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In melodramas of the 1800s, villains wore black capes and laughed menacingly while they curled their long mustaches. Oftentimes these sinister men would tie damsels to railroad tracks or threaten to kick old ladies out of their soon-to-be-foreclosed homes.
Although on the diabolic side, Nils Krogstad from A Doll's House does not have the same passion for evil as your typical bad guy. He seems ruthless at first but experiences a change of heart early on in Act Three. The audience is then left to wonder: Is Krogstad a villain? Or is he ultimately a decent guy?
Krogstad the Catalyst
At first, it may seem that Krogstad is the play's main antagonist. After all, Nora Helmer is a happy-go-lucky wife. She's been out Christmas shopping for her lovely children. Her husband is just about to receive a raise and a promotion. Everything is going well for her until Krogstad enters the story.
Then the audience learns that Krogstad, a co-worker of her husband Torvald, has the power to blackmail Nora. She forged the signature of her dead father when she obtained a loan from him, unbeknownst to her husband. Now, Krogstad wants to secure his position at the bank. If Nora fails to prevent Krogstad from being fired, he will reveal her criminal actions and desecrate Torvald's good name.
When Nora is unable to persuade her husband, Krogstad grows angry and impatient. Throughout the first two acts, Krogstad serves as a catalyst. Basically, he initiates the action of the play. He sparks the flames of conflict, and with each unpleasant visit to the Helmer residence, Nora's troubles escalate. In fact, she even contemplates suicide as a means of escaping her woes. Krogstad senses her plan and counters it:
Krogstad: So if you are thinking of trying any desperate measures… if you happen to be thinking of running away…
Nora: Which I am!
Krogstad:… or anything worse…
Nora: How did you know I was thinking of that?!
Krogstad: Most of us think of that, to begin with. I did, too; but I didn't have the courage…
Nora: I haven't either.
Krogstad: So you haven't the courage either, eh? It would also be very stupid.
Criminal on the Rebound?
The more we learn of Krogstad, the more we understand that he shares a great deal with Nora Helmer. First of all, both have committed the crime of forgery. Moreover, their motives were out of a desperate desire to save their loved ones. Also like Nora, Krogstad has contemplated ending his life to eliminate his troubles but was ultimately too scared to follow through.
Despite being labeled as corrupt and “morally sick,” Krogstad has been trying to lead a legitimate life. He complains, “For the last eighteen months I've gone straight; all the time it's been hard going. I was content to work my way up, step by step.” Then he angrily explains to Nora, “Don't forget: it's him who is forcing me off the straight and narrow again, your own husband! That's something I'll never forgive him for.” Although at times Krogstad is vicious, his motivation is for his motherless children, thus casting a slightly sympathetic light on his otherwise cruel character.
A Sudden Change of Heart
One of the surprises of this play is that Krogstad is not really the central antagonist. In the end, that prestige belongs to Torvald Helmer. So, how does this transition occur?
Near the beginning of Act Three, Krogstad has an earnest conversation with his lost love, the widow Mrs. Linde. They reconcile, and once their romance (or at least their amiable feelings) are reignited, Krogstad no longer wants to deal with blackmail and extortion. He is a changed man!
He asks Mrs. Linde if he should tear up the revealing letter that was intended for Torvald's eyes. Surprisingly, Mrs. Linde decides that he should leave it in the mailbox so that Nora and Torvald can finally have an honest discussion about things. He agrees to this, but minutes later he chooses to drop off a second letter explaining that their secret is safe and that the IOU is theirs to dispose of.
Now, is this sudden change of heart realistic? Perhaps the redemptive action is too convenient. Perhaps Krogstad's change does not ring true to human nature. However, Krogstad occasionally lets his compassion shine through his bitterness. So perhaps playwright Henrik Ibsen provides enough hints in the first two acts to convince us that all Krogstad really needed was someone like Mrs. Linde to love and admire him.
In the end, Nora and Torvald's relationship is severed. Yet, Krogstad begins a new life with a woman he believed had left him forever.