Hedda Gabler, who has been a belle of her set, returns from her honeymoon with George Tesman, a rather colorless scholar, to begin married life in the pretentious villa given them, at great sacrifice, by her aunt. Hedda's chill selfishness moves the aunt to reflect: "God love and preserve Hedda Tesman--for George's sake."
Thea Elvsted, young wife of the elderly Sheriff Elvsted, calls to ask the Tesmans to keep a friendly eye on Eilert Lovborg, an erratic genius who has just returned to the city from their town. Mrs. Elvsted has succeeded in bringing into the life of Lovborg a stability that has enabled him to write a successful book, but she fears that city temptations may be his undoing.
While Tesman is writing a note inviting Lovborg to call that evening, Hedda, who has manifested extraordinary interest in the news of Lovborg's return, extracts from Mrs. Elvsted the confession that she loves Lovborg, and that they have been "good comrades." Hedda asks: "And are you no surer of him than that?" Thea answers: "A woman's shadow stands between Eilert Lovborg and me." Hedda anxiously asks who the woman can be. Mrs. Elvsted doesn't know.
Judge Brack, a friend, coming in to invite George to a party in his honor, discloses that Lovborg is now a rival of Tesman for a professorship at the university, a post that Tesman has counted upon for the support of himself and Hedda and to repay their debts. When they are alone, Hedda taunts George, saying that she supposes she now must wait for the liveried footman and the saddle horse she has wanted. She will have one thing to play with, anyhow, she reminds him--the pistols of her father, General Gabler.
Tesman goes to visit his aunt, and Brack, calling to take him to the party, finds Hedda toying with the pistols. She tells Brack that she is "mortally bored to be everlastingly in the company of one and the same person," and, at the suggestion that she loves George, says: "Faugh--don't use that sickening word." It would be a relief indeed, she adds, if a third person were to enter their lives, a possibility suggested by Brack.
They are interrupted by the return of George and the arrival of Lovborg. Lovborg tells them that his earlier work will be dwarfed by one he is now writing, a book on the civilization of the future. He offers to read from it, but George and Brack are going to the party. Hedda invites him to remain for supper with her and Mrs. Elvsted. When George and Brack go for a drink, Lovborg reproaches Hedda for her marriage, and asks: "Was there no love in your old friendship with me?"
Hedda answers: "I wonder..." She confesses that there had been in it a fascinating beauty, but she had broken with him "because our friendship threatened to develop into something more serious. Shame upon you, Eilert Lovborg!" She confesses that she did not shoot him, as she had threatened, because she is "a terrible coward" and dreaded scandal; too, she adds that this "wasn't the worst part of my cowardice--that night." Lovborg passionately replies: "Ah, then it was your craving for life..."
Mrs. Elvsted arrives, and Lovborg is tortured between his gratitude to her and his passion for Hedda. He decides to go to the party, returning to call for Mrs. Elvsted at ten o'clock. When they have gone, Hedda triumphantly predicts that Lovborg will return "with vine-leaves in his hair--flushed and fearless." But at daylight George comes in to report that Lovborg drank himself into a stupor after reading a part from his amazing book. George recovered the manuscript when Lovborg dropped it on the way home, and Hedda induces him to give it to her "to read" before he returns it.
Brack comes, after George has left, and reveals that Lovborg slipped away from his companions, went to a disreputable house and was arrested after a fight. Brack leaves. Lovborg enters and is joyfully greeted by Mrs. Elvsted. He laments that he has arrived too late--that the manuscript which Mrs. Elvsted had made possible for him to write he has torn to bits. "I have torn my own life to pieces," he cries.
"To my dying day," Mrs. Elvsted answers, "I shall think of this as though you had killed a little child." But Hedda does not disclose that the manuscript is, in reality, safe; nor, after Thea has gone, does she return it to the distraught Lovborg. Lovborg mourns: "Thea Elvsted's pure soul was in that book!" Hedda gives him one of her pistols, saying to him: "Take it, Eilert Lovborg, and use it ... use it beautifully ... Promise me that!" He leaves with the pistol and she throws his manuscript into the fire. Hedda cries: "I am burning your child, Thea Elvsted! Your child and Eilert Lovborg's. I am burning--burning your child!"
Tesman returns and she tells him that she has destroyed the manuscript. "I did it for your sake, dear. I couldn't bear the idea that anyone should throw you in the shade," she insists. Tesman is regretful, yet, at the same time, happy that "lovable Hedda" should care so for him; he agrees to keep the fate of the manuscript secret. Then Thea arrives, frantic because of rumors that Lovborg has killed himself. Brack follows to tell them that Lovborg is dying in a hospital after shooting himself in the breast.
"Not in the temple?" asks Hedda. "Well, the breast is a good place, too ... at last a deed worth daring." Thea, at Tesman's hypocritical bemoaning of Lovborg's work, discloses that she has Lovborg's notes for the book, and they go to a table to examine them. Hedda and Brack continue their conversation in low voices.
HEDDA: What a beautiful act ... a shot in the breast!
BRACK: I fear I must dispel your illusions ... for poor Mrs. Elvsted's sake I thought it best to put a little luster over the facts.... He is already dead. He was found shot in the boudoir of ... a "professional lady."
HEDDA: But the bullet entered his breast?
BRACK: No--the bowels.
HEDDA: What curse is it that makes everything I touch turn ludicrous and mean!
Brack reminds her that the pistol was found. Hedda, in terror, asks what will happen if the owner is identified. "Then comes the scandal," Brack answers, but he points out that there can be none so long as he keeps silent. "I will not come forward to testify about the pistol," he says, "if----"
Hedda finishes: "If I put myself in your power, Judge Brack. If I become yours, to be at your beck and call from this time on ... No, I cannot endure the thought of that! Never." She looks at her husband and Mrs. Elvsted working together over the notes. She muses: "Doesn't it seem strange to you, Thea? Here you are sitting with Tesman--just as you used to sit with Eilert Lovborg." Her husband replies that indeed Thea is inspiring, that they shall work together, and that Hedda shall amuse herself with Brack.
Hedda excuses herself and goes into the next room. She plays a mad dance on the piano, then shoots herself--in the temple--with the remaining pistol.