Torvald Helmer and his beautiful wife, Nora, live with their three young children in a pleasantly furnished home. Torvald’s income isn’t sizable; he monitors the family’s expenses carefully and often complains to Nora about her spending. Torvald has secured a new job as a bank manager, and the Helmers are looking forward to a more secure financial future.
The play begins on Christmas Eve in the Helmers’ living room as Nora returns from shopping. Showing Torvald the Christmas gifts she has purchased, she explains that they are inexpensive. Nora asks for money as a Christmas gift; Torvald doesn’t readily agree because Nora never seems to have anything to show for the money he gives her. Torvald routinely calls Nora pet names and speaks to her as one would to talk a child. Their conversation is interrupted when Kristine Linde and Dr. Rank arrive separately at the house. Dr. Rank visits the Helmers every day, but Nora hasn’t seen Mrs. Linde in years.
While Dr. Rank visits with Torvald in the study, Nora greets Mrs. Linde in the living room. Now a penniless widow, Mrs. Linde has come to ask Nora to use her influence with Torvald to secure a job for her at the bank. Mrs. Linde has lived a difficult life, supporting her ailing mother and her younger brothers; she is proud of the sacrifices she made for them. She views Nora’s life as having been easy and tells Nora she is still a child. To prove that she, too, has something to be proud of, Nora reveals that she secretly managed to borrow a huge sum of money to save Torvald’s life when he had been very ill; Nora has been paying the debt for years by scrimping and saving from her household funds, providing well for the children but spending almost nothing on herself. Mrs. Linde asks how Nora raised the money, since a woman can’t borrow money with her own signature, but Nora refuses to tell her. Mrs. Linde is shocked that Nora continues to keep her actions a secret from Torvald. While they are speaking, another visitor arrives, Nils Krogstad. Nora is alarmed that he has come to see her husband. Mrs. Linde avoids meeting Krogstad, a man she hasn’t seen in many years and barely recognizes.
Krogstad goes in to see Torvald. Dr. Rank comes into the living room to visit with Nora and Mrs. Linde. Dr. Rank observes that Krogstad is a man of bad character. Nora is shocked and alarmed to learn from Dr. Rank that Krogstad works at the bank Torvald will soon manage. After Krogstad leaves, Torvald joins Nora, Mrs. Linde, and Dr. Rank. Nora speaks on behalf of Mrs. Linde, and Torvald agrees to find a position for her at the bank. Mrs. Linde is very grateful and goes on her way. When the nurse brings the Helmers’ children in to see their mother, Torvald and Dr. Rank leave, too.
Nora is playing games with her children when Krogstad returns to speak to her alone. He verifies with Nora that the woman he had seen in the living room is Mrs. Linde and confirms his suspicion that Torvald will be hiring her at the bank. He is sure now that Torvald plans to fire him and demands that Nora use her influence to prevent his being dismissed. Krogstad is desperate; he had once destroyed his career, and he is only now rebuilding it.
Krogstad is blackmailing Nora. He arranged for her to borrow the money she needed when Torvald was dying, and he recently has discovered that she forged her father’s signature on the note after her father had died. He assumes correctly that Torvald is unaware of what Nora did. Although Nora has been making regular payments on the loan, Krogstad threatens to reveal the crime she committed if she fails to convince Torvald to keep him on at the bank. When Krogstad leaves, the children return, and Nora makes them promise they will not mention the “strange man” who had been there. Nora is distracted and worried by her conversation with Krogstad.
Torvald returns, having seen Krogstad leaving the house. Nora lies about anyone’s having been there; Torvald catches her in the lie and scolds her. He explains that Krogstad is corrupt. He not only forged signatures in the past, he refused to confess his crime and avoided punishment through “tricks and evasions.” Torvald condemns Krogstad as a bad influence who “has been poisoning his own children in an atmosphere of lies and deceit.” Torvald makes Nora promise she will never again “take [Krogstad’s] side” in the matter of his dismissal. Nora considers the possibility that she could be corrupting her children by living a life of lies. She dismisses the idea, but the thought fills her with fear.
The Christmas celebration is over, and Nora is afraid to leave the house for fear that Krogstad will come to see Torvald in her absence. Mrs. Linde returns and helps Nora with the costume she is to wear to a party the following evening where she will dance the tarantella for the guests. Mrs. Linde inquires about Dr. Rank, who had seemed depressed the previous day. Nora explains that Dr. Rank is very ill. Mrs. Linde advises Nora to break off her relationship with Dr. Rank, assuming incorrectly that he is the person from whom Nora borrowed money. Nora assures her she did not take money from him. Mrs. Linde subtly inquires if Nora might ask Dr. Rank for money now; Nora dismisses the idea, although she is sure Dr. Rank would help her. Mrs. Linde senses that Nora is distressed and wants to know what has happened, but their conversation is interrupted when Torvald comes home. Mrs. Linde leaves Nora alone with Torvald.
Nora begs Torvald to let Krogstad stay on at the bank. Krogstad, she says, “writes for the worst newspapers” and would destroy them out of revenge. She implores Torvald to change his mind, but he is adamant. Nora’s pleading makes it imperative that he fire Krogstad to avoid looking weak and ridiculous to his staff. Furthermore, he and Krogstad have known each other for many years, leading Krogstad to believe their being acquainted “entitles him to be familiar ….” Having Krogstad as an employee would be “intolerable” for Torvald in managing the bank. To end the discussion, Torvald sends the maid to deliver Krogstad’s letter of dismissal. Reassuring Nora that Krogstad is no real danger to them, he tells her to practice her dance and goes to his study to work as he waits for Dr. Rank’s daily visit. Nora is “transfixed by terror,” convinced that Krogstad will make good on his threats; she is now willing to do anything to prevent the disaster about to happen.
Dr. Rank comes to call on Torvald, but Nora detains him for a private talk. Dr. Rank says he most likely will be dead “within a month.” He plans to leave his card, marked with a black cross, in the Helmers’ letterbox to let them know “the worst is about to begin”; he doesn’t want Torvald at his deathbed because “Helmer’s refined nature can’t stand anything hideous.” Nora refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of Dr. Rank’s condition and keeps their conversation light; she teases Dr. Rank as she shows him her tarantella costume. When Dr. Rank speaks sadly of leaving nothing behind to show his gratitude for Nora’s and Torvald’s friendship, Nora turns the conversation to something she might ask of him, “advice and help and a favor.” Before Nora can be specific, however, Dr. Rank suddenly declares his love for her, which he has kept secret. Nora is shocked to learn how he feels, and his admission makes it impossible for her to ask him for money. She discourages Dr. Rank’s inappropriate comments but values his friendship and assures him he must continue to visit her and Torvald as usual.
Receiving word from the maid that Krogstad is waiting in the kitchen, Nora sends Dr. Rank into Torvald’s study; he and Torvald are to wait, Nora lies, while she tries on her costume. Nora bolts the door to the study and faces Krogstad in the living room. She tells Krogstad she couldn’t prevent his being fired. Krogstad reassures her that “the whole thing can be settled quite amiably” among the three of them. Krogstad will not return Nora’s note for any amount of money, and he has written Torvald a letter explaining everything. Money no longer motivates Krogstad; he wants to “rehabilitate” himself and his reputation by forcing Torvald to rehire him and create a higher position for him at the bank. Within a year, Krogstad says, he—not Torvald—will be bank manager. Krogstad knows that Nora has been thinking of taking her own life; it would do no good, he points out, because Nora’s reputation would still be in his hands. Krogstad leaves the house, and Nora hears him drop a letter into the mailbox.
When Mrs. Linde returns, Nora points out the letter waiting in the mailbox; she reveals it is Krogstad from whom she borrowed money and tells Mrs. Linde about forging her father’s signature on the note. Nora says Mrs. Linde must be her “witness”; if Nora is no longer there and “someone” tries to take responsibility for her crime, Mrs. Linde must say that only Nora was to blame. Nora then speaks of “the wonderful [sic] that’s about to happen,” something wonderful but so terrible it must not happen. Mrs. Linde vows to see Krogstad at once, since “he would have done anything for me” at one time. Krogstad, she says, must find a way to retrieve his letter before Torvald reads it.
After Mrs. Linde leaves, Nora unbolts the door of the study, and Torvald and Dr. Rank come into the living room. Nora asks Torvald to help her practice her dance; he readily agrees, but first he wants to check the mailbox to see if any letters have been delivered. Nora diverts his attention from the mail by practicing her dance. When Mrs. Linde returns, Nora is dancing in a wild, frantic way. Nora insists Torvald help her practice every minute until the party the next evening. When she says he is not “to read any letters—not to look in the mailbox,” Torvald knows Krogstad has sent him a letter, but he promises Nora he won’t read it until after the party.
Torvald and Dr. Rank go in to dinner, leaving Nora and Mrs. Linde in the living room. Krogstad has left town, Mrs. Linde tells Nora, and will return the next day; she left a note for him. Nora replies, “You shouldn’t have. I don’t want you to try to stop anything. You see, it’s a kind of ecstasy, too, this waiting for the wonderful.” Nora won’t explain what she is waiting for and sends Mrs. Linde to join Torvald and Dr. Rank. Now alone, Nora looks at her watch, calculates the hours until the party will be over the following evening, and observes that she has “thirty-one more hours to live.” When Torvald appears in the living room door, looking for her, Nora runs to him with open arms.
Mrs. Linde sits in the Helmers’ living room while Nora and Torvald attend the party; she is expecting a visit from Krogstad in response to her note. When he appears, Krogstad is puzzled by her request to see him, especially at the Helmers’ house, and he is angry with Mrs. Linde for leaving him years before to marry another man. Mrs. Linde reminds him that his prospects weren’t good at that time, and she couldn’t wait for him to succeed because she had an ailing mother and two younger brothers to support. Krogstad says her rejection ruined his life, and he is a “shipwrecked man on a raft.” Mrs. Linde explains that she, too, is “shipwrecked,” with no one to work for. Krogstad’s children need a mother, and she needs to be someone’s mother. Mrs. Linde proposes that they rekindle their relationship.
When Krogstad realizes she is aware of his tainted reputation and his blackmailing the Helmers and still wants to make a life with him, he quickly accepts the idea of their being together. The thought of it fills him with great happiness. Krogstad regrets writing the letter to Torvald and says he must get it back; Mrs. Linde says no. She now believes Torvald must read the letter because it is time for the “miserable secret” to be revealed so that the “concealment and evasion” end and Nora and Torvald can “come to a full understanding.” Krogstad reluctantly agrees and leaves quickly before the Helmers come home.
When Nora and Torvald return, Nora begs to go back to the party for “just another hour.” Torvald is surprised to find Mrs. Linde in their living room and excuses himself briefly. Mrs. Linde tells Nora that Krogstad is no danger to her, but she must tell Torvald the truth. Nora refuses. Mrs. Linde reminds her of the letter in the mailbox, and Nora replies, “Now I know what I have to do.” After Mrs. Linde leaves, Dr. Rank makes an unexpected visit. He, too, had attended the party and had enjoyed it, drinking a great deal of champagne. Dr. Rank’s pleasant conversation, however, is rife with veiled references to his terminal condition. After saying goodbye to his friends, Dr. Rank leaves, and Torvald collects the mail. He finds Dr. Rank’s card with a black cross. Nora explains the significance of the cross, which saddens Torvald. Gathering her strength, Nora sends him into his study to read the mail. Alone in the living room, Nora wraps herself in Torvald’s cape and visualizes her suicide; she says goodbye to Torvald and to her children.
As Nora is about to leave the house, planning to drown herself, Torvald throws open the door of his study, holding Krogstad’s letter. He is furious. Learning that Nora is aware of Krogstad’s allegations and that they are true, Torvald directs his fury at her, calling Nora a “wretch.” When she speaks of loving him, he accuses her of making excuses; when she says he must not sacrifice himself for her by taking the blame, he accuses her of playacting. As Torvald continues to berate her, Nora regards him with “an increasingly frozen expression.” She grows cold and calm as Torvald compares her to her father in an insulting way and charges that she has ruined his happiness and destroyed his future. He is not affected by Nora’s intention to commit suicide; her death would do him “not the slightest good at all,” Torvald points out, because Krogstad could still make the matter public and people would believe Torvald had been the instigator or Nora’s accomplice. The only course of action, Torvald declares, is to keep up appearances; he will allow Nora to continue living in the house, but he will not allow her to “bring up the children” because she cannot be trusted.
Torvald’s rant is interrupted when the maid brings a second letter from Krogstad; he has apologized and returned Nora’s note. Torvald destroys the note and both of Krogstad’s letters, telling Nora they are “saved” and he has forgiven her. Resuming his usual tone with Nora, he speaks of his love for her, even though she doesn’t “know how to act.” He assures Nora he will “shelter” her, as she is a “lost and helpless creature.” While Torvald continues in this vein, Nora changes her party costume for street clothes and returns to the living room.
Nora asks Torvald to sit with her because there is “much to talk about.” She has never been happy in their marriage because Torvald, like her father, did not allow her to think or to develop opinions of her own. The Helmers’ home has been a “playroom.” She has been Torvald’s “doll wife,” just as she had been her father’s “doll child” and had played with her own children as if they were dolls. “Somehow I have to grow up myself,” Nora explains. “And that’s why I’m leaving you.” Shocked, confused, angry, and afraid, Torvald offers one argument after another to convince her to stay, but Nora is not intimidated. She is not concerned with appearances; her responsibilities to herself as a human being, Nora declares, are as “sacred” as her duties to her husband and children. She will live independently, without Torvald’s help, as she determines for herself what to think and believe or accept and reject in regard to the tenets of society and religion. Nora wants no contact with the children. “The way I am now,” she says, “I can’t be anything to them.” She releases Torvald from a husband’s legal responsibilities and tells him not to write to her.
Nora hands Torvald her wedding ring and asks for his in return; it grieves him to give it to her. When Torvald says sadly that Nora no longer loves him, she agrees. Torvald is not the man she believed him to be. He was not willing to sacrifice himself to protect her, although she would not have allowed him to do it. He is a stranger to her. Torvald asks if he can ever again be more to her than a stranger. For that to occur, Nora says, “the most wonderful of all would have to happen.” They would both have to change so that they could live together in a “true marriage.” Nora picks up the small bag she has packed, tells Torvald goodbye, and leaves. Torvald looks around the room, “all empty” because Nora is gone. With “sudden hope,” he thinks of “the most wonderful.” The play concludes with the sound of the front door “slamming shut.”