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Theatre / The Pillars of Society

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The Pillars of Society is the second of Henrik Ibsen's "political" plays (the first one being The League of Youth, and the last one An Enemy of the People), written in 1877, kickstarting his string of "realistic" plays.

This play tells the story of businessman and societal founder Carsten Bernick, and his endeavour as a part of the "founding elite" at the time. Bernick owns a shipyard, and has interests in industrial developments, a possible railway built to his town (he lobbies on the line of it, seeing to it that it does not interfere with his steamboat lines), and several other investments. Bernick is, by far, the wealthiest man in his society - a "pillar" of the first order.


Problem is, he did not get his wealth by honorable means. When he started out, his family was close to bankruptcy, and he had to marry a wealty girl, Betty Tønnesen, to get on his feet. At the same time, her brother John and her half sister Lona migrated to the United States, and Bernick blamed the lousy book-keeping on John, seeing to it that he got off the hook himself. Problems rise when John and Lona returns, planning to stay. Lona Hessel is a Blithe Spirit, a free and independent woman ahead of her time, to great chagrin for the more moralistic wives in her home town. John is eager to settle things with Bernick, to get rid of the slander on his reputation. Problems arise when Bernick, for the sake of honor, denies him this right. There is also the question of Dina, a young prodigy he has fostered, daughter of a Madam Dorf, the woman Bernick discarded for the sake of Betty. Whether she is his daughter is anyone`s guess.


Then, there is the shipyard. Shipwright Aune, working for Bernick, is also a union man, debating with his fellow workers whether the use of new equipment will render them unemployed. Bernick puts him under pressure to make two ships ready on short notice, although Aune is aware that one of them, the "Indian Girl", bound for America, will go down because of some weaknesses in the hull. Bernick will not admit this, and matters get worse when this actual ship is the one that may carry Lona, John and possibly Dina back to the States (and possibly sink on the way). Thus, Bernick is in a Moral Dilemma, considering whether he shall live on a lie, or flag the truth. Lona urges him to "do the right thing".


Tropes to be found in this play:

  • An Aesop: Given by Lona Hessel as the last line of the play:
    "No, the spirit of truth and freedom, that is the true pillars of society!"
  • Author Tract: Lona Hessel states the issues Ibsen has on his mind. You can see those issues surfacing again in his next play, A Doll's House.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Karsten Bernick to Betty. They do have a son, though. It may be subverted, as Betty actually seems to love her husband (but Bernick may have loved madam Dorf even more). It turns out Bernick married Betty for her inherited money - dumping Lona.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Shipwright Aune intervened just in time to save Olaf Bernick from going down with the Indian Girl, and saw to it that the ship was kept in dock to be repaired.
  • Blithe Spirit: Lona Hessel, carefree, independent, an outsider, and a true chagrin to the married women in town.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: To a point where Ibsen sets the subject of truth up against the need for profit. This play is his clearest statement in that respect.
  • Domestic Abuse: Bernick shows up with a stick, justifiyng why he had to beat his teenage son Olaf to compliance.
  • Eagle Land: America is discussed as the "land of the free". Lona Hessel comes straight from there with John, and both Dina and Olaf, Bernicks son, wishes to go there. Being 1877, this is subverted compared to later standards though. The discussion of Moral Ambiguity on behalf of the United States is there as well.
    • Lampshaded on a couple of occasions. First, the American sailors arrive, and is seen as a wild and uncouth gang of brutes by the locals. Later, The US office which ordered the Indian Girl demands it to be put to sea before it is finished, effectively dooming it to sink. Bernick almost snarks something about the American way of doing business.
  • Happy Ending: The last play written by Ibsen to end on a lighter note.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Bernick has one at the end of the play, guided by Lona.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: If you read the scene with Lona Hessel and Marta Bernick a certain way, it may seem that the two "old aunts" have some of it.
  • It's All About Me: Bernick to a point where the needs of society and his personal needs seem to overlap. He gets better.
  • I Will Wait for You: Marta waited unselfishly for John to return, only to find that he had "remained young" while she had gotten older. She gives him up to Dina, and is left with - Lona.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Karsten Bernick seems to have been infatuated with Lona Hessel at an early stage, while actually marrying her half sister Betty, all the while Lona may or may not have had feelings for his sister Marta, who also loved John, who ended up proposing to Dina who was betrothed to Rørlund - and Dina may be the illegitimate daughter of Bernick with yet another woman, madam Dorf.
  • Love Triangle: Dina Dorf is betrothed to the teacher Rørlund, but is in love with John Tønnesen, and elopes with him.
  • Maiden Aunt: Marta Bernick, unmarried, tending to children and the sick.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Hilmar.
  • Moral Dilemma: Tell the truth or not. Bernick has to decide whether his lie shall persist. And he has to decide on the issue of the Indian Girl, to save the lives of his relatives. To make matters worse, revealing the truth may lead to financial loss for him.
  • Moral Guardian: The teacher Rørlund, and the married women at large. Lona lamshades it by just calling the other women "the moral ones".
  • Mrs. Robinson: Lona towards John in a non-erotic way, calling him "the boy" a number of times. When time is ripe, she gladly gives him away to Dina.
  • The Needs of the Many: Discussed by Aune and Bernick. Bernick effectively uses this against Aune to make him do his will. The result - a possible loss of a ship with all hands.
  • New Technology is Evil: Discussed, because this new technology will put a number of shipyard workers out of employment.
  • Oh, Crap!: Bernick gets it when he understands his son Olaf is a stowaway on the Indian Girl, while knowing the ship is jinxed.
  • Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: Dina Dorf elopes with John, invoking the trope.
  • Self-Deprecation: Lona Hessel cannot help herself at times, mostly referring to her age.
  • Shipper on Deck: Lona is this on behalf of John and Dina.
  • Shout-Out: A subtle one for the Norwegian Politics. Bernick is called "the lever" in passing, being eager to make investments in the railroads, development of infrastructure and so on. "The lever" was also the nickname of the prime minister of Norway at the time, Frederik Stang, who eagerly pursued the same things. But, as Ibsen points out, tensions brewed beneath the surface, both for Bernick and for Stang.
    • The dialogue between Bernick and Aune reveals that Ibsen had read himself up on Karl Marx at this point. Das Kapital had been published ten years before this play.
  • Status Quo Is God: Bernick lives after this trope, and god forbid if anything should change.
    • Note that Status Quo is preserved at the end of the play, at least regarding society at large (while Dina has eloped to a freer life, and the shipwright complies to the new machinery). The only one to gain some insight, is Bernick himself. Does this mean another ironic twist from Ibsen?
  • Title Drop: Played with. The discussion on who or what is the "pillars of society" persists to the very end of the play.
  • Verbal Tic: Hilmar Tønnesen, cousin of John and Lona, regularly ends his lines with an "ouch" ("Uff").
  • Whole Plot Reference: John Gabriel Borkman. Borkman is an expy of Bernick, only a lot older, living with a son who elopes. Erhart Borkman expies both Olaf and John, while Lona is expied in Fanny Wilton, who is willing to give Erhart away to a younger girl - Frida (expying Dina). Even Borkman`s wife Gunhild and her sister is parallelled by Betty and Lona respectively.
  • Women Are Wiser: Lona Hessel is this trope.
  • Working-Class Hero: Shipwright Aune is a union man, and speaks on behalf of his crew. Divided Loyalty between the other workers and the employer is commented upon. It has been discussed whether Ibsen actually developed this plotline thoroghly.
  • Working-Class People Are Morons: Rørlund, and to some extent Bernick, seems to think so.

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