Last Updated on September 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795
The play begins with Elise sitting alone in the family’s parlor, listening to her son, Fredrik, playing piano in the next room. She is acutely aware of her recently dead husband through her proximity to the sofa on which he died and due to her awareness of a dark presence she feels is lurking outside the house. In the opening scene, Elise has three visitors. The first is the cook Margret, who accuses her of not providing her children with sufficient nourishment, saying that her daughter has not matured physically as a woman and that her son suffers from constant cold because Elise will not light a fire for him. Elise’s defense is that her husband had not earned enough money, though Margret responds by suggesting he in fact earned a large salary. Margret has not enjoyed her time working with the family and informs Elise that she is now very keen to leave.
Fredrik then enters and complains to his mother that he has no money to finish his education. After Elise repeats her claim that her husband had not earned much money, and that he had left nothing of worth to the family, Fredrik remarks that his mother had the money to go on vacations and to eat expensive meals. Her attitude softens with the entrance of Axel, her daughter’s husband. Axel has returned early from his honeymoon to find out how much money he can take hold of after his father-in-law’s death, and Elise informs him that she suspects her son of having taken the whole inheritance. Axel helps her search the dead man’s desk until they find a letter that they cannot open immediately, since Axel’s wife, Gerda, has returned and is trying to get in through the locked door. Gerda’s suspicions about the door’s being locked are easily mitigated by her mother and husband, and the three discuss how the house is to be maintained given their new financial situation. Elise burns the letter after having confirmed that it was, in fact, intended for her son—and was far from complimentary about herself. She tries to convince Axel to elope with her, but he admits he only married Gerda to get his hands on the father’s fortune and is unsure how to proceed. Elise now realizes what kind of man her daughter has married.
In the second scene, Fredrik and Gerda conspire to punish their mother for her misdeeds. In reminding his sister of the mistreatment she has already suffered at the hands of her husband, in informing Gerda that their father had not wanted their marriage to go ahead in the first place, and in discovering the poorly burned letter containing evidence of Elise’s selfishness and potential affair with Axel, Fredrik is undoubtedly the orchestrator of this conspiracy. Once confronted by the evidence, however, Gerda snaps out of her figurative sleepwalking and confronts her husband, just back from his business meeting, with a series of sardonic jabs that leave him shaken. Elise enters and notes with horror that the father’s rocking chair, which began to move due to a powerful gust of wind at the end of the previous scene, has continued its motion long after the wind has ceased to blow.
The third scene of the play, much like the first, consists of Elise meeting with three characters in turn. The first is her daughter, who continues in her sardonic vein, intimating that she has become aware of her mother’s immoral behavior in the past. Panicking, Elise denies everything. Axel then arrives and calls Elise fat, an observation which has led him to the decision that, in the future, he will not give her any of his or Gerda’s food. Once the couple leave, Elise is confronted by an angry and wild Fredrik, who informs her that he is going out to get drunk. She is left alone with the rocking chair, which terrifies her more and more. After considering suicide, she falls asleep on the sofa.
The play’s final scene begins with Gerda entering the room and offering her mother porridge, in a mocking way that imitates how Elise has offered Gerda watered-down porridge all her life. When Elise repeats her insistence that she has done all she can for her children, Gerda becomes angry, and Elise responds by casting blame on her dead husband. At this precise moment, Fredrik bursts in to report that the house is on fire—a fire that he has, in fact, started. Elise flings herself off the balcony, landing in the garden, where the ghost of her husband is waiting. The two siblings embrace and die in the flames, both recalling rare happy memories from their childhood.