Rosmersholm and new ideas poorly conceived

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Henrik Ibsen

My third classic is Rosmersholm, a play written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian writing in Danish. I only discovered this play after discovering that Rebecca West was only the pen name of the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of my favorite works of literature, and that she took this pen name from a character in Rosmersholm. She was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, but she changed her name to Rebecca West while she was about 20 so that she could write articles in Freewoman, a feminist magazine, without raising suspicions in her mother who did not want her reading it. Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, her first published novel, contains themes similar to Rosmersholm: unhappiness in marriage, the impossibility of leaving it, and the suspicion of a feigned mental condition.

Near the beginning of this play, we find out that Rosmer has stepped down from his role as a pastor. His reason for doing this is that he has adopted the “new ideas” and wants to support the more radical party. We do not know the reasons for his changes of view, except that he has begun reading new books. Later, we are given the impression that it probably had more to do with him falling in love with a woman who espoused such ideas and shared such books. This impression is confirmed inasmuch as he early on claims to find a new happiness and freedom in these ideas, and yet Rebecca West, his “friend”, admits her conviction that he could never be happy so long as his wife was living.

And just what are the views rejected by Rosmer? We know that he no longer believes “the dogmas of the [Lutheran] Church”, as if these were mere political opinions that he is now shedding. His brother-in-law, Kroll, though not a bad man, seems somewhat crusty and unpleasant in clinging to those old ideas tied up with religion and institution. Rosmer is also asked later on whether he had books on the “new ideas” about marriage, so we can presume that his understand of this institution was also altered—his friendship with Rebecca West confirms this as well.

And so how does his happiness in his new ideas go? An old teacher of Rosmer shows up, asking for some help so that he may be able to share his own new understanding, such as he never before wrote. But it is all spent on profligacy and wasted. Rosmer then wants to put his name behind the radical newspaper in town. But the editor argues that they are in greater need of a Christian who supports their ideas rather than a nonbeliever—indeed, that would hurt their cause. So Rosmer, glad to be free from the “faith of our fathers”, is now asked by a radical to feign belief for the greater cause. And finally, while enjoying the freedom he obtained from the death of his wife, Rosmer finds out that her death may have been instigated by Rebecca West. He thought she was mentally ill—but no, rather the wife suspected that Rosmer would be happier if he were free to marry someone else, and so she destroyed herself for the sake of his happiness. But he cannot be happy upon knowing this. For Rosmer, happiness is founded on a sense of one’s own innocence, but he now feels guilty for the death of his wife. Rosmer had hoped to ennoble men through the diffusion of his newfound happiness, but he can no longer do so. The irony is sharpened by the fact that Rosmer’s wife was named Beata, which is Latin for “happy” or “blessed”. It should not be a surprise that little happiness can come from the death of “the happy one”. One additional irony is that Rosmer, who can no longer ennoble souls as he hoped, once had a profession where this was his primary duty. At the end, he and Rebecca, no longer trusting themselves or each other, feel there is only one course of action left to them.

In many ways, this is the predicament of people in our own age. There is a dissatisfaction with the institutions and prejudices we find all over the culture, and yet in cutting ourselves free from this, we do not end up more free than we started. (This reminds me of an article on David Foster Wallace.) Fellow rebels end up either in mere indulgence or they end up betraying the love of truth that led them to reject their inherited norms to begin with, telling lies to justify their actions. Without any clear sense of a higher purpose, freedom becomes the agent lower purposes.

When Rosmer is warned at the beginning that he will be breaking all of his ties with his new positions, he nonchalantly responds that he will simply make new ties. And yet later, when Rebecca says she must return to the North, Rosmer’s only argument against it is that she has no connections up there, nobody that she knows. Alasdair MacIntyre and (from what I can remember) Luigi Giussani make a major point out of seeing one’s own life within a wider context. This alone does not say much, but it prevents one from making human life a lonely affair and indicates that there is something to be learned from our whole past, and from the past of all humanity.

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Rebecca West

The play is short but complex enough that one could write on many of its themes. I initially wanted to take Rosmer’s presupposition that happiness is prerequisite for ennobling others, and take this as a point of departure for considering Thomas’ teaching that Christ enjoyed beatitude even during his earthly life. Although this was once a common theological opinion, many rejected it as a mere relic of scholasticism without purpose. And yet the presupposition underlying it is similar to that held by Rosmer, “you can’t give what you don’t have.” If Christ is going to bring happiness/beatitude to all men, he must himself possess it, and in the highest degree. Another topic I wanted to look at more closely is why Rebecca West, the author, would choose such a name sake. This would require greater knowledge of her early life than I had time to acquire.

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