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.
On the day before Christmas, Nora Helmer busies herself with last-minute shopping, for this is the first Christmas since her marriage that she does not have to economize. Her husband, Torvald, is made manager of a bank and after the New Year their money troubles are over. She buys a tree and plenty of toys for the children and even indulges herself in some macaroons, her favorite confection, although Torvald does not entirely approve. He loves his wife dearly, but he regards her very much as her own father did, as an amusing doll—a plaything.
It is true that she does behave like a child sometimes in her relations with her husband. She pouts, wheedles, and chatters because Torvald expects these things; he would not love his wife without them. Actually, seven years earlier Nora demonstrated that she had the courage of a mature, loving woman. Just after her first child was born, when Torvald was ill and the doctor said that he would die unless he went abroad immediately, she borrowed the requisite two hundred and fifty pounds from Krogstad, a moneylender. She forged to the note the name of her father, who was dying at the time, and convinced Torvald that the money for his trip came from her father. However, Krogstad was exacting, and since then she devised various ways to meet the regular payments. When Torvald gives her money for new dresses and such things, she never spends more than half of it, and she finds other ways to earn money. One winter she does copying, which she keeps a secret from Torvald.
Krogstad, who is in the employ of the bank of which Torvald is now manager, is determined to use Torvald to advance his own fortunes. Torvald dislikes Krogstad, however, and is just as determined to be rid of him. The opportunity comes when Christina Linde, Nora’s old school friend, applies to Torvald for a position in the bank. Torvald resolves to dismiss Krogstad and hire Mrs. Linde in his place.
When Krogstad discovers that he is to be fired, he calls on Nora and tells her that if he is dismissed he will ruin her and her husband. He reminds her that the note supposedly signed by her father is dated three days after his death. Frightened at the turn matters take, Nora pleads unsuccessfully with Torvald to reinstate Krogstad in the bank. Krogstad, receiving from Torvald an official notice of his dismissal, writes a letter in which he reveals the full details of Nora’s forgery. He drops the letter in the mailbox outside the Helmer home.
Torvald is in a holiday mood. The following evening they are to attend a fancy dress ball, and Nora is to go as a Neapolitan fisher girl and dance the tarantella. To divert her husband’s attention from the mailbox outside, Nora practices her dance before Torvald and Dr. Rank, an old friend. Nora is desperate, not knowing quite which way to turn. She thinks of Mrs. Linde, with whom Krogstad at one time was in love. Mrs. Linde promises to do what she can to turn Krogstad from his avowed purpose. Nora thinks also of Dr. Rank, but when she begins to confide in him he makes it so obvious that he is in love with her that she cannot tell her secret. However, Torvald promises her not to go near the mailbox until after the ball.
What bothers Nora is not her own fate but Torvald’s. She imagines herself already dead, drowned in icy black water, and pictures the grief-stricken Torvald taking upon himself all the blame for what she did and being disgraced for her sake. In fact, Mrs. Linde, by promising to marry Krogstad and look after his children, succeeds in persuading him to withdraw all accusations against the Helmers. She realizes, however, that sooner or later Nora and Torvald will have to come to an understanding.
The crisis comes when Torvald reads Krogstad’s letter after their return from the ball. He accuses Nora of being a hypocrite, a liar, and a criminal and of having no religion, morality, or sense of duty. He declares that she is unfit to bring up her children and that she might remain in his household but will no longer be a part of it. When Krogstad’s second letter arrives, declaring that he intends to take no action against the Helmers, Torvald’s attitude changes, and with a sigh of relief he declares that he is saved.
For the first time, Nora sees her husband for what he is—a selfish, pretentious hypocrite with no regard for her position in the matter. She reminds him that no marriage can be built on inequality and announces her intention of leaving his house forever. Torvald cannot believe his ears and pleads with her to remain, but she declares she is going to try to become a reasonable human being, to understand the world—in short, to become a woman, not a doll to flatter Torvald’s selfish vanity. She goes out and, with irrevocable finality, slams the door of her doll house behind her.