Hedda Gabler | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Act 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1 of Henrik Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler | Act 1 | Summary



The curtain rises on a nicely furnished villa in Christiania (present-day Oslo, Norway). Miss Juliana Tesman and the housekeeper Berta are the first to arrive. Through their conversation, the audience learns that Miss Tesman's nephew, George Tesman, has married Hedda Gabler, a general's daughter; the two have just settled into the villa following a months-long honeymoon. In addition, George has attained a doctorate degree while abroad, and Miss Tesman anticipates greater honors in store for her nephew.

George enters the room and greets his aunt. He helps her to take off her bonnet, which she has bought so Hedda wouldn't be embarrassed by her appearance, and sets it on a chair. Berta bustles off to put away some luggage. The conversation continues with reminiscing about George's upbringing with his two aunts and discussion of his invalid Aunt Rina's health. Miss Tesman fishes for news of a pregnancy, but George seems oblivious. They discuss the couple's long honeymoon and its expensiveness, then the cost of their new home. Miss Tesman reveals that she has taken out a mortgage on her money to secure it. This alarms George, but she reassures him that the salary from his expected professorship will be sufficient. She congratulates him on his marriage and asks about his forthcoming book on medieval history. In passing, she mentions that his rival, Eilert Lövborg, has published a new book.

Next to enter is Hedda, who greets Miss Tesman coldly. Hedda expresses indifference to George's delight at receiving his old slippers from his aunt and then insults her by pretending to mistake her bonnet for that of the "servant," Bertha. George awkwardly attempts to smooth things over, but Miss Tesman forgets her annoyance when George hints that Hedda might be pregnant. Before Miss Tesman departs, promising to visit again the next day, she embraces Hedda, who pulls away from the embrace. Seizing the moment of privacy, George asks Hedda to stop being so formal and aloof with "Aunt Julia," but she changes the subject by complaining about the décor, suggesting they get a new piano to match better than her old one.

Minutes later, another visitor is announced: Mrs. Elvsted, an old schoolmate of Hedda's. She enters the room in obvious distress—worried, so she says, about Eilert Lövborg, her children's tutor and George's main academic rival. Sensing more to the story, Hedda sends George into the other room to write a letter to Eilert, inviting him up for a visit. Alone with Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda learns she has grown so disgusted with her marriage to Sheriff Elvsted that she has decided to leave him for good. Mrs. Elvsted further implies she is carrying on a romance—perhaps an affair—with Eilert, though he seems haunted by the memory of an old flame. Hedda, who is later revealed to be the ex-lover in question, carefully feigns ignorance of Eilert's past relationships. Tesman returns with the letter, abruptly cutting off the women's conversation.

The final guest this morning is Judge Brack, a jaunty and well-kept man of 45. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Hedda leaves to see Mrs. Elvsted to the front door. Alone with George, Brack tells him that his friend/rival Eilert has returned to town and published a highly successful new book. When Hedda returns Brack continues by warning George he will be competing against Eilert for the professorship he hoped for. This news distresses George, but Hedda takes it in stride. Reminding George about a party that evening, Brack takes his leave, promising to return for him late that afternoon.

After Brack leaves, George and Hedda discuss postponing their planned entrance into the life of high society. Hedda will have to put off expanding the household staff and purchases such as a horse and a new piano. To George's dismay, Hedda mentions that she can pass the time with her father's pistols. As she leaves the room, George implores to her: "don't touch those dangerous things!"


Almost from the moment she walks onstage, Hedda's distance from the other characters is evident. She greets Miss Tesman—who is effectively her mother-in-law—with a cold handshake, and she practically yawns out loud when George begins talking about his treasured slippers. Then, when Miss Tesman finally does manage to embrace her, Hedda is visibly uncomfortable and pries herself free as soon as possible. George, who seems like a generally easygoing fellow, is taken aback by Hedda's aloofness and asks her to try to be less stuffy around "Aunt Julia." To understand George's complaint, it helps to know a little about the Norwegian language: like French or Spanish, Norwegian has both informal and formal forms of the word "you." George wants Hedda to use the familiar du (cf. French tu, Spanish ) because she and Miss Tesman are part of the same family now. Hedda insists on using the formal De (cf. French vous, Spanish usted).

Moreover, Hedda seems to feel she is "slumming it" by setting up house with the middle-class George Tesman. Financially speaking, George has knocked himself out to provide Hedda with a fabulous honeymoon trip; his aunts have even pitched in to help him afford to purchase a fine home for his new wife. Despite Hedda's complaints, Ibsen makes it clear that the Tesman house is a nice place to live—at least by most people's standards. The stage directions describe a tastefully appointed villa in the classy West End of Christiania, one that, according to subsequent dialogue, used to belong to a high-ranking government minister. Hedda, however, is not "most people." Having barely unpacked from her half-year honeymoon, she already has plans to increase the household staff and buy a new saddle horse. Perhaps the best illustration of her out-of-touch attitude comes halfway through the act, when she offhandedly proposes that George buy her a second piano. Her blithe remarks about money suggest she is either unaware of her husband's financial situation or indifferent to it.

A third major development is the intellectual and professional competition between George and Eilert Lövborg. Early in this act, Miss Tesman describes Eilert as George's "most dangerous rival" and, with an uncharacteristic lack of sympathy, declares that Eilert "has to lie on the bed he has made for himself"—that is, Eilert will have to suffer the disgrace brought about by his drinking and loose morals. This bit of gloating suggests the seriousness of the rivalry. Elsewhere in the play Miss Tesman is softhearted and attentive, but not where her nephew's livelihood is concerned. George, too, is more than a little nervous as he learns about Eilert's new book. When Judge Brack announces Eilert's candidacy for the professorship, George goes into full-on panic mode, seeing his career, finances, and perhaps his marriage threatened in an instant. George will recover enough to put on a cheerful, collegial front when Eilert visits in Act 2, but his initial shock is worth keeping in mind.

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