Summary and Analysis
Krogstad and Christine are alone onstage, for the Helmers and Dr. Rank are upstairs at the masquerade party. Bitterly Krogstad reproaches Christine for renouncing their betrothal, years ago, sacrificing him in order to marry a man better able to support her and her family. After wrecking his hopes the first time, she appears again to stand in his way by taking over his hard-won position at the bank. Christine denies the charge. She says she returned to town to seek him and renew their love. Krogstad, deeply moved, is grateful for her love and faith. He says he will ask Torvald to return his letter, but Christine has changed her mind. Torvald must find out the truth; she says all this concealment and falsehood must be exposed in order for Nora and Torvald to realize a true marriage.
After Krogstad has gone, Torvald enters, drawing Nora into the room while she struggles and protests that she wants to remain at the party a little longer. He is annoyed to find Christine waiting up for them, and while he fetches candles, Christine tells Nora of her talk with Krogstad and counsels that "you must tell your husband all about it." With quiet resolve Nora answers, "Now I know what I must do."
Torvald is relieved when Christine finally leaves them alone. Flushed with champagne and romantic desires, he tells Nora that all this night, "I have longed for nothing but you." Unable to endure his desire after watching her dance, he dragged her home. Nora twists out of his embrace. Before he can be angry, Dr. Rank enters to wish them good night, and Nora quickly senses the real reason for his visit. Turning to go, Rank says good-bye with unmistakable finality. "Sleep well," says Nora gently, adding, to his surprise, "Wish me the same."
To Nora's dismay, Torvald now goes to the letterbox. Dr. Rank has left them a visiting card marked with black; "as if he were announcing his own death," murmurs Torvald. After Nora tells him of Rank's condition, he clasps her tightly. Now that their closest friend is gone, he says, they must hold on to each other even more closely. "Do you know, Nora [Torvald whispers], I have often wished that you might be threatened by some great danger, so that I might risk my life's blood and everything for your sake."
She firmly disengages herself. "Now you must read your letters, Torvald," Nora declares. In deference to their friend's death, Torvald agrees to retire to his own room. Alone, Nora prepares to rush out to meet her own death "in the icy depths." Ready to leave her house, she gains the hall when Torvald meets her at the door of his room brandishing the letter. "You shan't save me, Torvald," cries Nora, struggling from him. In a paroxysm of self-pity and indignation, Torvald struts and shouts, vulgarly abusing his wife for bringing this shame upon him, for putting him into Krogstad's power. People might even suspect that he was responsible for the whole thing, that he prompted Nora to do the deed. At all costs, the matter must be hushed up; Krogstad must be pacified. He renounces Nora as his wife. Although for the sake of appearance she may still live in the house, she will not be allowed to raise the children and shall share no intimacy with her husband. Nora's answers are quieter and colder as Torvald talks.
Suddenly a maid, half-dressed, brings Nora a letter. Torvald grabs it, tears it open. A moment later he shouts with joy, "I am saved, Nora! I am saved," and he tears the enclosed bond into small pieces. Exultantly he forgives his wife, repeating all the platitudes he has always uttered about the cozy home he has with his skylark. "Here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk's claws," and he goes on to say that by freely forgiving and accepting her once more as his own, he has recreated his wife, giving her a new life.
By this time Nora has changed her party dress and appears in everyday clothes. "Sit down, Torvald," she says, "You and I have much to say to each other." Torvald shows surprise. "Nora, this cold set face — what is this?" Confronting her husband across a table, Nora proceeds to the "settling of accounts." First of all, she says, this is the first time in eight years "that we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation. . . . We have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of things." Over Torvald's sputtered objections, she outlines the life she has been living in the "doll's house."
First she lived with her father who treated her as a toy, whose opinions and tastes she followed because he would be displeased with any disagreement, any sign of independence. "He played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you I was simply transferred from Papa's hands to yours." Torvald made all the arrangements in their life, she goes on to say, and so she never developed her own tastes or her own ideas:
"When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I have been living here like a poor woman — just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and Papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault I have made nothing of my life."
Torvald is forced to admit of some truth — though "strained and exaggerated" — in what she says. It shall be different in the future, he vows, "playtime shall be over and lesson time shall begin." She answers that he is not the man to educate her into being a proper wife. Neither is she ready to bring up her children, Nora continues, for there is another task she must first undertake. "I must try and educate myself," she says, "and I must do that for myself." That is why she is leaving him now. Finding her husband a stranger, Nora chooses to seek lodging with Christine rather than spend another night with him. Torvald points out that she has no right to neglect her most sacred duties — duties to her husband and children:
NORA: I have other duties just as sacred. Duties to myself.
TORVALD: Before all else you are a wife and mother.
NORA: I don't believe that any longer, I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being just as you are — or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quiet well, Torvald, that most people would think you right and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.
Torvald accuses her of loving him no longer. She nods, explaining that tonight "when the wonderful thing did not happen, then I saw you were not the man I had thought you." For such a long time she suffered with the guilty secret of her borrowed money, feeling certain that eventually the "wonderful thing" would happen. The chance came with Krogstad's letter, for Nora never imagined Torvald could submit to that man's conditions. She expected him to say proudly, "publish the thing to the whole world," and come forward to take the guilt upon himself. This expected sacrifice was the "wonderful thing" she had awaited, and to prevent it, she planned suicide.
Torvald says he is willing to toil for her day and night, bear any suffering, "but no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves." "It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have always done," Nora quietly points out. She tells him that after his fear was over — "not the fear for what threatened me, but for what might happen to you" — and she became once more his little skylark, his doll, whose fragility demanded "doubly gentle care" in the future, she then realized that for eight years "I had been living with a strange man and had borne him three children." She cannot bear to think of this humiliation, Nora says, and will leave him without accepting money to live on and without communicating.
Torvald begs her to say when they can live together again. Nora sighs. "Ah, Torvald, the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen," she answers. They must both be so changed that "our life together would be a real wedlock." She turns to go, leaving Torvald, face in hands, repeating her name. Then he rises as a hope flashes across his mind. "The most wonderful thing of all — ?" he murmurs. There is a noise of a door slamming shut.
Clearly explaining the reasons for her sudden departure, Nora summarizes the entire play during her last speeches with Torvald. Discovering that her husband confuses appearance with values, that he is more concerned with his position in society than with the emotional needs of his wife, Nora is forced to confront her personal worthlessness. Rather than remain part of a marriage based on an intolerable lie, she chooses to leave her home and discover for herself the individuality which life with Torvald has denied her.
Central to this act, and in fact to the whole play, is Nora's concept of the "wonderful thing," the moment when she and Torvald would achieve a "real wedlock." In the course of the drama, she has learned that the ideal union takes place when husband and wife regard each other as rational individuals who are aware of society's demands and can fulfill their separate responsibilities with sophistication and mutual respect.
In another sense, the "wonderful thing" is merely a code word for a relationship whose values are freed from the mystique which society has attached to marriage with concepts like "duty," "respectability," "cozy home," "happy family," and the rest of the stereotyped images such phrases suggest. A "real wedlock" can only be attained when a couple, deeply committed to respect each other's personal worth, work naturally and thoughtfully to fulfill ideals which their separate individualities require. Torvald, by striving for goals which have been thrust upon him in the course of an education based on social morality and verbal commitment to goals empty of feeling or commitment, deprives Nora of her sense of identity. To discover the essence of personal truth is, then, the "wonderful thing" which Nora Helmer, unable to find in her marriage, must seek through her own resources.