Since the death of his wife, Beata, Johannes Rosmer turns more and more to his friend, Rebecca West. Rosmer had an unhappy marriage with an unsympathetic, neurotic wife who took her own life in a millpond. Rebecca was her friend as well as the husband’s. Beata’s brother, Rector Kroll, the schoolmaster, also is Rosmer’s close friend.
Kroll calls on Rosmer to get him to join a political drive against the new liberal party that is gaining power in the village. The party is controlled by Peter Mortensgard, publisher of the Beacon, a paper Kroll considers radical and dangerous because it criticizes the conservative party, which he represents. Kroll is disappointed to learn that Rosmer no longer holds his former static views on politics and social structures but, instead, supports the liberals. Rosmer’s real concern is not with politics at all, but only with encouraging people to ennoble their souls; he feels the new party is a step toward this goal. Rebecca supports him in his belief.
While they talk, Madam Helseth, the housekeeper, announces Ulric Brendel, a self-styled genius who is going to the village to offer his services to the liberal party. Brendel is in rags and obviously without a livelihood, and to Kroll he epitomizes the liberals. To Rosmer and Rebecca, however, Brendel is a man living and working as his conscience directs, and they help him with clothing and money.
This act turns Kroll against them. He now turns on Rosmer savagely and accuses him of betraying his class. Rosmer was a clergyman, and Kroll attempts to plead with him from a religious point of view, but Rosmer claims that he renounced the church and became a freethinker. He feels that people are growing so bitter in political struggles that they must be brought back to tolerance and good will. It is his hope that he can aid in this task by renouncing his way of life and working with the new leaders.
Kroll then accuses Rosmer of living in sin with Rebecca, even though he defended Rosmer and Rebecca when town gossips whispered about them. He accuses Rebecca of influencing Rosmer in his new attitude and suggests that she was responsible for the suicide of Rosmer’s wife. He says his sister believed that Rosmer wished to wed Rebecca, and for that reason she drowned herself. Kroll maintains he did not speak up before because he did not know that Rebecca is an emancipated woman, and he did not believe her capable of such actions. His worst thoughts about Rosmer and Rebecca are confirmed when Mortensgard appears at Rosmer’s home in answer to a note Rebecca writes him in Brendel’s behalf. When Kroll leaves, he promises to inform the town of Rosmer’s treachery.
Mortensgard comes to solicit Rosmer’s aid in the liberal cause, but when he learns that Rosmer left the church, he does not want the former clergyman’s help. He needs Christians, not freethinkers, as he himself is, and so Rosmer is left with no one to support. Mortensgard, too, slyly accuses Rosmer and Rebecca of indiscretions and of causing the death of Rosmer’s wife.
From that time on Rosmer begins to feel guilty about his part in her death and fears that he did not conceal his true feelings for Rebecca from his wife. Determined not to let the past rule his life, he asks Rebecca to marry him. She flees from him sobbing, swearing that she can never marry him, that if he ever asks her again she will die the way his wife died.
Kroll does his work well. The paper supporting his party accuses Rosmer of betraying his class to gain favor with the liberals. The article links Rebecca and Rosmer in a debasing way. Rosmer wants to fight back, if only to free people’s minds from pettiness and mass thinking, but he believes that he cannot accomplish this task because he no longer feels innocent of his wife’s death; only the innocent can lead others.
Rebecca decides to give him back his purity of conscience. In Kroll’s presence she tells Rosmer that she alone is responsible for his wife’s suicide. She...
(The entire section is 1,095 words.)