Hedda Gabler | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Act 3

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 3 of Henrik Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler | Act 3 | Summary



It is now past seven in the morning, and both the lamp and the stove are burning low. Hedda Gabler is asleep on the couch, and Mrs. Elvsted, who has stayed the night, sits anxiously in an armchair waiting for Eilert Lövborg. Berta brings in a letter for George Tesman from Miss Juliana Tesman. Hedda wakes up and, learning that Mrs. Elvsted has not slept, reassures her that the men have probably spent the night at Judge Brack's after an evening of drunken "jollification." She urges Mrs. Elvsted to retire to one of the bedrooms and get some rest, promising to wake her the moment George returns.

Mrs. Elvsted has barely gone to bed when George comes tiptoeing in from his night out. Hedda casually asks about the party, and George recounts a wild night out—especially for Eilert. To Hedda's surprise, he takes Eilert's manuscript from his coat pocket. Eilert, he says, misplaced it in a moment of drunken obliviousness, and George did not dare embarrass Eilert by returning it in front of their friends. Learning from the letter that his Aunt Rina is dying, George leaves the manuscript with Hedda, who hides it in a drawer. As George is leaving Judge Brack drops by. Hedda presses him for a more detailed account of the party, and Judge Brack obliges, giving special attention to Eilert's actions and whereabouts. At the end of the night, he says, Eilert got into a fight with Mademoiselle Diana, the madam of a local brothel, and assaulted an officer when the police came to break up the brawl. Judge Brack warns Hedda not to admit Eilert to her home because he is no longer fit for respectable society. Before he leaves, Judge Brack admits his personal interest in seeing Eilert ruined—he wants to prevent Eilert from taking his coveted place in a "triangle" with Mr. and Mrs. Tesman. Hedda reassesses him at this point, saying, "I am exceedingly glad to think—that you have no sort of hold over me."

Judge Brack leaves via the back garden just before Eilert, agitated and perhaps not quite sober, arrives at the front door. In a flash Mrs. Elvsted comes down from the bedroom—relieved to find Eilert safe and sound, but troubled by his behavior. Eilert declares that he and Mrs. Elvsted must part ways for good before he ruins her life as well as his own. She insists on remaining by his side, but then he makes a further announcement: he has torn his manuscript to pieces and thrown it into the sea. For Mrs. Elvsted, who helped Eilert compose the manuscript, this act is tantamount to murdering a child. Overcome with grief and perplexity, she leaves.

With Mrs. Elvsted gone, Eilert confesses the truth: he has lost the manuscript, not destroyed it. Either way, he acknowledges that this is the end both of his career and of his relationship with Mrs. Elvsted; the only course left, he suggests, is suicide. Hedda, seemingly prepared for this moment, gives him one of her pistols and urges him to end his life "beautifully." He puts the pistol in his pocket and takes his leave. Listening to make sure he is gone, Hedda takes the manuscript from its hiding place and incinerates it in the stove.


Hedda's motivations seem to grow a little more complicated in this act. By the end of Act 2 she appears as a truly cold and calculating figure—flirting coyly with Judge Brack, betraying Mrs. Elvsted's confidence, and maneuvering Eilert into a relapse of his alcoholism. In Act 3, however, she reacts to Eilert's misadventures with regret and perhaps even a bit of sympathy; this response undermines the temptation to see Hedda as a totally cynical puppet master.

In particular, Hedda's return to the vine-leaf imagery from Act 2 suggests a pattern of genuine hope and disillusionment. Drinking, Hedda had hoped, would bring out the best in Eilert, turning him into a "flushed and fearless" romantic hero who no longer doubted himself. Instead, it has made him into a careless and violent drunk who visits brothels and picks fights with policemen. When she learns all this from Judge Brack, Hedda seems genuinely crestfallen to learn that Eilert is a mere mortal with a mortal's vices rather than the glorious Dionysus-like figure (the ancient Greek god of wine and revelry—traditionally pictured with vine leaves in his hair) she had imagined. Her body language adds to the impression of real disappointment: as Judge Brack recounts the police report, Hedda "gaz[es] straight before her" as if only half attending to the words he says.

At the same time Hedda can hardly be described as a bleeding heart. She flatly refuses to accompany George on his visit to his dying aunt, and the excuse she offers is more than a little offensive: Hedda "will not look upon sickness and death" because she "loathe[s] all sorts of ugliness." This is certainly a strange and selfish way to get out of a visit to the sickroom, particularly given George's attachment to his aunts. From her venting to Judge Brack at the beginning of Act 2, it is clear that Hedda does not share George's love of Aunt Julia and Aunt Rina; still, her unwillingness to even pretend to care about them is positively icy. Even Hedda's apparent concern for Mrs. Elvsted may not be as benign as it looks: although she protests that Mrs. Elvsted is exhausted and needs to sleep, both true, she may merely wish to get her nervous houseguest out of the way before other visitors arrive.

Hedda's most unguarded moment comes at the very end of the act, as she is tossing Eilert's manuscript into the fire piece by piece. Even here, however, her motivations are unclear. She mutters or gloats about "burning" Mrs. Elvsted's "child," a phrase that suggests an attitude of bitter envy and vindictiveness at Eilert and Mrs. Elvsted's life together. Like parents of a newborn, the two have bonded over a shared experience that took shape over many months. Hedda, no doubt, deeply resents this closeness.

But Hedda's reaction is more than garden-variety jealousy. Hearing about Eilert's disastrous exploits forces her to confront an uncomfortable fact: Mrs. Elvsted is good for Eilert in a way Hedda simply cannot match. The Eilert whom Hedda loves is the fast-living, hard-partying young ne'er-do-well of the past, not the promising, sober scholar who crosses her threshold in Act 2. By abetting that earlier lifestyle, Hedda has held Eilert back personally and professionally; Mrs. Elvsted, in contrast, has helped him to get sober and put his most daring thoughts into writing. To judge from her actions, this realization wounds Hedda and adds a malicious edge to her treatment of the couple.

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