The Pillars of Society Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Consul Bernick is the unquestioned leader of the town, with his wealth and influence extending into every enterprise. He owns the large shipyard that is the source of most of the townspeople’s income, and he has successfully fought the project of building a seacoast railway. He also introduced machines into the yards, leading Aune, his foreman, to stir up the workers because the machines mean the loss of jobs. Bernick, not wishing to have his authority questioned, threatens Aune with loss of his job if he does not stop his speaking and writing against the machines.

There is only one breath of scandal about Consul Bernick, and that concerns his wife’s family, a tale from many years before. Johan Tonnesen, Mrs. Bernick’s brother, is seen leaving the rear window of the house of Mrs. Dorf, a married woman. Later, Johan leaves town and goes to America. It is said that before he left, he stole the strongbox containing Bernick’s mother’s fortune. What makes the matter worse is that Mrs. Bernick’s half sister, Lona Hessel, follows her younger half brother to America and is like a mother to him. Only Bernick’s standing in the town prevents his ruin, and he made it clear to his wife that her family is a disgrace to him.

Mrs. Dorf’s husband deserts her and their daughter. When Mrs. Dorf dies soon afterward, Bernick’s sister, Martha, takes the child into their home. The girl, Dina, is a constant annoyance to Bernick. Not only does she have a disgraceful background, but she talks constantly about exercising her own free will and acting independently of his desires. Doctor Rorlund, the schoolmaster, loves Dina, but he will not marry her or let anyone know of his attachment because he is afraid of the town’s feelings about her. His beautiful words about goodness and kindness conceal his moral cowardice. He promises that they will be married when he can improve her position.

In the meantime, Bernick changes his mind about allowing a railroad to come to the community. Formerly, the proposed road would have competed with his shipping. Now he realizes that a spur line through the town will bring timber and minerals to his shipyard. The railroad will be a good thing for the town because it will be a good thing for Bernick. A pillar of society, he is aiding the town.

There remains constant trouble at the shipyard. The American owners of a ship Bernick is repairing had sent a cable, instructing him to get the ship under way immediately, although it is so rotted that it will require several weeks to make it safe. Bernick is torn between the profits to be gained by getting the ship afloat at once and the conscience that keeps him from sending its crew to certain death.

He grows even more disturbed because Lona and Johan have returned from America and the town has revived the old gossip. Many try to ignore the pair, but Lona refuses to be ignored. She feels no disgrace, nor does Johan. Johan and Dina are at once drawn to each other, and she begs him to take her back to America so that she can be free and independent.

Bernick and his wife will not hear of this plan, but for quite different reasons. Mrs. Bernick still feels her brother’s disgrace. Bernick, however, knows that Johan is blameless. It had been Bernick, not Johan, who was forced to flee the married woman’s house. Johan took the blame because he had no great reputation to save and was anxious to leave the town and strike out for himself. What...

(The entire section is 1417 words.)