The curtain rises on the Tesman’s home the next morning. The male revelers have still not returned from Brack’s bachelor party; Mrs. Elvsted is anxiously keeping vigil in a chair, while Hedda is sleeping on a couch. Berte enters with a letter and an offer to put more wood on the fire, which offer Mrs. Elvsted declines. Hedda is awakened when Berte shuts the door on her way out, and the two women discuss the men’s failure to return. Hedda suspects they are too ashamed to show themselves after a night of wild merrymaking, and that her husband is sleeping at his aunts’. Mrs. Elvsted tells Hedda, however, that such cannot be the case, since Berte has just brought a letter from Aunt Juliane for Tesman. Hedda sends Mrs. Elvsted to Hedda’s room to try and sleep, promising to let her know the moment that Lövborg arrives. Hedda tells Berte that she will add more wood to the fire for herself.
Tesman finally arrives, his attempt at a surreptitious entrance foiled by his alert wife. He tells Hedda that, as part of the night’s proceedings, Lövborg read to the party from his new book, which promises to be an outstanding work. Tesman confesses to a certain amount of envy at Lövborg’s accomplishment, even though he believes the other man to be “beyond hope of reform, all the same.” He describes Lövborg’s subsequent behavior during the night as “almost… an orgy,” mentioning that Lövborg rambled on at length about “the woman who had inspired him” (a woman whom Tesman assumes must be Mrs. Elvsted). He also relates how the drunken Lövborg carelessly dropped his manuscript in the gutter. Tesman retrieved it, and plans to return it to Lövborg once he has sobered; however, Hedda convinces Tesman to give the manuscript to her. Hedda gives Tesman the letter from Aunt Juliane, in which Juliane relates that her sister Rina is about to die.
Panicked and frantic, Tesman prepares to go to his aunts’ home, exchanging a brief greeting with Brack as the latter arrives. Hedda asks Brack for more details of the bachelor party. He tells her that Lövborg and a few other guests went to “a particularly animated soiree” at the salon of one Mademoiselle Diana, whom Brack describes as a “mighty huntress” of men, and, indeed, someone with whom Lövborg was once involved. When Diana accused Lövborg of stealing from her, however, the soiree ended in a row, requiring police intervention. Lövborg violently resisted police action; Brack believes a court case against Lövborg is pending, and that the man so recently hailed as a promising example of reform will once more find himself shunned by polite, “decent” society. Hedda points out that this situation is, of course, to Brack’s advantage: he can now continue to be “the only cock in the yard,” without Lövborg as a rival for her attention.
After Brack leaves, Lövborg arrives, quite agitated, demanding entrance to the Tesman home. Mrs. Elvsted, now awake from her rest, is demonstrably relieved to see Lövborg. She protests Lövborg’s declarations that he has been ruined, and she reacts with shock and anger when Lövborg breaks off his relationship with her. She demands to know whether she can continue to be his partner and source of inspiration, telling Hedda that she feels as though she and Lövborg practically wrote his new book together; indeed, that the book is like their child. Lövborg confesses to Mrs. Elvsted that he does not have the manuscript, but he chooses to lie (known to the audience, of course, but not to Mrs. Elvsted) about its fate, stating that he has torn it to pieces. Mrs. Elvsted departs in deep sadness, claiming that she believes Lövborg has as good as killed their child, and that nothing but darkness now awaits her.
Hedda accuses Lövborg of treating Mrs. Elvsted callously. Lövborg confides in Hedda that he lied about the manuscript’s fate, but he does not tell her what she (and we) already know. Instead, he says that he is actually doing Mrs. Elvsted a kindness, by sparing her the unpleasantness that is to come for him. Hedda asks if Lövborg could not, instead, spare Mrs. Elvsted in a beautiful rather than a callous way. Before Lövborg departs, Hedda gives him one of her pistols—the one she once had trained on him, years before—as a remembrance. After Lövborg departs, Hedda feeds his manuscript, incapable of being rewritten as it was, into the fire.
In Act Three, Ibsen’s drama reaches its climax, as Hedda burns Lövborg’s book. Why does she commit this dramatic act of destruction? The script does not give us explicit reasons, of course, although readers and audiences can no doubt infer several possible answers to the question. Hedda may, for instance, wish to secure the university position for her husband—although, given not only Lövborg’s stated intention of not seeking that post in Act Two but also Hedda’s general disdain toward Tesman—when Tesman supposes that Hedda must have been worried about him when he did not come home, Hedda replies, “Good gracious no… I wouldn’t dream of it” (p. 232)—it seems more than unlikely that she did this deed for her husband. We may then suppose that she burns the manuscript out of spite, or a desire for revenge; after all, she seizes on both Lövborg’s comment that “Thea’s soul was in that book” (p. 245) and Mrs. Elvsted’s comparison of the book to her offspring (“For the rest of my life, it’ll be for me as though you’d killed a little child,” p. 243)—when she burns the pages: “Now I’m burning your child, Thea!” (p. 246). Having been established as Mrs. Elvsted and Lövborg’s metaphorical child, it also therefore represents their future, as physical offspring represent the future for their biological parents. In destroying the book, then, Hedda may be seeing herself as destroying the lovers’ future together. Yet Hedda Gabler doesn’t seem a woman who is simply acting out of a desire to regain a romantic relationship that has long since ended (particularly, we might think, when she is so busy, in Brack’s words, “fortif[ying] and defend[ing] by mutual consent” her “triangular” relationship with him [p. 240]—Hedda, clearly, has moved on, even if Lövborg has not).
No, it would seem that Hedda’s burning of Lövborg’s book is the most dramatic example of her desire to manipulate others in order to assert her own autonomy. Ironically, Hedda accuses Mrs. Elvsted of being a “silly little fool [who] has had her fingers in a man’s destiny” (p. 244); but she is the one who, throughout the play and never more so than in this violent act, interferes with a man’s destiny. This behavior is, as we saw in Act Two, what Hedda does in place of facing life head-on with courage. Lövborg’s comment, then, that Mrs. Elvsted has “broken [his] courage” (p. 244) takes on added significance, reminding the audience and readers of this dominant theme in the play as a whole.
Aside from the climactic crisis of the burning of the manuscript, readers may note other ways in which Ibsen demonstrates his mastery of dramatic structure. Notice, for example, how—as with the introduction of General Gabler’s pistols at the end of Act One)—Ibsen carefully constructs his plot by drawing the audience’s attention not only to the presence but to the size of the fire as Act Three begins. Mrs. Elvsted and Hedda disagree over how much the fire should be fed, and perhaps this disagreement carries symbolic as well as literal meaning: “I’ll look after the fire myself” (p. 231). After all, it is Hedda who is “fanning the flames,” so to speak, of discontent in the triangular relationship win which Mrs. Elvsted and Lövborg are involved; and it is her consignment of Lövborg’s manuscript to the fire when the act ends that stokes the fire of conflict even further. Where Mrs. Elvsted seeks to avoid and minimize conflict, Hedda seems to seek it out and agitate it, all in order (as she told Mrs. Elvsted at the close of Act Two) to feel that she can exercise control over a human destiny. It is ironic that Hedda declares to Tesman, early in Act Three, “I must be free of everything that’s ugly” (p. 235)—for in burning Lövborg’s book, she reveals the ugliness within herself. Although Brack says he fears it is Lövborg who will use the Tesmans as a “screen” to hide his sexual and social transgressions (p. 239), it is really Hedda who uses those around her as “screens” for her own cowardice. And, as she makes quite clear to Brack in that same conversation, although she uses others freely, she will not consent to be used by them: she agrees to help maintain the “triangular relationship” she has with Brack “so long as you don’t have any sort of hold over me” (p. 239). Freedom remains a paramount concern for Hedda—although she doesn’t seem to realize just how much the consequences of her impulsive acts of cowardice truly will damage her freedom in the end.
Hedda Gabler: Act 3