The play opens on the day before Christmas. Nora returns home from shopping; although her husband is expecting a promotion and payrise, he still criticizes her excessive spending. In response, Nora plays around with her husband as a child might, and, indeed, Torvald addresses her as he might a child. He hands her more money but only after having criticized her spending. Their relationship compares with that of a daughter and father and, indeed, is exactly like the relationship Nora had with her father. Early in this act the audience is aware that the relationship between the Helmers is based on dishonesty when Nora denies that she has eaten macaroons, knowing that her husband has forbidden her to do so.
Nora is visited by an old friend, Christine Linde. Mrs. Linde tells Nora that she has had some difficult problems and is looking for employment. Nora confesses to Mrs. Linde that she, too, has been desperate and reveals that she had been forced to borrow money several years earlier when her husband was ill. The money was necessary to finance a trip that saved her husband’s life, but Nora forged her father’s signature to secure the loan and lied to Torvald that her father had given them the money. Thus, she has been deceiving her husband for years as she worked to repay the loan. She tells this story to Mrs. Linde to demonstrate that she is an adult who is capable of both caring for her family and conducting business. Unfortunately, Nora’s secret is known by Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank. After a confrontation with Krogstad, Torvald decides to fire Krogstad and hire Mrs. Linde in his place.
Krogstad threatens Nora, telling her that if he loses his job he will expose her earlier dishonesty. For her part, Nora cannot believe that forging her father’s signature – an act that saved her husband’s life – could lead to a serious punishment. Still, she is concerned enough to plead with Torvald on behalf of Krogstad. Torvald refuses to reconsider firing Krogstad and forbids Nora to even mention his name.
The Helmers’ house is decorated tastefully, showing they are relatively well-off. Nora’s happiness as she returns with the Christmas shopping reveals that she enjoys both spending money and doing nice things for her husband and children. At the same time, it will soon become clear that eating the macaroons is an act of deceit and disobedience, as she has been forbidden by Torvald.
Torvald’s nicknames for Nora suggest that he thinks of her almost as a child or a pet. This impression is emphasized when Nora hides the macaroons, like a mischievous child afraid of getting caught. Torvald’s parent-like attitude is highlighted by the way he talks to Nora about money, implying that he thinks she’s not intelligent enough to be financially responsible.
Nora’s happiness shows she enjoys performing the role of a wife and mother. At the same time, her request for money to buy something for herself suggests she wants to be allowed to make decisions for herself. But Torvald clearly doesn’t trust Nora with the money.
Even though Torvald and Nora appear to be in love, Torvald does not trust her, and Nora on her part doesn’t hesitate to lie to him; she was eating macaroons earlier.
Money is central to Torvald and Nora’s happiness. Torvald’s emphasis on their new prosperity suggests how important money is to him as well.
Mrs. Linde has been visibly changed by her life experiences. Nora’s happiness in the last eight years has left her remaining girlishly innocent and naive, whereas Mrs. Linde seems much older. Mrs. Linde’s decision to travel alone was unusual for women at the time, and Nora’s admiration of her “courage” suggests a desire for independence. Mrs. Linde’s status as a widow adds to the impression that she is much older than Nora.
In this part of the play Nora is childishly impolite. Mrs. Linde is obviously in a bad situation following the death of her husband, yet instead of listening to her Nora begins to insensitively boast about her and Torvald’s good fortune. Her speech also shows that she believes money leads to freedom and happiness.
Mrs. Linde’s story shows how difficult it was for women to survive without the financial support of men. The need for money effectively forced her to marry her husband, and after his death her struggle to support her family highlights the obstacles women faced in earning a reasonable income.
Both Mrs. Linde and Nora have strange and suspicious reactions to Krogstad’s arrival. Thus when Krogstad claims he is here on “routine” business matters, we are tempted to believe there is more to the story.
Here, Krogstad reveals more about Nora’s deceitful nature; not only did she lie to Torvald (and everyone else) about where the money for the trip to Italy came from, but she also committed forgery, an illegal act. He threatens to reveal the secret unless she does him a particular favour. Nora is terrified to the point that she even seems to be going mad.
Mrs. Linde stops by to help Nora prepare for a costume ball. Nora explains to Mrs. Linde that Krogstad is blackmailing her about the earlier loan. After Nora again begs Torvald not to fire Krogstad, her husband sends Krogstad an immediate notice of his dismissal. Nora is desperate and decides to ask help from Dr. Rank, a family friend, for a loan, to clear Krogstad. Before she can ask him for his help, Dr. Rank makes it obvious that he is in love with her and Nora decides that because of this it would be unwise to ask his help. Krogstad visits Nora once again and this time leaves a letter for Torvald in which Nora’s dishonesty is revealed. To divert Torvald’s attention from the Krogstad’s letter in the mailbox, Nora engages him to help with her practice of the dance she is to perform, the tarantella. Finally, Nora asks Torvald to promise that he will not read the mail until after the party.
In the opening of the second act, the stripped Christmas tree not only shows that time has passed, but also symbolizes a negative shift from the joy of Christmas to a sense of ruin and chaos. Nora’s obsession in checking to see if any person or letter has arrived and assurances that no one will come for two days gives a sense of time running out and impending disaster.
Nora cannot think of anything else but her secret and the possibility of someone finding out. She tries to occupy herself with the clothes but is unable to.
As the play progresses, it becomes more and more clear how possessive Torvald is. Nora’s pride at saying Dr. Rank is “her” friend suggests she doesn’t really have many friends now that she is married. Nora believes that the reason that Torvald is so controlling is because he is so in love with her.
Nora seems increasingly desperate and crazed. Her mutterings to herself when she is alone show the effect that concealing her secret in front of others is having on her. She lies easily to Dr. Rank, showing how natural lying has become to her.
Nora flirts with Dr. Rank in a very provocative manner. When she teases him with the stockings, this is a very explicit sexual gesture. Her promise to dance for him likewise betrays a disregard for the boundaries of her marriage and a delight in displaying her femininity and sexuality.
Nora is almost asking Dr. Rank to help with keeping the secret of the debt from Torvald, but she is stopped by his confession of love. The confession changes her view of Dr. Rank completely. Where before she perhaps thought flirtation was harmless, the fact that Dr. Rank seems to genuinely love her becomes too much to handle, and she retreats in a rather childlike way.
Krogstad is determined to keep his position at the bank, to the extent of lacking etiquette for Nora, which shows he is desperate. Meanwhile, Nora must cover her tracts in front of everyone—even the maid—hence increasing her isolation.
In this act, it is revealed that Krogstad had years earlier been in love with Mrs. Linde. At the beginning of this act they agree to marry, and Krogstad offers to retrieve his letter from Torvald. However, Mrs. Linde disagrees and thinks that it is time that Nora is forced to confront the dishonesty in her marriage. After the party, the Helmers return home and Torvald opens the letter from Krogstad. While Torvald reads it in his study, Nora pictures herself as dead, having committed suicide by drowning in the icy river. Torvald interrupts her fantasy by demanding that she explains her deception.
However, he refuses to listen and is only concerned with the damage to his own reputation. Torvald’s focus on his own life and his lack of appreciation for the suffering undergone by Nora serve to open her eyes to her husband’s selfishness. She had been expecting Torvald to rescue her and protect her, and instead he only condemns her and insists that she is not fit to be a mother to their children.
At that moment another letter arrives from Krogstad telling the Helmers that he will not take legal action against Nora. Torvald is immediately excited and is willing to forget the entire episode. But having seen her husband revealed as self-centered, egoistic and hypocritical, Nora tells him that she can no longer live as a doll and expresses her intention to leave the house immediately. Torvald begs her to stay, but the play ends with Nora leaving the house, her husband, and her children.
Here, Mrs. Linde radically disrupts the course of events in the play. While it would have been easier for her to ask Krogstad to get his letter back, thereby ensuring that life between the Helmers went on as normal, Mrs. Linde’s belief in honesty triumphs over her promise to Nora. This finally benefits Nora, as Torvald’s behaviour when he reads the letter allows her to see the reality of her situation and that she no longer wants to remain in her marriage.
In this act it is clear that Torvald is thinking of Nora far more as a possession that he can display in order to impress other people than a real person with her own thoughts and feelings. To him, Nora was at the party merely to perform for the enjoyment of him and others, not to have a good time herself.
Nora’s bitterness toward Mrs. Linde because she did not get Krogstad to retrieve the letter shows that she has cut herself off even from her close friends in her obsession with the secret of the debt. All the hope and innocence seems to have drained out of her, and she has become a much more serious, grave person.
In his speech we see that Torvald’s love and desire for Nora is revealed to be cosmetic, rather than an appreciation for whom she truly is as a person. He talks about his sexual desire for her with no consideration of whether she is feeling the same way at the moment; indeed, when she tells him that she doesn’t want to be with him that night, he dismisses her feelings by saying she must be playing a game. In reminding her that he is her husband, Torvald is suggesting that their marriage means Nora does not have the right to refuse sex with him, a commonly held belief at the time.
Nora is preparing to kill herself, perhaps the ultimate symbol of self-sacrifice. Her whispering murmurs on the stage suggest that she is becoming mad.
Throughout this whole section of the play Torvald only thinks of himself and doesn’t pause to consider the way Nora has been and will be affected by Krogstad’s threats, or that Nora did what she did purely out of love for him.
Nora has evidently undergone a transformation both visually and in the way she speaks to Torvald. For the first time, she is addressing him as an equal and demanding that he treats her with respect by listening and not interrupting.
Finally, Nora conducts what can be considered an unofficial divorce ceremony. Although Torvald doesn’t want her to go, the fact that he agrees to give her his ring and not to write or try to help her shows that he finally respects her wishes and ability to make decisions for herself.