The Pillars of Society

by Henrik Ibsen

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Pillars of Society is a four-act play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1877. The play opens in Consul Karsten Bernick's garden room, as the ladies of the town—Mrs. Bernick; Mrs. Holt and her daughter; Mrs. and Miss Rummel; Mrs. Lynge; Miss Martha Bernick and Dina Dorf—sit sewing. Also present are Rørlund and Olaf Bernick.

Aune, a shipbuilder, enters, explaining that he wishes to see the Consul. The Consul's clerk, Krap, tells Aune that he must leave; Krap also adds that Aune must stop lecturing workers about the introduction of machinery into Bernick's shipyard, the town's biggest employer. 

As the men argue, those in the garden room discuss a "moral" book schoolmaster Rørlund has been reading and contrast it to the "hollowness and rottenness" of society—specifically, the crew of an American ship, The Indian Girl, that has just moored in town. 

The company turns to the subject of trains. In the past, Bernick has managed to prevent a railroad from being placed in town, but Hilmar Tønnesen, Mrs. Bernick's cousin, reveals that the subject has resurfaced. As the group discusses morality and change, they recall when, years earlier, a group of actors came to town; the memory makes them all feel uneasy.

Mrs. Holt reveals that Mrs. Bernick's other brother, Johan, ran away to America with the acting troupe. Johan was found leaving Mrs. Dorf’s home through the attic window, and the scandal forced him to run away to America. Supposedly, Johan stole Bernicke’s mother's cashbox and took it with him. 

In his wake, Johan left disaster; Mrs. Dorf’s husband left her, and she later died. Johan’s step-sister, Lona Hessel, was spurned by Bernick, so she chose to leave for America as well. Like Johan, Lona is "a sun-spot in the Bernicks' happiness."

Mrs. Dorf’s daughter, Dina, came to live with Martha Bernick, Bernick's sister shortly thereafter. Like her mother, Dina believes herself to be "lapsed and lost.” Rørlund, however, disagrees and plans to marry her "when circumstances permit".

Bernick changes his stance on the railroad, realizing that it will not compete with his shipping business but will instead help it by supplying raw materials. Although he has resolved his worries about the railroad, his worries about The Indian Girl have not. The ship is unsafe, but its owners want it to get underway as soon as possible. Bernick knows he will make a lot of profit if he allows this but fears the consequences for the crew.

A group of Americans arrives in town—including Lona and Johan. Lona refuses to be shamed, saying she will "let in fresh air." Dina strikes up a friendship with Johan, to the discomfort of Mrs. Bernick, who resents the old scandal being stirred up just when her husband needs "unmixed good feeling" for his plans. Bernick tells Aune to have The Indian Girl ready to sail the day after tomorrow. If he doesn’t,  he will be fired.

Meanwhile, rumors swirl about Dina, who was seen in town with Johan and Lona, who are now rumored to be quite wealthy. Bernick intervenes, but his efforts backfire, revealing that he was the man seen escaping Mrs. Dorf’s house. Johan offered to cover for his brother-in-law to save his reputation; Consul Bernick agreed and began to spread rumors about Johan stealing the cashbox to worsen his reputation. Despite the betrayal, Johan agrees to keep Bernick’s secret. 

Martha tells Johan that Dina has never married because she has been waiting for him. He is surprised that she has, as she would not have known that the rumors of his misdoings were untrue; Martha explains that she...

(This entire section contains 1094 words.)

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has forgiven him and wishes to marry him. 

Bernick confesses to Lona that he did love her; however, his mother’s poor finances forced him to marry for money—money that Lona’s half-sister had. Despite his confession, Bernick refuses to correct the lies about his affair with Mrs. Dorf, as it would ruin his work. 

After hearing rumors about Dina, Rørlund objects to her association with Johan, explaining that it was Johan who caused her mother's shame and stole the cashbox. Johan is horrified that Bernick has spread the rumor of this theft. The situation worsens when Krap tells Bernick that The Indian Girl is being repaired in a "botched" way; he thinks Aune intends to sink it deliberately. Hilmar then tells Bernick that Lona and Johan plan to sail on that ship.

Bernick confesses to Lona that he spread the theft rumor to preserve his mother's reputation, as the money never existed in the first place. Aghast, Lona responds that Bernick's whole life is built on a "black spot" and scoffs at his claim that he is a "pillar of society."

Johan tells Bernick he forgives him for the lie, but he adds that he needs him to tell the truth to save his reputation, so he can live in the town as Dina's husband. Bernick says he cannot admit one thing without also admitting the other—he will deny everything if the others reveal it. Johan says he has two letters from Bernick and will reveal them if he is forced. First, however, he must go to New York onboard The Indian Girl.

Bernick decides to allow the ship to sail, knowing from Krap's observations that its sinking would be blamed on Aune. Moreover, he would be rid of Johan. On the night the ship is due to sail, there is a storm.

Mrs. Bernick and others have arranged a celebration for the launch, to Bernick's dismay. Rummel suggests it will be a good time for them to learn that Bernick plans to purchase property along the railway line. Bernick's son, Olaf, thrilled by the prospect of America, stows away on the ship; Lona sees him go. Dina and Johan board The Palm Tree instead.

When Bernick realizes the two are on the wrong ship and learns that Olaf is on The Indian Girl, he thinks he has lost everything, and the ship will sink for nothing.

At the last moment, Bernick learns that Aune has stopped the ship from sailing and that Mrs. Bernick has found and retrieved Olaf. Bernick sees these events as a reprieve and admits to the townspeople the truth. He confesses he has bought the property but will share the profits from the property and the railroad with the town. Lona praises him, saying that "truth and freedom" are truly the pillars of society.

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