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Hedda Gabler | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Hedda Gabler | Quotes


Things have looked black enough for us, sometimes; but, thank heaven, now you have nothing to fear.

Miss Juliana Tesman, Act 1

Between George Tesman's courtship of Hedda Gabler and Aunt Rina's illness, Miss Juliana Tesman has had a lot on her mind for the past few years. Her belief that the worst is over sets the audience up for a stiff dose of dramatic irony. Although Miss Tesman does not know it, George has plenty left to fear. His wife has checked out of their marriage, his career prospects are less certain than they seem, and his longstanding rival Eilert Lövborg has made a comeback that threatens both his relationship and his career.


We shall never get on with this servant, Tesman.

Hedda Gabler, Act 1

This little quip, along with the awkward vignette that follows it, is deeply revealing of Hedda Gabler's character. For one thing, she demeaningly, if accurately, refers to Berta as a "servant," a term George Tesman finds laughably formal and distant. Moreover, she has barely arrived at her new home and is already complaining about the household staff. Ostensibly, Hedda is upset because Berta has left her bonnet—actually Miss Juliana Tesman's—on the sofa, but her fault-finding reflects a deeper dissatisfaction with her home, marriage, and social prospects.

This quotation acquires a further resonance in Act 2 when Hedda reveals that she merely pretended to think the mislaid bonnet was Berta's. What seemed at first to be mere arrogance now seems like a kind of whimsy, even cruelty—Hedda is willing to embarrass Miss Tesman for her own amusement. If Miss Tesman were a less sympathetic character, the joke might be a funny one; as it happens, she has bought a new bonnet specifically so Hedda will not be ashamed to be seen with her, which makes Hedda's trick seem even crueler.


He said that when they parted, she threatened to shoot him with a pistol.

Mrs. Elvsted, Act 1

Mrs. Elvsted is a foil to Hedda Gabler, and this remark goes a long way toward illustrating the differences between the two. In the world of the timid, sentimental Mrs. Elvsted, brandishing firearms at a lover is all but unthinkable. Hedda, in contrast, has a gun and is not afraid to use it, as the opening of Act 2 makes clear.

Only at the end of Act 3 will Hedda explicitly confirm that she was the pistol-wielding lover. Still, her behavior in the current scene is a heavy hint. With "cold composure," she dismisses Mrs. Elvsted's remark as ridiculous: "Oh, nonsense! No one does that sort of thing here." Then, when Mrs. Elvsted suggests Mademoiselle Diana (the "red-headed singing woman") as the likely culprit, Hedda is quick to agree. Mrs. Elvsted may be willing to spill the beans about her love life, but Hedda prefers to keep her past affairs secret.


Yes, Hedda, you are a coward at heart.

Eilert Lövborg, Act 2

This barbed comment underscores Eilert Lövborg's anguish at having to live without Hedda Gabler. If he did not still harbor feelings for her, he would not show such bitterness over her rejection of him. Eilert's painful honesty will spill over into the remainder of the conversation, as Hedda attempts to play him and Mrs. Elvsted off against one another.

The accuracy of Eilert's remark is hard to assess, given that Hedda is so quick to incriminate herself and says so little in her own defense. Certainly, Hedda seems to be running away from her own feelings for Eilert, but in other ways she is audacious, even brave. Even her suicide illustrates this paradoxical quality. While she has the courage to defy Judge Brack by taking her own life rather than leaving it in his hands, her final act can also be seen more cynically, as a refusal to face her own future. Ultimately, Hedda Gabler's "cowardice" is open to interpretation, not only by readers and critics, but by the performers who inhabit the role of Hedda onstage.


I can see him already—with vine-leaves in his hair—flushed and fearless

Hedda Gabler, Act 2

Unusually poetic by Hedda Gabler's standards, this phrase glorifies Eilert Lövborg's return to drink by reimagining him as Dionysus, Greek god of wine. Hedda hopes, or at least suggests, that Eilert will conquer his fears of losing control and come home tipsy but triumphant. She seems to be sincere, but the audience doesn't learn this until much later in the play, when Hedda sadly claims to have "lost [her] faith in the vine-leaves." At this earlier juncture, it remains unclear whether Hedda is trying to help Eilert assert himself or to merely stir up trouble by getting him drunk.


I want for once in my life to have power to mold a human destiny.

Hedda Gabler, Act 2

This is an oddly serious line coming from the capricious Hedda Gabler, but there is no reason to suspect she is insincere here. As a woman of her time, Hedda has little no power to mold her own destiny when it comes to relationships, money, work, or social life. Her continued membership in polite society is contingent on "normal" behavior: supporting a husband rather than seeking a career for herself and remaining faithful to her marriage even though it no longer satisfies her. Since Hedda is unable to shape her own path, it is no wonder that she turns to meddling in the lives of others.


We men folk are unfortunately not always so firm in our principles as we ought to be.

Judge Brack, Act 3

On the surface, it sounds as though Brack is apologizing for Eilert Lövborg's bad behavior; in fact, the line is a sarcastic dig at a romantic rival. At this point in the play, nobody—including Hedda Gabler—wants Eilert out of the way as badly as the judge does. After Hedda's confession in Act 2, he feels he has a chance at greater intimacy with her, but the chance is a slim one so long as Eilert is back in her good graces. The line is also an example of verbal irony: Judge Brack pretends to be surprised or disappointed at Eilert's backsliding, when really it was a predictable outcome of his attending the party.


I have lost the child—utterly lost it. The devil knows into what hands it may have fallen—who may have had their clutches on it.

Eilert Lövborg, Act 3

In misplacing his manuscript—and thus, so far as he knows, losing it forever—Eilert Lövborg realizes he has jeopardized more than his career. The bigger loss, for him, will be his relationship with Mrs. Elvsted, who patiently transcribed the book over a period of several months. Here, Eilert reiterates her accusation from earlier in Act 3: destroying the manuscript, as he claims to have done, is like murdering one's own child. Losing the manuscript through carelessness is the greater crime to which he now confesses.


I am burning—I am burning your child.

Hedda Gabler, Act 3

With this outburst, Ibsen adds a new layer of complexity to Hedda Gabler's character. In earlier acts Hedda presents herself as merely bored and stifled by her surroundings. Her efforts to stir up ill will between Eilert Lövborg and Mrs. Elvsted are like a game she plays to pass the time. Here, however, she frames her decision to burn the manuscript as a means of getting back at Mrs. Elvsted, suggesting that jealousy plays a part in her actions as well.


At last a deed worth doing!

Hedda Gabler, Act 4

Still reeling from the news of Eilert Lövborg's disgraceful night out, Hedda Gabler wishes to salvage her image of him as a gallant and daring figure, a sort of heroic proxy for her own repressed self. In arming him with the pistol at end of Act 3, Hedda hopes she will allow him to make one last beautiful gesture at the end of his life. When she hears Judge Brack's initial report of his death, Hedda assumes her plan has succeeded.

As one might expect, nobody else shares Hedda's view of Eilert's suicide. George Tesman is "terrified" Hedda would say such a thing, and he insists Eilert was acting out of despair. Mrs. Elvsted likewise assumes Eilert killed himself in a state of delirium, not as a romantic way of settling his score with life. As it happens, none of these three interpretations is correct, since—as Judge Brack later reveals—Eilert has either been murdered or has shot himself by accident.


Oh, what curse is it that makes everything I touch turn ludicrous and mean?

Hedda Gabler, Act 4

This line bookends Hedda Gabler's previous remarks about Eilert Lövborg's apparent suicide. Those earlier comments reflect Hedda's hope that Eilert will make a "beautiful" end, but Judge Brack later confides that Eilert's final moments were messy and undignified. Preoccupied with appearances, Hedda values style over substance; consequently, the manner of Eilert's death matters more to her than the death itself.


People say such things—but they don't do them.

Judge Brack, Act 4

Although he may be her equal when it comes to deviousness, Judge Brack gravely underestimates Hedda Gabler in his final, confidential chat with her. Just before this line is uttered, Hedda insists she would rather die than live as a "slave" to the judge's whims—a bold claim, to be sure, but not entirely inconsistent with Hedda's fierce, pistol-wielding persona. Judge Brack essentially calls her bluff here, insisting that she wouldn't dare to kill herself and will therefore have to get used to his frequent, unwanted visits.

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