“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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.