53 pages 1 hour read

Henrik Ibsen

A Doll's House

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1879

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Summary and Study Guide


A Doll’s House is a modern tragedy released in 1879 by Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen. Composed of three acts, the play is set in a Norwegian town of the author’s present day and mainly concerns Nora and Torvald Helmer, whose marriage implodes under the weight of Nora’s emotional, social, and political subjugation by Europe’s regressive gender norms. The play is well known for exploring the married woman’s bleak plight in a world dominated by men, shedding light on a problem that was underexposed in the late nineteenth century. The play also stirred outrage from dissidents who viewed its arguments as profane.

Act One begins in the days leading up to Christmas. Nora Helmer comes home with a number of packages and encounters Torvald in the study. Torvald quickly reveals his reductive and possessive view of Nora, calling her diminutive names such as “little squirrel.” The maid announces the arrival of Nora’s old friend Kristine Linde, who is looking for a job, and a family friend named Dr. Rank. Kristine relates that her life has been difficult after the death of her husband, who left her and her children destitute. Conveying her ignorance, Nora equates Kristine’s situation to her own experience traveling to Italy to help Torvald recover from an illness.

Kristine laments that she feels empty, and Nora comforts Kristine by saying she will ask Torvald to help Kristine find work. Nora also reveals that she illegally took out a loan to afford the trip to Italy by forging her father’s signature, since it’s illegal for women to operate bank accounts. Then, Torvald’s subordinate Krogstad arrives to speak with him. Dr. Rank leaves after mumbling that Krogstad is morally ill. Nora catches Torvald on his way out and learns that an opening has just been made for someone like Kristine. Krogstad approaches Nora in private and tells her that Torvald intends to fire him, then pleads with her to change Torvald’s mind. She initially declines, but then accepts after he threatens to tell Torvald about the illegal loan. When Nora confronts Torvald, he refuses her request on the grounds that Krogstad committed a forgery.

Act Two begins the following day. Kristine helps Nora fix a dress for an event she plans to attend with Torvald the next evening. Still worried about Krogstad’s threat, Nora begs her husband to hire him back. Torvald refuses, saying that Krogstad does not treat him as his proper superior. Dr. Rank appears and announces that he is terminally ill from tuberculosis; he confesses his love for Nora. Nora tries to cheer up the doctor, but emphasizes that she thinks of him as a friend. Krogstad soon arrives and tells Nora that he now plans to blackmail Torvald by leveraging his legal responsibility to fulfill her loan. He claims to have put a letter explaining what Nora did in Torvald’s sealed mailbox.

Nora confesses her predicament to Kristine. Having been in love with Krogstad long ago, Kristine tells Nora that she will do her best to make him change his mind. Nora prevents Torvald from checking his mail by pretending that she is anxious about their physical readiness for the dance at the costume party. She acts clueless for the entire evening so that Torvald has to focus on her. Everyone except Nora goes to dinner, and she thinks about committing suicide to spare Torvald from embarrassment.

Act Three begins with Kristine approaching Krogstad and claiming that she only married her husband for financial security, and that she wants to get back with Krogstad. This convinces Krogstad to rescind the letter to Torvald, but Kristine stops him, believing that Torvald’s knowledge will preserve the Helmers’ marriage.

Torvald forces Nora to leave the party and checks his mail, but is intercepted by Dr. Rank, who announces his goodbyes, claiming that his death is near. Torvald reads his mail as Nora prepares to kill herself. He lashes out at Nora for acting immorally, stating that he is now powerless against Krogstad and declaring that their marriage henceforth will be only for show. However, a letter then arrives from Krogstad rescinding his threat. This causes Torvald to retract his statements to Nora. At this point, Nora realizes that Torvald has no love for anyone but himself, and that he thinks of Nora merely as an object.

Suddenly, Nora snaps at Torvald. She tells him that she is leaving, that she knows he never loved her, and that they have been strangers for their entire marriage. Now disillusioned with her religion and her place in society, Nora compares herself to a doll in a toy house that has been abused and manipulated for Torvald’s pleasure. She reveals that she had expected Torvald to be on her side and to risk his reputation to defend her, and that she nearly committed suicide in order to save his reputation. Torvald blanks in response, still unable to empathize with women because he only knows how to belittle them. Nora discards her house keys and wedding ring, causing Torvald to sob as he registers the scene. Nora walks out into the world, slamming the door behind her.

A play about society’s deep internalization of male supremacy, A Doll’s House illuminates the irony that it can be both obvious and unconscious. Nora’s inner turmoil festers as she is repeatedly dismissed by Torvald, leading to a tipping point where she realizes she can only reclaim her voice by leaving the oppressive domestic world.