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  • The Tragic Vision of Ibsen's Rosmersholm
  • Thomas F. Van Laan (bio)

Rosmersholm has a readily perceptible line of action that takes Rosmer and Rebecca step by step toward going "the same way that Beata went" (398/547, 436/582),1 although we may not be sure how some of these individual steps work precisely. Early on, Rosmer still cannot walk on the bridge from which his wife Beata threw herself into the mill-race, and he is not eager to tell Kroll about his changed views on social, political, and religious matters, but he insists that he is entirely at ease concerning Beata's death and Kroll's hostile reaction. His tranquillity is shattered during Act Two by the new information about Beata that Kroll and Mortensgård provide and by Rebecca's shocking response to his proposal of marriage. Rosmer, as he emphatically insists to Rebecca, is now overcome with guilt and convinced that he will never be able to fulfil his dream of creating an ideal social and political order in the land by ennobling all those capable of intellectual and spiritual growth. Kroll's probing of Rebecca's age and origins in Act Three shatters her sense of well-being as well. This apparently makes her more responsive to Rosmer's suffering, for she promises to restore him to his happy state of innocence and then confesses that he should feel no guilt for Beata's suicide because it was she who caused it by luring Beata into it. Rather than having its intended effect, Rebecca's confession destroys Rosmer's dream and puts both him and her in deep despair. In an attempt to free himself from despair, Rosmer demands proof from Rebecca of her love for him and faith in him and of his having fulfilled his dream at least to the extent of ennobling her. This proof is her going to her death in the mill-race, and when she agrees to do it, he decides to join her.

But what are we to make of this line of action? How are we to get to the bottom of it? I use this particular phrase because it is, as I learned from Eivind Tjønneland's groundbreaking essay on Rosmersholm, a favourite [End Page 370] phrase of Rosmer's. Rosmer talks about getting to the bottom of something five times in the play. At one point he links the phrase with the obviously related "getting clarity," and so I take his earlier, independent use of this expression as a further instance of the formula. In Act One, he tells Kroll that he has gotten clarity in his mind on all matters (365/516). In Act Two, he admits to Rebecca that, when he sees "to the bottom of it, there was some cowardice" in his not informing Kroll of his changed views sooner (372/524) and, somewhat later, tells Rebecca that they "have to get to the bottom" of how Beata acquired her "accursed misconception" of their relationship (392/541). Early in Act Four, having reflected on Rebecca's actions in the light of her confession, he tells her, "Now I see to the bottom of the whole thing. I've been like putty in your hands" (425/572). When she tries to assure him that he can ennoble minds since he has ennobled hers, he wants to know how he can "get clarity on that matter - get to the bottom of it" (430/576). As they make their final exit and she asks him whether he is accompanying her or she him, he replies, "That we will never puzzle out to the bottom" (438/584). Most of Rosmer's uses of the phrase imply that getting to the bottom of things is clearly possible. The last instance is no exception, for Rosmer, in response to Rebecca's saying that she really wants to know, dispels the momentary uncertainty by puzzling her query out to the bottom: each of them, he says, is accompanying the other since they have now become one being.

Rosmer's assumption that he can get to the bottom of things, achieve clarity, is highly ironic, since, more than...


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