At first, Dr. Rank appears to be an extraneous supporting character. He does not further the plot the way Krogstad or Mrs. Linde do. Krogstad initiates the conflict by attempting to blackmail Nora Helmer. Mrs. Linde gives Nora an excuse to leap into exposition in Act One, and she also tames the heart of the antagonistic Mr. Krogstad.
But What Does Dr. Rank Do?
Not too much. He visits with Torvald Helmer in his office. He flirts with a married woman. Oh, and he is slowly dying of an unnamed illness (he does hint at his disintegrating spine—and most scholars suggest he is plagued with a case tuberculosis). Even Dr. Rank believes himself to be easily replaceable:
Dr. Rank: The thought of having to leave it all… without being able to leave behind even the slightest token of gratitude, hardly a fleeting regret even… nothing but an empty place to be fulfilled by the first person that comes along. (Act Two)
More than any other character in the play, Dr. Rank reflects the dawning of “Modern Drama.” Torvald and Krogstad could just as easily appear in a sappy melodrama. However, Dr. Rank might well fit into one of Anton Chekhov’s plays. Before Ibsen’s time, many plays focused on characters facing and solving problems. As plays became more realistic, characters began spending more time being reflective rather than getting caught up in convoluted plot lines. Dr. Rank, like characters found in the works of Chekhov, Brecht, and other modern dramatists, ponders aloud about his inner misgivings.
Many scholars see Dr. Rank as a symbol of moral corruption within society. However, because of the many sincere aspects of his character, that view is debatable. Basically, Dr. Rank adds to the somber mood of the play, yet he is not essential to the conflict, climax, or resolution. He chats with the other characters, admiring them, all the while knowing he will never be important to any of them.
Dr. Rank’s Friendship with Torvald and Nora
When the Helmers find Dr. Rank’s letter that indicates he has gone home to await death, Torvald says, “His suffering and his loneliness seemed almost to provide a background of dark cloud to the sunshine of our lives. Well, perhaps it’s all for the best. For him at any rate. And maybe for us as well, Nora. Now there’s just the two of us.” It doesn’t sound like they will miss him too much. Believe it or not, Torvald is the doctor’s closest friend!
When students first read the play, some feel immense sympathy for Dr. Rank. Other students are disgusted by him. They believe that he fits his name. Dictionary.com offers a few vile definitions for the adjective “rank.” It is a word that means, “highly offensive; disgusting; vulgar; or indecent.”
More Than Just Friendly?
Does Dr. Rank fit those negative dictionary descriptions? That depends on how the reader interprets Dr. Rank’s affection for Nora.
Dr. Rank: Nora…Do you think he’s the only one who…? Who wouldn’t gladly give his life for your sake. I swore to myself you would know before I went. I’ll never have a better opportunity. Well, Nora! Now you know. And now you know too that you can confide in me as in nobody else. (Act Two)
One could view this as an honorable love-from-afar, or it could be grounds for a restraining order! Most actors portray Dr. Rank as soft-spoken and well-meaning. He does not mean to be vulgar, but instead confesses his feelings for Nora mainly because he only has a few days left to live.
Sadly, Nora responds to his forwardness by summoning her maid, turning up the lights, steeping away from him and quickly dismissing the conversation. When Dr. Rank suggests that his love is just as strong as Torvald’s, Nora recoils from him. She never again looks to him as a possible solution to her problem. The fact that she would consider suicide before accepting Dr. Rank’s endearments speaks volumes about the way the poor doctor is perceived by others.
He Doesn’t Rank Very Highly
Consider one last time the name of Rank. One of the definitions of the word in its noun form is: “a high position or station in the social scale.” Perhaps Ibsen has chosen this name to be ironic; none of the characters place him highly in their thoughts.