'A Doll's House' Summary

Table of Contents

Written in 1879 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House is a three-act play about a housewife who becomes disillusioned and dissatisfied with her condescending husband. The play raises universal issues and questions that are applicable to societies worldwide. 

Act I

It’s Christmas Eve and Nora Helmer has just returned home from a Christmas shopping spree. Her husband Torvald teases her for her largesse, calling her "little squirrel.” The Helmers’ financial situation changed in the past year; Torvald is now up for a promotion, and for this reason Nora thought that she could spend a little more.

Two visitors join the Helmer household: Kristine Linder and Dr. Rand, two old friends of Nora’s and the Helmers', respectively. Kristine is in town looking for a job, as her husband died leaving her with no money or children, and now she feels “unspeakably empty” despite not feeling any grief. Nora reveals some hardship she and her husband faced in the past, when Torvald became sick and they had to travel to Italy so he could recover.

Nora promises Kristine that she will ask Torvald about a job for her, now that he is up for that promotion. To that, Kristine replies that Nora is like a child, which offends her. Nora starts telling Kristine that she got the money to take Torvald to Italy from some secret admirer, but she told Torvald that her father gave her the money. What she did was take an illegal loan, as women back then were not even allowed to sign checks without their husband or father as guarantors. Over the years, she has slowly been paying it off by saving from her allowance.

Krogstad, a lower-level employee at Torvald's bank, arrives and goes into the study. Upon seeing him, Dr. Rank comments that the man is "morally diseased."

After Torvald is done with his meeting with Krogstad, Nora asks him if he can give Kristine a position at the bank and Torvald lets her know that, luckily for her friend, a position has just become available and he can likely give Kristine the spot. 

The nanny returns with the Helmers’ three children and Nora plays with them for a while. Soon after, Krogstad resurfaces into the living room, surprising Nora. He reveals that Torvald intends to fire him at the bank and asks Nora to put a good word out for him, so that he can stay employed. When she refuses, Krogstad threatens to blackmail her and to reveal about the loan she took out for the trip to Italy, as he knows that she obtained it by forging her father's signature a few days after his death. When Torvald returns, Nora begs him not to fire Krogstad, but he refuses, exposing Krogstad as a liar, a hypocrite, and a criminal, as he forged a person’s signature. A man "poisoning his own children with lies and dissimulation” who makes him sick. 

Act II

The Helmers are to attend a costume party, and Nora is going to wear a Neapolitan-style dress, so Kristine arrives to help Nora repair it, since it was a little worn out. When Torvald returns from the bank, Nora reiterates her plea for him to reinstate Krogstad, expressing fear at the possibility that Krogstad will slander Torvald and ruin his career. Torvald acts dismissive again; he explains that, work performance notwithstanding, Krogstad must be fired because he is too familial around Torvald, addressing him by his “Christian name.” 

Dr. Rank arrives and Nora asks him for a favor. In turn, Rank reveals being now in the terminal stage of tuberculosis of the spine, and professing his love to her, and Nora appears more unnerved by the declaration of love than by Rank’s deteriorating health, and tells him she loves him dearly as a friend.

Krogstad comes back to the house, after being fired by Torvald. Krogstad confronts Nora, telling her he no longer cares about the remaining balance of Nora's loan. Instead, by preserving the associated bond, he intends to blackmail Torvald into not only keeping him employed but also giving him a promotion. While Nora still tries to plead her case, Krogstad informs her that he has written a letter detailing her crime and put it in Torvald's mailbox, which is locked.

At this point, Nora reverts to Kristine for help, asking her to convince Krogstad to relent. 

Torvald enters and tries to retrieve his mail, and since Krogstad’s incriminating letter is in the box, Nora distracts him and asks for help with the tarantella dance she intends to perform at the party, feigning performance anxiety. After the others have left, Nora stays behind and toys with the possibility of suicide in order to both save her husband from the shame he would endure and to prevent him from saving her honor in vain.

Act III

We learn that Kristine and Krogstad used to be lovers. While at Krogstad’s to plead Nora’s case, Kristine tells him that she only married her husband because it was convenient for her, but now that he is dead she can offer him her love again, and justifies her actions by blaming them on dire financial straits and on being lovelorn. This makes Krogstad change his mind, but Kristine determines that Torvald needs to know the truth anyway.

When the Helmers get back from their costume party, Torvald retrieves his letters. As he reads them, Nora mentally prepares to take her own life. Upon reading Krogstad’s letter, he becomes enraged at the fact that now he has to stoop to Krogstad’s requests in order to save face. He sternly berates his wife, claiming she is unfit to raise children, and resolves to keep the marriage for the sake of appearances. 

A maid enters, delivering a letter to Nora. It’s a letter from Krogstad, which clears Nora’s reputation and returns the incriminating bond. This makes Torvald exult that he is saved, and quickly takes back the words he spewed at Nora. 

At this point, Nora has an epiphany, as she realizes her husband only cares about appearances and loves himself above all other things. 

Torvald makes his situation even worse by saying that when a man has forgiven his wife, the love he feels for her is even stronger, because it reminds him that she is totally dependent on him, like a child. He chalks the difficult choices she had to make between her own integrity and her husband’s health to her endearingly feminine foolishness.

At this point, Nora tells Torvald that she is leaving him, feeling betrayed, disillusioned, and also feeling like she has lost her own religion. She needs to get away from her family in order to understand herself, as, all her life—first from her father, and then by her husband—she’s been treated like a doll to play with. 

Torvald brings up his concern with reputation again, and insists that she fulfill her duty as a wife and mother. To that, Nora replies that she has duties to herself that are just as important, and that she cannot be a good mother or wife without learning to be more than a plaything. She reveals she had actually planned to kill herself, expecting he would want to sacrifice his reputation for hers, but that was not the case.

After Nora leaves the keys and her wedding ring, Torvald breaks down crying. Nora then leaves the house, her action emphasized with her slamming of the front door.