The Pillars of Society  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Pillars of Society (original Norwegian title: Samfundets st√łtter) is an 1877 play written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

Ibsen had great trouble with the writing of this play which came before the series of masterpieces which made him famous throughout the world. The ending is the most criticised feature, since Bernick is clearly guilty of attempted murder but gets off unscathed, but successfully illustrates that the rich and powerful are often selfish and corrupt.


There are problems in the opening scene, when the exposition of what happened 15 years ago is told somewhat clumsily. That, combined with its large cast, has meant that it is rarely staged. But the play has great strengths and foreshadows many of the themes we associate with his work.

The relationship between Bernick and Lona is handled with great skill. In spite of the way he abandoned her, she still sees hope for his salvation if he can only bring himself to admit the truth about the past. This theme, that lies rot and corrode those who have told them, is a frequent motif in Ibsen.


Karsten Bernick is the dominant businessman in a small coastal town in Norway, with interests in shipping and shipbuilding in a long-established family firm. Now he is planning his most ambitious project yet, backing a railway which will connect the town to the main line and open a fertile valley which he has been secretly buying up.

Suddenly his past explodes on him. Johan Tonnesen, his wife's younger brother comes back from America to the town he ran away from 15 years ago. At the time it was thought he had run off with money from the Bernick family business and to avoid scandal because he was having an affair with an actress. But none of this was true. He left town to take the blame for Bernick, who was the one who had actually been having the affair and was nearly caught with the actress. There was no money to take since at the time the Bernick firm had been almost bankrupt.

With Tonnesen comes his half-sister Lona (whom Ibsen is said to have modelled after Aasta Hansteen), who once loved and was loved by Bernick. He rejected her and married his current wife for money so that he could rebuild the family business. In the years since Tonnesen left, the town has built ever greater rumours of his wickedness, helped by Bernick's studious refusal to give any indication of the truth.

This mixture only needs a spark to explode and it gets one when Tonnesen falls in love with Dina Dorf, a young girl who is the daughter of the actress involved in the scandal of 15 years ago and who now lives as a charity case in the Bernick household. He demands that Bernick tells the girl the truth. Bernick refuses. Tonnesen says he will go back to the US to clear up his affairs and then come back to town to marry Dina. Bernick sees his chance to get out of his mess. His yard is repairing an American ship, The Indian Girl, which is deeply unseaworthy. He orders his yard foreman to finish the work by the next day, even if it means sending the ship and its crew to certain death because he wants Tonnesen to die on board. That way he will be free of any danger in the future. Things do not work out like that. Tonnesen runs off with Dina on board another ship which is safe, leaving word that he will be back. And Bernick's young son stows away on the Indian Girl, seemingly heading for certain death.

Bernick discovers that his plot has gone disastrously wrong on the night the people of the town have lined up to honour him for his contribution to the city.

It's all set up for a tragic conclusion, but suddenly Ibsen pulls back from the brink. The yard foreman gets an attack of conscience and rows out to stop the Indian Girl from heading to sea and death; Bernick's son is brought back safely by his mother; and Bernick addresses the community, tells them most of the truth and gets away with it. His wife greets the news that he only married her for money as a sign there is now hope for their marriage.

List of characters

  • Karsten Bernick, a shipbuilder.
  • Mrs. Bernick, his wife.
  • Olaf, their son, thirteen years old.
  • Martha Bernick, Karsten Bernick's sister.
  • Johan Tonnesen, Mrs. Bernick's younger brother.
  • Lona Hessel, Mrs. Bernick's elder half-sister.
  • Hilmar Tonnesen, Mrs. Bernick's cousin.
  • Dina Dorf, a young girl living with the Bernicks.
  • Rorlund, a schoolmaster.
  • Rummel, a merchant.
  • Vigeland and Sandstad, tradesman
  • Krap, Bernick's confidential clerk.
  • Aune, foreman of Bernick's shipbuilding yard.
  • Mrs.Rummel.
  • Hilda Rummel, her daughter.
  • Mrs.Holt.
  • Netta Holt, her daughter.
  • Mrs.Lynge.
  • Townsfolk and visitors, foreign sailors, steamboat passengers, etc.

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