Places: The Pillars of Society

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1880 as Samfundets støtter (English translation, 1880)

First produced: 1877

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Places DiscussedBernick’s house

Bernick’s Pillars of Society, Thehouse. Home of Karsten Bernick, the leading citizen of the unnamed coastal Norwegian town in which the play is set. The house is the location for all the onstage action of the play. Its opulence suggests the status of its owner, and the irony of Karsten Bernick’s situation is highlighted by the physical surroundings. Unfortunately, his good fortune, both at home and in business, is built on a lie.


Shipyard. Although no action is set in the town’s shipyard, the yard dominates the drama because of its significance to both plot and theme. Bernick’s profitable shipping business has made him one of the town’s leading citizens. As the story unfolds, however, readers learn that Bernick has had to commit crimes, vilify his exiled stepbrother, and use others in his family to preserve his good name and keep his unsavory actions from being discovered. While he struggles to keep his business profitable, he treats workers as commodities, replaceable by more efficient machines–showing repeatedly that he puts his own well-being ahead of the interests of the community he claims to love dearly. Ibsen uses a key incident to vivify his indictment of Bernick: In an effort to please a client, Bernick demands that a ship be repaired and set to sea immediately, even though he knows the work done will be inferior and that the ship may sink.

BibliographyHaugen, Einar. Ibsen’s Drama: Author to Audience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. Written by a superb teacher and scholar, this volume is a masterful introduction to Ibsen’s works and their place in European cultural history. Comments on The Pillars of Society are found throughout the book.Johnston, Brian. The Ibsen Cycle: The Design of the Plays from “Pillars of Society” to “When We Dead Awaken.” Boston: Twayne, 1975. With emphasis on the philosophical content of Ibsen’s later plays, this volume discusses The Pillars of Society in the context of nineteenth century capitalist society.McFarlane, James. Ibsen and Meaning: Studies, Essays, and Prefaces, 1953-87. Norwich, England: Norvik Press, 1989. In a major contribution to Ibsen criticism, McFarlane discusses The Pillars of Society in the context of A Doll’s House and Ghosts, concluding that Ibsen’s portrait of Bernick, the male protagonist, is marked by a great deal of irony.Meyer, Michael. Ibsen: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. A standard biography of Ibsen, it contains a good discussion both of the play itself and of its place in Ibsen’s oeuvre. Meyer regards it primarily as an indictment of the universal pettiness of small town life but also gives a helpful summary of its historical background.Weigand, Herman J. The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration. New York: Holt, 1925. An excellent introduction to Ibsen’s later plays, this volume contains a good essay on The Pillars of Society. Weigand finds the play interesting although it is not representative of Ibsen’s best work.
Categories: Places