A Doll’s House, a realistic three-act play, focuses on late nineteenth century life in a middle-class Scandinavian household, in which the wife is expected to be contentedly passive and the husband paternally protective. Nora Helmer, however, has subverted this model. At that time, a woman could not sign a legal contract alone; thus, when her beloved husband, Torvald, became ill, Nora secretly obtained a loan by forging her father’s signature so that they could travel to a warmer climate. As the play opens, Torvald is about to become manager of the bank and Nora has almost repaid the loan through odd jobs and scrimping on the household expenses. Nora discloses her actions to her friend Kristine Linde and exults in her accomplishment.
The structure of the play is linear; after the exposition, the action becomes complicated with the appearance of Nora’s debtor, Nils Krogstad, a man disgraced by crimes that he committed to protect his family. Insecure in his position at the bank, he threatens to expose Nora’s loan and forgery unless she pleads his case to Torvald. In her ignorance, Nora had not fully understood that forgery is a criminal act.
The major conflict of the play, concerning honesty in marriage, arises from this situation. Nora cannot discuss the blackmail with her husband, since her role in their relationship is that of a charming child; thus, she must plead for Krogstad. Torvald, however, refuses to hear her plea, labeling Krogstad morally lost for the crimes that he committed and not fit to bring up his children. The parallel is not lost on Nora, who sends her children away from her at the end of the first act.
Nora’s fear increases when Torvald rejects her second plea and fires Krogstad. As Kristine helps with her costume for the Christmas party, Nora confesses that Krogstad has left a letter to Torvald in the mailbox revealing everything. She is convinced that now a wonderful thing will happen—that, when Torvald discovers her actions, he will assume the blame and that she then will commit suicide. As the second act ends, Nora dances a violent tarantella in an effort to distract Torvald from opening the mailbox.
The final act begins with Kristine and Krogstad resuming a relationship formerly hindered by their economic circumstances. Although Krogstad now regrets his blackmail, Kristine decides that the letter should remain in the mailbox and that Torvald must discover the truth. Torvald reads the letter and immediately denounces Nora as a liar and a criminal, the destroyer of his future. When another letter arrives containing the promissory note, however, Torvald realizes that he is “safe.” He forgives Nora, promising to “be conscience and will” to her thereafter. In the classic scene that follows, Nora speaks openly with her husband, the first such occasion in their entire married life, and admits her ignorance of herself and the world beyond. Declaring that she must leave Torvald and the children to find herself, she leaves and slams the door behind her.