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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen-Free Book Notes
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ACT ONE (continued)


It now seems that Nora's relationship with Torvald is guided by keeping secrets. What is the necessity of secrets? Keep a count of the various secrets of each character as the play progresses. How do they affect each life? How are they revealed? When does secret information give power? When is it a burden?

We get an even more intimate picture of Nora and Torvald's marriage. Kristine asks if Nora will ever tell Torvald what she's done, and Nora responds no! "How painfully humiliating for him if he ever found out he was in debt to me. That would just ruin our relationship. Our beautiful happy home would never be the same."


Nora is absolutely right. But although she knows, she doesn't yet realize what a petty man Torvald is. She knows their relationship is completely one-sided-Torvald keeps her in constant debt to him. Any sign of strength from her would ruin their relationship. But she has a hunch she might need the power over Torvald that this secret will give her, "when he stops enjoying my dancing and dressing up and reciting for him." Nora already knows more about their relationship than she thinks she does, but she hasn't ever been forced to consciously face these facts. What is the practical difference between knowing something and realizing it? Would Nora behave the same way if she truly realized what kind of man Torvald is?

It might seem a little odd that Nora talks so openly to a woman like Kristine who's so different from her, and whom she hasn't seen in ten years. But once she's confided her splendid secret, Nora goes on to talk of her fantasies-including one in which a wealthy old man falls in love with her and leaves her his money when he dies.


This fantasy serves two purposes: it underscores Nora's "father fixation" for older men, and it announces Dr. Rank's appearance. Watch for the significance of this fantasy in Nora and Rank's relationship.

No sooner has Nora finished describing her little Eden than the serpent enters the garden in the form of Mr. Krogstad. Both women react uneasily to his presence. Mrs. Linde turns away and looks out the window, and Nora nervously asks why he wants to see Torvald. Krogstad, who works in Torvald's bank, assures Nora it's "dry business." As Krogstad goes in to see Torvald, Dr. Rank comes out of the study to join the women.

The first thing we learn about Dr. Rank is that he is terminally ill. He compares himself to Krogstad, who is "morally sick." Watch for the theme of inherited moral defects as the play progresses.

In a mood of nervous gaiety, Nora throws caution to the wind by breaking one of Torvald's rules-she offers her guests the forbidden macaroons. But the minute Torvald appears, she hides the macaroons. Through flattery and exaggeration, she manages to get Kristine a job in Torvald's bank.

Krogstad has already gone. Rank and Torvald then leave with Kristine, who is off to find an apartment.

As they are going, Nora's three children come running in from outside with their nurse. Nora immediately drops everything to play with them. Symbolically, she calls the youngest her "sweet little doll baby" and joins them in a game of hide-and- seek. Doesn't this remind you of Nora's "doll" status with Torvald and the "games" they play together? Not surprisingly, Nora is the one who hides. Also not surprisingly, as you will learn, Krogstad is the one who returns to catch her playing her game. He alone knows the game she's been playing all these years.


The fact that Ibsen chooses to bring the children on stage means he wants you to see them and hear them. They must be real to the audience, because they'll figure prominently in Nora's future thoughts and actions. It is also a chance for you to see Nora as a conventional nineteenth-century mother, just as you have seen her as a conventional wife.

Nora sends the children to their nurse and faces Krogstad alone. He reveals that he used to know Kristine Linde, and that the job she was just promised is his job-Torvald is firing him. We also discover another secret-Krogstad is the moneylender that Nora is paying back. He threatens to tell Torvald about the loan unless Nora gets him his job back. This job is vitally important to him, because it means respectability for the sake of his young sons. What does this suggest about Krogstad's view of transferable morality?

Nora insists she can't help him and dares him to reveal her debt. It would only cause a little unpleasantness for her, and Torvald would then surely fire him. But Krogstad holds the cards this time. Nora, being a woman, could not have gotten the loan on her own credit. In fact, Nora had forged her father's name but dated the signature several days after her father's death. Nora has committed a serious crime, forgery-the same crime that marred Krogstad's reputation and has continued to haunt him.


In order to emphasize his ideas, Ibsen creates very close parallels between his characters. Notice how Krogstad's desire for respectability echoes Torvald's position. His plea on behalf of his children is no different, it seems, from Nora's pleas on behalf of hers. The identical nature of their crimes is not a coincidence. How do you react to this type of repetition? Does it seem unrealistic? Does it help you see what Ibsen's message is? Do you understand the characters better?

Nora cries that their crimes weren't similar at all. Her motives had been pure, to save a life, while his motives had been for selfish gain. He calmly points out that "Laws don't inquire into motives." Nora thinks "they must be very poor laws."


There are other instances in the play where a woman stands for individuality against a male-oriented society. Here, Krogstad emphasizes that society is much more concerned with the letter of the law than with individual intent. How do society's impersonal rules and laws conflict with each character's specific needs? What does this play say about the resolution of this conflict? Which is more important-individual fulfillment or society's demands?

Krogstad's blackmail is complete. If he loses his job and respectability, he will drag Nora down with him. He leaves a stunned and disbelieving Nora behind. She simply can't comprehend that a person can be indicted for a crime committed out of love. Nora is shaken but returns to her usual techniques to keep reality at arm's length. Torvald returns, asking if someone was just there. Nora lies again, but to no avail. Torvald saw Krogstad leaving. He guesses the clerk's purpose and is angered by Nora's request that Krogstad be reinstated.

A discussion of Krogstad's-and by implication, Nora's-crime follows. It condemns her utterly. Like the law, Torvald has no interest in motives, either. A person who's committed forgery has to put on a false face even in family circles, says Torvald. Furthermore, dishonesty that turns up so early in life is usually caused by a lying mother! The theme of moral sickness returns.

When he leaves, Nora is clearly shaken by his attitude. The children beg her to play, but she refuses to let them near her. Is she a moral invalid? The question terrifies her. "Hurt my children? Poison my home" she cries. "That's not true. Never. Never in all the world." Her values remain intact. Home and family are her first priorities.

How is Nora likely to respond to Krogstad's threat at this point? How would you respond? Why is your answer likely to be different from Nora's? Is there any "right" way out of the situation?


By now, you will have noticed that all the important dramatic events in Nora's life took place before the play started: the forgery, the borrowed money, the trip to save Torvald's life. The first act has served to reveal a situation that already exists. Krogstad's attempt to dislodge and reveal the past sets the action of Acts Two and Three in motion. From now on, coincidence and the characters' responses to their current situations will determine the play's resolution.

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