Pastor Manders calls on Mrs. Helen Alving on the eve of the tenth anniversary of her husband’s death to discuss certain details concerning the opening of an orphanage in memory of her late husband. The pastor finds Mrs. Alving in the best of spirits, for her son Oswald, an artist, has returned from Paris to attend the dedication of the memorial to his father. Oswald, now twenty-six, has lived away from his parents since he was seven, and Mrs. Alving is delighted at the prospect of having her son spend the entire winter with her.
Oswald idealizes his father, for in her letters his mother portrays Captain Alving as a sort of hero. The boy’s own memories of his father are confined to one incident in his childhood when his father took him on his knee and encouraged him to smoke a large meerschaum pipe. Upon his return home, Oswald takes a certain pride in lighting up his father’s old pipe and parading in front of his mother and Pastor Manders.
Pastor Manders does not approve of smoking; in fact, he does not approve of anything that can even loosely be interpreted as sin. He does not approve of Oswald’s bohemian way of life in Paris and blames Mrs. Alving for her son’s ideas. He reminds Mrs. Alving that she came to him scarcely one year after having married, wanting to leave her husband, and that he sent her back to her duty. Pastor Manders considers this act the greatest moral victory of his life.
Mrs. Alving thinks it high time that the pastor knows the truth about her late husband. Years before, when he advised her to return to Captain Alving, the minister was aware of her husband’s profligacy, but he did not know that the profligacy continued after his wife’s return. Her relationship with her husband consisted principally of helping him into bed when he came home from one of his drinking bouts; on one occasion she came across him making love to her own maidservant. The most abominable aspect of her situation, and what she discovered soon after her marriage, was that her husband had contracted syphilis and that her son might have inherited the disease. Pastor Manders’s religious influence and her own cowardice led Mrs. Alving to keep silent.
While Mrs. Alving and the minister talk, Oswald flirts in the adjoining dining room with the maid, Regina. To Mrs. Alving it sounds like the ghost of the flirtation she overheard years earlier between her husband and Regina’s mother. Regina, ostensibly the daughter of a drunken carpenter named Jacob Engstrand, is actually the daughter of Captain Alving and the maidservant. It is that discovery that sent Mrs. Alving flying to Pastor Manders for solace and help. Engstrand was willing to turn Regina over to Mrs. Alving for her education and care, but now he plans to enlist her aid in the establishment of a seamen’s home. Regina has other plans for herself and sees no reason why she should throw herself away on worthless and irresponsible sailors when she might, as she thinks, have the heir of a wealthy family.
Oswald, who is unaware of the blood relationship, wants to marry Regina. He confides to his mother that before he left Paris he went to a doctor because he felt listless and had lost his ambition to paint. The doctor commented on the sins of fathers. Oswald, knowing only the picture of his father that his mother’s letters had given him, was furious and thinks he must have contracted venereal disease himself. He tells his mother that...
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he wants to marry Regina and be happy for what remains of his life. Mrs. Alving realizes that at last she must tell the two young people the truth. Before she has a chance to do so, however, news comes that the orphanage that is to have been Captain Alving’s memorial is on fire.
At the time the orphanage caught fire, Pastor Manders and Engstrand were in the carpenter shop nearby. After the fire, Engstrand accuses the pastor of dropping a lighted candle wick into some shavings. Although he is probably not guilty, Pastor Manders is anxious not to endanger his position in the community. When Engstrand offers to take the blame for the fire in return for money from the remainder of Captain Alving’s fortune, with which he can build his sailors’ home, the self-righteous pastor agrees to the blackmail and promises to help Engstrand.
Mrs. Alving tells Oswald and Regina about their father, explaining the nature of his illness and that his children might have inherited it. When she hears that she is really Alving’s daughter, Regina is angry, feeling that she should have been reared and educated as a lady. Now, preferring to cast her lot with Engstrand, she leaves. Alone with his mother, Oswald reveals that symptoms of his inherited venereal disease are already evident, and that he is doomed to insanity. Mrs. Alving assures her son that she will always be by his side to take care of him. Oswald begs his mother to kill him and shows her the morphium he has brought with him, but Mrs. Alving is shocked. Mother and son are still talking at daybreak. When Mrs. Alving blows out the light, she is horrified to see Oswald begin to cry childishly for the sun.