ArticlePDF Available

Contrasting Visions: Perceptions of America in Henrik Ibsen's Pillars of Society

Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
Throughout the nineteenth century, America was a topic of lively and contentious inter-
est among Europe’s literary elite. In most cases, however, the evident fascination with
the United States was due not so much to its rising international standing, but rather to
its status as a new civilization one with roots in the Old World, yet in many respects
profoundly different from it. Intensified by the onset of mass emigration from the 1830s
and onwards, this great debate about American civilization pitted enraptured accounts of
freedom and authenticity against glum visions of the moral and cultural misery awaiting
European emigrants in the United States. More often than not, these conflicting repre-
sentations were rooted in endogenous, European affairs. For all their professed
knowledge of America, literary authors mostly remained prisoners of long-standing and
deep-seated biases, and their pronouncement on the United States were often little more
than coded responses to key political and social issues at home thus, popular and polit-
ically radical writers tended to extol America (thereby implicitly criticizing the prevailing
situation in Europe), whereas conservatives would normally opt for a strongly dismissive
stance (thereby implicitly defending the domestic order of things). Rarely an object of
dispassionate enquiry, the United States remained shrouded in mythologies and precon-
ceptions. As a result, the European image of America tended toward extremes, casting
the New World either as a dream or a nightmare (Arendt 409-10).
Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, founder of the modern drama, is not normally re-
garded as a major contributor to the debate about America in nineteen-century European
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
letters. Indeed, Ibsen does not seem to have been particularly interested in the United
States. His private correspondence contains only sporadic references to this country,
even though two of his younger siblings had emigrated there, and his son had served for
three years at the Swedish-Norwegian embassy in Washington. His personal library in-
cluded none of the standard contemporary accounts of America, whether fictional or
factual (cf. Haakonsen). Most importantly, his published works tend to avoid the topic
altogether. In fact, we would be justified in speaking, not simply of a lack of interest, but
an apparent lack of awareness of America on the part of Ibsen the author, were it not for a
few scattered references in his poetic and dramatic writings as well as a fuller, yet still
seemingly peripheral representation of the United States in Pillars of Society, the first of
Ibsen’s great cycle of “modern plays.
In this article, I offer a new look at this pivotal drama, aimed specifically at recon-
structing its complex views on the United States. Never a critics’ favorite, this reputedly
clunky play has attracted scholarly attention mainly due to its formal innovations
(Hemmer) as well as its seemingly redemptive conclusion, which, according to a much-
cited paper by James MacFarlane, should be understood ironically rather than literally
(MacFarlane). To the extent that the American theme has been touched upon at all, the
verdict has invariably been that the play is strongly sympathetic to the United States, as-
sociating this country with freedom, vitality and moral decency. In the following I pre-
sent a different view. While Ibsen’s lack of genuine interest in the United States seems
beyond doubt, Pillars of Society is in fact deeply involved in the nineteenth-century Euro-
pean conversation about the nature and values of American civilization. Yet, Ibsen’s po-
sition within this conversation is marked by an unusual degree of complexity that far
transcends the simple opposition between uncritical infatuation and shrill disparagement.
Rather than subscribing to either of these abstract positions, Ibsen appears in this play to
be conducting a review of the contemporary European discourse about America. Freely
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
using the available positions for the purposes of characterization and critique, the play
seems to endorse some of the key tenets of romantic anti-Americanism, while on the
other hand using the United States positively as a foil for what is seen as the hypocrisy
and repression of bourgeois society in Norway and Europe.
Through a combination of historical and textual analysis, this article aims to disentan-
gle the intricate web of discursive and narrative threads that make up the image of Amer-
ica in Pillars of Society. The main outcome is a better appreciation of how this play draws
on contemporary debates about the United States, while at the same time imbuing these
debates with new complexity. In addition, the proposed reading of the play sheds new
light on Ibsen’s development as a dramatist and offers new insights into the literary dis-
course on America in the late nineteenth century.
Emigration and the discourse on America
An author’s comparative disinterest in a foreign country is rarely a topic worthy of de-
tailed commentary; after all, such disinterest can often be put down simply to tempera-
ment or personal preference. Yet for a writer as focused as the later Ibsen on the key so-
cial issues of the day, the relative neglect of the United States is remarkable. Not only did
the United States undergo a rapid transformation in the second half of the nineteenth
century, gradually making it a world leader in terms of technological prowess and eco-
nomic power; it also had a special relevance in Ibsen’s native country as the new home-
land of hundreds of thousands of Norwegian emigrants. As Toril Moi has shown (39),
Norway in this period was colonial and post-colonial society, struggling to escape
the dominance of its Scandinavian neighbors. Yet it was also very much a colonizing socie-
ty, which yearly contributed thousands of its population to the settlement of the Ameri-
can West. Beginning in earnest in the mid-1830s, Norwegian emigration peaked in the
decades between the mid-1860s and the mid-1890s, a period roughly corresponding to
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
the modern phase of Ibsen’s career as a dramatist. During this period, Norway’s annu-
al emigration rate frequently exceeded a full one percent of the population (a figure
topped only by Ireland). The vast majority of these emigrants went to the United States,
and it has been estimated that a total of more than 800,000 Norwegians settled in this
country between 1836 and 1930 (Haugen 14).
This massive outflow of people triggered an extensive and often animated public de-
bate, focused partly on the causes and consequences of emigration at home, and partly
on the United States as the emigrants’ destination of choice. With Ibsen as the most no-
table exception, Norway’s major poets and writers of the period were deeply involved in
this debate, and together they turned America and American emigration into a major
theme in the national literature of the late nineteenth century. Several of them even visit-
ed the Midwestern emigrant settlements themselves, conveying their impressions back to
the Norwegian public in the form of articles, letters, and travel books.
The literary negotiations over the United States began almost at the same time as or-
ganized mass emigration. As early as 1843, a time when emigrant numbers only averaged
around one thousand per year, the influential national-romantic poet Henrik Wergeland
sounded the alarm, railing against what he regarded as the emigration frenzy and com-
paring emigration to a dangerous epidemic disease that caused its victims to lose their
good sense (qtd. in Blegen 155). Two years later, Wergeland followed up this direct at-
tack with a short anti-emigration play, Fjeldstuen (The Mountain Cabin, 1845). Here,
expanding on his epidemiological imagery, the poet likens emigration to the bubonic
plague of the Middle Ages and describes it as a serious threat to the ongoing endeavor to
craft an independent national culture an endeavor to which most of his own activity as
a writer was dedicated. Yet Wergeland primarily directs his anger against emigration
agents, represented in this play as cynical exploiters who trick naïve peasants into a life of
misery far away from the true national home. In a manner typical of European anti-
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
emigration literature of this period, emigration is represented as a risky undertaking likely
to end in disillusionment, if not in death (Wergeland).
Even as he rails against emigration, Wergeland rarely speaks ill of the United States
itself. However, in the following generation, when migrant numbers had risen considera-
bly, the positions for and against emigration invariably correlated with similarly polarized
attitudes toward the United States and American civilization. The opposing views were
politically charged and rooted in ongoing domestic debates. Liberals tended to describe
emigration as unavoidable given the political and economic situation at home, and fur-
ther regarded the freedom and the democratic ideals of the United States as a model for
their own reformist proclivities. Conservatives, on the other hand, tended to discourage
emigration, regarding it as a threat to the vitality of the homeland and conversely perceiv-
ing the United States in Eurocentric terms as a country without history and hence also
without culture (Gulddal 20-25).
The liberal position was advocated eloquently and with integrity by 1903 Nobel Prize
laureate Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Norway’s national poet and author of its national an-
them. The emigration question features very prominently in Bjørnson’s work. As a young
man in the 1850s and 1860s, writing within the tradition of nationalistic romanticism, his
views on the matter were still wholly under the sway of Wergeland. Emphasizing the
need for talented people to remain in Norway for the benefit and improvement of the
nation, early works such as the novels Arne (1858) and En glad gut (1860) represent emi-
gration as a selfish and damaging undertaking (Haugen and Haugen 6-7). Yet, like Ibsen
The narrative of the disillusioned emigrant is a significant but neglected subgenre in European litera-
ture of the mid-to-late nineteenth century; notable examples include: Gustave de Beaumont, Marie, ou
L’esclavage aux États-Unis (1835); Charles Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44); Ferdinand Kürnberger Der
Amerikamüde (1855); and Victorien Sardou’s L’Oncle Sam (1872). For a comprehensive discussion of this
genre, cf. Gulddal 45-53.
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
in the same period, Bjørnson undergoes a political transformation around 1870 that
changes his outlook from nationalism to democratic liberalism. As a result of this ideo-
logical shift, the emigration question acquires a new critical potential in his writings: emi-
gration is from now on seen as a consequence of the backwardness of Norwegian socie-
ty, while the United States is held up as a model of political freedom, economic oppor-
tunity and individual strength. A seven-month visit to America in 1880-81, equally divid-
ed between the intellectual centers in New England and the Norwegian emigrant com-
munities in the Midwest, would confirm this new outlook, and the travel letters that
Bjørnson published in the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet are full of praise of both the emi-
grants and their new country; at times, the author even goes to the extreme of encourag-
ing young Norwegian tradesmen to try their luck in the New World (Haugen and
Haugen 254). Upon returning home, Bjørnson continued this campaign for a more tem-
perate and realistic perception of the United States. In a rare and insightful analysis of the
domestic brand of European anti-Americanism, the author thus takes exception to what
he refers to as the endless defamation of an entire people the undifferentiated hostili-
ty toward the United States that often served as a corollary of the conservative hostility
both towards democracy and emigration (Bjørnson).
The conservative position had a somewhat extremist spokesperson in novelist Knut
Hamsun, another Norwegian Nobel Prize winner (1920), whose views on the United
States were partly a reaction to Bjørnson’s liberalism. As a young man, the destitute
Bjørnson’s impassionate defence of America against its conservative detractors in Norway often leads
him to represent this country in heavily idealized terms, eulogizing it as the “miracle republic of the world
and characterizing the “men and women of New England” as the “best company in the world” (Bjørnson).
Here, the United States is clearly not so much a real place as way of making a point within a domestic de-
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
Hamsun had spent a total of more than four years in the American Northwest (1882-84,
1886-88) in a bid to gain the financial wherewithal to pursue a career as an independent
writer back in Norway. The bid was unsuccessful. After having worked a variety of jobs
from farmhand and cable-car conductor to itinerant lecturer, Hamsun returned to Scan-
dinavia and immediately set to work on a firebrand invective against America entitled Det
Moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (The Cultural Life of Modern America, 1889). Rather than
analyzing the major social and political problems of contemporary America, this book
concerns itself almost exclusively with the cultural ramifications of the country’s com-
mercial, industrial, and technological modernity. The conclusion is always the same and
always in keeping with that of conservative romanticism: culture in the European sense is
impossible in a young republic devoted to business and material prosperity, and for this
reason Americans are condemned to a life of utter spiritual emptiness. Disturbingly,
Hamsun shores up this line of reasoning, not only with blatantly misogynistic attacks on
the (relative) independence of American women, but also with references to the contem-
porary discourse of biological racism and its warnings against racial miscegenation. Blood
contamination is seen here as an important reason for America’s cultural ineptitude: In-
stead of founding an intellectual elite, America has established a mulatto studfarm
(Hamsun 144).
The two most important statements on the United States in Norwegian literature of
the nineteenth century, Bjørnson’s travel letters and Hamsun’s anti-American diatribe
demarcate the extremes of a cultural environment where America had taken on diametri-
cally opposite meanings as a land either of freedom or of moral and cultural decadence.
Ibsen’s various remarks about America are not direct responses to either of these authors
(they mostly belong to a slightly earlier period, namely the 1860s and 1870s), yet they are
nevertheless products of the same extensive and often self-contradictory discourse on
America that had developed in Norway with the onset of mass emigration. Familiar with
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
this discourse from its earliest beginnings, Ibsen would later, as a long-time exile, have
seen it reflected in the wider European debate over the United States in this period, not
least in his main country of residence, Germany. When Ibsen wrote about America, this
discourse with its conservative and liberal poles served as his inescapable point of depar-
The two earliest of Ibsen’s literary reactions to the United States both belong to the
negative, anti-American strain associated with political conservatism and hostility toward
emigration even if Ibsen does not explicitly endorse these views. The first is the poem
Abraham Lincolns Mord (The Murder of Abraham Lincoln, 1865), which presents
an idiosyncratic interpretation of the assassination of the American president as the joint
product of Europe’s grafting twig and the rich soil of the New World. Underneath
this horticultural imagery lies a quasi-Hegelian view of history, predicated on the idea of a
gradual development toward a point of crisis that will produce a new beginning. Framed
by this view, America is portrayed as the high-point and logical outcome of Europe’s
perennial treacherousness and ever-increasing moral corruption. If this means, dialecti-
cally (and similar to the view of the United States in classical Marxism), that the United
States is somehow closer to the victory of dawn, it also entails a highly negative repre-
sentation of this country as a place where justice sits on the edge of the knife, and
where the present age has inverted itself to its own caricature (Abraham Lincolns
Mord 398-401).
The second example, to be found in Act 4 of Peer Gynt (1867), expands on these views
while explicitly linking them to the emigration issue. While never representing the United
States directly (and never mentioning it by name), the rascally protagonist’s account of
his experiences as an emigrant makes it clear that America is seen here as a place of un-
bounded materialism where morals and humanity count for nothing. After ten years in
the United States, having become rich through a combination of slaveholding, smuggling
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
and colonial trade, Peer Gynt has degenerated into an unprincipled scoundrel an ex-
emplar of “the Yankee rabble’s worst progeny” (Peer Gynt 391).
Both biographically and historically it would make sense if these bleak, albeit relative-
ly rudimentary, representations of America in Ibsen’s earlier works were transplanted by
more positive views in the dramatist’s decalogue of modern prose plays that is, if Ib-
sen’s perception of the United States evolved in the same direction as that of Bjørnson
and in parallel with the evolution of the author’s social and political views. In fact, this
preconception seems to inform the standard interpretation of Pillars of Society. According
to this view, Ibsen uses America primarily as a foil for bourgeois Europe, letting it stand
for freedom and honesty as opposed to emotional repression and hypocrisy (e.g. John-
ston 104-5; Rossel 16). Yet, this play’s overall image of the United States is in fact much
more complicated and much less immediately positive. Unusually for literature of this
period, Ibsen resists the temptation to reduce America to a neat, homogeneous idea,
whether positive or negative, and stages instead a multilayered confrontation between
incongruous ideological positions. A closer investigation, based on the brief historical
reconstruction offered above, will reveal how Ibsen’s modern breakthrough play offers a
dynamic mise-en-scène of the contemporary debates about the United States that ex-
plodes the dichotomy of American dreams and nightmares. This dismantling of the
traditional discursive order of things hinges on a strict separation within Ibsen’s play be-
tween America fictions and American realities.
American fictions
Like Ibsen’s modern plays in general, Pillars of Society levels an all-out attack on the hypoc-
risy and repressiveness of late nineteenth-century bourgeois society. Adhering to the
dramatic ideals of the Aristotelian-Sophoclean tradition, the modern plays are typically
structured around a process of gradual revelation that brings to light the moral corrup-
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
tion (although rarely outright criminality, as Franco Moretti has recently argued)
under the surface of bourgeois respectability. In this particular case the unwelcome reve-
lations come crashing down on Consul Karsten Bernick, the owner of a shipyard in a
small town on the Norwegian Atlantic coast. As the town’s foremost citizen (Pillars
Bernick is involved in all aspects of its commercial life and further represents a
moral ideal to his fellow citizens by virtue of his seemingly perfect family life. However,
this standing is based on a body of lies that is dragged into the light when Bernick’s two
in-laws, half-siblings Johan Tønnesen and Lona Hessel, suddenly return home after hav-
ing lived for many years as emigrants in the United States. The absence of these family
members has long allowed Bernick to use them as scapegoats for his own wrongdoings,
which include an affair with a married actress as well as some shady financial dealings
designed to save the family business. Representing the repressed side, or the guilty con-
science, of bourgeois life, Johan and Lona are the only persons other than Bernick him-
self who know the truth. At first, they have no intention of exposing the Consul’s secrets,
yet a series of unexpected events ultimately makes it impossible for them to keep up ap-
pearances any longer.
Even though its two main positive characters have spent fifteen years in the United
States, Pillars of Society only touches upon the American theme peripherally: it has very
little to say about the emigrant experience, it has no named American characters with
speaking parts, and everything said about the United States is surrounded by conspicuous
vagueness. Yet this country is nevertheless a permanent presence in the play, not least
because the characters, positive as well as negative, repeatedly compare life in small-town
Moretti’s contention meets its limit in this particular drama, in which the male protagonist is clearly
guilty of criminal irresponsibility and attempted murder.
Quotations from this edition have occasionally been modified with reference to the Norwegian origi-
nal (Samfundets Støtter).
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
Norway to the very different conditions on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In do-
ing so, they implicitly refer to the contemporary Norwegian and European debate on
America with its two basic attitudes of conservative resentment and liberal admiration.
Superficially considered, the rule applies that the play’s positive characters have a posi-
tive attitude toward the United States, while negative characters generally express anti-
American sentiments. Thus, the mainly female victims of bourgeois hypocrisy all seem to
fantasize of a more authentic and less repressive existence in the New World. Lona Hes-
sell, whom Bernick deserted many years earlier in favor of her half-sister, the shipyard
heiress, articulates this pro-American longing in exemplary form when she juxtaposes the
air of the prairies with the stench of burial shroud in her native town, thereby asso-
ciating the United States with life and bourgeois society in Norway with death (Pillars 45).
The housemaid Dina Dorf, who in reality is the victimized daughter of Bernick’s former
actress lover, similarly imagines Americans to be more natural rather than so very de-
cent and moral the latter being the key attribute of the local bourgeois hypocrites (Pil-
lars 57-8). Finally, the Consul’s unmarried sister, Martha, explicitly associates America
with freedom, sunlight, strength and youth, once again drawing a clear distinction be-
tween the vitality of the New World and the corruption of the Old (Pillars 101, 103).
The opposite view prevails among the respectable male citizens, the main benefi-
ciaries of the reigning social order and its values. Here, we encounter a firm belief that
their own society is built on a sound moral foundation, as Bernick puts it (Pillars 39),
and for this reason they are markedly skeptical towards everything foreign, whether it be
technological innovations, changing mores or social reforms. The main representative of
this brand of conservative provincialism is the deeply self-righteous and intolerant Dr.
Rørlund. Exposed as a reactionary hypocrite as early as in the play’s opening scene, r-
lund warns against more frequent contact with the depraved world outside (Pillars 39)
and repeatedly rants against the great modern communities, first among which United
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
States whose glittering façades he describes, with unintended irony, as a cover for hol-
lowness and corruption (Pillars 25). The sickly and effeminate Hilmar Tønnesen, a
cousin of Bernick’s wife, provides corroboration for this view from a very different an-
gle. Compensating for his poor physical consitution, he frequently indulges in fantasies
of masculinity involving buffalo hunting and fights with redskins in the American
West. When encouraged to emigrate himself, he points to his health as the only impedi-
ment. Yet in reality he is strongly dismissive of the United States, characteristically greet-
ing the tune of Yankee Doodle with an indignant cry habitual, yet tripled for this
particular occasion of Ugh, ugh, ugh! (Pillars 42).
As it is clear from these contrasting attitudes, Ibsen’s characters use America as a ve-
hicle for either attacking or defending their own society. Here, significantly, the United
States is not so much a real place that the characters have a genuine interest in under-
standing, but an imagined alternative to small town Norway that is represented as posi-
tive or negative depending on the speaker’s gender and social position. America becomes
a medium of cultural self-interpretation, and it is important to note that the opposing
viewpoints are equally disconnected from reality they are nothing other than dreams
and nightmares, articulated in view of the local Norwegian context rather than the United
States. Yet given the fact that the negative views are consistently attributed to negative
characters and utilized to ridicule them, it seems natural to conclude that the image of
America in Pillars of Society is biased towards the positive pole, and that this play conse-
quently has little to do with the discourse of contemporary European anti-Americanism.
Further, the rejection of the United States by the play’s bourgeois hypocrites leads us to
believe that Ibsen is politically in agreement with Bjørnson, accepting emigration as inevi-
The sound is expressive both of a sickly disposition and, more pertinently in this context, of moral
and aesthetic dismay.
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
table and endorsing the values of what Bernick calls an agitated society like that of
America (Pillars 62).
American facts
According to Joan Templeton, the United States features in Pillars of Society as one of Ib-
sen’s alternate, offstage geographies, designed as a challenge to the hegemony of the
bourgeois home (Templeton 601). This is an astute observation, yet any critical apprais-
al of this play’s representation of America would be incomplete if it overlooked the fact
that the United States also has an onstage presence in the form of the dilapidated Ameri-
can steamship Indian Girl and its rowdy crew. When the United States is transformed
in this way from fantasy to tangible reality, the locals suddenly forget their otherwise ir-
reconcilable differences and instead condemn the Americans in one voice. Thus, the
American sailors are represented by all parties in strongly negative, even dehumanizing
terms. It is hardly surprising that Hilmar Tønnesen and Dr. Rørlund, both representa-
tives of the town’s deep narrow-mindedness, are repulsed by these unwelcome American
visitors: true to his delicate disposition, the former anxiously reports that the ship’s cap-
tain was formerly a pirate, or a slave-trader (Pillars 78), while the latter uses the sailors
as an opportunity to rant once more against a great modern society like the United
States: I would rather not sully your ears by speaking of such human refuse. But even in
respectable circles, what do we see? Doubt and unrest fermenting on every side; spiritual
dissension and universal uncertainty. Out there, family life is everywhere undermined. An
impudent spirit of subversion challenges our most sacred principles (Pillars 25). Signifi-
cantly, however, these disparaging views of Americans are shared by the play’s positive
characters. Thus, when Bernick complains to his foreman, Shipwright Aune, that the
sailors are an unprincipled horde, instigating riots and committing unmentionable
indecencies, this honest worker agrees wholeheartedly, characterizing the Americans as
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
a depraved lot and later stating that “there aren’t any human beings in the Indian Girl
only beasts (Pillars 49, 76). Even Lona Hessel, the play’s benchmark of integrity and rea-
son, refers to the sailors as a gang of ruffians (Pillars 106).
When confronted with real Americans, the play’s entire cast comes together in con-
demning them as criminals, barbarians or animals truly a rare ecumenical moment in
Ibsen’s modern dramas. Importantly, the comprehensive stigmatization of the sailors is
gratuitous in the sense of having no genuine narrative purpose. While the plot requires a
derelict merchant ship bound for the United States, there is strictly speaking little reason
why the ship and its crew have to be Americans, why the American crewmen should be
cast as more depraved than sailors of other nationalities, and why their depravity should
be commented by such as wide range of characters. The only plausible explanation seems
to be that Ibsen is taking this opportunity to lash out against the Yankee rabble and
their anarchic country, as he had done a decade earlier in Peer Gynt.
Further to this question of America’s tangible presence in the town, the American
steamship itself is accorded an important narrative function. Indian Girl is old and rot-
ten; it has suffered major damage on its latest crossing, and is at the beginning of the play
undergoing extensive repairs at Bernick’s shipyard. However, the American owners in-
form Bernick by telegram that the ship must be readied without delay: Execute mini-
mum repairs. Despatch Indian Girl as soon as in floating condition. Safe season. At worst,
cargo will keep her afloat (Pillars 41). This telegram is of key significance, being the only
non-perspectival testimony about the United States in the entire play. While the surpris-
Michael Meyer’s translation obscures the fact that, significantly, Lona uses almost exactly the same
phrase as Bernick: “den ryggesløse bande” (i.e. the depraved gang, the gang of ruffians) instead of “dette
ryggesløse pak” (i.e. this depraved rabble, this unprincipled horde) the shared negative outlook on the
Americans is mirrored and underlined at the linguistic level. Aune uses the expression “slemme folk” (i.e.
bad people, or in Michael Meyer’s translation, “a depraved lot”).
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
ing agreement among the cast regarding the American sailors already produces an illusion
of objectivity, the telegram is the only piece of evidence that is not mediated through the
particular ideological biases and interests of the characters. As such, it must be seen as
crucial to the play’s representation of America.
The telegram evidently places the American ship-owners in a negative light, yet it is
not in itself an expression of anti-American bias: American businessmen can be unscru-
pulous, just like businessmen of any other country. However, the question is whether the
ship’s American nationality is simply incidental. Ibsen-scholars such as Halvdan Koht
(305) and Michael Meyer (Introduction, 54-5), among many others, seem to think so
when pointing toward a European context of the Indian Girl segment, namely the de-
bate initiated in the United Kingdom by Member of Parliament Samuel Plimsoll concern-
ing the abysmal standards of repair and safety in the British merchant navy. Historically,
this contextualization makes perfect sense: Plimsoll’s crusade against the infamous “float-
ing coffins peaked in the mid-1870s and led to the passing of the Merchant Shipping
Act in 1876, just a year before the first performance of Pillars of Society; moreover, it had a
profound resonance in the seafaring nation of Norway, where a very similar debate raged
around the time of Ibsen’s homecoming visit in 1874 (Meyer, Ibsen 435). Yet logically and
in terms of narrative, the parallel is not entirely satisfying. Had Ibsen wanted to reference
the contemporary debates on safety at sea, he could have let the ship fly British or Nor-
wegian colors, or could at least have made less of its American nationality. As it is, all
information provided about the Indian Girl its crew, its captain, its owners and even
its name serves to underscore that it is in fact American. In other words, the play na-
tionalizes the issue, essentially making it a question, not of maritime safety standards,
but of American business practices: like the characterizations of the American sailors, the
Indian Girl episode seems designed first and foremost to highlight the despicable na-
ture of the Yankee rabble.
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
For this reason, the reference to Samuel Plimsoll needs to be supplemented with an
equally pertinent reference to the traditional anti-American idea that profit in the United
States always takes precedence over moral considerations, including matters of health
and safety. This view, which Ibsen had already endorsed in Peer Gynt, was firmly en-
trenched in Western European culture of the nineteenth century. It received an early,
theoretical formulation in Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of history; writing around
1830, Hegel states that the essential character of the American republic consists in the
“private person’s striving for acquisition and profit; and since the legal institutions in
the United States lack genuine integrity, American businessmen are famous for cheat-
ing with the protection of the law (Hegel 88-9). Two decades later, in Martin Chuzzlewit
(1843-44), Charles Dickens went one step further by repeatedly pointing towards the fa-
tal consequences of American fraudulence; in fact, the novel’s protagonist almost suc-
cumbs to it himself, having been tricked into buying a lot of land in a pestilent swap with
the alluring name of Eden.
Yet it is Austrian writer Ferdinand Kürnberger who provides
the closest match-up with Pillars of Society. Kürnberger’s novel Der Amerikamüde (1855) a
classic example of radical anti-Americanism contains a detailed account of a lethal ship
collision on the Lake Erie, caused by the greed and recklessness of the American captains
who care only about delivering their cargoes as fast as possible and have no regard for
passenger safety (Kürnberger 514-15).
Ibsen’s Consul Bernick subscribes to exactly the same anti-American view when in-
terpreting the telegram, not as being pertinent to British or Norwegian controversies of
Cf. Dickens’s description of American businessman Major Pawkins: In commercial affairs he was a
bold speculator. In plainer words he had a most distinguished genius for swindling, and could start a bank,
or negotiate a loan, or form a land-jobbing company (entailing ruin, pestilence, and death, on hundreds of
families), with any gifted creature in the Union. This made him an admirable man of business” (Dickens
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
the day, but rather as an indictment of America: Oh no, really, this is typically American!
How absolutely disgraceful! […] Eighteen human lives at stake! And those gentlemen
don’t turn a hair” (Pillars 40-41). This reaction effectively invalidates the hypothesis that
Ibsen is simply thinking of Samuel Plimsoll and the notorious coffin ships. The phrase
Typically American not only implies that the practice in question is widespread in the
United States, but also, more importantly, that it brings to light something quintessential-
ly American, namely the reckless pursuit of profit and the cynical disregard of human life.
While Plimsoll’s campaigns are clearly relevant to this drama, the logic of the Indian
Girl episode indicates that the primary reference of this passage is to the tradition of
European anti-Americanism.
Bernick’s condemnation of the American ship-owners is of course highly ironical: af-
ter initially ignoring the request to halt the repair work, he is later tempted in an altogeth-
er similar way to sacrifice human lives for the sake of personal gain. Having fallen in love
with Dina Dorf, Johan Tønnesen decides to return permanently to his Norwegian
hometown, yet has to return to the United States one last time and plans to make the
crossing with Indian Girl. This turn of events spells disaster for Bernick, and in order
to be rid of the increasingly inconvenient brother-in-law, he orders the ship to be readied
for immediate departure, well aware that it will almost certainly go under if without fur-
ther repairs. Although the Consul later regrets this decision, he has nevertheless revealed
himself to be as cynical and calculating as the American owners. However, rather than
discrediting Bernick’s previous anti-American outbursts, this ironic twist actually increas-
es their weight. The point is not that murderous behavior of this type knows no national-
ity, but that Bernick, desperate to protect his status as the town’s foremost citizen, is
willing to act as unconscionably as an American. In this way, the play makes Americans a
yardstick of moral depravity.
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
As we have seen, the representation of the United States in Pillars of Society is split be-
tween two different, even contradictory modalities.
On the one hand, a range of central characters repeatedly invoke a fictional America,
derived from the transatlantic myth-making of European romanticism, as a means of un-
derstanding their own community. This process of cultural self-interpretation exists in
both affirmative and critical versions, being employed variously as a means of defending
and attacking the local bourgeois society and its values. Inasmuch as the positive charac-
ters harbor positive ideas about the United States, while the negative characters find
America to be purely negative, the play as a whole seems to advocate a favorable stance,
rejecting the anti-American sentiments of the likes of Rørlund and Bernick as the mark
of an ideologically retrograde outlook. Read in this way, Ibsen’s attitude toward America
is close to that of Bjørnson in the same period.
On the other hand, we also encounter the real America in the form of the Indian
Girl and its depraved crew. Here, the play seems instead to adopt a strongly anti-
American attitude, branding the Americans as immoral in their business dealings and
beastly in their social comportment. Far from being incidental, as was perhaps the case in
Peer Gynt, this anti-American dimension is emphasized by the play’s structural design.
Not only is the all-out attack on the American sailors gratuitous from the point of view
of narrative motivation (Ibsen is going out of his way to represent them negatively); it is
also voiced in unison by a broad selection of both positive and negative characters, and it
receives further corroboration in the form of the telegram, which importantly is an ob-
jective element in the play, in the sense of existing independently of the specific view-
points of the characters. As a result, the anti-Americanism directed against the real
America is accorded the status of an objective fact. Read in this light, Pillars of Society is
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
closer to the romantic tradition of anti-Americanism, of which Knut Hamsun’s vitriolic
rants are a late and characteristically extreme product.
Complex or even contradictory attitudes toward the United States are not uncommon
in nineteenth-century European literature, even though a certain polarization around
positive and negative extremes is the more usual situation. Thus, for example, praising
the pristine landscape while at the same time deprecating the political institutions and
social mores is a common strategy in romantic commentary on the United States, featur-
ing perhaps most prominently in Chateaubriand’s American novels and later making up
the ideological core of Gustave Aimard and Karl May’s Indian romances (Markovits 50-
56). Ibsen’s play shares this ambivalence: when fantasizing about America, the female
characters generally refer to natural attributes (open spaces, fresh air, sunlight, health,
youth), whereas the undercurrent of anti-Americanism is focused predominantly on what
is seen as the moral failings of American society.
Yet the representation of America in Pillars of Society differs markedly from the estab-
lished patterns. Rather than simply juxtaposing different mythologies about the United
States, Ibsen employs both the positive and negative myths as part of his critique of
bourgeois society, while at the same time exposing the fictitious character of these myths
by contrasting them with what is seen as American reality. Here, the commonplace dis-
tinction between American dreams and nightmares is undercut by a more fundamental
distinction between American fictions and facts. In order to understand this complex
structure, we need to take into account both Ibsen’s development as a dramatist and the
general evolution of the European image of America toward the end of the nineteenth
Pillars of Society is a threshold piece within Ibsen’s writings, marking a complete break
with his earlier, national-romantic or idealistic phase and the beginning of the more im-
portant, modern phase encompassing the great cycle of realist dramas of the 1870s to
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
1890s. Highly fertile in terms of its thematic and formal innovations, Ibsen’s turn toward
modern drama also had profound political implications and inevitably affected the au-
thor’s standpoint within the contemporary European debate concerning America and
American emigration. As we have seen, the early Ibsen had been closer to Wergeland’s
nationalistic rejection of emigration than to Bjørnson’s liberal fascination with the free-
dom and opportunities of the United States; indeed, he had gone further than Wergeland
by attacking America itself, associating it with violence, lawlessness, and deception.
However, in the context of a progressive agenda in both literature and politics, the New
World acquires a whole new meaning, uneasily placed between the positive and negative
poles of late nineteenth-century European discourse on America, and between the con-
servative and liberal views on emigration.
Seen in this light, the anti-American position that Pillars of Society develops in relation
to the real American must be regarded as a late version of Ibsen’s earlier stance, which
focused on the United States as a culturally and morally noxious environment for Euro-
pean emigrants. However, in a contrasting and distinctly pro-American maneuver Ib-
sen refunctionalizes the bi-polar Romantic discourse on America as a critique of the Eu-
ropean bourgeoisie. The shrill rejection of the United States by the town’s leading citi-
zens becomes a new way of exposing their provincialism, while the occasional enthusi-
asm for the United States on the part of the positive characters is used as a way of gestur-
ing toward an alternative to the mendacious, claustrophobic life in the small coastal
community. However, these opposing attitudes are clearly nothing other than imagina-
tions: they are not serious descriptions of the United States, but ideological markers used
to distinguish stubborn conservatives from progressive reformers within a very Europe-
an setting. Ibsen takes great care to separate this imagined America, which serves as a
screen for European projections, from the real America, present in the play in the guise
of the Indian Girl and the American sailors. Whilst allowing the imagined America to
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
take on positive meanings, Pillars of Society represents this real America as morally and
culturally corrupt. In this way Ibsen performs a remarkable tightrope act, which is char-
acteristic of his later views on the United States: he uses America critically without re-
treating from the baseline anti-Americanism of his earlier career.
The attitude toward the United States, then, constitutes a major fault line within Ib-
sen’s first modern play, vividly testifying to the author’s ideological struggles in the tran-
sitional period of the late 1870s. Yet apart from being significant in terms of Ibsen’s po-
litical development, the representation of America in this play is also indicative of a gen-
eral change within the European perception of the United States in the second half of
the nineteenth century. The discourse on America in the early part of the century had
been dominated by the opposite romantic fictions of America as a land of either freedom
or cultural and moral corruption. These fictions had been kept alive partly by incessant
recycling, and partly by a relative scarcity of reliable information that often reduced the
United States to a projection screen for European fantasies. Increased traffic, greatly
boosted by the introduction of steamships on the transatlantic shipping routes, gradually
altered this situation and paved the way (if only temporarily) for more realistic percep-
tions. Ibsen’s multidimensional representation of the United States in Pillars of Society is a
remarkably clear manifestation of this new realism. In utilizing conflicting fictions about
America as part of a critique of the European bourgeoisie, these fictions are precisely
This basic structure is also apparent, albeit on a much smaller scale, in Ibsen’s later play An Enemy of
the People. When briefly considering going into exile in the United States, the much-reviled Dr. Stockmann
muses: “Mind you, they’re probably not much better in America. The majority’s rampant there too, and
liberal public opinion and all the rest of the rubbish. But the context is larger there, you see. They may kill
you, but they won’t torture you slowly; they don’t pin a free man in a vice like they do here. And if you
want to, you can stay independent outside it all” (Enemy 204-5). Here, too, Ibsen uses the United States as a
way of criticizing the conditions at home, yet this critical use does not exempt this country from being crit-
icized as well.
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
exposed as fictions. Even if Ibsen fails to extract himself fully from the prejudices of Eu-
ropean anti-Americanism, this in itself is a major achievement: to have demonstrated in
dramatic form the inherently imaginary character of Europe’s perceptions of America.
Works Cited
Arendt, Hannah. Dream and Nightmare. Essays in Understanding. By Hannah Arendt.
New York: Schocken, 1994.
Bjørnson, Bjørnstjerne. Endeløs Bagtalelse af et helt Folk. Verdens Gang, August 25/30
Blegen, Theodore C. Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860. Northfield, MN.: The
Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1931.
Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). London: Penguin, 1999.
Gulddal, Jesper. Anti-Americanism in European Literature. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan,
Haakonsen, Daniel (ed.). Ibsens private bibliotek og trekk ved hans lesning. Ibsenårbok
1985-86: 9-186.
Hamsun, Knut. Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (1889). Oslo: Gyldendal, 1962.
Haugen, Einar. Norwegian Migration to America. Norwegian-American Studies vol. XVIII
Haugen, Eva Lund and Haugen, Einar. Land of the Free. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s America Let-
ters, 1880-1881. Northfield, MN: The Norwegian-American Historical Association,
Hegel, G.W.F. Introduction to The philosophy of history (trans. Leo Rauch). Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1988.
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
Hemmer, Bjørn. Ibsen and the realistic problem drama. The Cambridge Companion to
Henrik Ibsen. Ed. James MacFarlane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006., p.
Ibsen, Henrik. Abraham Lincolns Mord (1865). Samlede Verker, vol. VI. By Henrik Ib-
sen. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1978.
---: An Enemy of the People (1882). Plays: Two. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980.
---. Peer Gynt (1867). Samlede Verker, vol. II. By Henrik Ibsen, Oslo: Gyldendal, 1978.
---: Pillars of Society (1877). Plays: Four (trans. Michael Meyer). By Henrik Ibsen. London:
Methuen Drama, 1991.
---: Samfundets Støtter (1877). Samlede verker, vol. IV. By Henrik Ibsen. Oslo: Gyldendal,
Johnston, Brian. Text and Supertext in Ibsen’s Dramas. University Park & London: Pennsyl-
vania State University Press, 1989.
Koht, Halvdan. Life of Ibsen. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971.
Kürnberger, Ferdinand. Der Amerikamüde (1855). Frankfurt/Main: Insel, 1986.
MacFarlane, James. “Meaning and Evidence in Ibsen’s Drama”. Contemporary Approaches to
Ibsen, vol. 1 (1966): 35-50.
Markovits, Andrei S. Uncouth Nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Meyer, Michael.Ibsen. A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
---: Introduction to Pillars of Society. Henrik Ibsen. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chel-
sea House, 1999.
Moi, Toril. Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Moretti, Franco. The Grey Area. New Left Review no. 61 (2010).
Rossel, Sven Hakon. The Image of America in Danish Literature: A Survey with Scan-
dinavian Perspectives. Images of America in Scandinavia. Ed. Poul Houe and Sven Ha-
kon Rossel. Amsterdam & Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1994.
Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34.4 (2012): 289-304.
Templeton, Joan. “Genre, Representation, and the Politics of Dramatic Form. Ibsen’s
Realism. Ibsen’s Selected Plays. Ed. Brian Johnston. New York & London: W.W. Nor-
ton, 2004.
Wergeland, Henrik. Fjeldstuen (1845). Samlede Skrifter, vol. IV. By Henrik Wergeland.
Christiania: Chr. Tonsberg, 1854.
Henrik Ibsen being the founder of Modernism in theatrical works and the father of Realism in scriptwriting, had revealed his values of Realism by writing the play The Pillars of Society in 1877. The play is about a corrupt businessman who made his fortune by stealing and blaming an innocent person and assumes himself to be a pillar of society. His affair with an actress results in an illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter. After his son is placed in a perilous position, he realizes the error of his ways and repents. The framework of the research was to apply the Butterfly Effect Theory and Northrop Frye's Criticism on plots and kinds of heroes to identify the types of the particular realistic hero (i.e. Karsten Bernick) and the ending. The analysis represents the minor events that took place in the four act play that leads to the defined ending. The results portray certain dialogues and events that were reasonable to reach the ending and describe the protagonist as a low mimetic hero with a redemptive ending.
Essays in Understanding By Hannah Arendt Bjørnson, Bjørnstjerne Endeløs Bagtalelse af et helt Folk The Norwegian-American Historical Association
  • Cited Arendt
  • Hannah
Cited Arendt, Hannah. " Dream and Nightmare ". Essays in Understanding. By Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1994. Bjørnson, Bjørnstjerne. " Endeløs Bagtalelse af et helt Folk ". Verdens Gang, August 25/30 1881. Blegen, Theodore C. Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860. Northfield, MN.: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1931. Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). London: Penguin, 1999. Gray, Ronald. Ibsen. A Dissenting View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Anti-Americanism in European Literature Ibsens private bibliotek og trekk ved hans lesning " . Ibsenå
  • Gulddal
  • Jesper
Gulddal, Jesper. Anti-Americanism in European Literature. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011. Haakonsen, Daniel (ed.). " Ibsens private bibliotek og trekk ved hans lesning ". Ibsenå 1985–86: