In Ghosts, to what extent does the 'ghostly past' dictate present action?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ghosts was not a popular play in its day as it highlighted the struggle for individual identity and freedom from the constraints of society. Ironically, its first appearance was in Chicago, USA and only subsequently in Norway. Elsewhere, it was far too radical and certainly not in keeping with Church doctrine.

The "ghostly past" is representative of the environment in which these characters existed; one where appearances meant more than truth and honesty. In the end, however, whatever the reasons and intentions behind the characters, they are seriously affected by their past.

Struggling to endure a life dominated by social constraints such as Mrs Alving has done for many years, she now sees her opportunity to escape her late husband's hold on her. Suffering because of illness caused by an immoral, although seemingly virtuous, parent, such as is Oswald's fate, he wants to marry Regina to satisfy his own needs and to ensure he has a carer. Then Regina, looking to get the best out of a bad situation at all costs, she has resigned herself to the pretence of loving Oswald so she can marry comfortably.

The pastor is very concerned with social norms and wants to remind Mrs Alving how his intervention saved her marriage all those years ago. Upon Mrs Alving's revelations that Oswald and Regina are in fact half- brother and sister, he will help Mrs Alving to break the news to Oswald and Regina but he still feels that it was the right thing to do not to have told Oswald, thereby protecting him from the stigma of knowing the reality of his father. Pastor Manders does not see how affected Oswald is and how he may have been a better person had he had a better understanding of his parents.

The pastor is ready to accept any "truth" as long as it will protect his fragile sense of right and wrong - if it has the "appearance" of being right it can't be bad. He is even persuaded that he may have inadvertently started the fire in the orphanage as this will, no doubt, protect them all from the stark and unthinkable reality that it was probably Jacob - although this possibility is never entertained.

It seems only Mrs Alving learns anything from her own "ghostly past." She feels remorse for her part in creating this situation and wonders if it could be different for Oswald and, surprisingly she recognizes her own failings in that she now feels that she may be responsible for her late husband's philandering by restricting him, just as society restricted her and denying ‘‘the overpowering joy of life that was in him.’’


These are circumstances that many people would have been able to identify with and hence brings a reality to the play. It also would have allowed audiences to feel a sense of relief from their own social incapacity or restrictions as they realise that these circumstances are not unique and could occur in any family.