Last Updated on February 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854
On Christmas Eve, Nora Helmer arrives home in high spirits. She has just returned from going Christmas shopping. Her husband, Torvald, greets her and affectionately chides her for being a “spendthrift,” or someone who is irresponsible with money. In previous years, the Helmers had to live a very modest lifestyle on account of their limited financial resources. Nora claims she can be a bit more extravagant this year, because Torvald has received a major promotion at work.
Nora and Torvald’s playful bickering is interrupted by the arrival of two visitors: Dr. Rank, a family friend of the Helmers’, and Christine Linde, a former school friend of Nora’s. Dr. Rank and Torvald retire to Torvald’s room to talk. Mrs. Linde tentatively greets Nora, whom she has not seen in nearly a decade. Nora recalls hearing that Mrs. Linde is now a widow, and she offers her condolences. Mrs. Linde reveals that her husband’s death has left her destitute and alone. In turn, Nora reveals the hardships that plagued her first year of marriage. The Helmers were very poor, so both Nora and Torvald had to work. As a result of overwork, Torvald fell ill, forcing the Helmers to take an expensive trip to Italy to help him recover. Nora claims that her wealthy father funded the vacation.
After exchanging stories, Nora promises to help Mrs. Linde get a job at the bank that Torvald now manages. Mrs. Linde is grateful, but she offends Nora by insinuating that Nora does not understand true hardship. In response, Nora indignantly reveals that the money for the Helmers’ trip to Italy did not actually come from her father. Instead, to spare both Torvald and her dying father the stress, Nora took out an illegal loan by forging her father’s signature. Nora has spent the last several years paying off the loan in secret.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Krogstad, a low-level employee at the bank that Torvald manages. Both Nora and Mrs. Linde react uneasily to his presence. Krogstad hopes to speak to Torvald about bank business. As Krogstad enters Torvald’s study, Dr. Rank emerges and tells Nora and Mrs. Linde that Krogstad is “morally sick.”
After finishing his meeting with Krogstad, Torvald joins Nora, Mrs. Linde, and Doctor Rank in the living room. At Nora’s behest, Torvald agrees to find a position for Mrs. Linde at the bank. Torvald, Dr. Rank, and Mrs. Linde then depart, leaving Nora to play with her children. Krogstad interrupts the children’s playtime and he asks Nora to use her influence with Torvald to help him keep his job. When Nora refuses, Krogstad reminds her that he was the one who loaned her the money for the trip to Italy. As such, he has proof that she forged her father’s signature. He threatens to reveal the forgery if Nora does not help him keep his job.
Krogstad then departs. When Torvald returns home, Nora attempts to convince him not to fire Krogstad. However, Torvald asserts that morally corrupt men like Krogstad make him “sick.” He reveals that Krogstad also committed forgery, which ruined Krogstad’s professional and personal reputation. Torvald further states that fraudulent parents corrupt their children. The statement deeply distresses Nora.
The first word spoken in A Doll’s House is “hide,” foregrounding the importance of deception and illusion in the play. On the surface, Torvald and Nora appear to be a happy couple. However, between Nora’s decision to hide the macaroons she bought and her revelation to Mrs. Linde about the loan, the dishonesty pervading the Helmers’ marriage is immediately apparent. When Mrs. Linde asks Nora why she hides things from her husband, Nora’s response suggests that Torvald’s love is conditional on her performing the role that is expected of her.
In contrast to the silly and childish Nora, Mrs. Linde is mature and pragmatic. As a widow, Mrs. Linde has had to work hard to support herself and she has no illusions about the world. This perspective positions Mrs. Linde as a foil for Nora. Though Nora insists that her marriage is happy, Mrs. Linde expresses doubt about Nora’s rampant dishonesty.
The gendered nature of pride is also introduced in act I. For Nora, the loan is a source of pride. She feels that she did what was necessary to protect her family. Similarly, Mrs. Linde takes pride in having cared for her mother and brothers, at the expense of her own happiness. By contrast, Torvald and Krogstad both assert the importance of public reputation over private satisfaction. Torvald credits his promotion at the bank to his spotless reputation. For Krogstad, the remediation of his reputation is vital to his ability to care for his family. The struggling Krogstad foils the successful Torvald. Whereas Torvald has endured hardship in order to maintain his spotless reputation, Krogstad has endured hardship as a result of his soiled reputation. Their treatment of Nora also differs; while Torvald is condescending and paternalistic, Krogstad treats Nora as a rational human being and holds her accountable for her actions.
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