“Thus on the fateful banks of Nile,
Weeps the deceitful crocodile!”
Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen’s best plays. The heroine, Rebecca West, is torn apart by high motive and low passion, by ugly necessity and splendid hopes, in a manner of the greatest dramatic and psychological interest. The play has Ibsen’s usual atmosphere of a petty social constriction. Coldness and the bitterest heats of feeling fight miserably with each other. In the background there are dirty politics and cowardly conventionality, but the essential action, the backward and forward movement of the plot, lies in the character and the competitive struggle between the two women.
When the play opens, the wife, Beata Rosmer, is dead by suicide, and Rosmer is left with the agent of the suicide, Rebecca West. The wife’s memory hovers about them, but her lingering is not of the sentimental kind, although the rather cozy mourners at first like to pretend that such is the case. In truth, the dead wife is the peculiar center of a harsh and demeaning power struggle. “It was like a fight to the death between Beata and me,” Rebecca finally confesses. The play will now proceed through revelations and changes to an ending that is not quite satisfactory on the plane of probability. Rebecca and Rosmer are free, but they are led by the turns of their inward and outward circumstances to clasp hands and go the way of the wife, to death in the rushing waters of the mill stream. This closes the circle too neatly; it is extreme and unnecessarily corporeal for a drama that is moral and psychological.
Gross experience tells us that Rosmer and Rebecca will find a way to do as they please. The dead are gone; whatever advantages the empty space may provide are likely to be swiftly occupied by the living. And yet the triangular struggle between the two women has been so fierce and primitive, the terms of it finally so futile and empty, that we follow Ibsen right up to the mill bridge, even if we do not concede the plunge into the waters. Perhaps Parson Rosmer, with his finicky, unsteady grip on things, but not Rebecca West, who has been formed by the forces of necessity and will, traits that do not easily lend themselves to the suicidal resolution. Still, Rebecca has unusual self-understanding and it is this that ruins her victory. “The dead woman has taken them,” the housekeeper says. That may be true, but only in an oblique sense. Disgust, futility, the final inadequacy of Rosmer are the devastating powers. The psychology of the play is at every point original and disturbing. The turns and shifts of consequence are bleak, unexpected, but true to feeling.
It is Ibsen’s genius to place the ruthlessness of women beside the vanity and self-love of men. In a love triangle both are necessary; these are the conditions, the grounds upon which the battle will be fought. Without the heightened sense of importance a man naturally acquires when he is the object of the possessive determinations of two women, nothing interesting could happen. If he were quickly to choose one over the other, the dramatic reverberations would be slight, even rather indolent; the triangle demands his cooperation in the humiliation of one, along with some period of pretense, suffering, uncertainty.
In Rosmersholm the husband is unusually dense and mild and leans as long as he can on the stick of “friendship” and “innocence.” The aging architect in The Master Builder is more straightforward. The willful, destructive Hilda attaches herself to him for a bit of sadistic teasing which the tormented, failing man is too vain to suspect. He has been, up to her entrance, busy trying to emasculate his younger competitors. Solness is, as Shaw says, “a very fascinating man whom nobody, himself least of all, could suspect of having shot his bolt and being already dead.” The architect’s wife, Mrs. Solness, is dejection and depression itself, immobilized gloom, supposedly sacrificed to her husband’s career. (This we are not obliged to agree with, since she is one of those who seem born to downness.) “Higher and higher!” calls the awful young girl. She waves her white shawl at the giddy architect who has scaled the rafters and he falls to his death.
In Rosmersholm, Rebecca has come down from the North. This freezing land of harshness and deprivation leaves its mark on the spirit. There one learns the lessons of life. (In An Enemy of the People, Dr. Stockmann remembers his span of service in the North with fear and it is only the strength of moral conviction that allows him to put his present, more hopeful, circumstances in jeopardy and perhaps face a return to the cold, isolated region.) Rebecca is thirty. She is intelligent, emancipated, idealistic. Her youth has both tarnished and hardened her. She is probably the illegitimate daughter of the Dr. West who adopted her but did not offer her any special kindness.
Rebecca is in a dangerous state. She is free—or, rather, adrift. She is immensely needy, looking desperately for some place to land, to live. And what can that mean? It means she must have a husband, and soon. What else can she hope for? Heaven is not very likely to send a desperate, strong-willed woman of thirty an interesting, unmarried man. No, it will send her someone’s husband and tell her to dispose of the wife as best she can. Wives accommodate because they invariably have their faults and their glaring lacks. These are transformed into moral issues and the defeat of deficiency becomes something of a crusade. Thus in righteousness is the hurdle vaulted.
The Rosmer family is a solid one and somehow Rebecca attaches herself to it. Mrs. Rosmer, Beata, becomes fond of her and invites her to settle on their estate. Mrs. Solness, in The Master Builder, does not rise with enthusiasm at the sight of Hilda with her knapsack and alpenstock, but even she agrees to find a place for her. The torpid life at Rosmersholm and at the villa of the Solness family is such that these additions are electrifying to the husbands, and not altogether unwelcomed by the wives. For change, vitality, everyone is willing to take the risk. This, once more, is a measure of the closeness of life in Ibsen’s plays, the repetitive frustration of it, the oppressiveness of provincial attitude and society.
At Rosmersholm there is stagnation, but Rebecca soon sees little corners and cracks where inspiration might creep in. She sets about overthrowing what she decides to be, in Shaw’s words, “the extinguishing effect” of Mrs. Rosmer. During her residence she calmly works at altering and liberalizing the views of Rosmer, who had been previously a parson and is now struggling with unorthodoxy. Rebecca does not try to brighten the conventional attitudes of Mrs. Rosmer, although there seems every possibility that, with a certain amount of effort, the sun of idealism might have been welcomed there also. The intellectual excitement—a genuine part of Rebecca’s nature—has the most stimulating and happy effect on Parson Rosmer. He is still prudish and needs the blanket of high intentions to cover their growing love, to make it appear to himself “good” rather than “bad.”
Beata Rosmer is sensitive and highstrung. She is well aware of the way things are going, and where they will inevitably end. When the play opens Beata has already committed suicide. She has jumped into the churning waters under the mill bridge. Rosmer and Rebecca have had a year of quiet mourning, and if Rosmer still can’t bring himself to walk over the bridge, there is no doubt that he is quite well, very much alive, and not inclined to vex himself with blame for his wife’s suicide.
We learn about Beata’s life and death gradually, as the play unfolds. In a tangled, small-town tussle over ideas, religion, and politics, the state of mind that led to Beata’s self-destruction is gradually revealed. Her suffering had been immensely complicated, made up of jealousy, genuine love for her husband, and an early, numbing sense of defeat and helplessness in the contest with Rebecca. Beata had become so nervous and distraught that the lovers decided her mind had failed and this had been the more or less accepted view of her suicide, although there were those in town who had what everywhere are known as “their own ideas.”
A year has passed since the death and things might have gone along well, except that in a political and theological dispute in the town points are scored against Rosmer by the revealing of a secret suicide letter in which Beata had absolved Rosmer and Rebecca of all blame for her self-destruction. Naturally you cannot be absolved of something you are not accused or suspected of. Rosmer is forced by the absolution to connect Beata’s sufferings with actions of his own. It is at this point that the psychological depth of the play is most moving. In the most brilliant shifts of feeling, the sadness and waste of the triangle begin to rot the relationship between Rosmer and Rebecca. Rebecca makes an astonishing confession. She acknowledges her ruthless humiliation of the wife. “I wanted to get rid of Beata, one way or another. But I never really imagined it would happen. Every little step I risked, every faltering advance, I seemed to hear something call out within me: ‘No further. Not a step further!’… And yet I could not stop!”
This is the dead center of the play. Rebecca’s self-knowledge lifts her far above the selfish teasing of Hilda, but it is worse also because she is older, better, more valuable in every way. She has committed one of Strindberg’s “psychic murders,” a horrible one with a real body washed up on the shore. What else could she do? She did it to live. Rebecca’s will and necessity crushed Beata. Rosmer, and the possession of him, had become the possession of an important, life-enhancing commodity. The ethic of the struggle had been the business ethic—no ethic at all, except the advantage of profit. The parson is willed to change hands like a corporation, with the old, outmoded group being cast aside and the new liberal management quietly installed. At the opening of the play, we see Rebecca placing flowers about the drawing room, a nicety Beata never cared much for. Rosmer is shifting from the conservative to the liberal side on local issues. Those newly in charge are making changes.
When Beata was still alive she had ceased to be a person for the lovers and had become a mere negative… Things couldn’t go forward when she was about, and what a wonderful force the parson might be if it were not for the drag of the past… But this is not at all true. It is self-interest that drives Rebecca and darting, smug self-satisfaction that allows Rosmer to pretend nothing is happening.