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Hedda Gabler | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Act 2

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 2 of Henrik Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler | Act 2 | Summary



The curtain rises on the same suite of rooms as before, but it is now late afternoon. Offstage, Judge Brack makes his way to the door via the back garden. Hedda Gabler, who is in a mischievous mood, loads a pistol and pretends she is about to shoot Judge Brack, but she misses on purpose. He is irked by this dangerous prank, but he composes himself and asks after George, who happens to be out visiting his aunts. The two sit down for a "cozy little chat," which quickly turns into a protracted confession from Hedda: she is tired of George, whom she married more out of convenience than out of love, and is steadily growing more bored with life in general. Judge Brack's company is, she says, a welcome diversion.

George comes in with a load of books under his arm. After a brief chat with the judge, he heads off to his study, leaving Judge Brack and Hedda alone once more. Hedda continues to vent about George's limited career prospects and narrow ambitions; she speculates about getting George into politics and laments their limited means. Hedda reacts with annoyance to Judge Brack's suggestion that she may be less bored once she has a child to look after. George returns, dressed for an evening out, but with Judge Brack's consent, he decides to wait and see if Eilert Lövborg will show up in response to his letter.

Barely a minute later, Eilert arrives and bashfully greets George and Hedda. In response to their questions about his new book, Eilert dismisses the work as shallow: he is much more excited about his recently finished manuscript, which predicts the future of civilization. In the hope of reading some excerpts to George, he has even brought the manuscript with him. Judge Brack invites him to the party, but Hedda persuades him to stay at the Tesman house for supper instead. With a few hours left to kill, Judge Brack and George withdraw to the inner room for a glass of punch while Hedda and Eilert look over some photographs from her honeymoon trip. Eilert, who can barely contain his longing for Hedda, complains that she has "thrown herself away" by marrying George. Hedda is both offended and flattered by the remark.

George brings in a little tray of punch and biscuits for Hedda, with an extra glass for Mrs. Elvsted, who arrives shortly thereafter. Eilert waxes poetic about Mrs. Elvsted's beauty and bravery for leaving her home and moving to Christiania, and Mrs. Elvsted seems positively enraptured by Eilert's remarks. Interrupting this little love fest, Hedda offers Eilert a glass of punch; he refuses, but then Hedda raises the stakes by insinuating—correctly, but indiscreetly—that Mrs. Elvsted is worried Eilert will return to his old ways. Eilert is so insulted by Mrs. Elvsted's lack of trust that he defiantly swigs down two glasses of punch then decides to go to the judge's party after all. Mrs. Elvsted is horrified by this sudden change, but Hedda unconvincingly assures her all will be well and convinces her to stay and wait for Eilert's return.


Hedda's drawing a gun on Judge Brack may seem like a hostile gesture, but it can also be read as a form of aggressive flirtation: she wants to throw him off balance, shake him up a little, but not frighten him off or harm him. The proof of her intentions lies in their subsequent conversation, which establishes an intimacy rivaled only by her closeness to Eilert Lövborg. Judge Brack, correctly discerning that Eilert is a competitor for Hedda's affections, will shed no tears over his ruin and eventual death.

In Act 1 Judge Brack paid a cordial but superficial visit to the Tesmans; now, he returns for a deeper, more soul-searching "chat." When the talk turns to the circumstances that led Hedda to settle for George Tesman, Hedda surprises him with the admission that she really is settling—there is no true love in their relationship. This opens the door for Judge Brack to insinuate himself as part of a "triangle," supplying the lively conversation and sympathetic spirit George seems to lack. Despite his gentlemanly way of describing the arrangement, it is not clear whether he is willing to accept a merely platonic friendship with Hedda. During the performance, body language can be used to portray the judge as anything from chivalrous to downright lecherous.

Act 2 also continues to showcase the skill with which Hedda manipulates social distances. In Act 1 she rapidly gained Mrs. Elvsted's confidence by a show of excessive friendliness and informality, highlighted by her insistence that Mrs. Elvsted address her using the casual du and not the polite De (see Act 1 insights). When Mrs. Elvsted returns for tea, Hedda doubles down on her manipulations, physically interjecting herself between Mrs. Elvsted and Eilert and then verbally pitting the two against one another. Hedda's behavior in Act 1 quickly promoted Mrs. Elvsted from "distant acquaintance" to "close friend"; in this act, her pinching and bullying recast Mrs. Elvsted as a naïve little sister who has much to learn from Hedda's guidance. Although she rightly suspects Hedda of having ulterior motives, Mrs. Elvsted never completely frees herself from Hedda's spell, as shown by her decision to stay the night.

Eilert, too, is back in Hedda's orbit almost as soon as he sets eyes on her. His decision to have a drink may seem sudden and rash, but it is the outcome of careful planning on Hedda's part. Soon after Eilert arrives, Hedda gives orders to Berta to set out some alcoholic refreshments, knowing these will test Eilert's willpower. It may be a mere stroke of luck that George brings out two glasses of punch after Eilert has already refused a drink, but a more sinister interpretation is that he is colluding, consciously or unconsciously, to get Eilert drunk. Either way, the trap is set. As soon as Eilert is sufficiently upset by Hedda's remarks, the booze goes down the hatch and his inhibitions go down the drain. Even Hedda's insistence that Eilert stop at two glasses is calculated: having thrown Eilert off balance, she now covers her tracks with a phony show of concern for her old friend. Regardless of whether he has a third glass right now, Hedda knows he will have plenty more before the night is through.

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