The play opens with Aunt Julia and Berta, the housemaid, entering the house of George Tesman and his new bride, Hedda. Berta tells Aunt Julia that the couple just returned from their six-month honeymoon the night before, and that she's anxious about whether she will be able to please the new mistress of the house, since she seems "terrible grand." She comments that she was shocked to see how much Hedda had to unpack. Berta also feels guilty that she's leaving the house of Aunt Julia and Aunt Rina, especially since Rina's health is declining so precipitously. Aunt Julia comforts her, implying that the new Mrs. Tesman is a great catch for her nephew. She also says that in keeping with Jorgen's recent spate of good fortune, he's been given the title of "Doctor", and might have an even grander title coming his way in the near future.
Tesman enters the room, happily greets his aunt, and tells her of all the research he did on his honeymoon. Julia is surprised that Jorgen would work on his honeymoon. Tesman helps his aunt untie her new bonnet, and makes quite a fuss over its beauty. Aunt Julia, pleased, says that she purchased the hat so that Hedda wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen with her if they should go out in public together. Tesman and Julia sit, and Julia inquires as to whether Tesman has any important news that he wishes to share with her. Tesman, however, seems not to pick up on the reference to a baby, and says that his only big news is that he has recently become a doctor.
Both Julia and Tesman comment on the cost of the expensive honeymoon needed to satisfy a "lady" like Hedda, and Tesman points out that their pricey new house - the Falk Villa - was purchased only because Hedda said she so dearly wanted to live in it. It's a bigger house than they need, and Tesman wonders aloud what they will do with the two empty rooms next to Hedda's bedroom. Aunt Julia remarks that they may be filled soon enough, but again Tesman does not seem to understand the reference. Aunt Julia then tells her nephew that she's helped with the burden of the costs by taking out a mortgage on her annuities to pay for the house's security. Tesman is shocked at his aunt's kindness, but the news seems to relieve him somewhat. The last revelation Aunt Julia offers is that Tesman's academic rival, Eilert Lovborg, has recently published a book. Tesman reacts to this information with surprise, as Lovborg has had a decidedly difficult few years.
Hedda enters, and promptly complains that the maid has opened the windows. Within minutes, she manages to insult Tesman's favorite slippers, remark on the ugliness of Aunt Julia's bonnet, and coldly rebuff her husband's attempts to make conversation. When Tesman remarks that Hedda has "filled out" on their honeymoon, Hedda replies that she hasn't changed at all since the day they left. Aunt Julia takes Hedda's head in her hands and kisses her hair, blessing her "for George's sake." Aunt Julia leaves, and Tesman tells Hedda that she should be nicer to his aunt. Hedda says he should invite her over again later in the day. Tesman, happy at this seemingly conciliatory response, asks Hedda to start calling Julie "Auntie", but Hedda refuses.
Ibsen structures Hedda Gabler almost like a classical tragedy, using the first act to set up a clear plant-to-payoff design. Information that will ultimately inform his characters' fates is clearly and gradually laid out. There is also a striking amount of foreshadowing - by the section's end, we are already aware of three of the major conflicts to come: Tesman's precarious finances, Hedda's unacknowledged pregnancy, and the arrival of Tesman's rival, Eilert Lovborg. Already we can sense that Lovberg will play a key role in resolving the tensions between Hedda and Jorgen, either as a foil that will force Tesman and Hedda to ally themselves against him, or as an iceberg that will drive them apart.
Hedda Gabler, of course, is one of the theater's most famous and coveted female roles. It's not hard to see why: in Hedda, Ibsen has created a woman of such complexity that for years critics and audiences have been divided in determining what it is that actually motivates her coldness and impenetrability. Critics have called her "a true type of degenerate incapable of yielding herself, body and soul, to the man she loves," "a complete perversion of womanhood," and even a dangerous example of "the New Woman, a female character common in fiction in the 1890s, when women were actively demanding equality with men" (Melani 3).
As we continue our examination of Hedda Gabler, it is vital to repeatedly consider to Hedda's role in the ensuing mini-tragedies - is she simply a player in a larger design, or is she a plague being delivered onto this small community? Or is she rather playing God, and dictating all of the events that take place? In other words, is Hedda a victim, a tool, or a perpetrator?
Perhaps our first clue comes from her dealings with Aunt Julia. Hedda makes it a point to comment on the ugliness of the hat on the chair, which she states that she believes is the maid's. When Aunt Julia claims the hat as her own, Hedda does little to retract her statement, even though she somewhat makes up for it by telling Tesman that she'll invite Aunt Julia over later. This is simple boorishness, barely redeemed by a transparent facade of manners. Later, however, we find out that Hedda in fact manufactured the whole event, knowing quite well that the hat was Aunt Julia's all along. This is a recurring theme in the play - Hedda's ability to not just react in a given moment, but to design, to plan interactions with characters in order to achieve a certain goal.
Another clue as to why these designs seem so integral to Hedda's character comes in the repeated references to Hedda's father, General Gabler. As the general's daughter, Hedda was known for her style and sophistication. Indeed, it was she who was responsible for keeping up the general's reputation, whereas with Tesman she is a burden on his meager finances. Hedda seems strangely resigned to her unhappy marriage, but we must ask: why did Hedda marry Tesman in the first place? In understanding the reasons behind her willingness to commit to a man that she either doesn't love or a man who she may love abstractly but despises practically, we will begin to unravel the mystery of her character.