The Pillars of Society

by Henrik Ibsen

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Consul Karsten Bernick

Consul Karsten Bernick is the owner of the shipyard that provides the majority of the town's employment. He is a wealthy man and lives with his wife, Betty Bernick, and thirteen-year-old son, Olaf in a luxurious home. Their garden room acts as a major hub for the "moral" people of the town.

Rørlund, the local schoolmaster, describes Bernick as "good and pure"; moreover, Bernick is known to be extremely influential. Bernick is so esteemed in the community that he has been able to prevent the construction of a railroad into town, as he worries it might threaten his shipping business. 

Because Bernick is seen in such a positive light, he treasures his reputation; however, he hides a terrible secret. As the play progresses, the truth slowly comes to light, and Bernick’s once-perfect reputation falls to pieces, revealing his greed and misdoings. Bernick clings to his reputation, and it seems that he values it above all else, as he claims: "If anyone else accuses me, I shall deny all. If you try to crush me, I shall fight for my life."

Although Bernick ultimately redeems himself, he does not do so until he believes it to be too late. His confession is born not of remorse but of panic, so he ends the play as a morally ambiguous figure who would likely not have told the truth if he was not forced to. 

Mrs. Betty Bernick

Mrs. Bernick was a wealthy heiress when Bernick married her to save his mother from bankruptcy; their marriage is a sham, as he did not love Betty but was instead in love with Lona, her half-sister, at the time. 

The lie that sparked their relationship is made all the more tragic by the fact that Mrs. Bernick believes entirely in her husband's reputation, certain that he and all their friends are "moral" and "pure."

Olaf 

The Bernicks have a son, Olaf, aged thirteen, who is easily influenced. His head is turned by the glamor of Johan's stories of America, so he tries to stow away on The Indian Girl to reach America but is saved at the last moment by his mother.

Martha Bernick

Martha, a schoolteacher, is the unmarried sister of Consul Bernick. She takes in Dina Dorf, the daughter of the woman with whom Bernick had an affair. She tells Johan that she did this out of love for him, even though she believes it was he who had the affair.

Hilmar Tønnessen

Hilmar is the cousin of Mrs. Bernick and is a close confidant of Bernick. He dislikes conflict, however, and does not want to be involved in Bernick’'s business dealings, meaning he knows nothing about the other man’s deception.

Rørlund

Rørlund is a local schoolmaster who professes to love Dina Dorf. However, he exists in the play to underscore the hypocrisy of those who claim to be "moral." He tells Dina that he will marry her—but only if she can "rise up" in standing, as he does not want to be associated with her low status.

Dina Dorf

Dina, the daughter of the dead and disgraced Mrs. Dorf, believes herself to be "lapsed and lost" as her mother was. She was raised by Martha Bernick and believes herself to be unworthy and morally corrupt.

Later, Dina falls in love with Johan, impressed by the idea that America might be a better place for a person like her; in the end, however, she remains in the town with Johan, who refuses to be ashamed of her.

Johan Tønnessen

Johan is Mrs. Bernick's younger brother. In his youth, he took...

(This entire section contains 939 words.)

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the fall for Bernick's misstep. He agreed to take the blame for the affair with Mrs. Dorf but did not realize he would also be blamed for a fictitious theft.

When he discovers the false accusation placed against him, Johan insists that Bernick admits to his lie. When Bernick refuses, Johan threatens to expose him, causing Bernick to decide it would be best to let Johan drown on The Indian Girl. Ultimately, Johan is rewarded for his moral choices by being allowed to stay in town with Dina, his name cleared of wrongdoing.

Lona Hessel

Lona is Johan’s older step-sister and has looked after him during his time in America. A one-time love of Bernick's, Lona is characterized by her perceptiveness. She sees through the false moralizing of the town’s high society and begs Bernick to come clean for his own good.

Lona: But you, yourself, Karsten; is there not something within you that longs to get clear of the lie?

She forgives Bernick for having thrown her over in order to marry her richer sister, but tells him he cannot be a "pillar of society" if he does not admit "truth" into his life. At the end of the play, she commends him for telling that truth to the townspeople.

Krap

Krap is Bernick's clerk. He believes fully in Bernick's integrity, so when he sees that The Indian Girl is a dangerous vessel, he blames the shipyard's foreman, Aune, for sabotaging it.

Aune

Aune is the foreman of Bernick's shipyard. An honest man, he has irritated Bernick by stimulating anger among the other workers about the machinery Bernick has introduced to the yard. As such, Bernick insists Aune get The Indian Girl ready to sail, or else he will be fired. Aune does not want to lose his job but is ultimately too honest to allow the ship to sail as it is. He gives orders that the ship must come back to shore, saving Olaf's life.

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