Ibsen’s A Doll House turns on a single sentence, Nora’s “We’re settling accounts, Torvald”. On that sentence the puerile Nora merges from her pupal cocoon and rejects her husband Torvald. Before that sentence the reader is accustomed to Torvald’s casual misogyny and pomposity. It is a sentence of deliverance, of the sort that lifts the hair on the back of your neck. Nora begins the dialogue that concludes this electrifying third act.
NORA: We’ve been married for eight years. Doesn’t it strike you that this is the first time that the two of us-you and I, man and wife-have talked seriously?
HELMER: Well-“seriously”-what does that mean?
NORA: In eight years-no, longer-right from the moment we met, we haven’t exchanged one serious word on one serious subject.
Michael Levenson, in Modernism, describes the impact that A Doll House had on Europe in the late nineteenth century. “Anecdotes abound of quarrels over dinner and demands by hostesses that guests refrain from discussing Ibsen”.
The event that thrilled and appalled Europe was Nora’s departure from her husband and sleeping children. But the shock of rupture needs to be placed within the speech conditions that prepare it. When the dialogue in the third act turns back on itself and confronts the disturbances of conversation, it lays out a challenge as radical as its final event, in some ways even more radical, Nora does not simply leave after speaking; she leaves because she speaks.
With repugnance, Ibsen was coerced to write an alternative ending for German theatre, a conciliatory conclusion that he later described as a “barbaric outrage”. In a letter to a newspaper Ibsen stated, “Those who wish to make use of the altered scene do so entirely against my wish.”