In A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer returns home on Christmas Eve with a Christmas tree that must be hidden from the children until it is trimmed. Indeed, hiding is a major theme in this play. Later in the first act, Nora plays hide-and-seek with her children, and she hides the macaroons that her husband, Torvald, has forbidden her to eat. A more dangerous secret is the fact that, years earlier, she had borrowed a large amount of money to pay for the sojourn in Italy that enabled Torvald to recover from a serious illness. She had borrowed the money illegally from a usurer named Krogstad, and she has secretly been repaying the loan out of the small sums that she is able to earn by copying documents or to save from her household budget. To spare her dying father, who was to have been her cosigner, she even forged his signature on the contract.
That something is wrong with the Helmers’ marriage quickly becomes evident in the first scene: Torvald treats Nora more like a favorite child than a wife, and to please him she seems perfectly willing to pretend to be his little “skylark” or his “squirrel.” In other words, she is content to live in a dollhouse. Nora’s old school friend, Mrs. Linde, is one of those Ibsen characters who has married for money, not for love. The man she did love—and jilted—was Krogstad. Now a penniless and childless widow, she would be very happy to settle down in a dollhouse, but necessity forces her to beg Nora to help her get a job in Torvald’s bank.
The plot hinges upon Nora’s ignorance of three important facts: Krogstad holds a minor position in the bank of which Torvald is shortly to become manager; Torvald is so embarrassed by Krogstad’s presumptuous familiarity that he plans to fire him; and forgery, no matter what the motivation, is a serious crime. Ironically, Torvald fires Krogstad and promises his position to Mrs. Linde. This act prompts Krogstad, who is trying to regain his respectability, to use his knowledge of Nora’s forgery to blackmail her: If he loses his job, he will expose her and ruin Torvald. Nora’s attempt to persuade Torvald to retain Krogstad precipitates the crisis: Torvald angrily dispatches the letter of dismissal. Her situation worsens when Krogstad delivers an ultimatum and leaves a letter exposing her crime. In desperation, Nora tells Mrs. Linde about the incriminating letter now locked in the mailbox and urges her to use whatever power that she may still have over Krogstad to persuade him to ask for it back unread. By the end of the second act, Nora sees only two possible ways out of her dilemma: Either she will save her beloved husband’s reputation by committing suicide, or what she calls “the miracle” will happen, and he will magnanimously assume full responsibility for her crime. In an interview with Krogstad, Mrs. Linde succeeds in reviving his love for her, but she precipitates the final crisis by forbidding him to retract his letter.
Torvald’s explosive reaction to Krogstad’s letter shows Nora that the man for whom she was willing to sacrifice her life, the man capable of “the miracle,” is a fiction. Discovering that he is self-centered, petty, and unfeeling, she can no longer love him. To challenge his outmoded ideas about marriage, she becomes a rebel and informs him that she is leaving him and the children. When he admonishes her that she is duty bound to remain, she says that she has discovered a higher duty: her duty to herself. She exits, slamming the door on a bewildered Torvald.
Part of the play’s effectiveness on stage depends on Ibsen’s suggestive use of props, costumes, and activities (for example, the Christmas tree, the macaroons, the game of hide-and-seek) to illustrate psychological states or to underscore symbolic meanings. In its day, A Doll’s House was extremely controversial. While many applauded Nora’s determination to “be herself,” many more condemned her as “unnatural” for deserting her children. More than a century later, the play still raises questions that stimulate readers and spectators.