Rosmersholm

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Rosmersholm
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Characters Johannes Rosmer
Rebecca West
Professor Kroll
Ulrik Brendel
Peder Mortensgaard
Mrs. Helseth
Original language Norwegian
Subject Aristocrat who converted to liberalism
Genre Well-made play
Setting Rosmer's Manor

Rosmersholm (pronounced [ˈrɔ̞̈smɛ̝rs.ˌhɔ̞̈lm]) is a play written in 1886 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. In the estimation of many critics the piece is Ibsen's masterwork, only equalled by The Wild Duck of 1884.[1] As expressed by the protagonist, Rosmer, the theme of the play is social and political change, in which the traditional ruling classes relinquish their right to impose their ideals on the rest of society,[2] but the action is entirely personal, resting on the conduct of the immoral, or amoral, "free thinking" heroine, Rebecca, who sets herself to undermine Rosmer's religious and political beliefs because of his influential position in the community. Rebecca has abandoned not only Christianity but, unlike Rosmer, she has abandoned the whole ethical system of Christianity as well. Possibly she may be taken as Ibsen's answer to the question of whether or not Christian ethics can be expected to survive the death of the Christian religion.[3]

Characters[edit]

  • Johannes Rosmer, a former clergyman and owner of Rosmersholm, a manor
  • Rebecca West, a resident at Rosmersholm
  • Professor Kroll, Rosmer's brother-in-law
  • Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer's childhood tutor
  • Peder Mortensgaard, a newspaper editor whom Rosmer, while still a priest, denounced for adultery
  • Mrs. Helseth, housekeeper at Rosmersholm

Plot[edit]

Rosmersholm, Lessing Theater, 1906

The play opens one year after the suicide of Rosmer's wife, Beata. Rebecca had previously moved into the family home, Rosmersholm, as a friend of Beata, and she lives there still. It becomes plain that she and Rosmer are in love, but he insists throughout the play that their relationship is completely platonic.

A highly respected member of his community, Rosmer intends to support the newly elected government and its reformist, if not revolutionary, agenda. However, when he announces this to his friend and brother-in-law Kroll, the local schoolmaster, the latter becomes enraged at what he sees as his friend's betrayal of his ruling-class roots. Kroll begins to sabotage Rosmer's plans, confronting him about his relationship with Rebecca and denouncing the pair, initially in guarded terms, in the local newspaper. Rosmer becomes consumed by his guilt, now believing he, rather than mental illness, caused his wife's suicide. He attempts to escape the guilt by erasing the memory of his wife and proposing marriage to Rebecca. But she rejects him outright. Kroll accuses her of using Rosmer as a tool to work her own political agenda. She admits that it was she who drove Mrs. Rosmer to deeper depths of despair and in a way even encouraged her suicide--initially to increase her power over Rosmer, but later because she actually fell in love with him. Because of her guilty past she cannot accept Rosmer's marriage proposal.

This leads to the ultimate breakdown in the play where neither Rosmer nor Rebecca can cast off moral guilt: she has acknowledged her part in the destruction of Beata but she has also committed incest with her supposedly adoptive father while suspecting that he was in truth her natural parent. Her suspicion is harshly confirmed by Kroll when he attempts to come between her and Rosmer; they can now no longer trust each other, or even themselves. Rosmer then asks Rebecca to prove her devotion to him by committing suicide the same way his former wife did--by jumping into the mill-race. As Rebecca calmly seems to agree, issuing instructions about the recovery of her body from the water, Rosmer says he will join her. He is still in love with her and, since he cannot conceive of a way in which they can live together, they will die together. The play concludes with both characters jumping into the mill-race and the housekeeper, Mrs. Helseth, screaming in terror: "The dead woman has taken them".

Subsidiary characters[edit]

The actions of Brendel and Mortensgaard do not take the plot forward, although Mortensgaard reveals to Rosmer that Beata sent his newspaper a letter denying any rumors that her husband was unfaithful with Rebecca: the suggestion that his wife even considered such unfounded suspicion, which may have contributed to her decision to kill herself, upsets Rosmer greatly.

Brendel, returning for the first time in many years, calls at Rosmersholm before going on to preach political freedom and reform in the town, but his audience, somewhat drunk, beats him up and leaves him in the gutter. Returning to the house after the incident, he acknowledges that his ideals have not survived the encounter. He now recommends the approach of the pragmatic Mortensgaard, who demonstrates his own lack of ideals by urging Rosmer to support the reform movement while still professing to be Christian, though in reality Rosmer has lost his faith. Mortensgaard needs Rosmer's public support to show that there are prominent, respectable, pious citizens who agree with his policies.[4]

Imagery[edit]

The central image of the play is the White Horse of Rosmersholm, the "family ghost" in Rebecca's phrase. It is seen, or rumored to be seen, by the characters after the suicide of Beata. The horse symbolizes the past that revolves around Rosmer's dead wife, and haunts the survivors. The presence of the horse at their death represents their incapacity to "deal with" the memories that haunt them. The white horse is similar to the "ghosts" that Mrs. Alving refers to in Ibsen's 1881 tragedy Ghosts.

Ibsen selected the name of Rosmer for his protagonist in conscious echo of the Norwegian legend of Rosmer Havmand, a merman who lures a young woman to her death by drowning; it is the allure he holds for Rebecca that stirs up disaster.[5] The original title was to have been White Horses, to reflect the significance of the supernatural element in the play.[6][7]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Ibsen, Henrik; McFarlane, James (trans) (1999). An Enemy of the People; The Wild Duck; Rosmersholm. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. ix. ISBN 0-19-283943-8. 
  2. ^ Agate, James (1926-10-01). "Rosmersholm". The Sunday Times. 
  3. ^ Krutch, Joseph Wood (1953). "Modernism" in modern drama, a definition and an estimate. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 15. 
  4. ^ Löwenthal, Leo (1986). Literature and the Image of Man. Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers. p. 167. ISBN 0-88738-057-3. 
  5. ^ McFarlane, James (1994). The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Cambridge, England: The Cambridge University Press. p. 113. ISBN 0-521-42321-X. 
  6. ^ Holtan, Orley (1970). Mythic Patterns in Ibsen's Last Plays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 55–6. ISBN 978-0-8166-0582-8. 
  7. ^ Sæther, Astrid (2000). Cody, Gabrielle; Sprinchorn, Evert, ed. The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama 2. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 1153. 

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