The Pillars of Society

by Henrik Ibsen

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How does society's hypocritical morality affect characters in The Pillars of Society?

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Moral hypocrisy affects the characters by damaging their chances for personal happiness even though they may achieve professional success. Those who embrace society’s hypocrisy, such as Bernick, benefit in the short term, but they and their loved ones are harmed in the long run. He prioritizes money and reputation over emotional commitment.

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While Henrik Ibsen reveals the moral hypocrisy that pervades the whole community in The Pillars of Society, the negative effects are shown primarily through the character of Bernick. Ibsen conveys that such hypocrisy has a damaging impact on everyone, even on those whose embrace of unethical behavior may seem to make them immune to such effects. Bernick’s long history of bad deeds, which predate the play’s action, eventually come back to cause him as much harm as had befallen those he manipulated along the way. The ripple effects of a few bad decisions are shown to have ever-widening consequences when the members of society refuse to take a moral stand.

Bernick had long ago chosen money over love when he married one of two half-sisters, the one who had access to her family’s wealth. When he cheats on his wife, he places the blame on Jonah, who is left with little choice but to leave the country. The woman implicated in the affair dies, and her husband leaves town, abandoning their daughter, Dina. The girl suffers from her mother’s ruined reputation, which places obstacles in the path of her future marriage to the local doctor.

When Jonah returns, Bernick rejects the opportunity to set the story straight. He rationalizes his actions as benefitting the town, not just himself. He not only refuses to clear the other man’s name, but plots his likely death on an unsafe ship that he owns. Dina and Jonah, now a couple, actually survive on another ship. Instead, it is his own son, Olaf, who dies on Bernick’s ship—the victim of his father’s morally bankrupt actions.

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