The act opens in the same room on the next night, Boxing Day. Mrs. Linde is absentmindedly trying to read. As the sounds of dance music suggest, Torvald and Nora are upstairs at the party. Mrs. Linde is waiting for Krogstad so that she can talk to him about Nora’s situation. When Krogstad arrives, he and Mrs. Linde turn almost immediately to a discussion of why Mrs. Linde jilted him (for her now-deceased husband) many years ago. Mrs. Linde explains that, though she has questioned her decision many times, she had to pursue her former husband’s money given that her mother and brothers depended on her to survive. Krogstad reveals that her departure left him “a shipwrecked man clinging to a spar.” Mrs. Linde replies that she is now in his position and that she longs for them to come together. She tells him that he is the reason that she came to town. She still wants a family to look after.
The music of the tarantella is heard above, and Mrs. Linde urges Krogstad to be quick. Krogstad now grows suspicious, questioning whether she is saying all of this simply on behalf of Nora. She denies it, and he then offers to take the letter back. She now urges him not to, admitting that this had been her original intention after all. She explains that, since her first discovery of the problem the day before, she has witnessed enough in the house to convince her that Torvald must read the letter. The Helmers need a “full understanding” of their situation in order to maintain a successful marriage. Krogstad leaves, promising Mrs. Linde that he will meet her in a few minutes. Hearing Nora and Torvald coming, Mrs. Linde prepares to leave, commenting on what a difference having people to care for makes in her life.
The Helmers appear in costume: Nora is a Neapolitan fisher-girl, and Torvald is in evening wear and a black coat. Torvald is bringing Nora into the room almost by force. She is trying to get him to return to the party upstairs. Torvald refuses, citing their earlier agreement. They greet Mrs. Linde, who explains that she stayed up in order to see Nora in her dress. Torvald brags about how lovely Nora looks, describing his wife’s successful evening. He tells Mrs. Linde that Nora danced the tarantella marvelously—even if her performance was “a trifle too realistic.” He tried to make her exit equally artistic by ushering her around the room for a last bow and then disappearing into the night, but Nora did not appreciate his exit attempts. “An exit,” Torvald claims, “should always be dramatic.” Torvald then leaves to light some candles and air out the house a bit, giving Nora a chance to ask Mrs. Linde for news from Krogstad. Mrs. Linde says that Nora must tell Torvald everything. Nora is not shocked; she simply thanks Mrs. Linde for telling her, and she now knows what she must do.
Torvald returns and Mrs. Linde soon leaves. Nora then asks Torvald if he is tired, telling him that she is quite sleepy. Torvald replies that he is quite awake and has been waiting to be alone with his wife all evening. He calls her beautiful and fascinating, his “treasured possession.” He observes that she must still have the alluring tarantella in her blood. He launches into an explanation of why he pretends not to know her at parties: it is his fantasy about meeting and seducing her for the first time. He likes to feel that she is his new bride about to be his for the first time. Nora tries to push him off, much to his confusion and displeasure.
They are interrupted by Dr. Rank. The three talk about the ball and all its finery. Unknown to Torvald, Dr. Rank reveals to Nora through his conversation that he will soon die. Dr. Rank eventually leaves, and Nora calls to him, “Sleep well.” Torvald begins to head out to empty the mailbox so that the newspapers can be delivered in the morning. Nora unsuccessfully tries to stop him. At the mailbox, Torvald is surprised to find that someone has tried to pick the lock with one of Nora’s hairpins. Nora tells him that it must have been one of the children.
Torvald is surprised to find two visiting cards from Dr. Rank with black crosses just above his name. Torvald comments on the gruesomeness of the mark, and Nora confirms that he has used it to announce his death. Torvald thinks it might be “best this way,” for now he and his wife have only each other. Torvald embraces Nora, telling her how much he cares for her. He wishes that he could somehow save her from some great danger so that he could risk everything for her sake. Nora disengages herself from his embrace. She tells him with resolution that he must now read his letters; she no longer is delaying the inevitable but is avoiding his advances. Torvald agrees that something ugly has come between them—he believes it is because of the news of Dr. Rank—and that it would be best to spend the night apart. They separate, and Torvald goes off to read his letters.
Alone, Nora prepares to rush off to commit suicide by jumping into the icy depths of the river, throwing on Torvald’s coat and her shawl. As she bids adieu to her family and rushes out the door, Torvald hurries out of his room and stops her, letter in hand. Torvald asks her if she knows what is in the letter, but Nora still tries to leave. He stops her, locking the door. He continues to wonder out loud how the letter’s allegations could be true. He dismisses her pleas that all was done out of love. He protests that he will not suffer at her hands.
Nora realizes that Torvald has no intention of taking the burden of this problem upon himself; he is blaming her for ruining his life. She grows still and cold while Torvald berates her and her character. Not allowing Nora to speak, Torvald speculates about their future. They will keep up appearances but, of course, Nora will not be allowed near the children and the normal aspects of their marriage will no longer be maintained in private.
He is interrupted by the maid, who is bearing a note from Krogstad to Nora. Torvald intercepts the letter and reads it himself, learning that Krogstad has had a change of heart and has sent back the bond after all. Torvald is overjoyed and shouts, “I am saved!” Nora asks whether she is saved as well, and he says yes since “nobody has any hold over you.” Overcome with relief, he now discusses how hard this all must have been for Nora and tells her that he has forgiven her—he will think of it only as a bad dream. It is all over.
Realizing perhaps that Nora is not having the same reaction, Torvald explains to her that he knows that she did everything out of love and that he can forgive her because he also knows that, as a woman, she is unequipped to make proper decisions. He even tells her that her helplessness and full dependency on him make her all the more endearing to him. Nora thanks him for his forgiveness and leaves the room to take off her ball dress.
As she is removing her dress, Torvald stands in the doorway and muses about the comfort of their home and how much he wants to and will protect her. He assures her that everything will soon be as it was before. The helplessness of a wife makes her even more attractive because she becomes both a wife and child, doubly his own. Moreover, when the husband forgives her, he gives her new life and becomes even closer to her.
The change of heart apparently rings hollow. Nora changes not into bed clothing but into everyday clothing. She explains that she will not sleep tonight, and she asks him to sit down with her in order to “face facts.” She tells him that he has never understood her and that, before tonight, she has never understood him. She points out that, over eight years of marriage, they have never before sat down to have a serious discussion. Torvald protests that such conversations would not have made sense, given Nora’s interests.
Nora tells him that she has been greatly wronged by both her father and her husband. Torvald protests that they are the men who have loved her the most. Shaking her head, Nora corrects him, telling him that he has never loved her for herself but has only thought it pleasant to be in love with her. She explains to him that, just as her father did, Torvald has treated her as a doll to be played with, arranging everything to suit himself and forcing her to live only to entertain him. As a result, she has not made anything of her life and has never been truly happy.
Torvald agrees with this analysis, though he qualifies it as exaggerated and strained. He pledges that, from now on, he will stop playing with her and start educating her. Nora refuses the offer, observing that he is not the man to educate her. Only a few minutes before, he had told her that she was unfit to raise her own children. She agrees with him about her inability at present; she must first educate herself before she can educate the children. This is why, she concludes, she is going to leave him.
Torvald is shocked and jumps out of his chair, calling her mad and trying to prevent her from leaving. He accuses her of neglecting her “most sacred duties” as wife and mother, refusing to acknowledge Nora’s opinion that her duty to herself as a reasonable human being is at least as sacred. He appeals to her sense of religion and then morality, both of which Nora agnostically rejects by explaining that she has never had a chance to examine and embrace these things on her own and, as a result, she does not know if she agrees with these principles. He finally argues that he must conclude that she does not love him. Apologetic, she agrees. He lost her love earlier tonight (if not before), and she cannot stay in the house.
Nora explains that her love was lost because the miracle did not happen: he did not refuse Krogstad’s conditions and offer to take up the problem for himself. Instead, he berated her. Torvald replies that, though he would gladly work day and night for her, he would never assent to jeopardizing his honor for a loved one. Nora simply replies that many wives have done just that. Torvald dismisses her words as those of a heedless child. Admitting the possibility that he might be right, Nora changes tack. She describes his selfish perspective and her own horror at having realized that she had lived with and borne children with a stranger for eight years. Torvald sadly acknowledges the gulf between them but asks if there is still a way to fill it. Nora reiterates that they both will be better off apart. She somewhat formally releases him from all obligations to her. She says that there must be perfect freedom on both sides. They return their wedding rings to each other, and she leaves her keys.
Nora adds that a future relationship of some sort would only be possible if “the miracle of miracles” were to happen—if they both change is such a way that they could have a real marriage. She leaves. Sinking down into a chair with his hand in his face, Torvald moans her name. He then looks up and observes how empty the room has become without her. The play ends with the hope of the “miracle of miracles” crossing Torvald’s mind and with the sound of the street door slamming.
This act elaborates on the deciding point of Nora’s life. The test of whether the “miracle” happen or not is a test that will decide whether Torvald really is the husband he has claimed to be, whether the marriage really is salvageable in a way that will raise Nora out of the disrespect of being a doll. Nora has awoken to the reality that she is living a doll’s life and needs to move on with her own life, with or without Torvald. Her new life has already begun, and we have little hope that Torvald will rise to the challenge anytime soon. We do not yet know, though, if Nora will choose to live or to commit suicide upon Torvald’s likely failure in the test. One of the key reasons that the act works so successfully is that audiences feel the suspense about what will happen once Torvald reads the letter.
The relationship between Mrs. Linde and Krogstad makes for a good comparison with Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage. Mrs. Linde’s and Krogstad’s decision to be together after all this time is sincere, sweet, and reasonable, even if they are choosing somewhat traditional gender roles. Although Mrs. Linde and Krogstad both suffer from significant personal and moral problems, they might have a better chance of a happy and true marriage than Nora and Torvald had. Mrs. Linde advocates revealing all to Torvald because, as her union with Krogstad suggests, she believes that it is possible to build a relationship based upon mutual dependence so long as both parties are fully aware of each other’s ideas and motives. Mrs. Linde hopes that, through her own new union, both she and Krogstad can eventually become the better people they know that they can be. This is a pattern for the “miracle of miracles,” a mutual choice to change so that both parties are truly ready for a successful marriage. Given the history of Krogstad and Mrs. Linde, however, we cannot yet see this relationship working as well as they hope. Ibsen leaves the issue open. At least the quality of respect and communication between them is already far above the situation for Torvald and Nora. In addition, all the years of thinking about each other have given Krogstad and Mrs. Linde a special anticipation for one another. This is the opposite of the effect of the years of sourness that Nora now sees when she examines her marriage.
The extent of Torvald’s investment in a fantasy world and the importance of his false characterization of Nora are revealed when he describes how, at parties, he pretends not to know her so that he may seduce her all over again. Perhaps more importantly, Nora is quite candid about her understanding of all this, telling him flatly that she knows. If she did not know before, she knows now. She is no longer willing to be an object or an agent of fantasy. If there is one thing she now knows, it is the difference between fantasy and reality.
This is a very recent development. She apparently has recently tried to pick the lock of Torvald’s letter-box with one of her hairpins. In that effort she seems to have preferred the status quo, keeping the secret a bit longer. Perhaps Krogstad could be appeased and the secret could be held forever. But the effort failed, and Nora has had to accept the reality that she is not herself. The costume of the Neapolitan fisher-girl, with which she entered the scene, is a clear symbol of her own unreality. When she later changes into a plain black dress, we realize that she has shifted to a final acknowledgment of her new chance at an individual identity, free of Torvald.
It is important to notice that Nora’s time at the party has been the first time that she has left the confines of the one room in the entire play. She is not far away, however. At this point, she has to be dragged back in. This is not merely an attempt to delay the reading of the letter; she longs to stay off the stage, to stay away from the doll’s house where Torvald controls her. She would rather be in the delirium of the tarantella. She sees that a major element of the problem in their relationship is Torvald’s desire to have Nora entertain him, so she is eager to try her luck in the real world and make her own choices. When she briefly leaves the room to exchange her party dress for everyday clothing, this is her first lone foray from the room. This step foreshadows her final departure. She is not going to go to some hotel, however; she might just kill herself, but if not, she will go to the home of a friend or to her earlier family home. She is not ready to be fully free; she needs a safe place to recollect herself, to get herself educated and ready to enter into a healthy marriage or, if she chooses, to find a room of her own.
When she finally leaves, she seems to have decided to move on positively with her life rather than to commit suicide. Before Torvald confronted her with the letter, she was thinking seriously commit suicide, determined that Torvald should not have to sacrifice his life for hers. She considered this an appropriate choice insofar as she thought that he would willingly give his life for hers when necessary. In this way, they would have had an equal relationship. But she became extremely disappointed to discover that he clearly had no intention of sacrificing himself for her. Instead of refusing to abide by Krogstad’s demands and taking up the issue for himself, Torvald accused Nora of ruining his life. He even told her that this would conclude their marriage: she would no longer be allowed to see her children or maintain their marriage except in public appearances. He said he would never sacrifice his honor for a loved one. His emotional tirade was shameful. His reversal of all this, once Krogstad’s threat had lifted, was equally selfish. This is not a man worth dying for.
Nora realizes that, before she can be a wife, she must first discover herself in the world. She leaves as an awakened soul, determined to become a full person rather than the doll of the male figures in her life. Thus, it is important to note that Nora’s motives are not simply idealistic. She does not know yet whether she should adhere to religion or morality or virtue, but she knows that she must escape the oppressive situation in order to figure out what to do next.
The change in Helmer’s expressed character probably does not dupe either Nora or the audience. He begins the act rather unsympathetically. His objectification of Nora extends so far as practically demanding to have sexual intercourse with her against her will. He belittles and berates her. He acts selfishly throughout. Yet, when left alone at the end with his children, plaintively begging that the gulf between him and his wife might be bridged, we recognize that he truly feels devastated. He believed the myth of their marriage with his whole heart. He, too, has been limited by the gender roles of husband and wife that his society tends to expect. This makes him hugely sympathetic despite his many serious failings and even despite his cruelty.
Ibsen manipulates the audience with several intimations of a happy ending: when Krogstad and Mrs. Linde’s love is revealed, when Krogstad promises that he will take back his letter, when he returns Helmer’s IOU, and when Nora and Torvald discuss the possibility of a “miracle of miracles.” But the outside door slams as the curtain comes down. It is not a happy ending but a sad one, particularly for Torvald. There is only a remote possibility of the redemption of the Helmers’ marriage. As for Nora, it is an open ending. It is an opening out of possibilities for Nora, a new journey which, as much as possible, she will take alone.