It is Christmas Eve in the Helmers' apartment. Nora Helmer enters in outdoor clothes, carrying parcels. A porter carries in a Christmas tree, and Nora asks the maid to hide it. She gives the porter a generous tip. Taking out a packet of macaroons from her pocket, she eats some, but hurriedly hides them when Torvald, her husband, enters from his study. Torvald addresses her like a child, calling her his "little squirrel." He chides her for spending money. Nora says that they do not need to economize as much as before, since Torvald is due for a rise in salary. But Torvald points out that he will not receive his increased salary until April. Nora suggests that they can borrow until then, but Torvald teasingly asks her what she would do if he were to die unexpectedly and she were left with debts. Then he gives her extra money. He asks her what she would like for Christmas. She asks for money.
Again, Torvald affectionately rebukes her for being a spendthrift, saying that she inherited this trait from her father. He asks if she has been breaking the rule that he has set against her eating sweets. She lies. Torvald is pleased that he has a secure income and says this means she will not have to make the Christmas decorations, as he believes she did last year.
Two visitors call: a woman, and Dr Rank. Nora recognizes the woman as Christine Linde, an old friend she has not seen for ten years. Mrs Linde is a widow. Nora tells her of the relief she feels at Torvald's promotion to the position of manager at the bank. Torvald is also a barrister, but refuses to take "unsavory" cases, so the income from that has been uncertain. Mrs Linde smilingly says that Nora was always a spendthrift. But Nora defends herself, saying she is not so silly: she has had to take odd jobs, and Torvald had worked so hard that he had become seriously ill. The doctors said he had to go south or he would die. But he was too proud to get into debt, and Nora was faced with the problem of how to pay for the trip. Nora claims she was given the money for the trip by her father, who had died around this time. Nora was unable to nurse her father because she was looking after Torvald. They had gone to Italy for a year, and Torvald had recovered.
Mrs Linde explains that she married her husband, whom she did not love, for financial security, since she had to support an invalid mother and younger brothers. The husband died bankrupt and she had been forced to work hard to survive. But now her mother is dead and her brothers are self-sufficient. While no longer desperate, she needs a job. She also confesses that her life feels empty, and that she has no one to live for. She hopes that Torvald may be able to give her a job. Nora is eager to help and says she will ask him.
Mrs Linde thanks her for her kindness and says it is especially remarkable in one who has known so little of hardship. Nora, stung by her friend's judgment, protests that she has not told her the important thing. She had saved Torvald's life. She was not given the money for Italy by her father; she borrowed it, and Torvald still does not know. Mrs Linde points out that by law, Nora could not borrow without her husband's consent. Nora does not immediately answer this. She had tried to cajole Torvald into traveling to Italy by claiming she wanted to go there, and asked him to take out a loan. He had responded angrily. So she had taken out a loan, telling him her father had given her the money. She has had to save money in order to pay off the loan and interest. She has not scrimped on providing for Torvald or the children, but has made the repayments from the money Torvald gave her for things for herself. She has also taken jobs. She anticipates that their new wealth will enable her to pay off the debt.
Krogstad, who works at the bank, is announced. Mrs Linde is startled. Nora secretively asks him why he has come. He says he wants to see Torvald on business and goes into his study. Mrs Linde finds out from Nora who he is, and says that she used to know him. Nora says he is now a widower after an unhappy marriage. Dr Rank joins the two women. He expresses his low opinion of Krogstad's character, which he says is morally diseased. Nora offers Dr Rank a macaroon, pretending that Mrs Linde gave them to her.
Torvald enters, having sent Krogstad on his way. Nora immediately asks him to give Mrs Linde a job. He agrees. Nora invites Mrs Linde and Dr Rank to come back in the evening.
The Nurse brings in Nora's children, and Nora plays with them happily. She is startled by Krogstad, who has come unannounced. She sends the children off. He establishes that her visitor was Mrs Linde, whom he once knew. He asks Nora to use her influence with Torvald to ensure that he keeps his post at the bank. Nora refuses, but Krogstad hints that if she does not cooperate, he will tell Torvald about the loan. He is prepared to fight to keep his job, as it is all that preserves his current respectability after a period of disgrace. Nora tells Krogstad to do his worst; she is sure that Torvald will pay off the loan and cut Krogstad off. But Krogstad reveals that he knows that she forged her father's signature on the document agreeing the loan. He knows this because she had carelessly dated it three days after her father died. She has committed fraud. She protests that her father was too ill for her to bother him with such matters. She cannot believe that the law would find her guilty, since she acted out of love for her husband. But Krogstad points out that the law cares nothing for motive. He warns her that for her to keep her position with him, he must keep his position at the bank. He leaves.
Nora distracts herself by decorating the Christmas tree and thinking up ways to please Torvald. Torvald enters and asks her if someone has been there. Nora denies it. He insists that he saw Krogstad leaving and asks her if he came to ask her to intercede for him regarding his job. Nora admits that this is so. He is angry that she has promised anything to such a morally dubious person as Krogstad, and that she lied about his visit. Nora asks what Krogstad did to earn such disgrace. Torvald says he forged someone's name, then failed to admit his crime and accept the punishment. He says that the atmosphere of lies in Krogstad's house will corrupt his children.
Nora applies Torvald's harsh judgment of Krogstad to herself. She has committed the same crime, and lied, and she has children. When Torvald goes into his study, she will not allow the children to come to her.
A major theme of the play - deception, or the gap between appearance and reality - is introduced in the very first word, "Hide". Nora wants to hide the Christmas tree so that the children don't see it before it is decorated. The theme is developed throughout the play until we realize that Nora's entire relationship with her husband is based on many layers of deception, albeit benign deception.
The theme is developed by Nora's lie to Torvald about having bought macaroons, and by their tiresome role-play whereby he calls her pet names such as "little squirrel" and "little spendthrift" and she acts like a spoilt, silly, and irresponsible child. It becomes obvious later in the scene that she is a much more responsible, thoughtful and complex person than he could ever conceive of. But she puts on an act for him, because at some level she knows that a wife-as-plaything is the only kind of wife he can cope with. They undoubtedly love each other, but it is a love founded on a lie that both have created. Nora's pretence to Torvald of childish helplessness - "Yes, Torvald, I can't get along a bit without your help" - acquires heavy dramatic irony, as we know at this point that she has achieved the extraordinary feat of saving her husband's life. What is more, she has done so without his knowledge in order to preserve that delicate pride which demands that she appear to be utterly dependent upon him.
Torvald's reliance on this deception would engage more of our sympathy were he not so damning of Krogstad's need "to wear a mask in the presence of those near and dear to him." He sees Krogstad as an embodiment of congenital moral corruption. But Krogstad committed his moral 'crime' many years ago and has since led a respectable life. Though he looks set to slip back by blackmailing Nora, by the end of the play, he repents and redeems himself - throwing doubt on Torvald's uncompromisingly black picture of him.
The deceptive relationship between Torvald and Nora is contrasted with that between Dr Rank and Nora. With Dr Rank, Nora is able to be more truthful and drops the childish-flirtatious act she employs with Torvald, though she still lies to Rank about the macaroons. Dr Rank knows that Torvald cannot bear very much reality: when Nora says she wants to tell Torvald something shocking, Dr Rank advises her not to say it, adding, "with us you might." But Dr Rank too has his secrets, as we shall discover.
In A Doll's House, Ibsen explores his interest in the role of women in society. He raises questions about how much a woman has to compromise her own wishes and aims in order to fit into society. Mrs Linde has had to give up her true love, Krogstad, and marry a man she did not love in order to gain the financial security she needed to look after her mother and brothers. Hers has been a life of self-sacrifice rather than self-fulfilment.