The Pillars of Society

by Henrik Ibsen

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1417

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.

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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.

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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 he did not know was that Bernick had spread the story about the theft of his mother’s money.

Johan, thinking that the town will soon have forgotten a boyish escapade with another man’s wife, renews his promise not to tell that it was Bernick who had been involved. He tells Bernick that Lona knows the true story but that she will not reveal the secret. Johan is grateful to Martha, Bernick’s sister, for caring for Dina. Martha had refused several offers of marriage to care for the younger girl who was so disgracefully orphaned.

Johan learns also that Martha has not married because she has always loved him and has waited for him to return. Martha tells Johan that her brother’s strict moral principles make him condemn Johan and also try to turn her against him. Johan is puzzled, for he thinks Bernick has been grateful to him for assuming Bernick’s own guilt. Johan cannot understand his brother-in-law’s attitude.

Lona, too, forgives Bernick for his past acts, even his jilting of her in favor of her rich half sister. Bernick tells her why he had acted as he did. His mother’s business had been in great danger, and he needed money to avoid bankruptcy. For that reason he had renounced Lona, whom he loves, for her wealthier relative. For the same reason, he spread the story that Johan had taken old Mrs. Bernick’s money. In reality, there was no money; had the town learned the truth, it would have meant ruin for Bernick. Bernick completely justifies himself by saying that as the pillar of the town, he was forced to act deceitfully and maliciously.

Lona begs him to tell the truth at last, to keep his life from being built on a lie. Bernick says that the cost is too great; he cannot lose his money and his position. In addition, the railway project, which stands to make Bernick a millionaire, would fail with any whisper of a scandal. While he struggles with his conscience over this problem, he is still faced with the repair of the American ship. He forces Aune to get the ship ready to sail in two days—even though its unseaworthiness means death for its crew—and lays plans to pretend that Aune was the one who failed to take proper time and precautions to make the vessel safe. Bernick then plans to stop the sailing and take credit for losing his profit rather than risk the lives of the sailors. He needs public acclaim, for soon the town will learn that he had bought up all the land through which the railroad will run. It will be hard to convince the townspeople that they will benefit from his wealth.

To make matters worse, Johan becomes difficult. He had not known about the story of the theft, but he would forgive the lie if Bernick would now tell the truth. Johan wants to marry Dina, but his name must first be cleared. Bernick refuses the pleas of both Johan and Lona, lest he be ruined. He will not release Johan from his promise of secrecy. Lona will not tell the true story because she still loves Bernick. Besides, she thinks he himself should tell the truth so that he could be whole again. When Johan, planning to leave on the American ship, vows to return in two months and to tell the truth at that time, Bernick decides to allow the ship to sail. If it sinks, he will be free of Johan forever.

On the night of the sailing, Bernick arranges for a celebration in his honor for the purpose of getting the citizens into the proper frame of mind before they learn that he had bought property along the railroad route. Shortly before the celebration, he learns that his son, Olaf, had stowed away on the unseaworthy ship. He tries to call it back, but it is already out to sea. Then he is told that Johan took Dina with him to America, but that they had sailed on a different ship. He would lose his son and gain nothing.

Bernick is overjoyed when he learns that his wife had found the boy on board and brought him home before the ship sailed. Word comes also that Aune stopped the sailing of the ship and brought it back to the harbor. Bernick, saved from the evil of his deeds, stands up before the townspeople and confesses that he, and not Johan, was the guilty man. He promises also that he will share the profits from the railroad. Lona is happy. She tells Bernick that at last he has found the real pillars of society—truth and freedom. Only on them can society build a firm foundation.

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