Hedda Gabler is the daughter of a famous military general, and at the time the play begins is technically named Hedda Tesman—but Ibsen’s use of Hedda’s maiden name in the title is singularly apt, for Hedda (by her own admission) has not joined her husband’s family; and, indeed, is thoroughly uninterested in doing so. She is her own woman, for better or worse—and, in the course of the play, generally for worse: she flaunts the accepted domestic morality of the late 19th century, and continually and impulsively manipulates the people around her, seemingly for her own entertainment and to gratify her own sense of aesthetics, as she searches for a “beautiful” act of mastery over one’s own fate. Hedda takes her own life at the play’s end when she concludes there is no other way for her to express her autonomy.
Jörgen Tesman is a recently minted Ph.D. in material culture. His academic specialty is the Middle Ages—appropriate, considering that Tesman lives, by and large, in the past. He has allowed himself to be infantilized by his elderly “Auntie Julle,” and he seems incapable of relating to his new bride, Hedda, on a mature, adult basis. He demonstrates cordiality but no physical or emotional affection for her. He is a man who lives very much in his head; we learn that his attention during their recently completed honeymoon was devoted more to books and old papers than to Hedda. When Hedda destroys his dead academic rival’s manuscript, Tesman vows to devote his life to reconstructing it—even though his wife has just all but told him that she is pregnant. Oblivious to the emotional needs of those around him (save his Auntie Julle’s need to keep him a child) and too immersed in dry academia about the long-gone past, Tesman emerges as an ultimately pitiable figure.
Miss Juliane Tesman is one of Jörgen’s elderly aunts. She lives with and cares for her invalid sister, Rina. She is devoted, perhaps excessively so, to the memory of her dead brother, and dotes upon her nephew. Unlike Tesman, Aunt Juliane does think of the future—but ultimately in a short-term, and rather selfish way, hoping that Tesman and Hedda will produce offspring to perpetuate the family tree.
Mrs. Thea Elvsted was a classmate of Hedda’s when they were schoolgirls, and is an old girlfriend of Tesman’s. She is trapped in a loveless marriage, and has sought out the companionship of Ejlert Lövborg as compensation.
Mr. Brack is a local magistrate who is a friend of the Elvsteds’ and of Tesman’s. He also fancies himself “the only cock in the yard” when it comes to Hedda, flirting with and courting her behind Tesman’s back. He seems every bit as manipulative of other people as does Hedda when, at the play’s conclusion, he threatens to blackmail Hedda with the information that the pistol by which Ejlert Lövborg died came from the Tesman home. He agrees to keep silent on the condition that Hedda continue to receive him in private, and thus emerges as a shrewd and calculating man—a companion, in fact, worthy of Hedda, and perhaps more skillful in his maneuvering of others (for he obviously does not feel the need to kill himself, as Hedda does herself).
Ejlert Lövborg is Tesman’s academic rival. Once a promising scholar, he suffered a period of scandal and social disrepute; in the Tesmans’ absence abroad, however, and with the help and love of Mrs. Elvsted, he has redeemed himself, having written a book that is about to be published to scholarly acclaim. Unlike Tesman, Lövborg’s sights are set on the future: he chooses not to pursue the safe university position that had been all but promised to Tesman, choosing instead to make his own way and to engage in the uncertain but exciting field of thinking about the future (an idea Tesman cannot abide). He is a forward thinker where Tesman is not; however, he is also mired in the past, as his complicated feelings toward Hedda Gabler demonstrate. He allows her to play on his feelings of pride and insecurity, an allowance which ultimately leads to his death at the hands of Mademoiselle Diana, an (unseen) jealous woman from his past.