Individualism is key to self-actualization. Sometimes, though, people can confuse individuality for a license to impede on the lives of others.
Ibsen, in ‘A Doll's House’ (1880) and ‘An Enemy of the People’ (1883), had preached the necessity of individualism, but, perceiving that he might be misunderstood as an upholder of self-interest in opposition to the welfare of others, he turned in ‘Rosmersholm’ (1887) and ‘Hedda Gabler’ (1891) to point the danger and futility of sheer self-assertion. Such a notion is implicit in both plays, although ‘Hedda Gabler’ seems chiefly a study of character and least of all a drama of ideas.
Hedda is an unscrupulous individualist married to a dull pedant in whose rival for an academic position she finds an earlier lover. This rival is a creative scholar of infirm will who has been reformed by Hedda's school friend, Mrs. Elvsted, and inspired to compose a great work. Hedda is jealous of Mrs. Elvsted, fearful lest Lövborg secure the position for which her husband is contending, and curious to discover how far she can determine the fate of another creature. Accordingly, she exerts her malign influence to spur Lövborg into dissipation, and, when he fancies himself forever disgraced by misconduct and the loss of his precious manuscript, she provides a pistol with which he may end his life.
Lövborg dies, but Hedda, who had not foreseen that the pistol would be recognized as hers, is involved in the scandal. She can escape it only by according her favors to a libertine judge, aware of all the facts in the case, and prepared to profit by his knowledge. Although Hedda is without a moral qualm, she cannot endure public shame or submission to the will of another. She therefore shoots herself with the second pistol of the pair that she had inherited from her father.Hedda is a female Mephistopheles, without passion, instinctively and deliberately evil, yet cowardly. As heartless as Becky Sharp, she is far more corrupt. She loathes her husband with his pedestrian mind and bourgeois interests; she loathes her condition as a wife and a mother soon-to-be; and she loathes Mrs. Elvsted as the good angel of Eilert Lövborg. Her prurient curiosity, her morbid dread of scandal, her malevolent delight in burning the manuscript of Lövborg and insidiously suggesting his suicide, are essential features in this portrait of one of the most disagreeable women of all literature.
The play was published in 1890, a year before its first performance in Norway, and was translated into English in 1891 by Edmund Gosse. The authoritative version is that of Gosse and William Archer.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920