Hedda Gabler | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Act 4

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 4 of Henrik Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler | Act 4 | Summary



Evening has fallen at George Tesman and Hedda Gabler's villa. Miss Juliana Tesman arrives in mourning dress to announce Aunt Rina's passing; Hedda, who has already heard the news, offers her condolences. George returns home, saddened by his aunt's death and preoccupied with concern for Eilert, whom he has been unable to find. Once Miss Tesman has left, Hedda confides to George that she has burnt Eilert's manuscript. He is at once horrified and overjoyed. Hedda, it seems, really must care for him if she is willing to harm his rival in such a way.

Mrs. Elvsted enters the house unannounced and in a panic: she, too, has been unable to get in touch with Eilert. Worse yet, she has heard a distressing rumor that he is at the hospital. Judge Brack arrives next and confirms the grim news: Eilert is "lying at the point of death" after having shot himself in the chest. George and Mrs. Elvsted are distraught at this development; Hedda voices admiration for Eilert's "courage" and self-determination. Still believing Eilert has destroyed his own manuscript, Mrs. Elvsted asks George to help her arrange the loose notes Eilert has left behind—both as a tribute to the dying man and as an effort to salvage his book.

As George and Mrs. Elvsted begin their new project, Hedda takes a seat in the corner and is joined by Judge Brack, who confesses he "idealized the facts" of Eilert's condition to spare Mrs. Elvsted's feelings. Eilert, he now confides, is already dead, having been shot in the bowels during an altercation at Mademoiselle Diana's brothel. The gun, he adds menacingly, is one he recognizes, though the police are unlikely to find the owner without his help.

Reading between the lines, Hedda realizes Judge Brack now has the power to ruin her good name. As George and Mrs. Elvsted make plans to work on the book at Miss Tesman's house, George proposes that Judge Brack keep Hedda company in the evenings. It is clear to her that Judge Brack will press his advantage to blackmail Hedda into an affair. For her, this is an unbearable situation. Pretending to be tired, she retires to the inner room and draws the curtains behind her. Then, after hurling a snarky taunt at Judge Brack, she shoots herself in the temple. At first George suspects Hedda is merely "playing with those pistols again," but when he pushes aside the curtains, he is stunned to find her lifeless body on the sofa. A general state of panic ensues, and Berta comes rushing in from offstage. "Good God!" cries Judge Brack, who is crestfallen. "People don't do such things."


Hedda Gabler closes on a powerful instance of dramatic irony. In Act 2 Hedda longed for the "power to mold a human destiny," and she briefly, fitfully exercised that power over Eilert—though not at all in the way she initially expected. Attempting to bring Eilert back in touch with the reckless confidence of his youth, she instead pushed him to an unglamorous loss of control. Then, trying to wring at least a little "beauty" out of her relationship with Eilert, she urged him to kill himself in gallant fashion, with a pistol shot to the chest. This, too, backfired: Eilert was found shot in the gut—an excruciating and undignified death—under circumstances that made it unclear that he had been the one to pull the trigger. Worse yet, Hedda had imagined the scene playing out in the solitude of Eilert's quarters; instead, it took place in Mademoiselle Diana's boudoir, adding a sordid quality to the whole affair. Hedda's manipulations, so deft and cunning at the beginning of the play, have been shown up as clumsy and ugly—not to mention deadly.

The other destiny Hedda attempts to shape is that of her husband. Again, she has succeeded in changing his life, but not as she might have hoped. For one thing, she has made him a widower, a state from which the workaholic George seems likely to recover quickly. In doing so she has relieved him of a huge financial and psychic burden, as he no longer has Hedda's high-maintenance lifestyle to support. Sad as it may seem, the audience is left with every reason to expect George will be better off without her once the initial shock has worn off.

Hedda has also, by destroying Eilert's manuscript rather than returning it, shaped George's fate in a less direct way. It is hard to believe Hedda when, at the beginning of this act, she tells George she burned the manuscript for his sake. It's more plausible to say she hoped to advance his career for her own sake, or that she sought jealous revenge on Eilert and Mrs. Elvsted for daring to be happy together. Whatever her motivation, it seems unlikely that Hedda meant to bring George and Mrs. Elvsted closer together, yet this is exactly what happens once the manuscript is understood to be lost forever. With Hedda out of the picture, George and Mrs. Elvsted seem poised to build a strong working relationship, possibly even a romance; although Hedda did not really care for her husband, the notion of Mrs. Elvsted acting as his muse adds insult to an already fatal injury.

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