Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

In The Ghost Sonata, August Strindberg paints a picture of a fallen world based on illusions and deceptions, where human beings, bound together by a 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 world of The Ghost Sonata is moribund, haunted by the presence of death and decrepitude. Signs of death are everywhere. White sheets are hung over the windows; funeral flowers are strewn across the streets; flags are at half-mast; the Student has been handling corpses; characters are in mourning clothes; the Japanese death screen is in view; and the Isle of the Dead appears at the end. Ghosts haunt the streets. The Milkmaid reenacts her drowning; the Dead Consul walks the streets in a winding-sheet. Many of the characters are zombies, often motionless and silent. Hummel is cold because his blood has congealed. The Colonel’s wife has actually turned into a mummy, a preserved corpse. The world is populated by the wounded victims of collapsing houses as well as by the crippled Hummel, the bald and toothless Colonel, the decaying Mummy, and the sick Young Lady. People are stricken with a sense of paralysis and impotence as they enact meaningless and repetitive rituals and wait for death. Strindberg paints a picture of a world that has fallen from grace.

He also shows how this world is built upon illusion and masks. Behind the facade of respectability and beauty lie corruption and ugliness. The charitable Consul is a vain hypocrite who has swindled the state out of fifty thousand pounds. The Aristocrat is a jewel thief, and the Fiancee, a pillar of the church, is a fallen woman. The aristocratic Young Lady is really a scullery maid, with no proper birth certificate. The devoted attendant at Hummel’s funeral is involved in a homosexual liaison with Hummel’s son. The pious priest who delivers a moving eulogy is later caught embezzling. The Colonel is the epitome of a man projecting a false image of himself. He is no more than a kitchen boy passing himself off as an aristocrat; even his daughter is not his own. All the world is filled with illusions. The beautiful girl in the statue is now a mummy. The Student’s dream house is an inferno; the dreamlike Hyacinth Room is disintegrating. The Ghost Sonata is clearly a requiem for a fallen world in which fairy-tale dreams metamorphose into nightmares.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169

Illusion vs. Reality
Strindberg liked to view himself as a continual seeker of truth, as an artist who could present the sin, suffering and degradation of the world on the stage and unmask all of the world's liars, hypocrites and criminals. Several of his plays attempted to reveal what he felt were the hidden secrets of his society—its institutions and individuals. In a letter to his friend Emil Schering dating March 27, 1907, Strindberg wrote of The Ghost Sonata, "It is horrible, like life, when the veil falls from our eyes and we see things as they are. Secrets like these are to be found in every home. People are too proud to admit it; most of them boast of their imagined luck, and hide their misery.’’

The secrets of The Ghost Sonata are terrible indeed, and they are initially hidden behind an illusion of wealth, nobility and respect, inside the walls of a beautiful house. At the beginning of the play, the Student thinks the house is some kind of paradise. He tells the Old Man,"I often stop to look at it. I passed it yesterday when the sun was shining on the window panes, and I imagined all the beauty and luxury in there.'' He is willing to do anything to get inside, and to meet the lovely young girl who dwells in the house's Hyacinth Room. The Student also thinks he has found a generous benefactor in the Old Man.

What he doesn't know, however, are the past indiscretions of the people in the house, and the terrible crimes committed by the Old Man, who is now intent only on revenge. The Colonel, it is revealed, actually has no claim to a noble family or to any military titles, and all of his apparent wealth is really a pile of tremendous debts he has amassed over the years. The Colonel's wife, Amelia, was once young and beautiful, and she had an affair with the Old Man when he was a youth called Jacob Hummel. Their child was Adele, the Girl who lives in the Hyacinth Room, and thinks her father is the Colonel. The weight of Amelia's sins overcame her, and she has spent the last twenty years living in a closet, becoming pale and wrinkled like a mummy. Everyone else in the house has a similar dark past to hide. The Dead Man, the Aristocrat, the Fiancee and even the Caretaker's Wife all have built illusions to hide the dreadful reality of their lives.

It is the Old Man who tries to strip all of the illusions away and disclose the truths everyone has tried to hide, though he himself is the guiltiest of all. He seduced Amelia then abandoned her. He murdered the Dead Man by burdening him with debts he could not repay. He lied to the Student about his father in order to get him to do his bidding. Worst of all, he once committed a crime and murdered the only witness, an innocent Milkmaid, to prevent her from reporting him. The Student is slow to learn all of these things, and slower still to apply them to the way he views the world. But by the end of the play his optimism and idealism have turned to cynicism, like the Old Man. He understands reality better, and refers to the world as a place of ‘‘illusion, guilt, suffering and death,’’ and now hopes only for a better place in the afterlife.

Several of the characters in The Ghost Sonata betray one another in some form. Years ago, the Colonel seduced Jacob Hummel's fiancee away from him. In retribution, Hummel later had an affair with the Colonel's wife, Amelia, that produced a daughter the Colonel believes is his. Then he betrayed Amelia, and left her behind to live with her sin. Even the minor characters of the play live on a merry-go-round of betrayal. The Caretaker's Wife had an affair with the Dead Man that produced a daughter, the Lady in Black. Now the Lady in Black is engaged to Baron Skanskorg, an aristocrat who must first divorce his current wife before marrying his new love.

Coming of Age
One of the most significant changes in the play occurs with the Student, who begins as a heroic, optimistic, idealistic youth, and ends as cynical and disappointed as any of the actual sinners and criminals in the play. The dreams he has of finding paradise in a beautiful house, with a lovely wife, a generous income, and happy children, are dashed when he discovers that the real world is often filled with unexplainable rejection and disappointment, and he watches the girl he loves die in front of him. Still, like any responsible adult, he must formulate a new way of looking at the world and move on with his life. Mature now, he understands the world can be evil, and looks forward to a happier life after death.

Human Condition
One of the most important recognitions in the play is that no one is perfect—all people are flawed in some way or another. Part of being alive and being human is making mistakes—sometimes very big ones—then finding ways to learn from them and recover. Amelia, the Mummy, for example, made a large mistake when she fell for Jacob Hummel, had an affair with him and produced a daughter. She has felt guilty about her mistake ever since, and has locked herself away from the world in a closet where she dwells on her sins and becomes less and less human with each passing day. Jacob's appearance in the house, however, sets her free from her prison. After twenty years she realizes she has paid enough for her mistake, which was really quite human, and now has the strength to turn the tables and accuse Jacob for the crimes he has committed.

Another, even more painful, aspect of the human condition revealed by The Ghost Sonata is the terrible suffering human beings must face in life. The play begins the night after a random disaster. A house collapsed, killing and seriously injuring many people. Though the Student, with his second sight, was able to save some of the inhabitants and tend to the wounds of others, he could not prevent Death from claiming the lives of a few. Everyone else in the play suffers eventually. Bengtsson, Johansson and the other servants suffer with their menial positions. The Colonel suffers all the lies he has told to create the illusion of a happy, prosperous life. The Milkmaid is a silent, suffering ghost who died innocent, and before her time. Hummel, the Old Man, ultimately must answer for his various crimes, and suffer a humiliating death in front of those he would have destroyed. Most tragic of all, the Girl suffers because of the sinners and criminals around her. They have fouled the air she breathes with their corruption and, in spite of the Student's efforts to save her, she dies.

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