Aunt Juliane arrives at the Tesmans’ home, in mourning dress; her sister, Rina, has died, and she wanted to bring the news to Hedda personally. She also makes an oblique reference that indicates she believes Hedda will soon be pregnant. Hedda does not respond. Tesman returns home, and, while speaking of how she will rent out Rina’s room to “some poor invalid or another,” Juliane again broaches the subject of children: “I fancy there’ll soon be a few things for an old aunt to do here in this house, too.” This time, Hedda clearly tells Juliane, “Oh, don’t think about us.” Nevertheless, hinting that Hedda may have some news for Tesman, Aunt Juliane departs.
Tesman tells Hedda that he has not yet seen Lövborg in order to tell him (for so Tesman still believes) that Lövborg’s manuscript is in safekeeping. Deciding that Lövborg should have to wait no longer, Tesman asks Hedda to produce the manuscript. Hedda confesses to Tesman, without any obvious apology or remorse, that she has burned Lövborg’s book. She claims to have done it for Tesman’s sake. Although Tesman is initially appalled, he also feels a strange gratification that Hedda should have committed such an act for him: “I never knew you loved me like that…” Hedda then hesitates on the verge of telling Tesman some other piece of news—but stops herself from actually doing so, suggesting that he instead ask Juliane. Tesman, however, suspects he can guess Hedda’s news, and reacts with excitement. Hedda laments, in the face of Tesman’sjoy, that “this farce” will kill her yet.
Mrs. Elvsted arrives, relating news that Lövborg has “met with an accident.” She has heard rumors that Lövborg has been hospitalized. When Mr. Brack arrives soon after, he is able to confirm that Lövborg is not expected to live. Mrs. Elvsted laments the fact that she and Lövborg quarreled when last they saw each other. Hedda guesses—correctly, Brack says—that Lövborg shot himself in the chest. Hedda declares, seemingly to herself, that Lövborg has at last acted with courage, “that there is beauty in this deed”—a sentiment to which Tesman and Mrs. Evlsted react badly, insisting instead that Lövborg must have acted impulsively in a mad fit. Wishing that Lövborg’s book (which they believe its author tore to pieces) could be restored, Mrs. Elvsted produces the notes that Lövborg used when dictating, and Tesman vows to devote his life to helping her reconstruct the manuscript from the notes. He and Mrs. Elvsted retire to the back room to begin their work.
Alone with Brack, Hedda says she feels a sense of release. This sense quickly vanishes, however, when Brack tells Hedda that Lövborg did not, in fact, shoot himself intentionally—and may not even have shot himself at all. Instead, Lövborg was actually found shot in the budoir of Mademoiselle Diana; and Lövborg has actually already died. Brack was not telling the full truth. Brack now also tells Hedda that he found one of General Gabler’s pistols on Lövborg’s body. After a brief interruption from Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted, in which they ask Hedda if they can work at her desk—from which Hedda hastily clears away papers and an object shrouded in sheet music—Brack tells Hedda of his suspicions that Lövborg must have stolen the pistol during his last visit to the house. The gun is now with the authorities. He tells Hedda, however, that he can prevent the police from learning to whom the gun belongs. If he does not, he will advance the theory that Lövborg stole the gun, a possibility Hedda claims she would rather die than face. She asks Brack what will happen—assuming that the gun was not stolen—when the owner is discovered. Brack tells her to expect an “unpleasant scandal… the one thing you are afraid of.” Hedda realizes, to her great distress, that to avoid facing this scandal, she must submit herself to Brack’s mercy and power, a thought she cannot abide.
Hedda goes into the inner room, draws the curtains shut, and begins to play what the stage directions call “a wild dance tune” on the piano. Tesman asks Brack to come to the house every evening, to keep Hedda company while he and Mrs. Elvsted work together on reconstructing Lövborg’s manuscript. Brack tells Tesman he would be delighted to oblige. All planning for the future stops abruptly, however, when a gunshot is heard from the inner room. Tesman, believing merely that Hedda is again playing with her father’s pistols, draws back the curtains—and reveals his wife, dead by her own hand, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to her temple.
The final act of Hedda Gabler brings to a resolution the various intertwining threads of plot, and does so, as others have noted, in ways that highlights how the falling action consists of the “consequences” of Hedda’s choices—the very thing she told Brack her “impulsiveness” often led to (p. 207). We learn that Hedda is either unwilling or unable to face these consequences, leading to her suicide at the close of the play. Note, however, that in her suicide, Hedda still attempts to cling to the ideals of beauty and mastery of one’s own fate that she has previously espoused, for—unlike Lövborg—she shoots herself in the temple. Whether this qualifies as a beautiful act, of course, is for the individual audience member or reader to judge.
Act Four raises, but does not resolve, the mystery of whether Hedda is pregnant. On the one hand, Aunt Juliane may be voicing some more of the “wishful thinking” (not Ibsen’s phrase, but an accurate description nonetheless) that she had voices in Act One, hoping that Hedda would soon bear Tesman’s children. On the other hand, Hedda does not act to disabuse Tesman of the notion that she is pregnant (“Oh, I almost think I know what it is, Hedda!,” p. 251). Indeed, the burden of the knowledge that she is to have Tesman’s child seems to be part of the reason she labels her marriage “a farce” (p. 251). If Hedda is, in fact, pregnant, her treatment of Lövborg and Mrs. Elvsted’s metaphorical child does not bode well for her treatment of any actual children to come in the future. Although a somewhat grim thought, perhaps Hedda’s suicide could be viewed as having the “positive” benefit that she does not bring a new life into a life already so devoid of love (although we are given no reason to think that Hedda is thinking of anyone but herself when she takes her own life).
On the other hand, Hedda can only be judged so harshly; for, only minutes later, we hear Tesman swear, “I’ll devote my life” to the work of reconstructing Lövborg’s lost book (p. 257). Here is Tesman, repeating the neglect with which he treated Hedda during their honeymoon, and which has in large part created the “farce” of their married life. Surely no responsible or emotionally mature husband, having so recently heard the news that he is to be a new father, would make such a rash oath—and in front of his expectant wife, no less. Even Hedda apparently notices the incongruity: “You, Jörgen? Your life?” (p. 257). So we see that, while Hedda perhaps does much to earn audience members’ and readers’ dislike, Tesman is no model of behavior, either. His promise to what Hedda sarcastically calls “the Ejlert Lövborg memorial” (p. 260)—and to his now nascent relationship with Mrs. Elvsted—are symptomatic of the blissfully ignorant neglect of reality that he has demonstrated since he first appeared on stage.
Even though Hedda speaks it in much bitterness, “farce” (p. 252) surely does seem to be the best word to describe the Tesmans’ marriage. After all, in what healthy does marriage does the husband exclaim gleefully over the fact that his wife has only now, after the honeymoon, started to call him by his first name (p. 252)? He is quite (but unsurprisingly, by this point) oblivious to the fact that his marriage is a sham. He and Hedda are legally wed, to be sure; but Hedda has, despite her (perhaps) technical fidelity to Tesman, renounced the marriage in favor of those “triangular relationships” with Brack and with Lövborg.
Noted drama bibliographer K. W. Drury offers an apt summary of the play and its protagonist when he writes: Hedda Gabler “is out of harmony with her surroundings but cannot rise above them… [she], with selfish individualism, wishes to test her will and influence, but fears to face the consequences… Like the pistols she makes use of, she attracts and fascinates, but is cold, unscrupulous, relentless, and passionless” (James M. Salem, ed., Drury’s Guide to the Best Plays, 4th ed., Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1987; p. 184).