Written in 1879 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House is a three act play about a seemingly typical housewife who becomes disillusioned and dissatisfied with her condescending husband.
Set around Christmas time, Nora Helmer enters her home, truly enjoying life. An old widow friend from her past, Mrs. Linde, stops by hoping to find a job. Nora’s husband Torvald recently earned a promotion, so she happily finds employment for Mrs. Linde. When her friend complains how hard the years have been, Nora replies that her life has been filled with challenges too.
Nora discreetly explains that several years ago, when Torvald Helmer was very ill, she forged her dead father’s signature in order to illegally obtain a loan. Since then, she has been paying back the loan in secret. She has never told her husband because she knows it would upset him.
Unfortunately, a bitter bank employee named Nils Krogstad is the man who collects the debt payments. Knowing that Torvald is soon to be promoted, he tries using his knowledge of her forgery to blackmail Nora. He wants to insure his position at the bank; otherwise he will reveal the truth to Torvald and perhaps even the police.
This turn of events greatly upsets Nora. However, she keeps the truth concealed from her husband, as well as Dr. Rank, a kind yet sickly old friend of the Helmers. She tries to distract herself by playing with her three children. However, by the ending of Act One she begins to feel trapped and desperate.
Throughout the second act, Nora tries to concoct ways to prevent Krogstad from revealing the truth. She has tried to coerce her husband, asking him to let Krogstad keep his job. However, Helmer believes the man possesses criminal tendencies. Therefore, he is bent on removing Krogstad from his post.
Nora tries asking Dr. Rank for help, but she is put off when Dr. Rank becomes too flirtatious with her and claims that he cares for her just as much, if not more, than her husband.
Later, the Helmers prepare for a holiday ball. Torvald watches Nora perform a traditional folk dance. He is disappointed that she has forgotten much of what he has taught her. Here, the audience witnesses one of the many scenes in which Torvald patronizes his wife as though she were a child, or his play-thing. (Hence, Ibsen titled the play: A Doll’s House). Torvald constantly calls her pet names such as “my song bird” and “my little squirrel.” Yet, he never speaks to her with any degree of mutual respect.
Eventually, Mrs. Linde tells Nora that she had a romantic attachment to Krogstad in the past, and that she can perhaps persuade him to relent. However, Krogstad does not sway in his position. By the end of Act Two, it seems that Torvald is bound to discover the truth. Nora is ashamed of this possibility. She contemplates jumping into an icy river. She believes that if she does not commit suicide, Torvald will bravely assume responsibility for her crimes. She believes that he would go to jail instead of her. Therefore, she wants to sacrifice herself for his benefit.
Mrs. Linde and Krogstad meet for the first time in years. At first Krogstad is bitter towards her, but she soon rekindles their romantic interest towards one another. Krogstad even has a change of heart and considers tearing up Nora’s IOU. However, Mrs. Linde believes it would be best if Torvald and Nora finally confront the truth.
After returning from the party, Nora and Torvald unwind at home. Torvald discusses how he enjoys watching her at parties, pretending that he is encountering her for the first time. Dr. Rank knocks on the door, interrupting the conversation. He says goodbye to them, hinting that he will be shutting himself up in his room until his sickness finally wins.
After Dr. Rank’s departure, Torvald discovers Krogstad’s incriminating note. When he realizes the criminal act that Nora has committed, Torvald becomes enraged. He fumes about how Krogstad can now make any demand he wishes. He declares that Nora is immoral, unfit as a wife and mother. Even worse, Torvald says that he will continue to be married to her in name alone. He wants to have no romantic connection to her whatsoever.
The irony of this scene is that moments before, Torvald was discussing how he wished that Nora faced some sort of peril, so that he could prove his love for her. Yet, once that peril is actually presented, he has no intention of saving her, only condemning her actions.
Moments after Torvald raves like a madman, Krogstad drops another note saying that he has rediscovered love, and that he no longer wants to blackmail the Helmer family. Torvald rejoices, declaring that they are saved. He then, in a moment of sheer hypocrisy, states that he forgives Nora, and that he still loves her as his little “caged song bird.”
This is a startling wake-up call for Nora Helmer. In a flash, she realizes that Torvald is not the loving, selfless husband she had once envisioned. With that epiphany, she also comes to understand that their marriage has been a lie, and that she herself has been an active part in the deception. She then decides to leave her husband and her children in order to find out who she truly is.
Torvald desperately begs her to stay. He claims that he will change. She says that perhaps if a “miracle of miracles” happens they might one day become suitable companions. However, when she leaves, slamming the door behind her, Torvald is left with very little hope.