A Doll's House Summary and Analysis
by Henrik Ibsen
Act II occurs in the same room as Act I. The Christmas tree’s decorations have been taken down, and the candles have burned out. Nora is alone, anxiously worrying about whether Krogstad will write to Torvald revealing her secret. She is interrupted by the Nurse, who brings in a box of fancy clothes to look at. Nora asks about her children and hints at negative events to come, telling the Nurse that Nora will not be able to be with her children as much as before. When the Nurse replies that the children will cope with her absence, Nora wonders aloud if they would forget her altogether if she were to go away. The Nurse is shocked.
Nora asks her how the Nurse could have felt comfortable leaving her own children among strangers when she first came to nurse Nora, when Nora was only a child. The Nurse replies that she was grateful for such a good position and that, given her financial situation, she could not pass up the opportunity. Nora tells the Nurse what a wonderful mother she has been for Nora—and she would be a wonderful mother to Nora’s children if they were suddenly without a mother. The Nurse exits.
Alone again, Nora unsuccessfully tries to concentrate on the party being held that night in the upstairs flat, so that she could forget the problem of Krogstad revealing her secret. She is interrupted by Mrs. Linde’s arrival. Mrs. Linde enquires about Dr. Rank’s depressive mood the day before, and Nora explains that Dr. Rank suffers from a very dangerous spinal tuberculosis that he has had from childhood. Nora hints that Dr. Rank’s problem is the result of his father’s sexual indiscretions.
Mrs. Linde quietly continues to inquire about Nora’s relationship with Dr. Rank and wonders if he is Nora’s “rich admirer.” Nora replies that Dr. Rank is a family friend and that there is no such admirer. Mrs. Linde pursues her idea, calls Dr. Rank tactless, and presumes that he is the one from whom Nora borrowed the money. Hearing Torvald approaching, Nora does not answer and bustles Mrs. Linde into another room in order to hide the fancy-dress costume from him.
Torvald and Nora discuss her dress. As he leaves, Nora stops him and asks him repeatedly if he would do something for his “little squirrel” or “skylark” if she were to act very “prettily,” dancing and singing for him. Nora asks him to reconsider dismissing Krogstad from the bank, but Torvald becomes angry, revealing that it is Krogstad’s post that he has promised to Mrs. Linde. Nora tells Torvald that she fears Krogstad who, once dismissed, will attempt to besmirch their name in the newspapers.
Torvald thinks that Nora is afraid of libel because her father’s name was sullied in the newspapers after his death, so he reassures Nora that, unlike her father, he is beyond reproach. Nora warns about the contrivances of men like Krogstad against their happy, family home. Torvald finally replies that Nora’s pleas make it all the more impossible for him to change his mind. What if word got out that he had reversed his decision simply because of his wife’s anxieties? Torvald argues that Krogstad is taking advantage of their early childhood friendship to speak to him in an inappropriately familiar manner, which would make his position as manager intolerable. Incredulous, Nora tells Torvald that he surely must not be so narrow-minded. Becoming ever more angry, Torvald orders the maid to send Krogstad his letter of dismissal at once.
To calm Nora, who is panicking, Torvald assures her that, come what may, he will have the courage to take upon himself anything and everything that happens. Nora is particularly intrigued and horrified by this statement, so she asks Torvald to clarify it. He simply repeats that he will take upon himself everything that comes their way. Nora states that this will never happen. Torvald interprets her statement as a desire to share the burdens as husband and wife and assures her that this is what he has in mind as well. He then dismisses the whole topic, asking her if she feels better and telling her to go back to practicing her dancing for the next night’s ball. He also instructs her to direct Dr. Rank to his study, leaving her alone. His tone is that of a father figure.
Nora is bewildered with anxiety until she is interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Rank. Nora detains him and tells him that she always has time for him. Dr. Rank replies in kind. Confused by his statement, Nora asks him to clarify his interests, asking him if anything is likely to happen between them. Dr. Rank reveals that he expects to be dead within a month. He then asks Nora to prevent Torvald from entering Rank’s sickroom once he has entered the final stages of his disease. He arranges to leave Nora a visiting card with a black cross on it at the right time to signify that he is about to die. As night approaches, Nora and Rank have an odd conversation which flits between the serious and the mildly flirtatious. For instance, Nora pulls out a pair of silk stockings to show him, and they talk about how much leg Nora will have to show him for him to form an opinion about the stockings.
Nora is clearly building up toward asking Dr. Rank for financial help. He then, seemingly unexpectedly, confesses that he loves Nora. He says that he only visits the household on her account. This confession makes her request for money impossible, for it now would make their relationship tangled and explicit. Nora leaves the room briefly to bring in a lamp. Steering the conversation back to safer territory, Nora explains why she loves Torvald even though she seems to enjoy her time with Dr. Rank more. She observes the similarities between her relationships with Torvald and with her deceased father.
The maid enters with Krogstad’s visiting card, telling Nora that he has refused to leave until he has seen Nora. Dr. Rank finally retires to Torvald’s study. When Krogstad enters, Nora tells him to speak low, warning him that Torvald is home. Krogstad, unperturbed, asks her for an explanation for his dismissal from the bank. Nora replies that she did her best pleading his case but could not sway her husband. Assuming that Nora told Torvald everything, Krogstad replies that Torvald must love her very little to have made such a decision. Nora informs him that Torvald still knows nothing about the matter. Krogstad asks her if she now has a clearer idea of what she has done, and Nora replies that she does, very well. Krogstad now replies that he will not make the matter public after all, but he will keep it between Nora, himself, and Torvald. Nora protests that Torvald must not know, but Krogstad replies that, even if she did have the money to pay the outstanding balance on the loan, he would still involve Torvald, for his intention is not to expose Nora but to blackmail Torvald. That is, he now intends to use Nora’s IOU to pressure Torvald into giving him a new, highly-placed job at the bank. Krogstad exits and drops a letter to Torvald into the locked letter-box to which only Torvald has a key.
Mrs. Linde returns, and Nora reveals her problem, asking her friend to be her witness in case anything should befall Nora. Nora insists that, in such a case, Mrs. Linde should tell everyone that Nora was not insane and, more importantly, was completely responsible for everything. Mrs. Linde responds in confusion, and Nora asserts that Mrs. Linde could never understand the “miracle” that is about to happen. This miracle, Nora elaborates, is “frightening,” yet it “mustn’t happen, not for anything in the world.”
Mrs. Linde offers to try to convince Krogstad to retrieve the letter—she would use her old amorous connection with him as a method of persuasion. Nora says that it is hopeless. But when Torvald begins knocking on the door, Mrs. Linde resolves to try and exits quickly. Nora unlocks the door for Torvald and Dr. Rank, but they are surprised because they expected Nora to be trying on her dress; Torvald says that Rank has been preparing him “for some great transformation scene.” Torvald observes instead that Nora looks worn out and asks her if she has been practicing her dancing too much. Nora replies that she could not even do so without Torvald because she cannot remember anything without him. Hoping to distract him long enough to solve the problem with the letter, she asks him to help her all day and night until the party. Torvald agrees.
But he heads toward the letter-box first, so Nora stops him by playing the first bars of the tarantella she is going to dance. She then lures him to play for her and correct her while she dances. Dr. Rank, until now an observer, eventually takes over at the piano so Torvald can stand and correct Nora better. Her dancing grows more wild and desperate until her hair has all come undone. While Nora is still dancing, Mrs. Linde returns and observes that she is dancing like her life depended on it.
Torvald eventually calls everything to a halt, chastising Nora for having forgotten everything he has taught her. Nora replies that she has indeed forgotten everything and needs his help to relearn the dance. She tells him that he must not think of anything else, especially not any letters. Torvald remarks that he can tell from her behavior that there is a letter from Krogstad waiting for him. Nora responds that she does not know, but that there might be. She implores him not to let anything horrible come between them until after the party. Torvald takes her into his arms, calling her a child and agreeing that she must have her way. He promises to work with her until after the party—at which point, in Nora’s words, he “will be free.”
They all retire to dinner. Nora calls for lots of macaroons. As they leave, Torvald and Dr. Rank exchange a few words about Nora’s state of mind in a way that makes clear that they have discussed this matter before. Dr. Rank, concerned, asks if Nora is expecting something (the text is ambiguous—maybe a child, maybe just the possible letter). Torvald finally dismisses her concerning behavior as evidence of childish nervousness, and they exit.
Alone with Nora, Mrs. Linde tells Nora that Krogstad has gone out of town. Nora seems unconcerned and refers again to the miracle. Mrs. Linde presses Nora to explain herself, but Nora dismisses her questions, telling her she would not understand. She sends Mrs. Linde into the dining room. Now alone, she composes herself, checks the time, and observes that she has thirty-one hours to live (that is, until after the tarantella). Torvald’s voice then rings out; he is asking for his “little skylark.” The act ends with Nora going to him “with her arms wide.”
Act I set up the initial invasion of reality into Nora’s world and the first disruptions to the basic underpinnings of Nora’s life. Her assumption of the roles of wife and mother seemed comfortable enough even if the roles rested on fragile premises. Act II eventually sees Nora set up a test that will determine whether or not her domestic world is false to her basic nature. That is, having been confronted with the fact that Torvald will find out about her lie, the test is whether or not the discovery of her secret will strengthen or dissolve the marriage. If Torvald is really the loving husband she wishes he were, his discovery will only strengthen their marriage. The alternative is some kind of miracle that will free both of them from the iron cage of marriage that is expected of them. Her reaction to Krogstad’s finally dropping his letter in the box is the climax of the play. This step will lead inevitably in one direction or the other, but we are not sure which way it will go. Since the play has not seemed so much like a comedy so far, we can predict that the revelations in the letter will turn out badly and that the idea of a miracle has more to do with a suicide.
Nora is still trying to confront the fact that her world can be touched and shattered. Though she is shaken at the prospect of the revelations, before it is too late she still believes that her family and her material comforts might protect her. Even before it is too late, however, she is worried enough that she has already begun to consider the ideas of running away or committing suicide (though she admits that she does not have the perverse courage for this).
Luckily, the planning for the party temporarily distracts her. This party is extremely important for Nora because, through the costumes and dance, she is able to keep up the hope (or pretense) that the basic elements of her relationship with Torvald are still intact. She is literally wearing a costume and playing a role, not much different from what she does every day. Mrs. Linde refers to Nora’s dress as her “fine feathers,” reinforcing the general idea that Nora has been something other than an independent human.
In fact, the dress is a potent symbol of Nora’s character. Like Nora, it is torn and in need of repair. As in real life, Nora feels she is incapable of fixing the problem herself, giving the dress to Mrs. Linde to mend. Nora likewise reports that Torvald dislikes seeing dressmaking in action, suggesting that Torvald enjoys the false character that Nora has adopted but has no desire to see the real Nora before she reconstructs herself to fulfill her expected roles. To complete the working out of this line of symbolism, in the final act Nora will remove the dress and effectively unmask herself so that, pretense aside, she and Torvald will meet as humans together for the first time.
The theme of parenthood and children is interestingly explored in the conversation between Nora and the nurse at the beginning of the act. We have already seen the odd child-parent dynamic that sometimes exists between Torvald and Nora. Here Ibsen seems to imply that the nurse has raised Nora’s three children precisely as she raised Nora. Her period of childhood has never really ended, for her nurse is still with her. One of the oddities of the play is the apparent ease with which Nora will finally abandon her children. They seem not to be central to her life with (or without) Torvald.
It has often been noted that Dr. Rank’s physical disease represents the spread of moral corruption, for his disease apparently has been inherited from his morally questionable father, who kept mistresses. This coupling of moral corruption with its physical manifestation was treated in the first act, when Nora worried that her moral corruption in forging her father’s signature might “infect” her children. Ibsen’s visual language during Nora’s conversation with Dr. Rank—the darkening of day into night until it is so dark that Nora has to leave for a lamp (though this also gives her a break from the difficult conversation)—potently expresses the moral corruption which pervades the characters in the play.
Of course, in their conversation, Nora seems to be considering whether she should exploit Rank’s at first unspoken desire for her in order to gain his money. Yet, interestingly, the moment the lamp is switched on and Rank confesses his love for Nora, Nora’s plan falls apart. When there is no direct risk of an illicit romantic relationship, she can work her charms to ask a great favor, but once the cat is out of the bag, Nora cannot involve herself with Rank financially because of the romantic complications that would ensue.
Again, Nora’s hopes of averting disaster are dashed when she sees Krogstad drop the letter into Torvald’s box. She has perceived that there have been problems in their relationship, so she exclaims that all is lost as Krogstad deposits the letter. She guesses that Torvald will not pass the test. The letter-box itself becomes a rich symbol of concealment and revelation. Her primary attention turns to the box and keeping Torvald from it for as long as possible. Nora’s fear, now that she knows that there is no turning back, is that the “miracle” will happen. Maybe Torvald will try to take this all upon himself. He even says that he will, at one point, and this gives Nora some moments of hope. Maybe, knowing what she has done for him, they will become equal partners in the marriage. Nora both fears this and wishes for it even though she is preparing, prudently, for the worst.
Still, Nora is not ready to face this test yet. Delaying the inevitable (she knows that Mrs. Linde’s efforts will be fruitless), she wants to act out her last chance to be a doll-creature for Torvald. There is still a chance things will work out, so she must keep up appearances for at least a little while longer, and she might be happy enough to stay in her domestic roles after all. But the pressure of uncertainty is too much for now. She dances the tarantella wildly, as though she really is shaking off the poison of the tarantula bite.
This casting off of cares shakes her up enough to turn to the idea of Torvald’s and Nora’s separate freedom. It is only after the dancing that she consents to letting him be free. Interestingly, her statement that she only has thirty-one hours to live can be read two different ways. On the one hand, it can be interpreted as saying that she plans on committing suicide in order to free Torvald from having to take the responsibility for the debt upon himself. She would die knowing that she had once again saved his life. On the other hand, it may be a metaphorical death; her life as she knows it will be over and she soon will be embarking on a new, radically different life course because her relationship with Torvald will be over. But in either case, there is still the matter of Krogstad’s planned blackmail of Torvald. Will this be at all her problem, though, once she has escaped from her life with Torvald? Her escape from her artificial domestic life will entail escape from her real responsibilities as well.
A Doll's House Essays and Related Content
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- A Doll's House: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Henrik Ibsen: Biography
- A Doll's House Summary
- About A Doll's House
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Act I
- Summary and Analysis of Act II
- Summary and Analysis of Act III
- A Performance History of the Play
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