The disintegrating effect of the Social Lie, of Duty, as an imposition and outrage, and of the spirit of Provincialism, as a stifling factor, are brought out with dynamic force in The Pillars of Society. Consul Bernick, driven by the conception of his duty toward the House of Bernick, begins his career with a terrible lie. He sells his love for Lona Hessel in return for the large dowry of her step-sister Betty, whom he does not love. To forget his treachery, he enters into a clandestine relationship with an actress of the town. When surprised in her room by the drunken husband, young Bernick jumps out of the window, and then graciously accepts the offer of his bosom friend, Johan, to let him take the blame.
Johan, together with his faithful sister Lona, leaves for America. In return for his devotion, young Bernick helps to rob his friend of his good name, by acquiescing in the rumors circulating in the town that Johan had broken into the safe of the Bernicks and stolen a large sum of money.
In the opening scene of "The Pillars of Society," we find Consul Bernick at the height of his career. The richest, most powerful and respected citizen of the community, he is held up as the model of an ideal husband and devoted father. In short, a worthy pillar of society.
The best ladies of the town come together in the home of the Bernicks. They represent the society for the "Lapsed and Lost," and they gather to do a little charitable sewing and a lot of charitable gossip. It is through them we learn that Dina Dorf, the ward of Bernick, is the issue of the supposed escapade of Johan and the actress.
With them, giving unctuous spiritual advice and representing the purity and morality of the community, is Rector Rorlund, hidebound, self-righteous, and narrow-minded.
Into this deadening atmosphere of mental and social provincialism comes Lona Hessel, refreshing and invigorating as the wind of the plains. She has returned to her native town together with Johan.
The moment she enters the house of Bernick, the whole structure begins to totter. For in Lona's own words, "Fie, fie--this moral linen here smells so tainted--just like a shroud. I am accustomed to the air of the prairies now, I can tell you.