Critical Evaluation

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The last of Henrik Ibsen’s social dramas, Rosmersholm gives readers a glimpse of the psychological studies he was to write later. In this play, Ibsen continues the attempt to arouse his readers to raise themselves above the mass, not to be pulled down to the level of the popular majority. This work is written with the dramatist’s usual skill and ranks with his other great plays.

Rosmersholm is literally the home of Rosmer, but in keeping with the temper of the play, the title actually signifies a spiritual homecoming for Johannes Rosmer. His life, both personal and political, is stormy. Almost without realizing it, he finds himself associated with unpopular political causes and movements by his friendship with Ulric Brendel and Peter Mortensgard. In a similar vein, his relationship with Rebecca West, after his wife Beata’s suicide, further alienates him from the mainstream. Former friends and colleagues—notably Rector Kroll—desert him, forsake him, and betray him. His admission of religious lapse only exacerbates the situation. When all of his life seems to tumble about him like a house of cards, Rosmer seeks reassurance by asking Rebecca to make the ultimate sacrifice of her life. At the decisive moment, Rosmer elects to join her in suicide. In so doing, Rosmer finds his home—his spiritual home, Rosmersholm—that formerly eluded him.

In reality, Rosmer only toys with politics. He does not have the committed revolutionary’s dedicated zeal; he is not capable of the self-sacrifice involved in giving himself over to a cause. His loyalties are divided between public issues and personal gratification. In the end, he chooses the latter, an important decision signifying a shift in Ibsen’s focus and emphasis. Ibsen’s earlier work deals with social issues of consequence to masses of people. Rosmersholm is a transitional piece that marks a change from social issues, which are a feature of his earlier dramas, to personal and individual concerns, which characterize Ibsen’s later dramas.

Still, Rosmersholm is a politically charged play, for Rosmer’s social ostracizing is more a consequence of his political philosophy than of his presumed unconventional lifestyle. In fact, the latter is attributed to the former, and much of the action in the play revolves around political philosophy and meetings with political figures, creating an onus from which even Rebecca is not exempt. The liberal-versus-conservative argument is the fulcrum of the conflict, with the issue of the so-called emancipated woman—Rebecca—serving as a microcosm of the entire macrocosm of the dispute. Rosmer’s loyalties are thus ground between the Scylla of public principle and the Charybdis of personal passion. Ibsen offers the only logical possible solution to the dilemma: in effect, a mutual suicide pact. The inevitability of this conclusion is not clear from the start; it only emerges in the unfolding of the play. As a consequence of such subtlety, the dramatic dimensions of Rosmersholm are enhanced to tragic proportions, making the play, despite its ambivalent stance, a genuine classic of its kind.

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