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\Studyworld\ Studyworld Studynotes \ Doll's House, A:
Plot Summary

Dramatis personae:

Torvald Helmer

Nora, his wife

Dr. Rank

Mrs. Christine Linde

Nils Krogstad

Helmer and Nora's three young children

Anne, their nurse

A Housemaid

A Porter

Torvald and Nora Helmer are a middle-class couple, married eight years. They have three children. It is Christmas Eve, and Nora has just finished some last-minute shopping. She is excited because she has not needed to economize this holiday, since her husband has just been promoted to bank manager. With his salary increase, they will finally be able to live comfortably and securely. Helmer warns his wife to be careful, however: The raise has not taken effect yet, and they must be frugal until it does. He thinks of Nora as a "little spendthrift" whom he must keep in check. This is in keeping with his view of her generally: She is not really a person to him but rather a doll, a plaything, or a child. He calls her pet names, asks her to do tricks for him, scolds her when she's been "naughty" or "silly." Nora, in turn, plays along. She acts helpless and vulnerable when she wants something; she pouts and wheedles when she doesn't get her way; she keeps herself pretty and merry to please him.

To some extent, Nora plays the doll unconsciously; it has always been her role, and she has never questioned it. But there is also an element of conscious deception in it. What Helmer does not know is that most of the spending money he has given his wife over the years has not gone for clothes and trinkets, but rather to pay off a secret loan she had taken out when they were first married. Helmer had been ill, near death, and the doctors had prescribed a trip to Italy to restore him. The young couple hadn't the money for such a trip, so Nora, desperate to save her husband's life, had borrowed it, forging her father's co-signature on the note. (Her father was dying at the time, and she hadn't wanted to distress him with news of Helmer's illness.) Then she had convinced Helmer that her father had given them the funds. Ever since, Nora has been repaying the loan in secret, economizing and plotting at every turn to make her small allowances from Helmer cover the payments. One Christmas she even did copying work on the sly, just to earn extra money. Now that Helmer has been promoted, though, she hopes to pay off the remaining sum and be free of her burden forever.

We learn Nora's secret (except for the forgery part) when she confides it to an old schoolfriend, Mrs. Christine Linde, who turns up at her door on Christmas Eve, seeking work at the bank. Mrs. Linde has had a hard life. When she was young, she was in love with a poor man whom she had to reject in favor of one who was better off, because her father was dead and she had to provide for her dying mother and two young brothers. Now her mother and husband are dead, her brothers are grown, and she is lonely. As we learn later, she has come back not just to find work at the bank but also to seek out the poor man whom she jilted long ago, and whom she thinks she still loves.

Nora asks Helmer if he might have a job for her old friend, and after a brief conversation with Mrs. Linde he says that he does. As it turns out, Helmer plans to make room for Mrs. Linde by firing a clerk named Nils Krogstad. Unfortunately, Krogstad is the moneylender to whom Nora is in debt, and he is also the man whom Mrs. Linde rejected years ago.

When Krogstad finds out that he is soon to be dismissed, he calls on Nora. She treats him haughtily, confident that once she has paid him off he will let her alone. But he has decided that, since he has her in his power, he will use her to keep his job at the bank. He commands her to make Helmer keep him on, and he threatens to expose her if she does not succeed. Nora panics at the thought of Helmer discovering her secret, and so she petitions him on Krogstad's account. But her meddling only angers him. He claims to dislike Krogstad for his bad moral character� Krogstad lost his reputation years ago by committing forgery�but what really bothers Helmer, we learn, is that Krogstad does not treat him with enough deference at work. The two men had been childhood friends, says Helmer, but that does not give Krogstad the right to take a "familiar tone" with him, in front of other people. When Nora suggests that this is "narrow-minded" of Helmer, he gets even angrier and immediately sends Krogstad his letter of dismissal.

Krogstad writes a letter in return, telling Helmer about Nora's secret debt and her act of forgery. He drops the letter in their letterbox, as Nora looks on miserably (only Helmer has the key). Nora then tries to distract her husband from the letterbox. They will be attending a fancy-dress party the following night, and she will be going as a Neapolitan fishergirl who dances the tarantella. She tells Helmer that she cannot remember the dance and begs him to postpone all business until he has helped her. He is glad to come to the aid of his "little squirrel," so he plays the piano and instructs her while she dances and plays the tambourine. Their good friend Doctor Rank, who secretly loves Nora and is also secretly dying, looks on. Nora works herself into something of a frenzy, dancing violently, like a crazed puppet, while her husband pounds out the tune and shouts criticisms at her. When he finally stops her, she makes him promise not to read any letters until after the party. He agrees. Nora decides privately that once Helmer has read Krogstad's letter and "the wonderful thing has happened," she will commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Linde has gone to ask Krogstad to take back his letter before Helmer can read it. He is not home, so she leaves a note and returns just in time to see Nora's wild, desperate dancing. Mrs. Linde is shocked by what she sees. The next night, she waits for Krogstad in the Helmers' house, while the party is going on upstairs. When Krogstad arrives, he and Mrs. Linde talk about their past. She proposes that they forget the past and join forces now; she wants someone to work for and care for, she says. He hesitates at first, but her faith in him takes hold and he gratefully accepts her offer. He then promises to get his damaging letter back from Helmer unread. Surprisingly, however, Mrs. Linde tells him not to. She believes now that what Nora and Helmer need most is for the truth to come out. They need to come to an understanding, she says.

When the tarantella ends, Helmer brings Nora downstairs, almost by force, while she struggles frantically and begs to return to the party. Mrs. Linde lets Nora know that she must tell Helmer her secret, and Nora realizes that her life is almost over. After Mrs. Linde leaves, Helmer admits to Nora that the reason he brought her down so soon after her dance was because his "blood is on fire" for her. But Nora cannot think of sex, with the letter waiting there in the box and her suicide imminent. They are interrupted by Doctor Rank, who has come to say good-bye�forever, it turns out, because he is going off to die. After he leaves, Helmer gets his letters from the box and goes to his study. While she waits for him to read Krogstad's letter, Nora becomes more and more agitated, talking to herself of her impending suicide. Then Helmer bursts in, letter in hand, and confronts her.

The "wonderful thing" that Nora had hoped and feared would happen was that Helmer would, upon learning of her trouble, heroically take all the blame on himself in order to protect her from the law and cruel society. This is why she planned to kill herself�to protect him from that trouble in turn. But Helmer responds much differently than she had expected. He is angry, calls her a miserable creature, a liar and a criminal; he tells her she is unfit to raise his children, says he no longer loves her. His main worry is not her but himself�his own reputation and status. As he talks, she realizes this, and she becomes coldly silent. Then while Helmer is fuming, another letter from Krogstad is delivered, in which he says he has found a new life and no longer wishes to ruin them, so he is returning the incriminating bond with the forged signature. Helmer is overjoyed. He burns the bond and the letters, and tells Nora he forgives her. He will keep her more closely guarded in the future, he says, since she is so clueless, such a child. But by now, Nora has undergone a complete change. She astonishes him by putting on street clothes and packing a bag. She is leaving him. He does not understand. She explains that she has realized that he is a total stranger. For eight years they have been married, but she has been nothing to him but his doll. He has not loved her, only himself and his pretty plaything. She intends now to go out into the world and educate herself, to find out for herself who she is and what everything means. He begs her to stay, but she refuses. The last sound on-stage is of the door shutting behind her.

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