p. 171). And yet Tesman considered their honeymoon as “a sort of academic trip, too” (p. 172), and does not display the mature, sexual interest in his new and attractive bride that most people would consider normal and healthy. Perhaps “Aunt Julle” has succeeded in infantilizing her nephew, and it is perhaps a process in which he has willingly participated. In any event, their relationship is a tense one, although only Juliane seems to perceive it as such. Ironically, Tesman is only aware of conflict between Juliane and Hedda—“Couldn’t you bring yourself to give her a kiss…?”, p. 179—and not of the conflicted nature of his aunt’s feelings toward him.
(Interestingly, Ibsen may have also, with his choice of title, wished to point out that Tesman is not the only character who has not fully matured. He wrote to one correspondent, “The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda, as a personality, is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife” [http:classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/hibsen/bl-hibsen-hedda-intro.htm].)
Neither does Tesman seem to be aware of the resentment Hedda clearly feels toward him. As stated already, Tesman does not behave as one would expect a normal, healthy man to behave toward his new bride. He displays no interest in her, except perhaps as an accessory to his (he thinks) nascent academic career. For example, he does not stop to realize Hedda’s palpable disappointment when Brack reveals that the academic position may not be Tesman’s after all; he can only respond to her crestfallen longing for a better social status that “a manservant, you must see that’s quite out of the question” (p. 197). For her part, Hedda may be overly concerned with materialistic living; on the other hand, Tesman apparently promised her much more than she is receiving, a promise on which he is now, apparently, unable to deliver (“The agreement was that we were to live a social life”—p. 197). Mrs. Elvsted’s “relationship” with the husband she has left serves as a foil to the relationship between Hedda and Tesman: “There’s simply nothing… we just haven’t a thought in common. We don’t share a thing, he and I” (p. 188). Hedda’s frustration with and disappointment in her husband, then, coupled with his ignorance of her true emotions, thus adds another layer of conflict to this first act.
Ibsen may be playing with audience expectations, then, when he makes it clear upon Mrs. Elvsted’s arrival that Hedda regards her as something of a rival: as she remarks to Tesman, “An old flame of yours, too, I’m told” (p. 180). Also, note the way in which Tesman refers to Mrs. Elvsted by her maiden name (pp. 181, 184)—surely a “Freudian slip” revealing that Tesman still thinks of Mrs. Elvsted as unmarried and (implicitly) available. (The off-stage conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Elvsted thus constitutes yet another motivating level of conflict in the first act!) Further irony lies in the fact that Mrs. Elvsted is, in fact, separated from her husband—although she is not entirely unavailable, for she is in a romantic entanglement with Tesman’s academic rival, Lövborg. Only when she confesses this “familiarity” (p. 190) to Hedda during their private conversation do audiences begin to see that Hedda regards Mrs. Elvert as her rival, not for Tesman’s affections, but for Lövborg’s. The woman whose shadow “stands between” Mrs. Elvert and Lövborg is, of course, Hedda herself, although Mrs. Elvert does not realize that fact.
The professional conflict between Lövborg and Tesman may serve Ibsen as a vehicle for exposing the everyday lies and hypocrisy that constitute the heart of “civilized” social life. For example, earlier in this act, Tesman has nothing but kind words about Lövborg. He rejoices, seemingly, to hear that Lövborg has finally made good, writing and publishing a book—“Well, that really is good news…!” (p. 183)—only because Tesman does not think that Lövborg’s success in any way threatens his own. Only later, however, when Brack reveals that Lövborg is in competition with Tesman for the university position does Tesman reveal other, more negative (but doubtless more honest) emotions: “[Q]uite unthinkable! Quite impossible!” (p. 196). Even his apparently resigned, regretful talk of not “building castles in the air” (p. 197) to Hedda after Brack’s departure cannot quite erase the audience’s memory of the preceding outburst in which the kind and jocund Tesman stood exposed for who he, and who all social people at some level, really are: rivals, competitors; parties in conflict, which theme seems to dominate this first act as a whole.
Incidentally, readers should note how literally the first act follows the advice Anton Chekhov gave to playwrights: if a gun is shown in the first act, it must go off by the third (or, in the case of this play, the fourth)!