Very cheerful, the pretty and girlish Nora Helmer enters from the outdoors, humming a tune while she deposits her parcels on the hall table. "Is that my little lark twittering out there?" calls her husband, Torvald, from the study, and he emerges to greet her. They talk about their improved income because Torvald has just been appointed as bank manager, and Nora chatters about Christmas presents she has just purchased for the children. Torvald suspects that his "Miss Sweet Tooth" has been "breaking rules" by indulging herself in prohibited confection. Nora denies the accusation, but the audience has seen her pop macaroons in her mouth as she came in. Deftly, Nora changes the subject and talks about decorating the tree.
The maid tells Torvald that their family friend, Dr. Rank, awaits him in his room. When Torvald has gone, another visitor arrives to see Nora, and the two women, who have not seen each other for the past ten years, are alone onstage. Christine Linde, having just returned to her hometown, tells Nora all about her unfortunate life. Married unlovingly, widowed for the past three years, Christine experienced the hardships of a woman who was forced to make her own way. She points out that her toilsome life has aged her, while Nora is as innocent and childlike as ever. Nora declares that she too has worked and sacrificed all these years. Her toil has saved someone she loves, she boasts, and she tells Christine how she borrowed 250 pounds when Torvald's health was in such danger that he needed to go to a southern climate to improve his condition. She describes how she secretly repaid installments of the debt by stinting on her personal expenses and taking in copying work to do at night. Christine is amazed that Nora has not mentioned the matter to her husband in all these years. He would never consent to borrowing money, Nora explains, and involuntarily she exposes the real reason for the deception — to save face for Torvald:
"How painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything [says Nora]. It would upset our mutual relations altogether; our beautiful happy home would no longer be what it is now."
Christine, still amazed, asks if Nora will ever reveal her secret to Torvald. Some day she shall, answers the girl with a half-smile. It may be good to "have something in reserve" in future years when she is no longer as attractive as now, "when my dancing and dressing-up and reciting have palled on him," Nora says.
The maid announces another visitor for Torvald. The newcomer, Nils Krogstad, is a lawyer and moneylender who now works at the bank. Nora seems relieved when he says he has come merely to talk with Torvald about "dry business matters." Leaving the study to allow Krogstad a private talk with his chief, Dr. Rank emerges to greet the ladies. Obsessed with thoughts of illness, the physician characterizes Krogstad as "morally diseased." Like many of his physically diseased patients, he continues, the lawyer refuses to submit to his fate, despite great agony, in the hopes of a change in his position.
This idea draws a parallel between Krogstad's situation and that of Dr. Rank. The lawyer feels his job is threatened now that Torvald is his chief, while Rank, ill with a congenital disease, is close to losing his life. With this in mind, Ibsen indicates that Krogstad clings to his respectability, or moral health, just as Dr. Rank clings to whatever physical life he has left.
Now that he has dismissed his visitor, Torvald emerges from the study and meets Christine for the first time. Recommending that Torvald find a job for Christine, Nora makes up a little story to push her point. Her friend rushed to town, the wife relates, just as soon as she heard of Torvald's promotion in hopes of finding a place at the bank. "She is frightfully anxious to work under some clever man so as to perfect herself," concludes Nora despite Christine's remonstrances. "Very sensible," approves Torvald, and with a well-favored "we'll see what we can do" he resumes his visit with Rank in the study. Now that Christine has left to seek lodgings, Nora admits the nurse and loudly greets her three children.
During the noisy romp, Nora crawls under the table to play hide and seek. She emerges growling and the children shriek with laughter. No one has heard Krogstad's knock on the door. He enters, and when Nora emerges from under the table again, she gives a stifled cry at discovering her villain. Ushering the children out of the room, Nora is alone with Krogstad.
He has come, he says, to ask her to intercede with Torvald on his behalf, for only her influence can protect the job which Christine Linde might take from him. He tells her that, for the sake of his growing sons, he has been working to restore his fallen position in society and is prepared to fight for this small post in the bank as if he were "fighting for his life." Nora shows little interest until he says he is able to compel her to comply with his request. Krogstad reveals that he can prove she borrowed the 250 pounds from him by forging her father's signature. Her situation was desperate when she needed the money, Nora explains. Her father, who died soon afterward, was too ill at the time to be consulted about such matters. Surely it is no crime for a woman to do everything possible to save her husband's life, Nora declares. Forgery is a criminal act, Krogstad reminds her, and the law cares nothing about motivation. He tells her that the one false step in his own life, the one that ruined his reputation and his career "was nothing more nor nothing worse than what you have done." This is Nora's first confrontation with the harsh inflexibility of lawful society. For the last time, Krogstad asks Nora to help him keep his post. If necessary, he says, he would produce the forged bond in court. His parting words frighten Nora, and she tries to distract herself by considering her Christmas decorations.
Interrupting her thoughts, Torvald comes to ask what Krogstad wanted. He is angry at Nora's evasive answer, but she finally admits that the lawyer begged her to say a good word in his behalf. Torvald becomes agreeable after Nora coaxes him to be her supervisor in choosing her costume for the fancy dress party they are to attend the next evening. Then she slowly leads the talk back to Krogstad. He once committed a forgery, Torvald tells her. "Out of necessity?" asks Nora, and he nods. Any man is allowed one false move, Torvald continues, so long as he openly confesses and accepts his punishment. But Krogstad, by his cunning, avoided the consequences of his guilt.
"Just think," says Torvald, "how a guilty man like that has to lie and play the hypocrite with everyone, how he has to wear a mask in the presence of those near and dear to him, even before his own wife and children. And about the children, that is the most terrible part."
He goes on to describe how "infection and poison" pollutes the very atmosphere breathed in such a home. While Nora becomes increasingly agitated, Torvald continues his lecture. In his career as a lawyer, her husband affirms, he has discovered that everyone who has "gone bad early in life" had a deceitful mother since it is she whose influence dictates the children's moral character. He leaves Nora, stunned with horror at his words. When the nurse enters with the children, she refuses to see them. "No, no, no! Don't let them come in to me," Nora pleads. It can't possibly be true, she says to herself, "Deprave my little children? Poison my home?" She is pale with terror at her thoughts while the curtain descends.
By the end of this first act, Nora is emerging from the protection of her married life to confront the conditions of the outside world. Although she has been content in being a protected and cared-for housewife during the past eight years, and has once averted a crisis by finding a way to borrow money for the sake of Torvald's health, Nora has never learned to overtly challenge her environment.
Christine, on the other hand, has independently faced life's challenge, although she too sought protection by marrying for the sake of financial convenience. Her harsh experience as a widow who was forced to earn her own livelihood stands in sharp contrast to the insulated and frivolous life which Nora leads. Having learned, through suffering, the value of truthful human relationships, Christine is the first person to recognize that Nora's marriage is based on deception.
The device Ibsen uses to describe the Torvalds' deceptive marital relationship is the problem of Nora's debt. To prevent Torvald from discovering her secret, he shows how Nora has developed the manner of an evasive, charming adolescent whose whims and caprices her grown-up husband must indulge. This bolsters Torvald's self-image as a protector of the weak, the head of a dependent household, and the instructor of the mentally inferior.
The audience is immediately aware of Torvald's shallowness as he utters his first condescending words to his wife. Nora herself provides further evidence: when she says that Torvald might one day tire of her "reciting and dressing-up and dancing," she unknowingly describes the decadence of her marital relationship. Pedantic and pompous, Torvald sometimes seems like a father who enjoys the innocence of a favorite daughter. Setting up rules of behavior (prohibiting Nora's macaroons, for instance), instructing his wife even in her very dress, Torvald shows that he regards her as a plaything or a pet rather than an independent person. These attitudes suggest the baldly sexual nature of Torvald's marriage; the theme is later expanded in following acts until Nora recognizes her position and finds her role repulsive as well as humiliating.
Krogstad shows Nora another deceptive quality about the nature of the world: an individual is responsible for his own acts. Society punishes its lawbreaker; the innocent wife acting to save the life of her loved one is equally as guilty as the unscrupulous opportunist who acts out of expediency. Once recognizing the parallel between the "morally diseased" Krogstad and herself, Nora begins to confront the realities of the world and with this new knowledge must draw the inevitable conclusions.