The entire play takes place in the Tesman's living room and in a smaller room to its side. Jürgen Tesman and Hedda Tesman (nee Hedda Gabler) are newlyweds. They have just returned from a six-month honeymoon. Hedda is aristocratic and hard to please. Throughout the play, it becomes apparent that Hedda is pregnant. At the beginning of Act 1, Tesman wakes to find his Aunt Julle has arrived for a visit. Aunt Julle raised Tesman and still supports him financially. When Hedda enters, however, she is rather rude to Aunt Julle. Tesman asks her to be kinder, but she clearly has little real interest in him either. Soon, Mrs. Elvsted arrives, bringing news that Tesman's old academic rival, Ejlert Lövborg, is back in town. Lövborg had been an alcoholic and a failure, but now he has reformed. Eventually, Hedda gets Tesman to leave, and she convinces Mrs. Elvsted to confide in her. She learns that Mrs. Elvsted is scared Ejlert will start drinking again and also that she has come to look for him without her husband's permission. Mrs. Elvsted leaves and Judge Brack arrives. Judge Brack brings gossip from town, most notably that Ejlert is quite a success and may be poised to take the position at the university that Tesman is counting on getting himself. He leaves, and Tesman tells Hedda that they will have to cut back on their expenses.
When Brack returns later that day, in Act 2, he finds Hedda playing with her pistols, out of boredom. They talk privately for a while and agree that they should form a close, personal bond. Hedda tells Brack how bored she was on her honeymoon and how she has no special feeling for the house Tesman has gone to great lengths to buy for her, under the false impression that she desperately wanted to live there. Soon, Tesman arrives and talk turns to the stag party that Brack is throwing later that night. Ejlert Lövborg arrives and talks in earnest with Hedda while Tesman and Brack drink in the other room. Then, Mrs. Elvsted arrives. Hedda plays Ejlert and Mrs. Elvsted against each other, making Ejlert think the other was worried he would begin drinking again. At this hint, he begins to drink and decides to join Tesman and Brack as they leave for the party. Mrs. Elvsted is very upset, but Ejlert promises to return in a few hours to escort her home.
Act 3 begins just before dawn, with Mrs. Elvsted sitting up, still waiting for Ejlert to return. Hedda is asleep on the couch. Soon, she awakes and sends Mrs. Elvsted in to sleep on her bed. Tesman arrives and tells his wife that he has possession of Ejlert's fabulous manuscript, which Ejlert dropped while walking home drunk. Tesman plans to return it to him but is called away, hearing that his Aunt Rina is dying. Brack arrives and tells Hedda that Tesman left before Ejlert got into real trouble, that indeed he has been arrested. Brack leaves, and Ejlert arrives. He tells a shocked Mrs. Elvsted that he has destroyed his manuscript. She is crushed and leaves immediately. Then, Ejlert confesses to Hedda that he has, in fact, lost the manuscript and that he wants to kill himself. Hedda does not tell him she has the manuscript; she simply gives him one of her pistols and tells him to have a beautiful death. He leaves, and she burns the manuscript, referring to it as the child of Ejlert and Mrs. Elvsted.
Act 4 begins with the living room in darkness. Aunt Julle arrives. Everyone is wearing black as a sign of mourning. We soon learn through dialogue, however, that it is Aunt Rina whose death they mourn: Aunt Julle announces that she must find another invalid to take care of now. She leaves. Mrs. Elvsted arrives, reporting to have heard that Ejlert is in the hospital. Brack arrives and confirms this but reports to the company that Ejlert is, in fact, already dead, having wounded himself in the chest. Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted immediately sit down to try to reconstruct his manuscript in honor of his death, based on notes Mrs. Elvsted has kept. In private, Brack tells Hedda that it was actually an ugly death, that the pistol went off accidentally, and that scandal might ensue for Hedda. Hedda leaves the room and, after playing the piano for some moments, shoots herself.