A Doll's House Summary

Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House portrays the disintegration of the marriage between Nora and Torvald Helmer in the wake of a major revelation. 

  • Nora, a seemingly frivolous housewife, has secretly been working to pay off a loan she took out illegally in order to save Torvald's life.

  • Krogstad, the man who gave Nora the loan, begins blackmailing her after he is fired from his job at Torvald's bank. 

  • Nora works to keep Torvald from discovering her secret, but he eventually finds out and, contrary to Nora's expectations, berates her harshly and refuses to listen to her reasons for borrowing the money. 
  • Nora, disillusioned by Torvald's reaction, decides to leave him and her children.

Summary

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Last Updated on September 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546

Introduction

First performed in December of 1879, Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll’s House was met with both incredible success and immediate criticism for its, at the time, highly controversial views on marriage and family. The play follows Nora Helmer, a middle-class housewife, as she confronts the consequences of an illegal loan she took out in order to save her husband Torvald’s life. However, as she navigates Victorian gender roles and dismantles the illusions that plague her marriage, she realizes that she is no longer content to be anyone’s “doll wife.” Whereas critics claimed A Doll's House threatened to dismantle traditional Victorian values, fans found its realistic, complex depictions of individuals and families relatable, inspiring, and refreshing.

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Plot Summary

Act I of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House opens with Nora Helmer arriving home from a Christmas shopping trip. Her husband, Torvald, greets her and playfully chastises her for spending so much money. Nora argues that since Torvald was recently promoted at work, the Helmers have more financial leeway than they have had in previous years. As they talk, the doorbell rings. The Helmers’ maid Helene informs them that two guests have arrived: Dr. Rank, a close family friend who is terminally ill, and, much to Nora’s shock, her old school friend Christine Linde.

After the guests are admitted, Dr. Rank and Torvald meet in Torvald’s study while Nora and Mrs. Linde remain in the sitting room. Nora pityingly remarks that Mrs. Linde is now a childless widow and apologizes for not staying in touch after marrying Torvald. Mrs. Linde explains that she has lived a hard life since her husband died and feels lost with no one to care for. Mrs. Linde hopes Nora might convince Torvald to give her a job at the bank that he now manages, which Nora agrees to do.

Nora then recounts the woes of her own first year of marriage, wherein Torvald fell ill from overwork. To restore his health, the Helmers had to take an expensive trip to Italy. At first, Nora claims that her wealthy father gave them the money. However, after Mrs. Linde insinuates that Nora does not understand true suffering, Nora reveals that she acquired the money by taking out a loan—something she should not have legally been able to do.

When a low-level bank employee named Krogstad arrives requesting to see Torvald, both Nora and Mrs. Linde react uneasily. Dr. Rank, who joins Mrs. Linde and Nora in order to give Torvald and Krogstad privacy, calls Krogstad “morally sick.”

After Torvald and Krogstad’s meeting ends, Torvald, Dr. Rank, and Mrs. Linde depart the Helmers’ home, leaving Nora to play with her children. Krogstad soon arrives to speak with Nora privately, revealing that he is the source of her loan. Furthermore, he reveals that he knows Nora illegally forged her father’s signature on the bond. Torvald intends to fire Krogstad from the bank, so Krogstad uses the proof of Nora’s forgery to blackmail her into advocating for him.

When Torvald returns home, Nora attempts to convince him to keep Krogstad employed at the bank. Torvald chastises her for advocating for Krogstad and reveals that the original crime that ruined Krogstad’s reputation was forgery. Torvald further insinuates that people who lie and keep secrets corrupt their families. This opinion disturbs Nora.

As act II opens, Nora nervously paces the living room. Her maid Anne-Marie arrives with the dress that Nora will be wearing to a party the next night. As Nora and Anne-Marie converse, Nora reveals that she has been avoiding seeing her children. She also laments that they would probably forget about her if she left for good.

Mrs. Linde arrives to help Nora mend her dress for the party. She interrogates Nora about her relationship with Dr. Rank, implying that Nora may have received the money from him. Nora denies the accusation but seems intrigued by the idea. Their conversation is interrupted by Torvald’s arrival. Nora once again attempts to convince Torvald not to fire Krogstad. She tells him that she is worried that Krogstad will write slanderous articles about the Helmers. Torvald reassures her that he will handle any fallout, which only distresses Nora further. She vows not to allow Torvald to take the fall for her actions.

Dr. Rank arrives soon after and informs Nora that he will die soon. He asks Nora not to tell Torvald, because Torvald does not handle “ugly” things well. As they talk, Nora asks Dr. Rank if he would do her a favor. He agrees and adds that he would do anything for her, because he is in love with her. Unsettled by his remarks, Nora scolds Dr. Rank and refuses to tell him what favor she had planned to ask him for. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a visitor. Knowing that it is Krogstad, Nora asks Dr. Rank to keep Torvald occupied, claiming that she does not want her husband to see her in her finished dress.

Krogstad reveals that he has received his dismissal letter. He tells Nora that he does not intend to publicly expose her forgery. Instead, he plans to blackmail Torvald into giving him a promotion at the bank to mend his reputation. Nora threatens to end her own life to spare Torvald the scandal, but Krogstad tells her that it will not change anything; Torvald is still socially accountable for her actions. As he leaves, Krogstad drops a letter explaining Nora’s actions into the Helmers’ letter box.

After Krogstad leaves, Nora frantically reveals everything to Mrs. Linde. Shocked, Mrs. Linde informs Nora that she and Krogstad used to be romantically involved. Mrs. Linde promises to try to convince Krogstad to take his letter back. In the meantime, Nora attempts to prevent Torvald from reading the letter. She asks him to help her rehearse the dance she is set to perform at the party the next night. Torvald indulgently agrees.

Mrs. Linde returns with the news that Krogstad has left town and will not return until the following night. Mrs. Linde left a letter for him and plans to speak with him when he returns. An increasingly desperate Nora redoubles her efforts to distract Torvald from the letters.

Act III begins on the following evening. The Helmers are attending a party, and Mrs. Linde is waiting in the Helmers’ home for Krogstad. When Krogstad arrives, he is initially hostile towards Mrs. Linde, accusing her of abandoning him for a richer man. Mrs. Linde tells him that she did what she had to do in order to provide for her family. After revealing their mutually unhappy circumstances, the two reconcile and agree to marry. Krogstad remorsefully agrees to take his letter back, but Mrs. Linde stops him. She believes that it is important for Nora to be honest with Torvald. Krogstad then departs after agreeing to send a second letter clarifying that he no longer intends to use Nora’s forgery against the Helmers.

Shortly afterwards, Nora and Torvald return from the party. Mrs. Linde greets them and tells a dejected Nora that Krogstad has not taken the letter back. Mrs. Linde then departs, and Dr. Rank arrives. Using coded metaphors, he tells Nora that his disease has progressed to a fatal point and that he plans to lock himself away in order to die. Nora tells him to “sleep well” and asks him to wish the same for her.

After Dr. Rank leaves, Torvald checks the letter box. The first letter is Dr. Rank’s death notice. Torvald is saddened to hear about his friend’s impending death. He retires to his study to read the other letters. Nora hurriedly prepares to leave the house, intending to end her own life. Before she can leave, Torvald confronts her about Krogstad’s letter. Rather than behaving in the chivalrous fashion Nora imagined he would, Torvald furiously berates her. He threatens to bar her from seeing her children, because he believes she would corrupt them. Furthermore, rather than risk the damage to his reputation, he plans to go along with Krogstad’s demands. Nora grows increasingly cold as Torvald reprimands her. She realizes that he is not the man she thought he was.

Torvald’s diatribe is interrupted by the arrival of Krogstad’s second letter. The second letter contains Nora’s bond and a promise from Krogstad that the Helmers have nothing to fear from him. Torvald is overjoyed, and he immediately claims to have forgiven Nora for everything. However, after seeing Torvald’s reaction to the first letter, Nora decides to leave him. She accuses both Torvald and her father of infantilizing her, treating her like a “doll” rather than a rational human being. Torvald attempts to convince her to stay by citing the social, moral, and religious repercussions of her leaving. However, Nora insists that she must become independent and learn to think for herself. She insists that the laws prohibiting women from taking out loans are unjust, and she points out that Torvald would have died had she not taken him to Italy. Despite Torvald’s begging, Nora leaves him and her children. The final stage direction depicts Nora shutting the door behind her as she leaves.

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