Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In The Ghost Sonata, Strindberg paints a picture of a fallen world based on illusions and deceptions, where human beings, bound together by common guilt, are condemned to suffer for their sins. Only by escaping this world can one find peace and happiness. In this world, filled with death and decay, people are not what they seem to be. Under the veneer of respectability lies corruption.
The Ghost Sonata makes use of both spatial and temporal metaphors. Strindberg sees all humanity as linked by a common network of guilt and sin; the house that the student, an idealistic young man, seeks to enter becomes a symbol for humanity and the social system. The consul, the upper class, lives on the top level; the colonel, the middle class, lives on the ground level; and the superintendent, the lower class, lives below. The poor are found outside the house clamoring at the doors.
Hummel, an old man in a wheelchair, is old enough to know all the inhabitants of the house and understands how they are linked by a chain of guilt and betrayals. The consul (upper class) has slept with the superintendent’s wife (lower class); their daughter, the second generation, perpetuates the chain, for she is having an affair with the aristocrat (upper class), who is married to the consul’s daughter (upper class). The aristocrat links all the classes in their sins. He has married the consul’s daughter (upper class), slept with the colonel’s wife...
(The entire section is 592 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The building superintendent’s wife is sweeping and polishing brass while the Old Man, Director Hummel, sits in a wheelchair reading a newspaper. As a Milkmaid comes in and drinks from the fountain in front of the apartment building, a Student, “sleepless and unshaven,” approaches and asks for the dipper. The Milkmaid reacts in terror, for she is an apparition and unaccustomed to being seen, and the Old Man stares at the Student in amazement because he cannot see the Milkmaid. Neither of them knows that the Student is a child born on a Sunday, which gives him special perceptions.
This puzzling tableau yields to a conversation between the Old Man and the Student. The Student, Arkenholz, is exhausted from having treated people who have been injured that night in a collapsing house. The Old Man’s questions disclose that the Student is the son of a man who—so the Old Man says—had swindled him out of his life savings many years before. The Old Man, whose behavior and casual remarks suggest some mythic, timeless quality, has apparently contrived the Student’s occasion for heroism as a ruse to meet him so that he can manipulate the Student into friendship and ultimately marriage with the daughter of the Colonel, who is actually the Old Man’s daughter. To this end, the Old Man instructs the Student to attend a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre(1856; The Valkyrie, 1877) that evening and to sit in a certain seat.
The Student agrees to these arrangements, all of which seem like the manipulations of an eighty-year-old man who admits that “I take an interest in people’s destinies.” The Old Man takes the Student by the hand, claims exhaustion from an “infinitely long life,” and proclaims that their destinies are “intertwined through your father.” The Student, repulsed by this intimacy, withdraws his hand and protests, “You’re draining my strength, you’re freezing me. What do you want of me?” What the Old Man wants is to perpetuate himself through the Student, who is young, vital, and a fit mate for the Old Man’s daughter. The Student worries about these arrangements, wondering if they mean “some kind of pact,” but the Old Man assures him that his motive is simply that all his life he has taken and...
(The entire section is 934 words.)