Back to the Beginning: A Synopsis of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)

Torvald and Nora Helmer live a cheerful and comfortable life together with their three children. On Christmas Eve, the family is surprised by two unexpected visitors. At the door are family friend Dr. Rank, and Nora’s longtime friend from school, Mrs. Kristine Linde. Nora informs Mrs. Linde that the Helmers have recently seen some troubled times. Torvald had been very sick and needed to go on an extended trip for his recovery.

In private, Nora divulges to Mrs. Linde an overwhelming secret: when Torvald was ill, Nora told Torvald that she had borrowed money from her father to pay for his care. However, in reality, she had borrowed a great sum of money from the bank, which she’d forged her father’s signature to receive. Another visitor arrives to meet with Torvald: a notoriously disagreeable employee of Torvald’s, Krogstad. The two discuss business in private and Torvald exits, leaving Nora alone with Krogstad.

In danger of being fired by Torvald, Krogstad asks Nora to vouch for him to keep his job. When Nora refuses, Krogstad blackmails Nora, saying that he knows that her father’s signature was forged and that he will report her crime and bring shame to her family. Krogstad departs as Torvald returns, at which point Nora begins to beg for Krogstad to keep his job. Torvald is unreceptive and explains that he finds the man, and all immoral people like him, to be repulsive.

It is now Christmas Day and Nora is preparing for a costume ball that she and Torvald will be attending. Despite Nora’s pleas, Torvald has delivered Krogstad his notice papers. Krogstad shows up soon after, furious about his dismissal, and says that he will out Nora unless she not only gets him his job back, but gets him a higher-paying job in the company. He then places a letter describing her indiscretions in the Helmers’ locked mailbox, leaving Nora in anguish.

While Nora and Torvald are away the costume ball, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad have a conversation, revealing that they had been in love many years ago, but Mrs. Linde had chosen another wealthier man over him. Her husband has recently passed and now she wants to be with Krogstad and care for his children. In his joy, he promises to get his letter back before Torvald reads it. However, Mrs. Linde recommends that he leave the letter in the mailbox, as she thinks Nora and Torvald’s relationship can only be improved if her secret is revealed.

Nora and Torvald arrive back at the house after the party. Though Torvald is in high spirits, Nora asks him to read Krogstad’s letter. Torvald is furious, calls Nora a liar, and tells her that she has destroyed his happiness and that he will not let her near their children. Moments later, he receives another letter from Krogstad clearing the Helmers of the loan. Torvald is thrilled by this change of events and tells Nora that he didn’t mean anything he’d said mere moments before. However, Nora has had a shift in thinking. She now realizes that, although they had been married for eight years, she and Torvald never really knew each other, and that Torvald only cared for her as a doll, something he could parade around and play with. Nora leaves Torvald and their children and shuts the door behind her, an act that George Bernard Shaw rightfully called “the door slam heard round the world.”