A Doll’s House explores the ways that societal expectations restrict individuals, especially women, as the young housewife Nora Helmer comes to the realization that she has spent her eight-year marriage, and indeed most of her life, pretending to be the person that Torvald, her father, and society at large expect her to be. At the beginning of the play, Nora believes that all she wants is to be happy, which she defines as “keep[ing] the house beautifully and hav[ing] everything just as [her husband] Torvald likes.” She further defines freedom as having more than enough money in order to create a life free from care. Yet her self-sacrificing actions—illegally obtaining a loan to save her husband’s life and then keeping this loan a secret in order to placate his manly pride—prevent her from attaining this freedom. As Nora realizes that her selfless actions are now the source of her sorrow, she begins to question whether the life she leads is capable of providing her with happiness.
The play begins with Nora cheerily returning home from Christmas shopping, but Torvald, emerging from his office, quickly creates an oppressive atmosphere with the diminutive titles he bestows on Nora and the ways he controls her life, from her spending to the food she consumes. Nora appears cheerful and childlike, her enthusiasm about Torvald’s raise and promotion unbridled even in the face of a downtrodden childhood friend, Mrs. Linde, arriving for a visit. However, as Nora speaks with Mrs. Linde, she hints at the fact that she is not as childlike as she may appear, for she saved Torvald’s life by raising the money to take him to Italy to recuperate from an illness. When Mr. Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank, arrives, the main action of the play begins. Krogstad lent the money to Nora, and in order to secure his position at the bank, he will blackmail Nora with the fact that she illegally signed the contract for her dying father.
The play comes to a climax when Torvald reads Krogstad’s letter. Nora, convinced of Torvald’s utter love for her, believes that a “wonderful thing” will happen, showing once and for all that Torvald would sacrifice anything for her well-being. She believes that Torvald will take the blame for the forgery himself, sacrificing his own reputation for hers and balancing out the sacrifice she made to save Torvald’s life. But when Torvald reads the letter, he never considers sacrificing his reputation, as “no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves.” As Torvald rages at her, Nora’s delusions about her marriage and her life suddenly shatter, and she realizes that Torvald has always viewed and treated her as a doll to be shaped any way he pleases. In order to understand herself and engage with the world on her own terms, Nora leaves Torvald and her children to start a new life, where she knows herself as a human being above all.
Nora craves freedom and happiness, but up until the very end of the play, her definitions of these things are skewed by the conventional society she grew up in. Though the lie around the forgery initially threatens Nora’s marriage, its actual destruction comes via the revelation of the truth. In the face of Torvald’s rage, Nora sees that the real lie is the one she has been living. Her decision to leave Torvald represents her first chance to find true freedom, which she now defines as the ability to make her own choices. Nora’s entire outlook on life shifts by the end of the play, and she now understands that marriage needs equality to work. Whether Nora ever returns to Torvald and the children remains ambiguous, leaving the audience to wonder whether true, fulfilling matrimony is possible in a society that holds one gender in greater esteem than the other.