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Elise, newly widowed, sits in the living room and listens as her son, Fredrik, plays Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu” in another room. All the furniture in the house has been sealed because Elise’s late husband is being investigated for financial fraud. The cook, Margret, enters and proceeds to criticize Elise for failing to adequately provide for her children, Fredrik and Gerda. According to Margret, Gerda is “nearly twenty and she hasn’t sprouted yet,” and Fredrik is “forever freezing; he has to play [piano] to keep warm, or go out.” Elise maintains that she and her late husband were forced to live frugally because of their low income, but Margret retorts that the husband made 20,000 crowns per year. Margret tells Elise that she has been dying to leave the house ever since she arrived because the servants are treated so poorly. Margret leaves angrily as Fredrik enters, coughing.
Fredrick asks Elise when he will be able to finish school without having to borrow money. Elise informs him that his father left nothing and that the family business is worthless. Fredrik complains about being hungry and cold. Elise badgers her son to see if he ever talked about financial matters with his father. Fredrick denies that any such conversations took place, then asks if he may light a fire in his room to warm up. When Elise says no because they don’t “have money to burn,” Fredrick grumbles “there’s always been money for idiotic trips abroad . . . or to eat in fancy restaurants.” Fredrik leaves, grumbling about being undernourished.
Axel enters and surprises Elise. Elise asks him why he returned from their honeymoon five days early, and Axel starts to complain about his new wife, Elise’s daughter Gerda. Elise tells Axel that she was extremely touched by the poem he dedicated to her at the wedding, marveling that “never has a mother-in-law received such verses at her daughter’s wedding.” Elise recalls that Axel’s poem made reference to the myth of the pelican feeding its chicks with its own blood. The conversation turns to the family’s finances. Both Elise and Axel wonder where Elise’s husband’s savings went. Elise admits that she is “beginning to suspect Fredrik.” Elise informs Axel that she has already searched through her son’s drawers and her husband’s desk. Axel suggests that they look for secret drawers in the back of the desk, and discovers such a drawer. They find an envelope just before Gerda enters. Gerda, Elise, and Axel determine that they will have to dismiss the servants and all live in the house to conserve costs.
A ghostly wind sweeps through the window causing the father’s rocking chair in the sitting room to eerily swing back and forth by itself. Elise, closely followed by Axel, returns clutching the letter from her deceased husband. She reveals that the letter was intended for their son. According to Elise, the letter is “full of lies” about her. Elise curses her husband for “rising to speak from the grave” and burns the letter. Elise wants Axel to promise that they’ll leave the house as soon as possible, but much to her chagrin, Axel wants her to become “a maid in [her] own house” in order to cut costs. Axel explains that he only married Gerda because of the inheritance Elise promised him, and now, without the inheritance, he is ruined. Paradoxically, Elise is horrified that Axel never truly loved Gerda even though Elise wants to be with Axel herself. Elise returns to the letter, and she and Axel allude to the fact that they psychologically murdered him — a most convenient method, as it “falls outside the penal code,” to use Axel’s terminology. As Fredrik cries hoarsely from inside the house, Axel announces that he’s off to a business appointment. Elise has grown increasingly horrified at Axel’s insensitive cruelty, and she is filled with foreboding about the future that awaits her and her children as the scene ends.
Now Gerda is seated alone in the sitting room at her father’s desk as Godard’s “Berceuse de Jocelyn” plays in another room. Fredrik enters, and he and his sister discuss their late father’s desire to break off Gerda and Axel’s engagement. According to Fredrik, their father didn’t think Axel would be able to successfully support her. Gerda confesses that she helped cause their mother to leave their father so that he would know what it felt like to be separated. Fredrik informs Gerda that her new husband left her alone on their post-honeymoon night at home to go to an alleged “business meeting” at a restaurant, Gerda burst into tears. Both confess to feeling frozen and hungry. As soon as Fredrik goes to light a fire, he finds the letter Elise discovered in the desk. Fredrik reads his father’s letter and his horrified to discover that his mother “stole the household money, doctored the accounts, brought the worst stuff at the highest prices; [and] ate in the kitchen in the morning and gave [her children] watered down leftovers.” He discovers as well that Axel and Elise may have had an affair. Finally, Fredrik reminds Gerda that Axel struck her on their wedding night. Gerda seems to have suppressed the memory, but asks Fredrik to remind her often. Incensed, the two make a pact to “see justice done.”
As Axel returns from his “meeting,” Gerda immediately begins assaulting him with innuendos about the secrets he has been hiding. Axel is unnerved by their behavior, but tries to remain calm. Elise enters and offers porridge to the Fredrik, Gerda, and Axel. Elise is frightened to see the father’s chair rocking of its own accord.
Gerda and her mother are seated as “Il me disait” by Ferrarris, Axel and Gerda’s wedding waltz, plays in the background. Gerda hints that she knows how greedy her mother has been with food. Embarrassed, Elise tries to act like she does not know what her daughter is referring to. Gerda says that she and her mother must act as each other’s maids. Axel arrives and announces that he and Gerda have decided to cook their own meals, and that Elise will get no share of the food because she is “fat as a tub.” He accuses his enraged mother-in-law of “pilfering the wood money” and orders her to fetch some firewood to light a proper fire. When Axel leaves to enjoy a scrumptious meal with his wife, an enraged Elise hides a piece of firewood underneath the sofa.
A slightly drunken Fredrik enters and reveals that he has read the letter that Elise hid from him. Elise plays dumb once again. Fredrik accuses her of ruining his childhood by beating him whenever he told her something she didn’t want to hear. Fredrik announces that he is leaving to go drinking because he will shoot himself once he becomes sober. Elise begs him to stay because “Axel is a crook” and because the rocking chair frightens her. After Fredrik leaves, Elise considers throwing herself out the window. She is about to jump when she hears three knocks on the door. A violent wind roars through the room, scattering papers and causing the chair to rock. Elise turns on all the lights and collapses on the sofa.
Gerda, carrying with a bowl of porridge, enters the sitting room to find her mother asleep on the couch. She turns off all of the lights but one in order to cut costs and offers Elise the porridge, which Elise rejects. Elise insists that she gave everything for her children, Gerda shakes her, insisting that Elise to wake up from her delusional sleepwalking. When Elise speaks ill of her late husband again, three knocks are again heard on the door. Fredrik enters in a state of panic. He announces that the kitchen is on fire. Elise runs to the door, but is met by a wall of flame. In despair, she leaps off the balcony to her death. Fredrik admits to Gerda that he started the fire. Feeling happier than they have ever been, the siblings decide to burn together as it is the only way they can escape their misery. In their final moments, they recall a happy memory, long since past.