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 (middle class), and is having an affair with the Lady in Black, the daughter of the superintendent’s wife (lower class). Thus, all the generations and social classes are interconnected in a house of sin.
The play is also a journey. It begins on a sunny Sunday morning, with steamship bells announcing a voyage. The bright sunlight shines on the student’s dream house. As hidden sins are revealed and ominous pacts are planned, however, clouds appear; eventually it rains. As the student enters the house, the atmosphere becomes gloomy and claustrophobic. The mummy lives in the closest, and the ghost supper provides an eerie scene. As Hummel, who is trying to expose the inhabitants of the house, dies in a closet behind a death screen, the student symbolically invokes the light with his “Song of the Sun.” The hope soon proves futile, however, as the ogre cook is persecuting the young lady and draining the nourishment from her food. Finally, the young lady, bathed in radiant light, dies as the vision of the Isle of the Dead appears. Having begun on a Sunday with a Sunday’s child seeking resurrection from a night of death, the play ends in a transcendental vision of the dead. The subtle interplay of light and dark intertwines with the play’s themes.
In The Ghost Sonata, one can see how Strindberg’s work foreshadowed modern avant-garde theater. His drama is based on a series of images, not on a linear plot. Motivation is often ambiguous, and the nature of individual identity is questioned. Characters haunted by vague anxieties and grotesque visions are trapped in confined worlds where it is impossible to decipher the difference between truth and illusion. Language becomes an ineffectual means of communication, and often silence is all that is left. A relentless experimenter, Strindberg left a legacy that would influence dramatists such as Eugene O’Neill, Sean O’Casey, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who said, “Modern drama has come out of Strindberg: We have never gone beyond the second scene of The Ghost Sonata.”
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...
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